Summary: Little Joe and the aftermath of Molly’s death.
Word Count: 2,805
Joe stood very still looking into the swirling water below him. How could his perfect day have turned out so wrong? That morning he had been happy; in fact, he didn’t think he could have felt much happier. Molly was the love of his life. They had only been together for a few short weeks, but in that time she had transformed his very existence. So why did it have to happen? Life was so unfair. That very morning, without warning, without rhyme or reason, Molly had died in his arms.
Birds sang in a clear blue sky, rabbits chased each other across the plain and the wind blew gently making the leaves rustle in the trees above him. The water in the lake continued to flow, carrying on as if nothing had changed. Joe resented all these things; they did not recognize his hurt and he cried out his pain to an unhearing world again and again. As the sobs wracked his body he sank to the earth and closed his eyes, he couldn’t bear to look at a world that continued to go on as if nothing had happened.
It was a long time later before Joe’s tears finally stopped and he lay on the hard ground shivering, even though the sun was shining and the temperature was still warm. He didn’t want to go home, he couldn’t face his family. What must they be thinking? Molly died so suddenly; there was no one with her but him. Would they think he had done something? Just the thought of that brought fresh tears to his eyes. Not for anything could he have hurt her; surely no one would think that of him. But Joe was confused, his world had been turned upside down, never to be the same again and he began to wonder if somehow it had been his fault. Was there something he could have done to prevent it? His thoughts were in turmoil and he buried his face in his hands once more.
Ben paced the floor in the great room retracing his steps backwards and forwards, again and again. The door opened and he glanced anxiously in its direction. Adam entered and with a heavy sigh he crossed the short space to stand in front of his father.
“There’s no sign of him, Pa. I looked in all the usual places but he’s disappeared.”
“Did you go to the lake?” Ben asked pointlessly, he was sure that would be the first place Adam would look.
“Yeah, Pa; there’s no trace of him ever being there.”
Ben rubbed his temples and tried to collect his thoughts. He needed to find his youngest son and quickly, if only for his own peace of mind.
“Look Pa, I’ll just grab a bite to eat and go out again. I agreed to meet with Hoss back here at lunchtime, so he should be here soon and you never know he may have Little Joe with him.”
Ben nodded his head, but he didn’t hold out much hope. Joe had always found a way to avoid his family when he was upset or in trouble and Ben was quite sure that if Joe didn’t want to be found he wouldn’t be.
Just at that moment there was the sound of a horse entering the yard and Ben and Adam quickly made their way outside. Hoss was in the process of dismounting from Chubb, a look of despair on his face.
Glancing at his father he shook his head. Signs of earlier tear tracks left dirty marks down his face and upon seeing them Ben felt it necessary to give his middle son a comforting hug. Hoss had been the first person to come across Joe that morning. As the image flashed through his mind once more, Hoss choked back a sob; the look on his youngest brother’s face would haunt him for many nights to come. Molly had lain limply in Joe’s arms and he had clung to her in desperation. Hoss had almost had to pry Joe’s fingers away from her lifeless body and before he had time to collect his thoughts, Joe had fled the scene in tears and Hoss had no time to stop him.
Adam was the first to speak. “Where have you looked, Hoss? Before we know it, the day will be gone; we really need to organize ourselves as soon as we can. Let’s grab some lunch and decide what we are going to do next.”
Hoss followed his father and Adam into the house. His appetite was gone but he knew that he would not function properly on an empty stomach and he really needed to eat.
Lunch was a somber affair. Worry was etched on each of their faces and they were eager to resume their search. Ben was all set to join them but Adam felt it best if his Pa waited at the house; after all, if Joe returned home, the others could end up searching all night if there was no one there to alert them.
Less than thirty minutes later, as Ben watched his two elder sons ride away, he reflected on the harsh treatment fate had dealt each of his children. They had all had to face death so early in life; none of their childhoods had been carefree. Adam had not known his own mother but he had loved Hoss’ mother, Inger, very dearly. At the tender age of seven, Adam had witnessed his stepmother’s pointless killing from an Indian arrow and from that moment on, Ben had noticed a reluctance on his eldest’s son’s part to let anyone else into his heart. Marie had come into their lives when Adam was eleven and it had been almost a year before he had let down his guard and allowed her to get under his skin. Unfortunately that too had ended in tragedy and Adam had buried his own feelings of grief in order to comfort his father and look after his brothers. Ben felt a deep sense of shame when he thought of the burden he had placed on those young shoulders.
