Word Count: 3200
Ben Cartwright’s youngest son froze, one hand reaching toward the door. “Yes, Pa,” he replied – but he did not turn around.
It was only then, slowly and reluctantly, that Joe turned toward his father, crossing his arms over his chest as he did.
It wasn’t defiance. Rather, Joe was trying – unsuccessfully – to hide the conspicuous lump that bulged out from under his shirt. Shuffling across the room, Joe finally lifted his eyes from the floor to his father’s face.
And saw kindness. If he’d looked more closely, Joe might also have seen a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
“Do you want to tell me what this is all about?” Ben asked. “This is, what, the third time this week?”
Fifth, actually, but Joe chose to answer the first question instead. Even then, it took a moment to find the words.
“Pa, there’s this kid. And I don’t think he’s getting enough to eat.”
Ben’s face now reflected surprise. He hadn’t expected this, having agreed with Hoss and Adam’s guesses that Joe had a dog hidden somewhere on the Ponderosa. It was no secret that Joe wanted a dog; he had been asking for one for years, and none of them could help but notice that the wheedling had inexplicably stopped just short of Joe’s birthday, a season when they’d all assumed the begging would only increase.
“Well, now, Joseph. Where does this boy live?”
Joe shrugged. “I just meet him in the woods, over by the lake in Packsaddle Holler. I mean, he has a little camp there, with a lean-to, like me and Hoss used to have when we was kids” – Ben smiled at his son’s implication that he was no longer a child – “but I don’t know where his real house is.”
“So you’ve not met his parents?” Ben asked gently, and Joe shook his head.
But now Joe met his father’s gaze straight on, and Ben saw how troubled Joe was.
“Pa? I … I don’t think they take very good care of him.”
“Do you mean, do you think they beat him?”
Joe shook his head. “No. Well, not really. I mean, they just… his ma and pa, they don’t like each other very much, and I don’t think they like him at all. His pa, he just doesn’t say nothing. But his ma …” Joe stopped for just a moment, then took a deep breath and went on. Ben’s heart ached; it was still so difficult for Joe to think of his own mother.
“His ma, she’s always yelling at him, blaming him for everything, says he’s no good. He doesn’t have any friends because she embarrasses him in front of other kids. Sometimes she says she’s gonna kill herself because he’s so bad. But Pa, he ain’t bad. He’s just a kid like me.”
Now that he had gotten started, Joe rushed to unload the burden he had been carrying. “Sometimes he cries when he tells me these things. One time, he was so upset telling me about his ma, he even got sick. He doesn’t know what to do, Pa … and neither do I.”
Ben pondered this information, walking slowly toward the fireplace while Joe waited, staring up at his father with hopeful, beseeching eyes.
“Do you know his parents’ names?” he asked finally, and Joe shook his head again.
“No. Pa, I don’t even know his name, and that’s the truth. I asked him, but he didn’t want to tell me. So I said it didn’t matter. We’re friends anyway, Pa.”
Ben nodded, still trying to digest the story his son had shared. “Tell you what,” he said finally. “Do you think this boy, your friend, would come here for dinner if you invited him?”
Joe shrugged doubtfully. “I dunno, Pa. He’s pretty spooky about other people. I don’t think he’d want to answer a bunch of questions.”
Ben smiled. “What if you promised him there would be no questions? What if he were just to come as your guest – for your birthday tomorrow?”
Joe brightened. “He might. I can ask him, anyway. Can’t I, Pa? And can I take this food to him now? I know he’s waiting for me, and he’ll be hungry if I don’t.”
“All right, go on,” Ben nodded. “But just to Packsaddle Hollow and back. Before dark. Tell your friend he’s welcome to dinner tomorrow night, and he can stay the night if he wishes. No questions asked.”
“Thanks, Pa.” Joe’s grin flashed as he turned back toward the door. “I think you’ll really like him. He’s a lot like me.”
Ben was stunned. “A lot like me,” Joe had said, but that didn’t begin to describe the physical similarity between the two boys who stood in front of him.
