Summary: Joe has become unusually introspective, much to the consternation of his brothers.
Word count: 1600
It was an unusually hot Indian Summer and haying even this small meadow was not his favorite activity, but what bothered Hoss Cartwright most was the unnatural silence of his younger brother as they labored side by side.
Little Joe was working hard enough–he always did, despite their older brother’s frequent protestations to the contrary. Joe just worked differently, that’s all. He didn’t over-analyze the process for one thing and he was fast. What’s more, Hoss could always count on Joe to turn the most miserable task into a good time. That Joe got his work done quicker than most and had fun doing it irritated the heck out of Adam.
“You’re awful quiet this mornin’, Joe,” Hoss said. “Somethin’ bothering ya?”
“No,” Joe said sharply. Then, seeing the hurt look on Hoss’s face, he added quickly, “Just wondering, that’s all.”
“About what?” Joe shrugged his shoulders and kept raking. “Girl trouble?” Hoss persisted. It seemed his little brother had a new filly every week. Trouble like that could sure wear a body thin. Hoss chuckled to himself. “Guess that’s why I’m as big as I am,” he thought. “Never had no fillies trotting after me.”
“I’m thirsty,” Joe said, changing the subject. “How about a drink?”
Not waiting for an answer, Joe dropped his forage rake and went to retrieve the canteens cooling in the nearby stream. By the time he returned, Hoss had plunked himself down in the shade of the hay wagon and was wiping the sweat off his head with his kerchief. Joe handed him one of the canteens and then uncorked the other, pouring water over his own head before taking a big swig. When he finished, he shook his mane like a dog, showering Hoss with water.
“No, water,” Joe laughed. “Hay’s that stuff we’ve been harvesting all morning.”
Hoss groaned at the play on words, but smiled all the same.
“Hoss?” Joe asked as he sat down cross-legged next to him.
“If I ask you something, you’ll tell me straight won’t you?”
“You know I will, brother,” Hoss said. “Don’t we always tell each other the truth?”
Joe nodded, smiling. “The pure truth right?”
“You got that,” Hoss said, his blue eyes twinkling. “Now, what’s on yer mind?”
“What kind of man am I?”
At first, Hoss thought Joe was kidding, but as his brother’s eyes bore into him, he said, “Well . . . I reckon yer a mighty good man, Joe.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Well, you tell the truth . . . for the most part.”
“What do you mean, ‘for the most part’?”
“Well, doggone it, Joe. You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t . . . so why don’t you explain yourself.”
“I mean that . . . well sometimes you twist words around to suit your purpose.”
“I do not.”
“You do, too.”
“When have I done that?”
Hoss thought seriously a minute and just when Joe opened his mouth to say “ha!” he continued, “like when you tell Pa you’ll do somethin’ and then you don’t and he catches you and you say ‘I just said I’d do it, not when I’d do it,’—” Joe shut his mouth and glared at Hoss. “—that kinda stuff.”
“Well, ya asked me for the truth now, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. What else?”
“You want more?”
Joe rolled his eyes and gestured to Hoss to bring it on.
“Well . . . you’re real nice to women.”
“What!” Joe squeaked.
“I don’t mean the pretty, young-un’s. I mean the old ones, too. You know, the widders and spinsters . . . like Miss Abigail . . . and the fat ones, and even the ugly ones—”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Joe said, and stood up ready to go back to work.
“I’m serious, Joe,” said Hoss as he rose and grabbed Joe’s elbow. “You remember the rule, ‘Always treat a woman—any kinda woman—like a lady.’ Ya, done that, little brother. Ya done that real good. Ya treat all women real nice, with respect, just like Pa taught us. You’re a good man, Joe, and there ain’t nobody can say otherwise.”
Hop Sing opened the door and admonished, “You very late. Not set good example for sons.”
“I know, I know,” Ben said wearily, hanging his hat on the peg.
“I’ll have coffee and a sandwich if you don’t mind Hop Sing. It’s been a long day.”
“Hmmph! Sandwich on table. Sons waiting.”
