Ben Cartwright had banked the fire and was headed for bed when the envelope propped in front of Marie’s gold-framed portrait on his desk caught his eye. Smiling softly, he moved toward the alcove where he handled all the Ponderosa business and sat in the comfortably padded green leather chair behind his desk. He reached for the envelope and settled back to enjoy one of his favorite holiday traditions.
Although the letter was clearly addressed to Santa Claus, Ben knew its contents were intended for him. Oh, there had been a time when Joseph had actually believed in Santa Claus and merely trusted Pa to get the letter to its proper destination, but even after the boy had learned where the presents really came from, he had continued to write that yearly letter to “Santa.” It had become his way of communicating to his father things he found it easier to address to a third, presumably unbiased, person, even if (or perhaps because) that person didn’t actually exist. The letter was late in coming this year, and Ben had almost decided that his youngest considered himself too grown up for the old tradition. He was comforted to find that wasn’t the case. He would have dearly missed it.
The letter began, as it always did, “Dear Santa, I can explain.” At least, his spelling’s improved, Ben thought with a smile. The first letter, which he had saved with all the others in a small, carved cedar chest, had read, “Dere Santa, I can splane.” Ben chuckled as he recalled all the mistakes and misbehavior his son had felt compelled to “splane” over the years. In earlier days the letters had been filled with confessions of boyish pranks, like filling Adam’s boots with manure or substituting a frog for the sandwiches in Hoss’s lunch pail. As Little Joe had grown older, sometimes the confessions were of more serious misdeeds, and the letter became his way of telling his father how truly sorry he was for the times he had strayed from the Cartwright standard of behavior during the previous year. Some people took that sort of personal reckoning at the turn of the new year, but for Little Joe it had always come in his yearly letter to Santa.
This year of 1859 had been an eventful one for the Cartwrights and everyone around them. Eager to see how his youngest son felt about everything that had happened, Ben began to read:

Dear Santa,

I can explain.
First off, there’s been a lot going on around here this year, but I guess you know that. No way you could bring gifts to all us good boys (and girls, too) without knowing where we are, right? So you know that you’re gonna be spending a lot more time in my neck of the woods this Christmas Eve, ‘cause we’ve had us a population explosion. To my way of thinking, that’s a good thing, but it has been a lot to take in, and I think it helps explain some of my—well, let’s just call them not-so-shining moments, okay?
Up until this year we’ve always been what Pa calls “country boys,” maybe getting to the big city, namely San Francisco, once a year, and you know how Pa and those two big brothers of mine always ride herd on me there. Scared to death I’ll get myself shanghaied off the Barbary Coast! Funny thing is, it happened to Pa, not me, but I guess that’s for him to ‘fess up to you about. He’s been mighty close-mouthed with us boys about the whole business, especially how much Quick-Buck Kate got for him.
Anyway, try as Pa might to keep us safe from the big city, starting in about June, the big city came to us. They discovered silver over on Sun Mountain, and before you could say “Henry Comstock” the place was covered with tents and dugouts and shaky wood buildings, mostly saloons—and people! All kinds of people, from hard working miners like poor Mr. Harris to problem-makers like Comstock and Mark Burdette to problem-solvers like Philip Deidesheimer and spots of dazzling sunshine like Miss Glory. She was a fine lady, Santa, even if she did have the poor sense to favor brother Adam over me. I’d seriously consider putting coal in his stocking, if I were you, for the way he trifled with her affections, hers and Miss Crabtree’s, too. I guess that’s between you and him, though.
I’ve gone through more than my share of woman trouble this year, Santa, and that’s where I think you got to take all these changes into consideration. I never had much woman trouble before because . . . well, because there just plain weren’t many women around. Don’t see how you can blame me for making a few mistakes—okay, a lot of mistakes—when I’d had next-to-no experience up until June.