Two boys, one freshly 12 years old and the other obviously close in age. The same height and similar builds, although Joe – whom nobody would describe as “stocky” – looked positively robust in comparison to the thin boy at his side. Joe’s complexion was tanned and healthy, while the other boy looked pale and wan.
Joe’s curly hair – which Ben noted needed to be cut – tumbled carelessly about his head. His friend’s was shorter, and combed tightly back as though to subdue his own curls.
Two pairs of green eyes blinked up at him, one trusting, one guarded.
But despite these differences, the boys could have been twins. Hoss and Adam, standing behind their father, were also staring in amazement.
Ben regained his composure, and held out his hand toward the boy at Joe’s side. “Welcome to the Ponderosa,” he said kindly. “We’re happy you could join us for Joe’s birthday.”
The boy started to say something, seemed to change his mind, and said only, “Thank you. This is a nice house, Mr. Cartwright. It’s even nicer than I ever imagined.”
The night before, as Ben had tucked him into bed, Joe had speculated that his friend might be from New Orleans. When his father asked why he had come to that conclusion, Joe had replied, “Because he don’t talk like he’s from around here. You and Adam say Mama had a different way of talking, that everyone in New Orleans talks different from us out here.”
However, this boy was definitely not from the South. Ben immediately placed the accent as somewhere from the New England states, and judging from the sound, this boy had not been in the West for very long.
But he had promised not to ask any questions, and Ben Cartwright intended to keep that promise. “Thank you, young man,” he replied. “Let me introduce you to Joe’s brothers. Adam…and Hoss.”
The boy shrank back a little as the two approached — Adam, so dark and intimidating, and Hoss, so large and overwhelming. The boy glanced uncertainly at Joe, but Joe gave him an encouraging nod, and he stepped forward timidly.
Adam’s voice was warm and sincere. “We’re glad you could come,” he said politely, offering a strong hand to shake.
And Hoss was friendly, but gentle. “Howdy,” he smiled, pumping the boy’s hand. “It’s nice to meetcha.”
Relieved at having survived the introductions, the boy looked even more pleased at Ben’s next words.
“Joe, why don’t you take your friend upstairs to your room? Dinner won’t be ready for a while yet, and you’ll want to show him around and get cleaned up.”
The boys clattered up the stairs. As soon as they heard the sound of the slamming door – Joe always slammed his door – Ben, Adam and Hoss exchanged looks of disbelief.
“Did you see that?” Hoss asked. “He looks enough like Joe to be his brother.”
“His twin brother,” Adam added. “Pa, where did this kid come from? I haven’t seen him in Virginia City. And I’m pretty sure somebody would have mentioned a kid who looks just like Joe if they had seen him around town.”
“I don’t know where his family lives,” Ben admitted. “Joe meets him down by Packsaddle Hollow. They play there, and that’s where Joe’s been taking the food. Remember, no questions tonight. But maybe he’ll say something that will give us some answers.”
Joe’s birthday dinner was a festive affair. Joe was cheerful and chatty, more than making up for his friend’s reserved silence.
Ben decided that asking “More chicken?” did not break his promise, and judging by the response, it was one question the boy was happy to hear. As thin as he was, the boy’s appetite matched Hoss’, and Ben was determined to make sure the meal continued long enough to give the boy the opportunity to eat all he wanted.
As it turned out, that gave Joe, Hoss and Adam plenty of time for bantering and teasing one another. Although silent at first, as the evening went on, the boy occasionally interjected a wry, witty remark, and was clearly pleased, although somewhat surprised, that his contributions to the conversation seemed welcome.
“… and then Joe jumped up and yelled ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ I thought Pastor Harding was gonna fall outta the pulpit!” Hoss roared with laughter as he finished telling another story about Joe’s misadventures at church, and everyone joined in.
Even Joe. Even the strange boy.
Noting that the ravenous intake of food had slowed, Ben figured it was time to offer dessert to his son’s friend. “Apple pie tonight,” he announced. “In honor of Joseph’s birthday.”
“Yum!” Joe cried, bouncing in his seat, adding, “You’re gonna love Hop Sing’s apple pie. It’s the best!”
