Summary: Little Joe awaits his fate.
Word Count: 1,700
Joe Cartwright didn’t hear the door bang shut or the key turn in the lock; he was too far gone for that. He still lay on the floor where he had been dragged and unceremoniously dropped, kicking and screaming. The anger in him didn’t abate even as his assailant walked from the room and shut the door without a backward glance.
In a last fit of temper, Joe lashed out with his left foot and kicked out at the heavy wooden entrance to his prison, at the same time banging on the hard floor with his fists. It was a futile gesture, for the door remained as steadfast as before and all he got for his troubles was hurt in another part of his anatomy to add to the aches and pains he already had.
Joe’s breath was still coming in short gasps as the red mist began to clear and he struggled to draw air into his lungs. His first thoughts were ones of regret as he berated himself for allowing this to happen. He should of turned tail and ran while he had the chance, but stupidly he had hesitated, and in that moment, all was lost. His captor was a big man, but for all his bulk, he was quick and in one swift movement he had Joe in his grasp and no amount of struggling on Joe’s part could force his attacker to let go.
Time passed by and Joe lay in the same position not moving, simply looking at the ceiling and feeling sorry for himself. After a while his stomach began to rumble and he wondered fleetingly if he would be given anything to eat. Lunch was a long time past and he had no idea how far off supper was. Thoughts of supper caused unshed tears to spring into his eyes and he swallowed hard and bit on his bottom lip in an attempt to stifle the sob that threatened to escape. Pa, Hoss and Adam would soon be sitting down to eat and he wouldn’t be with them!
It had been a warm sunny day, and even now in late afternoon, the heat was almost unbearable. Although the shaded room was certainly cooler than it was outside, it was still hot and sticky and Joe found himself drifting off to sleep as the emotional and physical tribulations of the day began to take their toll.
As so often happened in sleep, Joe found himself dreaming of his mother. She had now been dead for such a long time that in the waking hours Joe had a hard time conjuring up her image, but in sleep that all changed.
Joe was running, he wasn’t sure where he was going, but he was being chased. He could feel the excitement building up in him as he tried so hard to get away, but his efforts were thwarted at the last minute when loving arms lifted him bodily from the ground and swung him high into the air. As Joe looked down into his mother’s beautiful face, his happiness was complete and he giggled and laughed as her fingers found his most ticklish spots and teased him unmercifully.
This was a familiar dream, and even in sleep, Joe smiled broadly as the waves of love flowed through him. His mother had understood him like no one else could, she was his soul mate in every way.
“Come, Joseph, you know it’s time for your nap,” Marie chided, trying hard to keep hold of the squirming toddler in her arms.
“Not tired,” Joe replied, jutting out his chin in the determined way that amused his mother and vexed his father. “Want to play again.”
Marie was used to Joe’s protestations; she faced the same scenario almost every day, but today she was willing to be swayed. The day was warm and sunny for the first time in weeks and it seemed such a shame to go back inside. Seeing his mother’s hesitation, Joe pressed forward with his case. “Wanna go to the lake, Mama.”
“Oh all right,” Marie gave in. “Let’s go to the lake; I suppose you can nap there just as well as anywhere else.”
Marie set Joe down from her arms, but she didn’t have time to dawdle, for the little bundle of energy took off running before his feet hit the ground. Lifting her skirts high, she took off in hot pursuit, for a three year old Joe could move quicker than a jackrabbit and it didn’t pay to give him a head start.
They were almost at the lake before Marie caught up with him and took him firmly by the hand. “Slow down, little one,” she cried breathlessly. “You must stay next to Mama at the lake; you could so easily fall in the water.”
Joe was nonchalant and shrugged his shoulders. “I’d just swim and swim like Adam, Mama. I wouldn’t drown.”
Marie held onto his hand tighter than before. Her baby son was so self- assured, so unafraid of life. She worried his over confidence would lead him into danger, but at the same time she loved the zest he had for all things new and she didn’t want to dampen his spirit.
As they neared the water, Little Joe squealed with excitement. “Can we throw stones Mama, can we?”
“Yes, mon petite,” Marie laughed. “We can throw stones, but don’t get too close to the edge.”
Joe scampered around picking up stones and tossing them into the water. “I can skim them the best, can’t I, Mama?” Joe boasted. “I can do it much better than Hoss.”
“You do very well,” Marie answered diplomatically as she watched another stone hit the water and sink. “You just need to practice a little more.”
When Joe began to tire, Marie tried hard to persuade him to rest but Joe was having none of it. Finally losing patience with him, his mother lifted him into her arms and began to walk back to the house. Joe shouted out his frustration at being prevented from doing what he wanted.
“Put me down,” he yelled over and over, squirming and fighting to be set free.
Marie may have looked in some ways fragile but she was a strong woman, and as she subdued the flaying arms and legs, she spoke softly to her small son, calming him with her words.
By the time they reached the yard, Little Joe’s eyes were closing and he drifted off to sleep with his mother’s tender loving voice echoing in his head.
“Joe……Joe!” a voice called from somewhere far away.
As Joe began to waken, a feeling of despair washed over him. “No, no,” he whimpered. “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me again.” But it was too late; his mother was gone and the dream was already fading from his memory. Within a few minutes he would find it difficult to recall what had taken place and his mother’s face would be difficult to bring to mind once more.
His limbs ached from lying on the floor and Joe stretched out his legs painfully at the same time rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The room was now almost dark and a cold chill ran down his spine. But the chill wasn’t caused by the temperature. There was the sound of footsteps approaching the door and Joe knew his assailant was about to return.
Quickly sitting up and scooting back across the floor, Joe pressed his back up and against the wall and waited, not knowing what would happen next.
The lock turned and the door swung open in one fluid movement. The man who stood in the doorway seemed enormous to Joe and he cowered back even further if that were possible.
“Well” the man asked, in a voice so deep that the whole room seemed to shake. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
Joe licked his lips and swallowed hard; his next words could decide his fate and he had to be very careful what he said.
“I-I’m really really s-s-sorry” he finally spluttered, the last word coming out in a sob.
The man walked forward and bent down on one knee, his face now almost level with Joe.
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” he said gently and opened his big strong arms.
The six year old reached up and wrapped his small arms round his Pa’s neck, and as he buried his face into Ben’s chest, Joe sobbed as if his heart would break.
Standing to his feet, Ben carried the small boy from the room, all the time patting his back and making ‘shushing’ sounds in his ear. It was always like this. Joe didn’t take easily to being the youngest and being prevented from doing things that his brothers did. But Ben had the boy’s safety to think of, and if that meant paddling his small behind on occasions and banishing him to his room, he would do it.
With a deep sigh, Ben Cartwright carried his small son down to supper; today wasn’t the first tantrum Joe had had and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last. It wasn’t easy being a father and it didn’t matter how many sons he had, it didn’t get any easier.
As Ben passed his desk his eyes fell on the picture of his third wife and he wondered, not for the first time, how she would have handled the situation. Would she have done things differently? Would Joe be a different child if she was there to take care of him? These were questions that could never be answered and Ben pushed the thoughts from his mind; he had to be father and mother to his children and do his best.
He may not always get it right, but hey, who ever said that bringing up children (especially ones like his youngest) would be easy.
Ben was suddenly distracted from his thoughts by a little voice in his ear.
“Papa. I know I can’t break the big horses like Adam, but can I just break the little ones?”