Summary: Joe befriends a special child.
Word Count: 8,960
This story is written in tribute to my eldest brother who was left severely mentally handicapped as a result of a smallpox injection when he was a child.
It was Saturday afternoon when Ben made his way back to the ranch from Virginia City. It had been a very tiring morning and he was secretly hoping that he would have the house to himself. The boys usually took the opportunity to spend time with friends on Saturdays, after their chores were finished, and it was one of the few occasions that Ben allowed himself the luxury of putting his feet up in front of the fire to read a book and smoke his pipe in peace.
But that morning his luck was out; as he rode into the yard he was surprised to see Cochise in the paddock. Ben frowned; if Adam or Hoss were home, he could still look forward to a peaceful afternoon, but Little Joe, well that was a whole different matter. It wasn’t that the boy meant any harm; it was just he didn’t know the meaning of the word quiet. “Oh well,” thought Ben to himself, “there was always next weekend.” On entering the house, the first thing Ben was aware of was Joe’s feet hanging over the side of the settee. This sight brought a fleeting moment of panic to Ben’s thoughts, and basing his reasoning on past experience, Ben quickly made his way forward. Had Joe been hurt? What was he doing lying on the settee? The sight that met Ben was not what he expected; Little Joe lay peacefully in sleep, snoring quietly, totally relaxed and with no sign of injury.
Ben smiled to himself. At 16, Joe was really beginning to sprout; he looked like a young colt, all gangly legs and long arms. He had only left school a short while ago and, although he would never admit it, working on the ranch was hard manual labor and Joe found it an effort keeping up some days. Joe’s growing spurt was sapping his strength and that, together with the long days he was putting in on the ranch, was beginning to take its toll.
Ben stood gazing down at his sleeping son when he became aware of Adam standing behind him, looking over his shoulder.
“He’s been lying there for about an hour, completely dead to the world. I don’t even think he stayed awake long enough to eat his lunch,” said Adam softly. “Not that Hoss was complaining,” he added with a chuckle.
Ben nodded. “I thought he would have been off with his friends this afternoon. It’s not like he gets much time to spend with them since he left school. I think he’s been overdoing it a bit these last few weeks; maybe working on the round-up has been a bit much for him.”
Adam rolled his eyes, thinking his father was making excuses for Little Joe once again. Ben noticed the look and defending his statement, said, “He’s at that age, Adam; at the rate he’s growing at the moment, he probably needs more rest than he would normally do. And even though he would never admit it, he’s still only a boy doing a man’s job. I think maybe we should try to get him to ease up a bit this week, and try to get his strength back. He was so poorly with that chest infection over the winter that if he carries on the way he has been, he’s going to wear himself out and then he’ll end up sick again.”
Adam nodded his head in agreement. He had to admit Joe had not been long recovered from his illness and he had certainly been pulling his weight over the last couple of weeks. Even he could see how it was taking it out of him.
“I’ve got just the thing,” said Adam. “I was riding past the Parson’s old place this morning when I noticed that someone new was living there. I decided to go over and welcome them, and guess what Pa? A little old lady’s moved in.”
“That’s quite a big spread. Is she on her own?”
“Seemed to be. She said her name was Mrs. Simpson and apparently she’s a widow. Turns out she’s Mr. Parson’s sister and he left the place to her in his will.”
“Well she’ll never run that place without a man about; it’s dropping to pieces.”
“You’re right about that. I had a look round whilst I was there and there’s definitely a lot of work to be done. The roof leaks, a good part of the fence is down and the barn could almost do with being rebuilt. I said we would go over and give her a hand as soon as we could,” said Adam
“And so we will son, but we have our hands full here at the moment, what with the round up just finishing and the branding still to be done.”
“Well I was just thinking — this might be just the job for Little Joe. He could spend a week or two with Mrs. Simpson. The work wouldn’t be too strenuous, and Joe is more than capable of doing the jobs that need doing.”
“That’s not a bad idea, Adam. We’ll be starting the branding on Monday, so Joe could go over to Mrs. Simpson then.”
“He may not think it’s such a good idea,” gestured Adam to Joe, “but you’re right; brandings hard work for any man, let alone a half grown boy.”
“Well that’s settled,” said Ben.
“What’s settled?” came a sleepy voice from the settee.
Adam and Ben smiled at each other. That was just like Joe; he could always be relied on to hear the conversations you didn’t want him to, but would suddenly become deaf if there was something you particularly wanted him to hear.
It was Monday morning and even though Joe had made a bit of a fuss about being excluded from the branding, he had to admit, even if it was only too himself, that he was rather looking forward to going to the old Parson homestead to give Mrs. Simpson a hand.
It was only an hour’s ride from the ranch and Joe quite enjoyed the freedom of not being subjected to the ever-watching eyes of his Pa and brothers. When he rode into the yard, he noticed a white haired old lady hanging out the washing. She stopped what she was doing and stood waiting for the young man to dismount.
Little Joe removed his hat and, stepping forward, said, “Good morning, Ma’am; my name’s Joe Cartwright. I believe you met my brother Adam on Saturday. My Pa and Adam have asked me to come and offer my services to help do a few repairs around the place for you.”
“Well that’s very kind of your Pa, Joe; I certainly could do with a man about the place,” said Mrs. Simpson, smiling to herself as she noticed Joe stand taller at the reference to his ‘man’ status.