The boy shook his head in wonderment of the bounty he had experienced already, as Hop Sing, on cue, appeared with not one pie, but two. “Happy day to Litterl Joe,” he said. “We celeblate the day you born. For sure, a happy day.”
“For sure!” Hoss echoed enthusiastically. “Happy birthday, Little Joe!”
“Life sure got exciting when you showed up,” Adam said with a smile. “Happy birthday, younger brother.”
“Your birthday was a very happy day for me,” Ben said, reaching out to take his son’s hand. “You have been a wonderful gift to my life, Joseph.”
The boy stared longingly at Ben’s hand as it rested on Joe’s, but Joe just smiled.
“Thanks, Pa. Thanks,” Joe said, looking around the table at his brothers. “Can I cut the pie?”
They all laughed then, even the boy, and Joe proved to be generous with his portions.
“That’s too much,” Ben protested as Joe passed a heaping plate to his father, but the boys laughed him down.
“It’s now or never, Pa,” Adam chuckled. “Better eat it; I have the feeling there won’t be much left over.”
The slices were all so large that it was easy to pretend not to notice how very large a piece Joe cut for his friend.
“One more song?” Joe wheedled, recognizing the chords Adam often played toward the end of an evening of music.
“Sure; it’s your birthday, after all. What would you like to hear?” Adam replied, smiling at Joe.
“Um, I don’t know; we’ve sung about everything I know,” Joe replied. His father and brothers laughed; clearly, Joe had been postponing bedtime as much as wanting to continue the singing. Then Joe turned to his friend, who had been sitting somewhat in the background as the Cartwrights had harmonized together.
“Your turn,” Joe said. “Pick a song.”
Taken by surprise, the boy stammered for a moment, then doubtfully suggested, “Uh, ‘Home on the Range’?”
“I don’t think I know that one,” Adam said gently, wishing he could have given the boy a more positive response. “Do you think you could start it off, see if I can pick it up?”
The boy cast a wild look at Joe, but Joe nodded confidently. “I know this one,” Joe told his family. “He taught me; we sing sometimes down at the lake. Come on, I’ll sing with you.”
At first, Joe’s was the only voice they heard, but gradually, the other boy’s trembling, uncertain notes became stronger, and by the time Adam had picked up on the melody, the two boys, sitting side by side in the shadows, were singing in a pure, sweet harmony.
“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Home, home on the range …”
“That’s very nice,” Adam said quietly, strumming the notes again as the boys fell silent. “I’ll remember this one. Where did you learn it?”
“In school,” the boy said. “I thought since it was about cowboys, you might know it.”
Adam frowned a little, puzzled, then smiled. “It’s very nice,” he said again. “But it’s getting late, isn’t it, Pa? I think I know just the song to close with, and then we don’t want to forget something really important to end the day.”
Adam had only to play the first chord before everyone joined together in singing “Happy Birthday” to a grinning Joe Cartwright, and as Hoss carried the final “toooo yooooooou” into a coyote yowl that made everyone laugh, Ben stood and picked up a box that had been tucked onto the corner of the mantle.
“Joseph, this is for you,” he said. “Happy birthday, son.”
Joe’s eyes sparkled in the firelight. “Thanks, Pa!” he said, eagerly reaching toward the gift. He tore the box open, then cried out in delight. “Wow, thanks! Look…”
And he held up a pocketknife, its blades glinting like silver.
“Is that the one you wanted?” Ben asked, and he was laughing because he knew it was. Besides a dog, the pocketknife from Goldstein’s General Store had been the object of Joe’s desire for months.
“Yes, this is it!” Joe said, busily exploring the blades. “Thanks, Pa!”
“Happy birthday, son,” Ben said again, then added, “Well, it’s late, boys. Time for bed.”
“One more thing!” Hoss cried. “Don’t forget, Joe hasta make a birthday wish!”
“That’s right, mustn’t forget that,” Ben chuckled. “Joe? Are you ready to make a wish?”
