Summary: The past inspires the true meaning of the season.
Rating: G 2,400 words
“Pa, what’s this? Coal?” Hoss was peeking into a canvas bag that he had uncovered while going through crates in the store room looking for Christmas decorations. The husky boy chortled. “Ya always tol’ us ya’d put coal in our stockin’s iffn we wasn’t good, but I didn’t really think ya had some?”
“What?” Ben paused from his rummaging. “Oh that.” His father chuckled and shook a finger at his middle son. “Not that I haven’t been tempted on a few occasions, mind you. No, that coal has a story all it’s own, right, Adam?”
The dark-haired young man strolled over to look into the bag he had not seen in a long time. “Yeah, but I don’t remember it all that well. I was only three, I think.”
“Hey! I’m fer-eee!” Little Joe forced the pinky finger of his left hand down with fingers from his right to get the desired number.
“That’s right, little buddy.” Adam ruffled his youngest brother’s hair. “Can you believe I was once small like you?”
Joe frowned and shook his head. His brothers had always seemed big to him. “Let me see! Let me see!” Joe grabbed at the bag Hoss was holding.
“Just look or you’ll be a mess.” Ben warned. “You show up inside with your hands all black and we’ll both hear about it from your mother!”
Little Joe jerked his hands back from the bag, but had his nose practically in it to get a good view.
Ben picked up the crate in front of him. “I’ve got most of the decorations here. Adam, can you get this one?” He pointed to another crate nearby. “Hoss, you’d better leave the coal out here, but come open up this trunk.”
Hoss set the bag aside and did as his father instructed. Once the lid of the trunk was lifted, the boy could see a well-worn and yellowed quilt lying to one side.
Ben nodded. “You can bring that quilt inside and I’ll tell you about the coal.”
Hoss scrunched up his face and peered up at his father. “You really want me ta bring in this old, raggedy thing?”
“Hey, that was mine! Don’t make fun!” Adam teased.
“Sorry, Adam.” Hoss looked at his brother with chagrin.
Ben smiled knowingly at his oldest son. “It’s all right, Hoss. I think your brother is just giving you a hard time. Oh, I know it’s definitely seen better days, but the quilt and the coal are tied together. You know, I’m not sure your mother has heard this part of our trip west. Come on. Let’s get these things inside.”
Minutes later, the family was sitting together in the living room. Marie sorted through decorations as Ben began to relate that time of his and Adam’s lives. Memories from almost thirteen years prior came flooding back.
“Adam and I had set out on our journey west. You’re right, son”, Ben glanced at his oldest, “you were three by the time we got to Reading, Pennsylvania. The coal business was beginning to boom. Big cities like Philadelphia and New York were experiencing tremendous growth and coal was a much needed commodity.”
Ben paused to sip the coffee that Marie had prepared. Little Joe sat contentedly beside his mother munching a cookie while the older boys remained focused on their father.
“I had saved some money before we left, but also knew I’d have to work along the way. When we stopped to pick up supplies in Reading, I heard some men say that the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company was looking for men to captain the barges on the Schuylkill River. I told the man doing the hiring about my experience on the Wanderer, and he immediately offered me a job.” Ben stopped to look at Adam and sighed heavily. “It meant leaving you for a week at a time and only seeing you briefly on Sundays. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but Dutch’s wife was willing to care for you.”
Adam nodded. “I do remember Mr. and Mrs. Jaager and the kids.”
“I’m not surprised. She was like a mother to you for several months. Took care of you like one of her own children.” Ben gave his son a tentative smile. “Don’t know what I would have done without the Jaagers.”
“Dutch?” Hoss queried.
“Dutch Jaager was one of the hands on my boat.” Ben added. ”People who come from Holland are often called Dutch; so it was an easy nickname for Mr. Jaager.”
Impatient because he wasn’t hearing the part of the story he wanted, Little Joe piped up. “Bag of coal?”