As for Hoss, Marie had been the only mother he had known and the shy, awkward child had blossomed and grown confident under her guidance. He had just turned eleven when Marie had fallen from her horse and broken her neck and from that day forward, Ben had witnessed the shy and awkward traits return to his middle son.
Little Joe in some ways had been the luckiest of his sons but in many ways not. He had known the love and devotion of his own mother from the day he was born only to have it snatched away before his fifth birthday. He was the only one of Ben’s sons to have memories of his mother and from that Ben knew he gained comfort, but the death of Marie had undoubtedly scarred his youngest son forever, leaving him needy and craving for affection.
Ben turned slowly and walked back into the house. He wished he could have protected all of his sons from the harshness of life, at least until they were grown, but fate had played her hand and he had to live with in the same way as everyone else.
Adam was beginning to lose all hope of ever finding his youngest brother. He had looked every place he could think of and then some. Turning Sport in the direction of home, he trotted slowly towards the ranch deep in thought.
He didn’t know what made him think of it, but something must have brought back the memory. As children, he and Hoss had played at a hideaway at the far side of the lake and on occasions that had taken Joe along with them. Could it be that Joe had continued to visit the place in the intervening years? Spurring his horse into a steady gait, Adam headed back the way he had come.
Dusk was descending when Adam finally dismounted from Sport and continued on foot towards his destination. Pushing his way through the undergrowth, he heard Joe before he actually saw him. Stopping dead in his tracks, Adam listened to the muffled sound of his brother crying. Time stood still for a few minutes as Adam thought how best to proceed. Maybe it was a quirk of his own personality, for although he could deal with Joe’s temper tantrums, his sulkiness, stubbornness and mischievous nature; he found himself completely at a loss when faced with Joe’s tears. Taking a deep breath, Adam wished selfishly that it had been Hoss or his Pa that had found Joe. They would have done the right thing instinctively; hugging Joe to them and giving him the comfort he so desperately needed.
Joe had always been a tactile individual; from the day he was born he had needed touch in order to survive like other people needed water. When Joe was a baby, Adam had found it easy to pick him up and cuddle him, rubbing his back and stroking the downy soft skin. In the early years Adam’s relationship with Joe had strengthened and when Marie had died and Ben was no longer able to cope, it had been Adam that Joe had clung to and cried for at night.
All that had changed when Adam had left home to go to college. By the time he returned three years later, Joe was no longer the cherubic child he had left. In its place was a bundle of mischievous energy, full of attitude and defiance. The closeness they once had was gone and Adam had struggled to build a new relationship with his youngest brother.
Taking a deep breath, Adam walked forward into the open space, making enough noise so that Joe would be aware of his approach. Joe stopped crying immediately and wiped his eyes and nose across his sleeve. He didn’t look at his brother, but continued to look down into the water. Adam sat down a short distance from him and said the first thing that came into his mind. “So you still come here. I wouldn’t have thought you remembered it.”
Not trusting himself to reply, Joe nodded his head in acknowledgement of the statement.
“I’m really sorry about what happened, Joe,” Adam continued.
The statement caused Joe to swallow hard and his body trembled. He raised his sad eyes to glance at his brother and the look pierced Adam’s heart. For just an instant, Adam was reminded of the broken-hearted toddler who couldn’t understand why his Mama was never to come home again. Instinctively Adam reached forward, and before Joe had time to resist, he was pulled into his brother’s strong embrace.
The uncharacteristic gesture took them both by surprise and Joe stiffened involuntarily at the turn of events. Although Joe was not used to displays of affection from his hardheaded eldest brother, he found himself relaxing into the strong arms, and the ice chip that he had been carrying inside since the day Adam climbed on the stagecoach and headed for Boston all those years ago finally began to melt.