Joe quickly appraised the repairs that needed to be done and began work in earnest. Mrs. Simpson was very impressed with the slim young man with the chestnut curls and the dancing green eyes. It was almost lunchtime when she shouted to Joe to come to the house for lunch and Joe was glad to stop for his first break.
As Joe sat on the porch, eating his sandwiches and drinking lemonade, he became aware of a young man surveying him from the window of the house. It was only a fleeting glimpse, but Joe thought the boy probably was not much older than himself. He could only ponder as to what could be wrong with the young man for him to stay inside and also as to why he was not doing the repairs around the place himself. Mrs. Simpson didn’t volunteer any information and Joe didn’t like to pry.
By the middle of the afternoon, the young man in the house had made his way out onto the porch and stood shyly watching Joe work. Joe tried not to stare back at the boy, but he couldn’t help but notice that there was something about him that wasn’t quite right and that made Joe feel uncomfortable. When the end of the day came, he was glad to be going home.
As Joe began to saddle Cochise, he became aware of the boy standing behind him. Joe turned and said, “Hi! My name’s Little Joe. What’s yours?”
The boy stared back at Joe but didn’t say a word. Joe wondered if maybe he was deaf or something. He didn’t know anyone that was deaf, but old Mr. Higgins was rather hard at hearing and he could be kinda strange at times.
Mrs. Simpson came out onto the porch and, smiling at Joe, said, “This is Mikey. Mikey, say hello to Joe.”
“Hi,” said Mikey in a childlike fashion, sticking his fingers into his mouth as he spoke.
Mikey then turned and in a rather uncoordinated way ran back across the yard and into the house. Mrs. Simpson turned to Joe and said, “Mikey’s not quite like other boys, Joe.”
Joe thought “you can say that again” but he remained silent.
“He’s very shy. He doesn’t meet many strangers, but he’ll get used to you and you’ll get used to him. Mikey doesn’t always understand everything, Little Joe, so just be patient with him.” Mrs. Simpson so wanted Joe to understand but was at a loss for words how to explain. If she went into too much detail, she was afraid she would frighten Joe into thinking Mikey was completely crazy.
That night at supper Joe told his Pa and brothers about Mrs. Simpson and Mikey.
“What do you think’s wrong with him, Pa?” asked Joe, with a mouth full of potato.
Ben glared at Joe before replying. “Well, some children are born that way, Joe, no one knows why. It’s God’s will, I suppose, but it must be very hard for Mrs. Simpson looking after Mikey on her own. It’s hard enough looking after a normal child but from what you say, it must be doubly hard for Mrs. Simpson and by all accounts, she’s not a young woman.”
Over the next couple of days, Joe saw more of Mikey but a lot of the time he still remained aloof and kept indoors. Joe still couldn’t make him out; it unnerved him the way Mikey would just stand staring at him not saying a word. Mrs. Simpson often came out into the yard and insisted that Mikey use the outhouse, but on one occasion she was too late and to Joe’s extreme embarrassment, Mikey stood there and peed his pants.
On the third day, Joe made his way over to the porch to get a drink when he heard Mikey talking to someone inside the house. Joe was surprised as he had not seen anyone arrive and Mrs. Simpson was out in the yard. Curiosity getting the better of him, Joe stood listening outside the door to try and hear who it was, but to Joe’s utter confusion, Mikey was having a conversation with himself.
The strain of the whole scenario was beginning to prey on Joe’s nerves and by the fourth evening Joe announced to his family that he wasn’t going back to the homestead.
“What’s wrong, Joe? Is she working you too hard?” teased Adam.
“No Adam, it’s not that,” Joe replied crossly.
“Well what’s wrong, son?” asked Ben trying to diffuse any argument between his eldest and youngest before it began.
“It’s Mikey,” whispered Joe.
“Is he the boy you were telling us about?” asked Hoss.
“Yeah. He’s really strange, Pa,” said Joe defensively. “He stares at me all the time and I sometimes hear him talking to himself. His Ma has to tell him when to go to the outhouse and if that isn’t bad enough, he’s started to follow me round everywhere I go. I don’t like it; I don’t want to go back.”
Ben took in a deep breath and went over and sat on the settee. “Come here, son, and tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Joe reluctantly sat down next to his father. “I don’t know how to act round him, Pa; I don’t know what to say to him.”
“How about you tell me about him, Joe, and then maybe I‘ll understand,” said Ben
“Well he’s probably a bit taller than me, he’s got fair hair, and I guess he’s maybe a little older than me.”
“No, Joe, that’s not what I mean. Don’t tell me what he looks like; just tell me about Mikey himself. I want to try and understand what upsets you about the way he acts.”
Joe closed his eyes. “Well, he acts real dumb at times. Mrs. Simpson says he’s not keen on strangers until he gets to know them, but now he follows me round like a little puppy, and when he talks, he sounds a bit like a baby. He doesn’t run too well; his coordination is way off and he finds silly things dead funny and starts giggling for nothing. When you talk to him, you never know whether he’s listening or not, ‘cause he doesn’t always answer, and even then, he doesn’t answer what you asked him.” Joe stopped for a moment before adding, “He tries to touch me and I don’t like that.”
“What do you mean he tries to touch you?” Ben said trying not to sound alarmed, but quickly glancing at Adam.