Joe nodded and leaped to his feet. Reaching into the basket of firestarts next to the fireplace, Joe chose a pinecone. Holding it tightly, he closed his eyes and whispered the words of his wish. Opening his eyes, he tossed the pinecone into the fireplace, and watched as the flames sparked with color.
“My wish will come true!” he crowed.
“And so it will,” Ben said. “And now, boys, upstairs you go…”
The voice was so soft that at first Ben wasn’t sure he’d heard him. But the boy reached up and impulsively took hold of Ben’s sleeve and spoke again. “Mr. Cartwright? Today is my birthday too.”
The Cartwrights stared at the boy in stunned silence for a moment. Two boys who looked so much alike, also sharing a birthday? For a moment, Ben felt strangely unsettled, then finally found his voice.
“Well, happy birthday to you, too, young man. I wish we had known that; we certainly can still sing…”
The boy shook his head impatiently. “That’s all right. But…do you think…can I make a wish too?”
Ben knelt down and looked into the boy’s eyes, and felt an eerie sense of unreality as he looked into his son’s eyes in another child’s face… “Of course you may,” he said, his voice quiet and kind. “Choose a pinecone, and make a wish.”
“If the flames change color, your wish will come true,” Joe whispered, and the boy darted a quick, hopeful glance at his young host. He stared into the basket of firestarts, finally selecting the largest pinecone. He clutched it tightly in both hands, eyes squeezed shut, and nobody could miss the look of absolute desperation on his face as his lips moved, silently wishing for some secret thing.
He opened his eyes and threw the pinecone into the fire as hard as he could.
The room was absolutely still, absolutely silent, as they all held their breaths and stared at the flames …
… then gasped in unison as the blaze exploded into a rainbow of sparks, reflecting an iridescent glow on their faces.
“Your wish will come true! Your wish will come true!” Joe shouted, dancing around his friend even as the multicolored embers continued to glow. “Wow, Pa, did you see that?”
“Yes, Joseph,” Ben replied, his voice shaking. “I saw it …”
Joe had swept his friend into an exuberant hug when the strange boy suddenly froze, head tilted, as though hearing something far away. Ben looked around, trying to shake off a sense of disorientation that had swept over him, trying to discern what had captured the boy’s attention. Then the boy abruptly pulled away from Joe and ran toward the door.
“I have to go,” he panted, out of breath as though he had been running for miles. “My mother is calling me…”
“I don’t – Is she outside?” Ben was confused. Something in the room seemed to have changed, but he didn’t know what it was.
“No – yes – I mean, please, Mr. Cartwright, she can’t find me here. Thanks for everything – the meal, and especially the wish. But I gotta go.”
The boy seemed almost in a panic now, staring at Ben with pleading eyes.
Ben moved quickly to the boy’s side, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Of course you may go if you like,” he said. “But you are always welcome here.”
The boy stared up at him, and it seemed that his eyes were losing focus. For moment, Ben wondered if the boy might faint – then realized it was he who seemed to be losing consciousness. But the boy’s voice was strong as he said, “I don’t think I’ll be back. But thank you for letting me be part of your family tonight. That’s how I knew what to wish for.”
The boy looked past Ben now and toward Joe, whose brothers stood protectively at his side, and Ben wondered at their shadowy silhouettes against the sparkling fire.
“Joe, time’s running out, and I gotta go. Thanks – thanks for everything.”
“What do you mean? Where are you going?”
The boy shook his head. “Don’t look for me; I won’t be there. But I’ll see you again someday.”
Confused, not knowing what else to say, Joe cried, “But I don’t even know your name!”
The boy had already opened the door and stepped outside as Joe spoke. The October wind, whispering through the Ponderosa pines, seemed to say, “Wish … wish ….” and once again, Ben had the feeling that the entire balance of the room had shifted.
The boy hesitated for just a moment, and then seemed to make up his mind. Just before he vanished into the darkness, his voice called back, “You can call me Michael … Michael Landon.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: As a young boy growing up in an unhappy home, Michael Landon often played by himself in the woods, imagining himself as part of a family who loved one another. I believe he found that family when he became Joe Cartwright.