Summary: During the Christmas season, six-year-old Little Joe learns the importance of a letter and the impact it can have. He learns too about consequences, and learns both lessons well. Years later, the importance of a letter is still strong.
rating = K word count = 2593
Every year, Joe Cartwright sorted through his Christmas memorabilia. He loved Christmas and loved reliving Christmas past. Every ornament, candleholder, treetopper, and other item in the attic boxes seemed to bring up a new memory. At the bottom of a dusty small box in the corner that seemingly hadn’t been opened in a long time, he found the old set of candleholders they had used decades earlier. There were old cloth ornaments in there that were dirty from years of use. At the bottom, he found a small folded paper. Carefully unfolding the fragile document, he read it and it took him back to the Christmas when he was six years old and learned the importance of a letter. It was a lesson he had never forgotten.
Snow was falling gently and a slight breeze made the snowflakes swirl on occasion and seem to dance like maidens in the trees as snow from the branches cascaded down and mixed with the new snow. It was magical, but Little Joe Cartwright wasn’t in a mood to enjoy the setting. Stomping about in the snow as his father cut a small pine, one would be inclined to think he was being punished instead of on an outing with his father and older brother Hoss to choose a Christmas tree to set up in the house. However although he had been allowed to choose the tree, his first dozen choices had been rejected as too large or too tall until he had sarcastically pointed at this small tree, which his father had accepted. No matter how hard he had said he changed his mind and wanted another chance to choose, his father said they had no more time as it was getting late. So with Hoss’ help, his father had trimmed out the lowest branches and now was cutting the tree to haul back to the house. Little Joe was disgusted. Not much taller than his father, the tree wasn’t at all what he had envisioned as a proper Christmas tree. However his father had said that without Adam there to decorate, everything had to be scaled back. Not at all sure what ‘scaled back’ meant, he was fairly certain it meant less fun and not what he wanted. So, he was upset with Adam even though he was thousands of miles away.
Once the tree was cut, a rope was tied to the trunk, and Hoss and Little Joe worked to drag it to the wagon as their father collected the tools and walked behind them. Their father helped Hoss load the tree into the wagon before helping Little Joe up onto the wagon seat to sit between him and Hoss.
“Can I drive the wagon?”
“No, you’re only six-years-old. You will not drive the wagon.”
“I bet you would let Adam drive the wagon if he was here.”
“Yes, I would let Adam drive the wagon if he was here because Adam is eighteen and fully capable of doing the driving. Hoss can drive the wagon on the straightaway, but you are not ready yet to try even that. When you are ready to listen to instructions and follow them, perhaps you can drive on a dry road into town.”
“And follow instructions?”
“Well, mostly is not enough when it comes to things like driving a wagon. Now when we get home, we’ll get the tree in the house and then take care of the horse and wagon. Once the tree dries, we’ll decorate it. We have guests coming tomorrow so we need to be ready.”
With things ‘scaled back’, Little Joe didn’t think there was going to be any problem being ready. His father explained that he wanted a smaller tree because without Adam’s help, it would be too difficult to decorate a larger tree until Hoss was taller.
“Ya mean when I gets to be as tall as Adam, then we kin have a bigger tree again?”
“Yes, we’ll get a tree that’s a little bit bigger each year as you get taller and can help me set the candles and other decorations. I don’t want only one of us to be there if anything goes wrong with any of the candles when they’re lit. It wouldn’t be safe so they will all be within reach of both of us.”