“Well,” began Joe feeling uncomfortable, “when I go to leave the yard, he tries to grab hold of my hand. I mean how dumb is that, wanting to hold my hand.”
“Oh I see,” said Ben visibly relaxing. “Well, Joe I want you to pretend for a moment that you have never met Mikey. Now think about the person you have just described and tell me what that brings to mind?”
Joe sat thoughtful for a moment and then said, “I guess I just described a little boy, Pa.”
“That’s it, Joe. Mikey is a little boy trapped in a man’s body, and from what you say, Mikey will never grow up like other boys; he will always stay a child in his mind. So when you deal with Mikey, try to see beyond the person in front of you and just treat him as you would a little boy, a little boy who needs looking after, and you won’t go far wrong.”
Joe pondered on his Pa’s words and, deep down, he knew he was right. So he decided the very next day he would give it a try.
The following morning when Joe arrived at the Simpson place, Mikey came running out to meet him, smiled happily at Joe and said “Hi.”
Joe smiled back, and thinking of his father’s words of wisdom, said “Hi yourself. How about you helping me with my chores today?”
Mikey’s face beamed with childlike enthusiasm and he jumped up and down with excitement. From that moment on, a strange and unfathomable friendship built up between the two boys.
Mikey hero-worshipped Joe and tried to copy everything that he did. At times, Joe found his attentions a little daunting, especially when, to Joe’s extreme embarrassment, Mikey insisted on holding Joe’s hand whenever they left the yard.
On one occasion, Joe was trying to show Mikey how to stack the firewood at the side of the house. When the boy finally got the hang of it, Joe clapped his hands and shouted, “That’s great, Mikey, well done. You’re doing a great job.”
Mikey was delighted with Joe’s praise but Joe was totally unprepared for the bear hug that followed. “Hey, come on Mikey, that’s enough,” shouted Joe, trying to release himself from the strong grasp that Mikey had on him. These were the times when Joe was glad there was no one else around to witness Mikey’s demonstrations of affection.
The one thing that Joe could not explain was Mikey’s affinity with animals. Cochise did not take too kindly to strangers and could be skittish and troublesome, but around Mikey, he became as gentle as a lamb.
When Mikey approached Cochise for the first time Joe was anxious for things to go well and he said, “Be careful, Mikey; just hold out your hand and let him smell you first.”
Mikey began to giggle as he held out his hand; Cochise bent his head and sniffed inquisitively.
“It tickles,” laughed Mikey, and then Joe watched in amazement as Cochise stood passively and allowed the boy to stroke his ears and hug his neck. This is something he would never have allowed from anyone other than Joe.
The relationship between boy and horse progressed until one day an idea came to Joe. “Hey Mikey, would you like to ride him?” Joe asked.
Mikey stood hugging the horse round the neck; his mouth dropped open in surprise and he nodded his head in excited anticipation.
“OK,” said Joe. “I’ll ask your Mama if it’s all right; then if she says yes, I’ll give you your first lesson.”
Mrs. Simpson was reluctant — she didn’t want Mikey doing anything dangerous — but when she saw the longing on Mikey’s face, she knew she couldn’t refuse him. Some risks were just worth taking.
Joe tried to take things slowly but over the next few days he spent every minute he could teaching Mikey to ride. The amazing thing was that Mikey had no fear when he was on the horse; it was as if he had finally found something he could do well and he reveled in it. Joe had never seen him so animated and he seemed to actually listen and pay attention to what Joe was telling him for once.
On the flipside of the coin, Mikey could be very annoying and when one morning Mrs. Simpson suggested that Joe and Mikey take the afternoon off to go fishing, Joe’s patience was tested to the limit.
“Mikey go fish with Joe?” said Mikey.
“After lunch, Mikey; I just need to finish up here first,” said Joe.
Five minutes later, “Mikey go fish with Joe?”
“I need to finish my chores first, Mikey.”
“OK, Joe. Mikey go fish with Joe?”
This same scenario played out all morning and by lunchtime, Joe was ready to throttle him. Why didn’t he listen? If he asked him that same question one more time, his head would explode. How did Mrs. Simpson put up with him? He was driving Joe crazy.
It was on the third Saturday that Joe had been working for Mrs. Simpson when Seth and a couple of the other boys rode up to the homestead and tracked down Joe. Joe and Mikey stood to watch the boys ride up,
“Where you been, Little Joe? Ain’t seen you around for a couple of weeks.”
“I’ve been kinda busy, Seth,” said Joe, feeling more that a little uncomfortable as Mikey sidled up to him and linked his arm.
The other boys snickered and Joe shook himself free from Mikey’s clawing grip.
“Thought you might fancy a bit of fishing this afternoon out at the lake. Bring your ‘friend’ if you want,” teased Dave Jewitt.
The other boys had heard rumors about the crazy kid living at the old Parson’s place and were curious to see him for themselves.
“Yeah, OK, I’m just about finished up here. Mikey, you run home now; I have to go.”
“Stay with Joe,” said Mikey stubbornly.
The other boys were openly laughing now and Joe’s face reddened with embarrassment.
“Well, you can’t come with me; now beat it and go home,” snapped Joe, making his way over to Cochise who was tethered to a nearby fence.