I admit I should have known better than to ask Princess Sara to that dance at Dutch Pete’s, but I was only—well, mostly . . . well, a little bit, anyways—thinking of Adam and wanting to show him there was something prettier than fat washer women in the territory. How was I supposed to know that Saratuche was spoken for by Lean Knife? I only know a few words of Paiute, after all, and she seemed happy to come with me. I did know Winnemucca would have my scalp if he found out, though, so I guess I can’t plead completely innocent on that one. Pa did already educate me real firm on that point, though, so no coal, okay, Santa?
My feelings for Julia Bulette were different, and I ain’t apologizing for them. I know Pa didn’t think she was right for me, and maybe he had a point, her being so much older and more experienced and all. Maybe she didn’t really love me, but I think she did, maybe not the same way I loved her, but enough to send me away for my own good, and that’s a kind of love, too, don’t you think? I was serious about marrying her, but since I managed to ask three women to marry me in the space of six months, maybe I didn’t really know enough about love to be asking anybody.
The second one was Amy Bishop. No apologies offered there, either, and I’m sure you’ll agree, none needed. I may have overdone the matrimonial offers this year, but I know Amy and me could have been happy together, if we’d just had a chance. She was taken from me, and I’ll miss her forever.
Missing her didn’t stop me from asking a third one, though. What was I thinking, Santa? Tirza was beautiful, especially when we were alone in the moonlight, and she made feelings come up inside me that I didn’t know what to do with . . . so I asked her to marry me, so I could take care of those feelings the right way, like I’ve been taught. Trees and fish don’t mate real easy, though, so maybe it’s best she went away. (If you don’t understand that one, Santa, I’ll explain it sometime, but this letter’s getting awful long as it is.)
While we’re on the subject of women, there’s one little incident you probably don’t know about, Santa, unless Hoss tattled, and he usually don’t. Him and me went on this bull-buying trip to Monterey, and we did come home with the bull, but I almost came home with yet another bride. I didn’t ask this one, I promise! Don Xavier’s daughter Cayetana did the asking; demanding is more like it. She trapped me in a cabin and kissed me and then said I’d compromised her. I swear I didn’t, Santa! She did all the kissing—not that I didn’t enjoy it. I mean, who wouldn’t with a beautiful girl like that? But she was as conniving as she was beautiful. I practically ran for my life for fear of her compromising me into a marriage I wanted no part of, so what does she do but stow away in our wagon? Then she pops out, tells Hoss she’s marrying me, and then her fiancé shows up and I have to fight a duel, when I dead sure didn’t want the prize. It was enough to make me swear off women . . . at least, until Tirza came along.
The last bit of woman trouble I had really was a case of inexperience. You know Adah Menken, don’t you, Santa? Well, sure you do, ‘cause you know everyone. This is kind of embarrassing, Santa, but I sort of threw myself at her—not because I wanted her—oh, no! She’s decades too old for me, closer to Pa’s age. And I thought—well, we all did, me and Adam and Hoss—that she was after our Pa, and her being an actress, we thought we ought to save him from her clutches, so to speak. I know it may sound foolish for us to think our Pa might need protecting, him being so much older and wiser, but sometimes he does, that little shanghaiing incident in San Francisco being just one case in point.
Anyway, Adam tried first—with Miss Menken, I mean–and when he came out the worse for wear, I took it upon myself to show Pa just what kind of a woman Miss Menken was. It wasn’t Pa got the education, though; it was me, and when she told me why Pa was really sticking so close to her, I felt downright ashamed of myself and the things I’d been thinking about her. She’s a lady, Santa, a real fine lady, so put something extra nice in her stocking this year, okay? Between putting up with that brute Regan and idiots like me and Adam, she’s earned it.
I been in some more serious trouble this year, too, Santa. In a way it was another woman brought it about, but she’s not to blame. Angels can’t ever be to blame. I don’t know if I’d have taken up with Fred Kyle so quick, though, if he hadn’t had that picture of my angel mother. And taking up with him almost ended up driving my brother Adam away from home. Glad he changed his mind, but it only goes to show that everyone makes mistakes, and if someone as old and smart as Adam can almost make one that big, well, it shouldn’t be any wonder that I make one every once in a great while—oh, all right, once a week! I guess it don’t pay to fudge the truth with Santa, huh?