“I’m getting to that, son. It was dirty, hard work for the hands on the coal barges and at Christmas time I managed to negotiate to get the holiday off. Granted I had my own interests in the forefront of my mind because I was determined to spend Christmas day with Adam. My men were a tough lot who were just trying to take care of their families and hoping that someday they’d have a better life. I told my supervisor to take the men’s pay out of my earnings when at first he refused to give them the holiday. In the end, though, he paid us all, even for Christmas day. The Jaagers didn’t have much; so I got a ham and a few small toys for their children and a book for you.” Ben cocked his head toward Adam. “It was a meager Christmas as far as gifts were concerned, but one full of warm friendship and good cheer.”
Looking befuddled, Hoss asked, “Pa, I still don’t get it ‘bout the coal?”
“Oh, yes, the coal. Well, I worked with those men for some months and then in the spring, it was time for us to move on. My last day, the men handed me that bag of coal to remember them by, one piece for each man. We all had a good laugh. They didn’t have money for a gift, nor would I have wanted one. I was just thankful for their good service, and then dear Mrs. Jaager had made that little quilt for Adam.“ Ben pointed to the pile of patchwork sitting on the coffee table. “She wanted him to be snug and warm on our travels. Wonderful people, the Jaagers. Needless to say, that quilt got lots of use over the next years.” Ben stared off into the distance musing as the memories played in his head.
“I loved hearing this. What a wonderful reminder to remember the good people who come into our lives.” Marie smiled at her husband “Like our neighbors, the Connellys, don’t you think mon cher?”
“Yes, indeed.” Ben turned back toward the older boys. “Which is why your mother and I have decided that tomorrow before we go cut our tree, we will take a basket of food to the Connellys. They are good neighbors and we have plenty to share.”
At the mention of getting the Christmas tree, Little Joe jumped off the settee and began clapping and shouting. “Get the twee! Pwesents!” His excitement drew laughter and smiles and an explanation that he must wait only a few more days for St. Nicholas to come.
Hoss grew thoughtful after the commotion of Joe’s outburst died down. He knew that the Connellys had two boys, one a year or so older than Joe and one younger. Everything he had seen of the family bore out what his father had said about them. They were good people who worked hard, but had little to spare. After hearing his father’s story, it became clear to Hoss what he must do for the Connelly boys.
Later, Ben noticed that his middle son had been unusually quiet during dinner and decided to check on him at bedtime. He found the boy’s bedroom door ajar and his son on his knees by his bed. Hoss’ head was bowed. Clutched together in the large boy’s prayerful hands were two small toy horses that he had received as Christmas gifts when he was much younger.
“Lord, I know them Con-ley boys probly won’t get much fer Christmas; so iffen ya think itta’d be ok, I’ll give these to ‘em. Please help Pa not ta be mad at me. I know he gave ‘em to me back when we didn’t have so much neither. Like Pa said, we got plenty now. You done blessed us real good and I thank ya. Please help us all ta have a real good Christmas. Amen.”
The boy’s heartfelt prayer warmed Ben’s heart. A knock at the door caused Hoss to draw the horses tightly against his chest.
“Hoss? May I come in?”
Ben stood with his hand on the doorknob. “You ok? You seemed kind of quiet at supper. Sometimes the excitement of the holiday can get one a bit out of sorts.”
“I’m fine — I guess.”
“You guess?” Ben moved to sit on the bed beside his boy.
Hoss got up and sat down with one leg bent on his bed, however, he was unable to meet his father’s eyes. “Pa, do ya s’pose it would be all right iffen I gave these to Jimmy and Johnny Connelly?” The boy hesitated. “Uh — I mean- these horses are real special an’ all, but I don’t play with ‘em much anymore and maybe they might like ‘em.”
Ben reached out and gently lifted his boy’s chin. “I think that would be a wonderful idea.”
Hoss’ blue eyes grew bright and he grinned. “Really?”
“Yes, really, because it comes from right here.” Ben tapped his big son on the chest.