It was only a short walk back to the house for Mikey; Joe jumped on his horse and rode off with the other boys.
When they arrived at the lake, Joe felt rather guilty and a bit unsettled about the way he had treated Mikey, but made a show of hiding his feelings in front of his friends.
“Hey Joe, is it true what they say about that kid?” asked Seth.
“What do you mean?”
“Well everyone in town says he’s crazy. That he should be locked up.”
“He’s not crazy. He’s just a bit slow that’s all,” replied Joe.
“Well, you seem real friendly with him,” Dave teased, winking at the other boys.
“It’s not that; I’m just helping his mum get the placed fixed up. He just keeps following me round; nothing I can do about it.”
Joe felt like Judas; he was betraying Mikey’s friendship, but he couldn’t lose face in front of his friends.
The other boys continued to make fun of Mikey and after a while, Joe found himself joining in with the laughter. Seth screwed up his face and hunching his shoulders screeched “I’m Mikey, I’m crazy aaaahhh.” He then chased the other boys through the trees, making them run in all directions to get away from him.
Joe had forgotten how much fun it was to be with his friends again. In the weeks since he had left school, he had not had much time for larking around and it was a very happy boy that rode home that day.
It was almost suppertime that evening when Joe rode up to the ranch. As he entered quietly, hoping he wasn’t late for supper, he was met by his father and brothers making preparations to leave.
“What’s wrong? Where’re you going?” asked Joe.
“It’s Mikey, Joe. He went missing this afternoon and Mrs. Simpson is worried sick. We thought we would ride over there and look for him before it gets dark.”
Joe’s face turned ashen. “It’s all my fault, Pa,” said Joe in almost a whisper.
“What do you mean, it’s your fault? What happened?” asked Ben.
“Well Seth and a couple of the guys came for me to go fishing. I told Mikey he couldn’t go with me.”
“Then it’s hardly your fault, Joe. Mikey must have wandered off,” said Ben.
“But it is my fault, Pa. I was embarrassed about Mikey in front of the others and I wasn’t very nice to him. Like you say, Pa, he’s just a little boy and, well, I sent him away and he really didn’t understand why.” Joe hung his head in shame.
“We’ll talk about this later, son,” said Ben, placing a gentle hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Let’s just find him.”
As they made their way to the homestead, Mrs. Simpson, still looking for Mikey, met them halfway up the lane. Ben dismounted and, making towards her, he said, “Now Mrs. Simpson, why don’t you go back to the house and wait in case he comes back. Don’t worry; we’ll find him and have him home in no time.”
In actual fact, it was several hours before Mikey was found. After Joe and the boys had left, Mikey had tried to follow them and had become completely lost and disorientated. When he had become too tired to go on, he had sat down where he was and remained put. When Ben and boys rode up, he was still sitting there, rocking backwards and forwards humming to himself. By this time Mikey was wet, tired and hungry and was happy when he caught sight of Joe and knew he was going home. Mikey’s obvious delight on seeing Joe caused Joe to feel even more ashamed of his behavior. Mikey had trusted him and he had let him down.
It was a very subdued Cartwright family that returned to the Ponderosa that night. Little Joe was very quiet and he could hardly meet his father’s gaze as they entered the house. He was about to make his way up the stairs when Ben asked him to come and sit on the settee.
“Joe, I know how bad you feel about this, son, but at the end of the day, Mikey is going to be fine.”
“That doesn’t excuse me, Pa. I’ll never be able to face Mrs. Simpson again after this.”
“I’m sure she’ll understand, Joe,” soothed Ben. “You never meant for Mikey to come to any harm. Sometimes we learn our lessons the hard way, but when that happens, we never forget them.”
“Yes, Pa,” said Little Joe half-heartedly.
“I’ll tell you what, son, why don’t we all go over to the Simpson’s place tomorrow and make a start on rebuilding that barn? That way we can all get to know Mikey a little better.”
“Really, Pa? Mrs. Simpson would like that.”
“Yes, really. Now off to bed, young man; it’s going to be a very busy day tomorrow.”
“Goodnight Pa, Adam, Hoss.”
“Goodnight, Joe,” they echoed.
Later that night, Adam awoke with a start. He didn’t know what had woken him but he sat up just the same. Getting out of bed, he opened his door and stepped onto the landing. In his bare feet, he made his way to his youngest brother’s room and looked inside. As he suspected, he found the bed empty, so he silently make his way to the top of the stair and looked down. Little Joe was sitting in his Pa’s chair, his feet tucked under his nightshirt, staring into the dying embers of the fire.
With a sigh Adam made his way down the stairs. Looking up and seeing Adam, Joe pushed himself further back into the chair but didn’t say anything.
“What you doing down here, buddy?” said Adam quietly, not wanting to disturb anyone else in the house.
Joe just shrugged his shoulders and continued looking at the fire. “Oh boy,” thought Adam, “looks like we are in for a long night.”
“How about I make us a hot drink?” suggested Adam making his way into the kitchen. As Adam made the cocoa, he wondered how he was going to get Joe to open up to him. Why did he always have to be so stubborn? As this thought passed through his mind, Adam smiled to himself. “Guess it runs in the family.”
Adam handed Joe his drink then sat on the chair opposite. “Want to talk about it” he said as he sipped his drink.
Joe again shrugged his shoulders but didn’t appear inclined to talk.