Sitting up straighter and taller then, Hoss realized he had taken over another of Adam’s jobs. He was going to have to keep an eye on the candles on the tree that night as his father read the Christmas story to make sure that they all stayed safe. He already had set the greenery around the fireplace and the front door, which Adam had usually done. Marie had taught Adam, but Hoss had helped Adam for the past few years so he had known what needed to be done. His father had complimented him on the work without ever mentioning that he had straightened out a few boughs and retied a few of the red bows. Overall though, Hoss had managed to get everything done correctly and saved his father a lot of work. Getting the box of ornaments and candleholders from the attic had been Hoss’ responsibility too. While they were gone, Hop Sing had promised to string a few cookies for them to hang on the tree as well. Those would be eaten the next day so they wouldn’t go to waste. As far as Hoss was concerned, Christmas was going well except he missed Adam a great deal and hoped his Christmas wasn’t too lonely. Although he knew that Adam had a special letter waiting for him, it wasn’t going to be nearly enough to make up for missing his family. Hoss was sure of that.
The tree was hauled in the house, the horses were taken to the stable brushed down, fed, and watered, and then dinner was served. After dinner, the tree was set up and the decorating began. Little Joe was allowed to place the soft decorations as his father and Hoss handled the others. Then as Little Joe sat and watched, the twelve candleholders were fixed to the tree and small candles were attached. Hop Sing brought out the cookies, which were hung carefully, and the tree was ready. As Hoss sat next to Little Joe on the settee Marie had purchased for the great room, Ben lit the candles and then took a seat opening the Bible to read the passages about the Christmas story. When he finished, he looked up to see Hoss staring intently at the tree vigilant in his responsibility to make sure none of the candles caused a problem and Little Joe asleep against his shoulder. Smiling, Ben went to wake his small son to take him to bed.
“No, Pa, we gots to sing now. We sing after you read.”
“But Adam isn’t here to lead us in song.”
“We can do it without Adam.”
“I suppose we can try.”
Without Adam, it was a valiant attempt but mostly failed as the tempo and key seemed not to be where they were supposed to be most of the time. They were enthusiastic however and managed two nearly complete songs before they decided they had done enough to satisfy the tradition. In the kitchen, Hop Sing took the cotton balls from his ears when he was sure they had stopped. He brought out the cups of hot chocolate then assuming they would want to continue that tradition even though no one had mentioned it. Hoss and Little Joe were excited to see that not remembering that Adam had always insisted they ought to have hot chocolate to celebrate Christmas Eve. As an extra surprise, Hop Sing brought out three extra cookies too. As Little Joe munched on his cookie and sipped his hot chocolate, he did start to feel bad about his oldest brother missing out on all of the fun.
“Too bad old Adam had to go off to school and miss this. I bet he’s sorry now that he did that, huh, Pa? He doesn’t have any of these good things we have tonight.”
“Little Joe, I sent letters to Adam’s grandfather with him when Adam left. One of them, a large one, had instructions that it was to be opened just before Christmas. I wrote a Christmas letter in there for Adam and Hoss wrote a letter to him too and sent him a drawing.”
“Why didn’t you ask me to write a letter?”
“Cause you cain’t write yet, that’s why.”
“I did ask if you would, and I said I would write the words for you, but you refused to do it. I asked you too to draw a picture, but you refused to do that. You were so angry at Adam for leaving that you didn’t want to do anything for him.”
Dropping his head, Little Joe felt ashamed. “So Adam got stuff from you and Hoss but nothing from me?”
“I put in a picture you drew for me. Maybe Adam won’t remember you drew it for me. I folded it up. It looks like your drawing so he’ll know you did it.”
“Even if he remembers, he’ll have something from you, Little Joe. Remember in the future, decisions you make have consequences.”
“What are consequences?”
“Things happen because of what we do.”
“Oh, like I was mad then, but maybe that makes Adam sad now?”
“Yes, like that. Now back to my letter. In my letter to Captain Stoddard, I told him about all the things we do for Christmas and all the favorite things Adam liked. I hoped he would do some of those things for his grandson so Adam would not miss home so much.”
“So maybe Adam is drinking hot chocolate right now just like we are?”
“Maybe he is.”
“Maybe he’s singing too.”
“Maybe he is.”
“Good. I hope he has a Merry Christmas like we are.” Then Little Joe got worried. “Do you think he’ll get any presents where he is?”
“I’m sure he will get something.”