Ben threw his saddle bags and gun belt on the credenza and entered the dining room. Hoss and Adam were at the table, the remnants of a late-night snack still evident.
“Hoss, put up my horse would you please?”
“Sure, Pa,” Hoss said, poking Adam as he walked past.
“I’ll tell him,” Adam said in response.
“Tell me what? What happened?”
“Nothing happened, Pa.”
“Sit down and have a sandwich, I’ll get the coffee,” Adam said, but before he could get up, Hop Sing came in with a fresh pot.
Ben communicated his thanks with a wave and then said, “All right, what’s going on?”
“Where is he? Is he hurt?” Ben said anxiously, starting to rise.
“No . . . he’s fine,” Adam motioned to his father to sit down.
“He’s in bed. He’s not hurt.”
“Well then, what?”
“He was just acting peculiar today . . . asking a bunch of questions that didn’t make any sense.”
“He asked Hoss if he thought he was good person.”
“He asked me about charity and accountability.”
“And he didn’t say why?”
“No. Just . . . what kind of man I thought he was,” Adam shook his head bewildered. “You know how he gets when he’s stewing about something, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is.”
“Hoss doesn’t have any idea either?”
“Mmmm. I’ll talk to him.
Ben stood in the doorway with his arms across his chest watching his youngest son contemplate the ceiling. Joe was stretched out, hands clasped behind his head, wide awake, and oblivious to his Pa’s presence.
“You’re a million miles away son.”
When there was no response, Ben moved into the room and stood at the end of the bed, but Joe continued his fascination with the cracks in the ceiling.
“I said, ‘you’re a million miles away tonight.’ Penny for your thoughts?”
“I’d have to give you change,” Joe mumbled under his breath, but his Pa heard it nonetheless.
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that,” Ben said, as he maneuvered around to the side of the bed and sat down. Joe pushed himself up against the headboard but said nothing; neither would he look at his father.
“Your brothers said you had some questions today.” There was no response, but Joe started picking at a knot that had popped through the top of the quilt covering his legs.
“Does this have something to do with our trip to Carson City last week?”
“How does he do that?” Joe thought, searching his Pa’s face for . . . he didn’t know what exactly . . . the courage to go on maybe; the fortitude to hear what his father might have to say?
“Did you and Samuel have a talk about why we were there?”
“Yeah, he told me all about it,” Joe admitted.
“Do you understand what was going on and why?”
“I think so,” Joe said. “Sam was Bar Mitzvah and said that meant he was a man and that he would be held accountable for his actions. It got me thinkin’, Pa, about what it meant to be a man and what kind of man I was.” Then he leaned forward and put his hand on Ben’s arm. “Pa?”
“What kind of man am I?” Joe searched his father’s face for any trace of disappointment or anger, but found only benevolence. “Hoss said I was a good man because I was respectful and told the truth.” Joe caught a raised eyebrow out of the corner of his eye and hastened to add, “most of the time.”
“What did Adam say?”
“Adam said I was a kind man who cared about others and had a forgiving nature. Then he said I had a fine mind but didn’t use it to full advantage and that I needed to take more responsibility and—”
Ben patted Joe’s hand. “All right, son. I get the picture.”
“He can go on a bit, can’t he?” Joe rolled his eyes and shared an easy laugh with his father.
Serious once more, Joe asked again, “What do you say, Pa? What kind of man am I?”
“Joe, I think Adam and Hoss are both correct. You are a good and truthful man—for the most part,” Ben winked, “with a fine mind and a kind, compassionate heart. You are also a man of conscience—you know right from wrong and you endeavor to always do the right thing.”
Ben placed his hands on either side of Joe’s face and looked into his eyes. “But most of all, you are a man who is loved by his family and one I am proud to call my son.”
“Thanks, Pa.” Just then, the clock in the great room struck midnight.
“Well, isn’t it about time you got to sleep?”
“Yes sir. I got a lot to be accountable for now.”
“Yeah, just like Sam last week . . . today I am a man.”
“Happy 13th Birthday, Joe.”
“G’night, Pa. I love you.”