“Look Joe, I know you’re upset about what happened this evening, but like Pa said, no harms done. Mikey will be fine.”
“Yeah, maybe. But if I hadn’t been so mean, Mikey would never have run off.”
“Joe, we’ve all done things we regret.”
“But what if we hadn’t found him, Adam? It would have been all my fault,” said Joe in a voice raw with emotion. Tiredness and feelings of guilt were beginning to take their toll and Adam could see that Little Joe was fighting hard to keep the tears at bay.
“Joe buddy, I can understand how you feel, but I also know how hard it is to go up against your friends.”
“You would never have done that, Adam; you would have known what was right and stuck to it.”
“Maybe now, Joe,” laughed Adam, “but I was once 16, you know. It takes a bit of growing and a lot of time before you feel comfortable enough to stand up for the things you believe in; sometimes it’s easier just to go with the crowd. Once you’ve sorted out in your own head what you feel is right, it becomes a lot easier to stand alone. No one wants you to be a sheep and just follow the others, but at the same time no one expects you to be perfect. Just don’t be so hard on yourself, Joe, and you’ll get there in the end.”
Joe sat silent for a long time before saying, “Adam, do you think the other kids are right?”
“In what way, Joe?”
“Well they said that Mikey’s crazy and should be locked up.”
“Is that what you think?” asked Adam.
Joe thought long and hard before replying. “No, I don’t think he’s crazy and I think it would be real cruel to lock him up.”
“See,” said Adam “you’re growing up and thinking for yourself already. But now it’s time for bed, and I don’t mind standing alone on that one, buddy, so up you go.”
Joe unfolded his legs from under his nightshirt and made his way up the stairs. Turning as he got to the top, he whispered, “Thanks, Adam.”
“Anytime, buddy,” replied Adam. “Just try not to make it 3 am in the morning next time,” he added to himself under his breath.
Joe and his family arrived at the Simpson house bright and early the next morning. Mrs. Simpson was delighted to see them and welcomed them immediately into her home for coffee. Encouraged by Ben, Joe stood hat in hand to apologize to Mrs. Simpson and Mikey for his behavior the day before. Mrs. Simpson wouldn’t hear of it. “Don’t apologize, Little Joe; it wasn’t your fault. You have every right to go off with your friends. It’s just Mikey sometimes doesn’t quite understand. He’s never really had a friend before and I think he’s become a little bit possessive about you; he seems to think of you as a big brother.”
Joe had to smile at that; Mikey was at least 3 inches taller than him. But when he thought about it, Hoss was the younger one but he was still a lot taller than Adam. Little Joe was determined that from that day forward he would make every effort to make up for his previous behavior towards Mikey.
Throughout that day the Cartwrights worked side by side to get the job done. Ben enjoyed the closeness this brought, as it was a rare event that he had all three sons together at the same time; the ranch was vast and invariably he would be supervising one task whilst Adam was in charge of another. The nature of the work was such that the atmosphere was jovial and unpressured and they all made a special effort to include Mikey in what they were doing. As the family would have expected, Mikey was quick to build a relationship with Hoss. Hoss’s easy going nature was like a magnet for Mikey and by the end of the day, he had transferred his allegiance from Little Joe and now followed Hoss everywhere he went.
With the rebuilding of the barn it meant that Joe’s chores for Mrs. Simpson were now in effect finished. It was clear to Ben and the rest of the family that Mikey hero worshipped Joe and Ben felt obliged to put in place a system whereby Joe could still play a part in Mikey’s life without neglecting his other responsibilities and friends.
After a family discussion, it was decided that Hoss and Adam would cover some of Joe’s chores a couple of times a week and leave Joe free to ride over to the Simpson ranch and spend time with Mikey and do any jobs that Mrs. Simpson required.
At first Mikey missed Joe being there everyday and so he became very excited whenever he saw Joe approaching on his horse. The friendship that developed between the two boys was a strange one; most people would not have understood, but Joe was becoming very fond of the man-child and looked forward to his visits.
Joe still made time for his friends and was able to ignore their teasing about Mikey and laugh it off without getting offended or defensive about the friendship they shared.
As the weeks went by, Mikey’s riding skills improved and Joe was able to take him to visit the Ponderosa, and in time the Cartwrights became a surrogate family for him. Mrs. Simpson was overwhelmed at the generosity of the family; at the last town she had lived, Mikey had been shunned by the townsfolk and it had been suggested to her on more than one occasion that Mikey should be locked away.
About three months after his first meeting with the Simpsons, Joe was riding to the ranch when he was met on the trail by Mikey in a very distraught state. Joe dismounted and rushed towards him.
“What is it, Mikey? What’s happened?”