It was defending my mother’s memory that led to me killing that bully LeDuque brought here. It was self-defense, of course, but LeDuque was the only witness and me losing control like I did made Pa agree to go with LeDuque, who meant him no good at all, just to spare me. Having that sheriff keep me in jail until he was too far gone to catch was a dirty trick, but don’t hold it against Pa, Santa. I don’t—not now, anyway—‘cause I know he did it out of love. Everything turned out okay in the end, but I still have nightmares about what might have been. If you could live through one of them with me, Santa, I think you’d agree it’s punishment enough . . . although nothing would have been if LeDuque had killed my Pa, like he intended. Pa means the world to me, you know.
That’s my only explanation for this final confession. Like I said before, some of the new people hereabouts aren’t the right kind. Sam Bryant was one of the worst. He tried to take over Virginia City with the help of thugs like Farmer Perkins. The decent folks finally stood up to Bryant and sentenced the Farmer to hang. Then Bryant kidnapped Pa and threatened to hang him if the law hanged the Farmer. I hate to admit it, Santa, but I wanted to give in and set the Farmer free. My brother Adam stood strong for the law, while I gave him nothing but grief, ‘cause I felt like he was gambling with my Pa’s life, and Pa’s . . . well, everything, just everything, to me . . . too high a price to pay. Adam was right, though: Bryant turned Pa loose, rather than risk the noose himself. I ain’t been able to bring myself to tell Pa that we brothers didn’t stand together on this; I just felt too ashamed to tell him . . . or even you, Santa, which is why this letter is so late this year.
There won’t be any hints for what I want for Christmas this year, either. It’s too late for you to do much about them; besides, I’ve got all I want or need. Adam stayed with us, despite the bickering we did over Kyle and the likelihood of war between North and South, and Pa’s alive and with us this Christmas. How could I ask for more?
Nothing for myself, but maybe I do have one request, after all. What I said before about putting coal in ole Adam’s stocking . . . maybe you should just forget about that. Looking back over what I’ve put him through and especially for him keeping his head and saving Pa from Bryant, even when he had to go against me and Hoss to do it, maybe you ought to give him something extra nice, instead.
That’s all from me this year, Santa. Hope this explanation puts you in the right frame of mind when you fill my stocking. I’d sure favor sugarplums over lumps of coal.
Yours sincerely,
Little Joe Cartwright

Holding the letter in the hand that dropped toward the floor, Ben leaned thoughtfully back in his chair as he considered the insight he’d just gained. Oh, it hadn’t all come as a surprise, though all that went on during that trip to California certainly had!. Hoss was as loyal as the day was long, and Joe had correctly discerned that his big brother wouldn’t reveal his antics with Cayetana—a duel, no less! However, Hoss had carried guilt of his own about the Sam Bryant business, but he’d come directly to his father and found comfort for his supposed failure. Adam had done the same, confessing his own doubts and fears concerning the decision he had made, even though it had proven to be the right one. Little Joe, as was all too typical of him, had carried the burden, unexpressed, all these months. I should have spoken to him sooner, Ben chided himself, but it hadn’t been a easy subject to broach. Now, though, when it was clear that his boy was still suffering, he had to do it, and the perfect means was available to him.
The hour was late, but this couldn’t wait. Ben took out pen and paper and began to write, as he did each year, a response to his son’s letter to “Santa.” In the guise of jolly St. Nick, he poured out love and compassion, assuring Joseph that “Santa” understood the foibles of a young man meeting so many challenges for the first time. “All is forgiven,” the letter concluded, “and you can expect plenty of sugarplums in your stocking this year.” Wanting to end the letter on a lighter note, in keeping with the season, he added one final admonition. With a twitch of his lips and a twinkle in his eye, Ben wrote, “Considering your propensity to propose marriage over the last six months, however, do not even consider pleading inexperience next year, young man!”

The End
© December, 2007