“Good, cause we didn’t get him anything, and if we did, we couldn’t give it to him anyway.”
“That’s right. That’s why I sent the letter along with him. I wasn’t even sure a letter would get there so I sent it with him. I pray he got there safely too. We haven’t received word yet so there is no way of knowing yet. I’m hoping to hear soon.”
Not wanting to ruin the joy of Christmas though, Ben pushed aside his worries and sent his two sons off to bed as he extinguished the candles on the tree and then sat by the fire and sipped a brandy thinking of the son who wasn’t there. The next morning about ten, their guests arrived. Hoss and Little Joe had been waiting on the porch and ran to greet them.
“Sheriff Roy and Doctor Paul, we’ve been waitin’ for ya. I’ll take care of your horse and carriage and Little Joe is gonna walk to the house with ya.”
Once they were settled in around the dinner table later, both Roy and Paul couldn’t wait to share their news. “Ben, we’ve been wanting to share this for a couple of days but the letter said to wait. Adam said to tell you he arrived safely and all is well.” Roy handed over a letter then that Ben eagerly accepted and read. “He wanted it to be a surprise and guessed it would arrive near Christmas. He said to give you the other letter too.”
“Before he left, he wrote a letter for ya and left it with us. He wanted to be sure to be able to give you something for Christmas and wasn’t sure this here other letter would arrive in time.”
Roy pulled a thick envelope from his vest and handed it to Ben. Opening it, Ben pulled three letters from it. He handed one to Hoss and one to Little Joe. He read his as tears pooled in his eyes. Standing, he walked up the stairs and returned with a small box and set it on the table before opening it. Inside was a small carved horse, which he handed to Little Joe. A jackknife was in there for Hoss, and a small pouch of tobacco was there for him. For Hop Sing, a packet with Chinese lettering was there. Ben didn’t know what it was, but Hop Sing was very pleased to receive it and said it was incense. Hoss said that Adam said he knew he was doing a good job being a big brother. Doctor Martin helped Little Joe read his and it said to be sure to have a snowball fight and build a snowman. Ben didn’t say what was in his letter, but all could see he was touched by his son’s words. Dinner was truly joyous after that and the day couldn’t have been more hopeful.
That night after the guests had gone and everything was cleaned up, Little Joe stood by his father’s side as Ben relaxed in his chair by the fire.
“Pa, can I write a letter to Adam?”
“Certainly, but you know that it will be a long time before he gets it.”
“That’s all right because when he does get my letter, he’ll know I love him just like I know he loves me cause he sent me a letter.”
Walking down the stairs from the attic, Little Joe didn’t carry anything except that letter. He brought it to his father and Hoss who were waiting by the tree for him to bring another box of ornaments to decorate the tree. Handing over the letter, he watched their quizzical looks turn to sadness. They hadn’t received a letter from Adam in almost a year. The previous Christmas, he had said he was traveling to France. That was the last they had heard of him and worry was all they had left. A letter would be a treasure at this point. Little Joe went back up the stairs then to get another box of ornaments. With the tree decorated, they finished preparations for the party but honestly knew their hearts weren’t in it this year. Without a letter from Adam, something important was missing.
As usual, the first guests at the party were Roy and Paul. Both of them could tell how much the worry about Adam was affecting the rest of the family and tried to cheer them up. As the party progressed, calls to sing Christmas carols began to grow, and Ben and his sons decided the tradition had to be upheld. The stood in front of the fireplace as tradition called and began to sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The guests joined in and then a rich baritone voice rose above them all.
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
In shock, Ben and his younger sons stopped singing as did almost everyone else there. The crowd parted as one more man stepped into the house.
“Sorry, but by the time a letter would have arrived, I would have been here.”
Other Stories by this Author
- The Christmas Tree Surprise (by BettyHT)
- Messages (by BettyHT)
- Weather Vane aka Looking to Heaven (by BettyHT)
- Christmas Story (by BettyHT)
- A Child was Born (by BettyHT)