Mikey did not reply and he was too upset to listen; he just kept pointing back at the ranch. Joe almost had to force Mikey up onto Cochise’s back; he then climbed up behind him and rode straight to the house. Leaving Mikey in the yard, Joe rushed forward, calling out for Mrs. Simpson. As he entered the lounge, Joe stopped dead in his tracks. Mrs. Simpson was lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
Joe was unsure at first what to do; he had never been faced with a situation like this before. He approached Mrs. Simpson and, reaching down, took hold of her wrist to check for a pulse; he breathed a sigh of relief when he found one, although it was faint and a bit erratic. The blood was coming from the back of Mrs. Simpson’s head and as Joe assessed the situation, he kept telling himself not to panic. He tried to think what his father or Adam might do — should he move her or should he go for help? Joe decided his first priority was to try and stop the bleeding and then, if possible, lift her onto the settee. His mind was in a whirl as he rushed to the pump to fetch water and a cloth. His hands were shaking as he applied the towel to the back of her head and held it in place. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the bleeding stopped and Joe was able to tie a makeshift bandage around her head. Once the head injury was under control, Joe checked Mrs. Simpson for further injuries and was dismayed to find that her right arm appeared to be broken. Joe had no idea how to set bones and he was afraid that if he moved the arm too much, he may do more harm than good. His next task was to try and lift her from the floor and Joe was glad that Mrs. Simpson was very slight in stature.
With effort, Joe was able to carry Mrs. Simpson and lay her on the settee and cover her with a blanket. It was only when Joe had done all that he could for Mrs. Simpson that he remembered Mikey and rushed outside into the yard. Mikey was nowhere to be found. Joe shouted out his name again and again, and it was only when he passed the barn did he hear a soft cry coming from inside. Joe opened the door and on entering was met by the sight of Mikey curled up in the corner, hugging his knees. Reminding himself that he was dealing with someone with the mind of a child and one that was probably scared half to death, Joe approached him very gently. “Hey Mikey,” he said, sitting down and putting an arm around his shoulders. “Your Mama going to be just fine,” he soothed. “Come with Joe and see.”
Joe pulled Mikey to his feet and led him reluctantly back to the house. Mrs. Simpson was still unconscious and try as he might, Joe could not get Mikey to approach her. Fear shone in Mikey’s eyes and Joe decided not to push him; it was obvious that he couldn’t comprehend what had happened and all the blood had frightened him.
What was Joe to do now? Mrs. Simpson obviously needed a doctor, but it was a two-hour ride into town and he couldn’t leave Mikey on his own. At the same time, he couldn’t take him with him; it would only slow him down. At a last resort Joe decided that his only option was to hitch up the buckboard and take Mrs. Simpson and Mikey into town together. Joe quickly hitched up the team and padded out the buckboard with a mattress and blankets to make it as comfortable for Mrs. Simpson as possible.
It was slow going and Joe was becoming increasingly concerned as Mrs. Simpson’s condition deteriorated. She had not regained consciousness and the bandage round her head was beginning to show signs that the wound had started bleeding again. Joe had tied a temporary splint around her right arm, but again it crossed his mind that he may have made things worse.
It was nearly three hours later that Joe pulled the buckboard up outside Dr. Martin’s surgery. Joe jumped down and yelled for the doctor to come outside. Dr. Martin rushed outside to see what all the fuss was and quickly analyzed the situation. Paul Martin took charge and instructed two passing men to carry Mrs. Simpson into the back room so that he could immediately start treating her.
Joe leaned against the buckboard and closed his eyes; relief flooded through him as he was now able to pass the responsibility over to someone else. As the adrenaline ceased to flow through him, tiredness took over and he felt as if his knees would give out at any minute. It was only then that Joe became aware of the mutterings around him.
“It was his mother they brought in.”
“The kid’s crazy.”
“He probably attacked her.”
“Should be locked up before he hurts someone else.”
Joe opened his eyes to look at the gathering crowd. Mikey was hunched in the back of the buckboard, gazing out with the eyes of a frightened rabbit.
Before things could get out of hand, Roy Coffee approached. On seeing him, one of the men from the crowd shouted, “You gonna lock that kid up, Sheriff; he’s crazy. They just brought his mama in, hurt real bad. I bet he had something to do with it.”
Joe, already on a knife-edge, saw red and leapt at the man with his fists flying in all directions. Roy quickly intervened and pulled Joe back. “Calm down, Little Joe. That’s not going to help anyone,” said Roy. “And as for you, Mister, keep your opinions to yourself. You don’t know the facts and that’s all I’m interested in.”
Roy was having a job keeping hold of an angry Joe; he shook him harshly and said, “Calm down, Joe; now why don’t you and Mikey come and have a coffee back at my office and you can fill me in on what has been happening at the Simpson place.”
It took a lot of encouragement from Joe to get Mikey to leave the sanctuary of the wagon and as they walked down the street to the Sheriff’s office, some of the men jeered as Mikey passed.
Joe was heartbroken and angry for his friend. “Why do people behave like that, Sheriff Coffee? Mikey’s never done nothing to them. Why don’t they leave him alone?”
“People are afraid, Little Joe. When there’s something they don’t understand, they become hostile, ‘cause they don’t know how else to react.”
“But they’re wrong; Mikey wouldn’t hurt anyone, least of all his Ma. He loves her.”
“That may be, Little Joe. But some people only see what they want to see and to them Mikey is crazy.”
Joe and Mikey rested at the Sheriff’s office for the rest of the afternoon, whilst Dr Martin attended to Mrs. Simpson. Roy sent a messenger to inform Ben what had happened, and Ben, Adam and Hoss arrived in town later that day.
Mrs. Simpson had regained consciousness and with little prompting, informed the doctor that the last thing she remembered was getting up from the settee and feeling dizzy; she must have fallen and hit her head. The angle at which she had fallen, together with her age, had resulted in her badly broken arm. Mrs. Simpson was sorry for all the fuss she had caused and was particularly worried about the fact that Mikey had found her in that state.