The boy’s head dropped again, this time embarrassed by his father’s praise. Hoss then held out the toys to his father. “Do ya think Mama could put a ribbon on ‘em or somethin’ and put them in the basket for the Connellys?”
“She would be pleased to do that for you.” Ben reached around and pulled his son close, something he realized that he had done all too little of late.
“Happy to do it, son.” Ben rose and looked down with pride on his boy. “Tomorrow will be a busy day getting ready for Christmas. Sweet dreams, son.”
Midmorning the following day, the Cartwrights headed out to cut their Christmas tree by way of the Connelly place. Little Joe sat between his mother and father in the buckboard. Adam was atop Beauty and Hoss on his pony, Copper. When they arrived, Ben got down from the buckboard to deliver the basket to the door of the Connelly’s neat, but humble home.
“Merry Christmas!” Ben called out when Dan Connelly opened the door.
“Mr. Cartwright — uh — good to see you — Merry Christmas.” Connelly nodded toward Marie and the boys.
“We were in the area, on the way to cut our Christmas tree and just wanted to drop this off for your family.”
Ben held out the basket as Mrs. Connelly appeared in the doorway wiping her hands on her apron. Two boys peeked out from behind their mother’s skirt. Not wanting to wound Dan Connelly’s pride, Ben tried to downplay that they had gone out of their way on Christmas Eve. Marie waved from the buckboard and offered her holiday greetings. Mrs. Connelly waved back and then lifted the cloth that covered the basket spotting the toys among the baked goods. Hoss couldn’t see the woman’s glistening eyes, but heard her sincere words of gratitude. The warm feeling he had in his middle told him that he had done the right thing. What he didn’t know was that his father had taken the time to clean and wipe down the wooden horses with an oil rag which hid most of the wear and that Marie had tied each with bright red bow.
Though their gifts were given with the best of intentions, Ben could sense the awkwardness of the moment. “Well, we’d better be on our way. The boys are anxious to get the tree. Have a Merry Christmas!”
There were lots of waves and Christmas wishes given by both families as the Cartwrights took their leave.
A while later, they reached a large stand of pines. Little Joe was given the task of selecting the tree. Adam hoisted him onto his shoulders while Hoss carried the saw. Ben and Marie watched as their sons tramped around in patches of snow. Adam told Joe that the tree should not be much taller than his raised arms. Once the ‘perfect’ tree was found, Little Joe was brought down and Adam sawed off the young Ponderosa pine. The three boys worked together to drag it back to where their parents were waiting, singing a carol as they trudged along. Ben helped them lift their burden onto the buckboard. A light snow began to fall before they made it back to the house putting them all in the mood for their Christmas preparations.
Christmas morning, the large pine gleamed with lighted candles and filled the living room with a wonderful fragrance. There was happy chaos as the Cartwright family opened their gifts. Marie had insisted that all the men in her life got new shirts and ties. Her smile beamed out over the room as she fingered the emerald necklace from her husband that now hung around her neck. The older boys also got new boots for their rapidly growing feet. Adam received a pair of polished saddlebags and Little Joe got a top and a book.
Ben took special notice of Hoss as he opened the new bridle for his pony. The boy sat running his hand over the smooth leather until he realized that his father was watching him. There was more than just the physical connection when the gazes of father and son aligned. There had been a change in Hoss brought about in part by a dusty bag of coal and an old quilt. Ben knew his son had experienced the true meaning of Christmas, giving something precious for the joy and well-being of another. Though Hoss was still a child in years, it pleased Ben to know that another of his sons had taken an important step toward the transition into manhood. That was one of the greatest Christmas blessings he could have received.
Click here for the 2018 Advent Calendar – Day 8 – The House Jack Built by Sibylle
Other Stories by this Author
- Tidings of Comfort and Joy (by Hart4Ben)
- Finding Christmas (by Hart4Ben)
- The Christmas Child (by Hart4Ben)