Adam stroked his brother’s back in gentle circles and marveled at how easily the movement came back to him. After what seemed an eternity, Joe finally extricated himself from his brother’s arms, and looking up into Adam’s familiar face, he gave a watery smile of thanks. Adam felt strangely elated by what had taken place, but he also felt guilty at the same time. The renewed closeness between him and Joe had been obtained only because of the death of Molly and that was not how he would have wished it. Returning Joe’s smile, Adam finally said, “Let’s go home, Joe; Pa’s real worried about you.”
Joe pulled back for a moment, uncertain what to do, but then the events of the day took their toll and he allowed Adam to help him to his feet and over to his horse.
Darkness had descended when they finally made their way into the yard of the Ponderosa. The door to the ranch house was flung open and Ben hurried outside sending a stream of light into the shadows of the night.
The brothers’ had ridden home in almost silence, but as soon as Joe was confronted by his father, the tears started again and he slid from his horse and into Ben’s expectant arms.
“Molly’s dead, Pa,” Joe sobbed.
“I know, son, I know,” Ben replied, gathering his son to him.
Hoss appeared on the scene and his face showed the relief he felt at seeing his youngest brother safe and well.
Leading Joe into the house, Ben took him straight upstairs. The day had physically and emotionally taken its toll on him and Joe was hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Ben helped him undress and put on his nightshirt as he had done so many times when Joe was a small child, and in less than twenty minutes, Joe was fast asleep in his own bed.
Walking slowly back down to the great room, Ben was met by two pairs of expectant eyes.
“Well,” said Hoss, “how is he?”
“Oh he’ll be fine,” stated Ben, so relieved to have his youngest home and safe. “He just needs a bit of time, but he’s young; he’ll bounce back, just wait and see.”
Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. They hoped their Pa was right, but they both knew how sensitive their youngest brother could be.
The following morning, the older members of the family had already eaten and were just enjoying a second cup of coffee when Joe made his way down the stairs. Ben got up and ushered his son to the breakfast table. “Come, Little Joe, you need to try and eat something; you didn’t have a bite yesterday.”
Joe didn’t say a word, but allowed his father to sit him down and fill his plate with bacon and pancakes. Picking up his fork, he made a halfhearted attempt to eat, but he somehow couldn’t get the food to swallow.
After a few minutes, he gave up and put down his fork. He looked at his father and said, “Why did she have to die, Pa? Did I do something wrong?” Pools of unshed tears threatened to break free.
Ben was quick to refute Joe’s statement. “No, of course not, Little Joe; you did nothing wrong. Molly was obviously sick; we just didn’t know it. Sometimes things happen like that and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“I loved her, Pa.”
“I know you did, son,” Ben stated simply.
Joe swallowed hard and took a few more minutes to bring his feelings under control and then said the other thing that was on his mind. “Pa, you know Mrs. Simpson still has three puppies left.”
“Oh she does, does she?” Ben acknowledged, knowing full well where the conversation was going.
“Well, I was wondering…could I get another one?” Joe asked, biting on his bottom lip as he expectantly waited for his Pa’s reply.
Ben’s face softened immediately and he smiled. Oh the resilience of youth.
“I’m sure that could be arranged, Joe. Tell you what, son; we’ll go straight after breakfast.
With a lighter heart Joe spooned a couple of mouthfuls of breakfast into his mouth and turned his thoughts to the new puppy.
Ben allowed his gaze to meet that of his eldest son and a knowing smile passed between them. At ten years old, Joe was doing what most ten year olds do – living for today. Tomorrow hadn’t come and yesterday was gone, but today had all the expectancy that life had to give and Ben was relieved that his young son had something to look forward to. Oh he was sure there would still be more tears over Molly, that was natural, but at least the first step to recovery had been taken.
Joe was still a bit tearful when he looked at his Pa and said in all seriousness, “I think I’ll get a boy this time, Pa; boys seem to live longer than girls.”
Ben’s heart missed a beat. Was this what his young son really believed? Already the events in his short life were causing him to view the world with a cynicism that Ben regretted. But how could Ben refute Joe’s statement; the female gender had not faired well in the Cartwright household and he couldn’t blame Joe for hedging his bets.
Tousling the boy’s hair, Ben smiled a sad smile and said, “If that’s what you want, Joe, a boy it will be.”