It was nearing evening before the doctor decreed that Mrs. Simpson was fit to travel and Ben decided it would be best if she and Mikey came to stay at the Ponderosa until she was well enough to return to her own home.
The hostility that the townsfolk showed towards Mikey as they prepared to leave upset the Cartwright family but Mrs. Simpson completely ignored them.
“It has always been that way, Mr. Cartwright. Ever since Mikey was born, people have been telling me to have him put in an institution. No one ever takes the time to get to know children like Mikey and all they have to offer; they can’t understand him and that’s what frightens them.” Mrs. Simpson glanced at Joe and looking back at Ben said, “Well not everyone. Some people are different. You have a very special young man there, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben looked proudly at the way Joe was talking and reassuring Mikey, despite the abuse of the nearby men. “Yes, I am very proud of him; he’s turning into a very fine young man and I’m pleased that Mikey came into his life. Joe has learned a lot about compassion and understanding from his dealings with Mikey and that will stay with him for always.” Ben and Mrs. Simpson shared a secret smile as they each looked at their offspring.
Over the next few weeks, Ben and the rest of the family were able to appreciate the amount of looking after that Mikey needed. How on earth Mrs. Simpson managed on her own to care for him was beyond them.
Probably due to her age, Mrs. Simpson’s arm was taking a long time to heal. After one of Dr. Martin’s visits, he asked Ben if he could have a word with him.
Ben and Dr. Martin were sat in the great room talking when Little Joe and Mikey entered the house. As Hop Sing beckoned the boys to the table for a snack of milk and cookies, Ben and Paul kept on talking.
“Something has to be done, Ben; Mrs. Simpson needs someone looking after her. She is not going to be in any fit state to take care of the boy for a considerable time, if ever.”
“I understand what you are saying, Paul, but it really isn’t our decision to make. Mrs. Simpson is the one who must decide what is best for Mikey,” replied Ben.
Little Joe stopped eating to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“I’ve written to a doctor in San Francisco who has had dealings with people like Mikey. I’m sure he would be able to recommend somewhere suitable. We have to think of the long-term future Ben. This situation can’t be allowed to continue.”
Little Joe felt as if someone had kicked him. He jumped to his feet and rushed over to where Dr. Martin was sitting. “You’re just like everyone else,” he shouted. “You want to lock Mikey away in one of them places.”
Ben was shocked at Joe’s outburst and admonished, “That is enough, Joseph; you will apologize to Dr. Martin at once.”
“Tell him, Pa,” whined Joe, ignoring his father’s rebuke, “tell him to mind his own business. Mikey is not going away; he’s going to stay here with us, and we’ll look after him.”
Taking in Joe’s distressed state, Ben decided to allow his rude outburst to pass. “Dr. Martin’s just trying to do what’s best for Mikey, Joe. He needs to be looked after and Mrs. Simpson won’t be able to do that for much longer.”
“But she’s always looked after him, Pa. They’ll be fine, I know they will. We’ll help them; I can go over every day and help with the chores and things.” Joe’s voice began to rise as his emotions got the better of him.
“Joseph, son,” Ben began, reaching out to try and calm Joe down, “it’s going to get harder as Mikey gets older. His needs are changing and Mrs. Simpson just won’t be able to cope.”
“Why, Pa, why’s it going to be harder?”
Ben ran his hands through his hair in an effort to collect his thoughts. “Well it’s the little things, Joe. For one thing, up to now Mikey hasn’t needed to shave, but that day is fast approaching. That is something he can’t do for himself. Mrs. Simpson will need to do that every day. And what if Mikey has an accident or takes ill and is confined to bed, how will she cope, Joe? It was different when he was little and she was younger. She could lift him and attend to his needs, but she couldn’t do that now. Just think about it, son.”
“We’ll help her, Pa.”
“And what about when Mrs. Simpson is not there anymore, Joe? What will happen then?”
“I’ll look after him. Mikey can live with me,” Joe said without thinking.
Joe was trying hard to rein in his feelings but with little success; tears threatened to fall and what little control he had was now gone. In a strangled voice he said, “What if it was me, Pa? What if I’d been born like Mikey? Would you lock me away in one of those places? Would you, Pa?”
Ben didn’t have an answer. It was an impossible question. His sons had all been born fit and healthy in both mind and body. It had been hard enough to raise three boys as it was. What would he have done? He didn’t know. All he could do was thank the Lord that he hadn’t tested him in that way. But how to answer Joe?
Ben need not have worried because before he could formulate a reply, Joe turned and fled from the room. The resounding bang of the front door slamming was all that broke the silence in the room.
Mikey sat at the table looking at Ben with obvious dismay in his eyes. He didn’t understand what was going on, but he was aware of the raised voices and the obvious distress of his friend.
Ben went over to him and stroked his back. “It’s OK, Mikey; don’t get upset. Everything is going to be all right. Joe will be back soon. Don’t worry.” If only that were true.
Guilt swept over Ben. What did the future hold for this unfortunate boy? Sometimes life could be so unfair. Could he have put one of his sons in an asylum? A shudder went down his spine at the thought and he couldn’t bear to look Mikey in the face. Surely it was everyone’s duty to help and care for people like Mikey. Ben’s thoughts were in turmoil. Mikey was not his responsibility and he couldn’t allow Little Joe to sacrifice his own life looking after him, because that was what was needed. It was a full time job looking after someone like Mikey and not many people would be willing to take it on. Joe was Ben’s responsibility and even though he knew that Joe might end up hating him for it, Ben could not allow Joe to commit to such a task.
Ben turned to Dr. Martin, “I’m sorry about that, Paul. You know what Little Joe is like — his heart rules his head. I’m sure when he calms down he will see sense.”
“I can understand how he feels, Ben, but I’m afraid this is a problem that is not going to go away. When Mrs. Simpson is well enough, we are going to have to broach the subject.”
Ben sighed heavily and looked down into Mikey’s upturned face. He stroked the side of the boy’s cheek gently and said, “I know, Paul, but it will break her heart and Joe’s.” And what of Mikey? How would he feel? He wouldn’t understand what was happening to him; his world would be turned upside down. Would it have been easier on Mikey if he had lived all his life in one of those places? How would he adapt now, after having lived with his mother? Once again Ben pondered on how unfair life was; there was no easy answer.
It was a few days later when Dr. Martin and Ben sat down with Mrs. Simpson and broached the subject of Mikey’s future.
Mrs. Simpson raised her hand to silence them. “There really is no need to concern yourself, gentlemen,” she began. “You see Mikey doesn’t have a future. Dr Martin, if you examine Mikey, you will find that he has a very bad heart condition. Apparently lots of children like Mikey are born with other abnormalities. With Mikey, it just happens to be his heart. He has probably lived longer than any of the doctors back home ever anticipated; they always thought he would die as a child. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed the blueness round his mouth Dr Martin whenever Mikey exerts himself. He is easily out of breath and I have noticed his condition worsening over the last couple of months.”
Mrs. Simpson stopped to regain her composure. “I have always known that I would only have Mikey for a short time, but I feel I have been blessed. He is one of God’s own children, completely pure and innocent, and I feel privileged that the Lord entrusted him to me to look after until he was ready to take him back and I’m afraid that day is ever drawing closer.”
Dr. Martin and Ben were at a loss for words. This woman made them feel very humble.
As Ben sat downstairs trying to think of a way to explain to Little Joe what was probably going to happen, the decision was taken from him. Joe burst into the room shouting at the top of his voice.
“Pa, Pa, come quick! It’s Mikey! He was all right one minute then he just fell down. Oh Pa, I think he’s dead!” The last word came out as a sob as Joe flung himself into his father’s arms.
Dr. Martin ran down the stairs and quickly made his way outside but it was too late. Ben followed behind with Joe and, crossing the yard, he looked down on the figure of Mikey, for all the world looking like he was asleep. Sitting down on the cold hard earth, Ben let his own tears fall as he cradled his weeping son in one arm whilst supporting the now peaceful boy in his other.
After awhile, Joe allowed Hoss and Adam to carry Mikey inside. Ben took Little Joe to his room and sat with the emotionally exhausted boy until he slept. He then had the awful task of telling a mother that her beloved child was gone.
Mrs. Simpson tried to be stoic; after all, she knew this day was coming. But her resolve broke and she cried as if her heart would break. Ben left her to her private grief; he just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to bury your child. He had lost three wives and that was bad enough, but to outlive your children was something no parent envisaged.
The following morning, as Ben took Mrs. Simpson her breakfast, she asked, “How is Little Joe doing?”
“Well, he’s desperately upset. He keeps thinking that it is in someway his fault, that if he hadn’t been running round the yard with Mikey it would never have happened.”
“Ask him to come and see me, Mr. Cartwright. I really would like to talk to him.”
A red-eyed Joe made his way into Mrs. Simpson’s bedroom and sat down next to the bed. “It’s all my fault,” he began. “He had a bad heart and I was chasing him round the yard.”
“Little Joe,” said Mrs. Simpson, “it’s not your fault; this was always going to happen. I always knew that Mikey was only with me for a short while.”
Joe’s voice went up an octave, a sure sign of his distress. “But if I’d known, I could have made him take it easy and rest. I was always getting him to run about.”
Joe laid his head on the bed and began to cry. Mrs. Simpson ran her hand through his curls and once again thanked the Lord for sending Joe Cartwright into her son’s life.
“Mikey loved you, Little Joe; you were the brother and friend to him that he had never had, and for that I will be eternally grateful to you. This world is too harsh for someone like Mikey, Little Joe. He’s at peace now, where no one else can hurt him and it really is for the best. In time, things might change and hopefully people will understand and help children like him, but that time hasn’t arrived yet, Joe. Now dry your eyes and don’t mourn him. Mikey is in heaven and God will have made him whole; he’ll be happy and just like every other boy. At least, that is the way I like to think of him and I hope you will too.”
Mikey was buried the following day. The only people at the funeral were Dr Martin, the Cartwrights and Mrs. Simpson. As Dr Martin helped Mrs. Simpson back to the house, Joe turned to his father and whispered, “You never did answer my question, Pa.”
Ben looked puzzled. “What question was that, son?”
“If it had been me, would you have put me in a place like that?”
Ben never lied to his children and looking Joe in the eyes he swallowed before he answered truthfully, “I don’t know, Joe; I really don’t know.”