Summary: It’s Joe’s 18th birthday, and he receives an unexpected present.
Word Count: 3,015
“Please, Peter, oh please, just this once.”
Peter looked at the young woman in exasperation, “You know it’s not allowed.”
“But it’s his birthday and not just any birthday, he’s 18,” she pleaded. Then seeing the indecision on his face, she quickly added. “Grant me this one thing and I won’t ask you anything else ever again.”
“I don’t know,” Peter said shaking his head. “What would he say if he found out?”
She became all coy, “You don’t have to tell him everything, and anyway it’s only one day, just one day, that’s all I’m asking for.”
“Oh all right,” Peter relented. “But you had better be back here before night falls, or I won’t be held responsible.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the young woman cried, throwing her arms round the elder man’s neck and kissing him on the cheek.
“Be off with you,” he said grumpily, pretending not to like her attentions, but then he smiled as he watched her run off into the distance – so happy and full of life…
‘So full of life,’ he mused with a silent chuckle – what a strange expression.
Mornings were not Little Joe’s favorite time of the day. He heard movement on the landing and knew the rest of the family must be making their way down to breakfast. Just five more minutes, that’s all he wanted — five minutes and he would be fine. But five minutes he didn’t get.
The bedroom door burst open and Hoss lumbered in. Pulling the bedclothes from Joe’s curled up body he declared, “Come on, little brother, it’s time to rise and shine.”
Joe tried to retrieve his blankets but Hoss was holding on tight. “Aw come on, Hoss, it’s still dark outside.”
“It may be dark Joseph, but that doesn’t alter the fact it’s morning. And it may be your birthday, but there’s still work to be done.”
Birthday! Joe had forgotten it was his birthday. From today, he was a man. Maybe not in the eyes of the law, but his Pa always said ‘Wait until you’re 18!’
Well, today he was 18 and everything would change from this day forward. He would make his own decisions, stay out all night if he wanted, and even visit the saloon girls without having to sneak around. After all, what could his family say about it….he was now 18 – a man in every sense of the word.
Joe didn’t bound down to breakfast in his usual fashion; he dressed carefully and walked down the stairs, one foot at a time, much in the way his father, Adam and Hoss did. He wasn’t a kid anymore.
The new sedate Joe didn’t go unnoticed by his family and Ben cast a stern glance at his elder sons, warning them to smother their laughter. This was Joe’s day and he wasn’t about to let them spoil it.
“Morning, son,” Ben said cheerily as Joe pulled out his chair and sat down.
“Morning Pa, Adam, Hoss,” Joe replied, beaming a wide smile at his family. “Boy, am I hungry!”
“Well, eat heartily, Joe,” Ben encouraged. “A man needs a good breakfast inside of him before he starts the day.”
Joe and Ben locked eyes for a second and grinned. The façade was broken and Adam and Hoss were on their feet, slapping their brother on the back and wishing him Happy Birthday. Presents seemed to appear from nowhere and Joe looked on with glee as Joe the man was quickly replaced by Joe the boy as the wrapping paper came off and he declared ‘it was just what he wanted’ over and over again.
The last of the gifts unwrapped, Joe was surprised when Ben left the table and came back carrying a small package. “What is it, Pa?” he asked curiously.
“Open it and see,” Ben encouraged with a knowing smile on his face.
Joe carefully peeled back the paper and hesitated for a second before opening the small box. Inside was a pocket watch, similar to the one worn by Ben, only more ornate. It looked expensive, but not flashy, and Joe was dumbstruck. It wasn’t new, but none of the brothers could remember seeing it before.
“It’s beautiful, Pa,” Joe marveled as he turned it over in his hand to read the inscription on the back.
“To Francis, my one true love,” Joe read out aloud, before looking at his Pa in puzzlement. “Francis?” he repeated.
“Yes ‘Francis’,” Ben smiled. “This watch belonged to your grandfather – your mother’s father. It was given to him by your grandmother on their wedding day.”
A lump formed in Joe’s throat. “My grandfather,” he whispered, as tears sprang to his eyes and an awkward silence followed. The family was well aware of Joe’s sensitivity with anything to do with his mother, but Joe didn’t want to put a dampener on the day, and so with great effort, he brought his emotions under control and smiled. “Best present ever,” he declared, before hugging his father fiercely.
Hoss peeked over Joe’s shoulder and looked at the watch in admiration. “You know, Short Shanks, it’s just like you…too pretty for words.”
“Who’re you calling pretty?” Joe growled, trying to land a playful left hook on his brother’s chin, but only succeeding in reaching Hoss’ shoulder and bouncing back with the impact.
“Now, boys,” Ben admonished and they all laughed aloud as they sat down to eat.
Once the meal was finished, Ben proclaimed, “Now I know it’s only Friday and I’m not one to make allowances for birthdays and such, but on the other hand, it’s not every day my youngest becomes a man. So on this occasion, Joseph, I’ve decided to make an exception to my normal rules and give you the day off. I’m sure your brothers will be more than willing to take up the slack.”
Adam and Hoss let out a cry of mock protest, but Joe wasn’t about to let the moment pass.
“You know, Pa, I think that’s an excellent idea and I know just how to spend my time. I’ve been trying to catch a particularly ornery pike in the lake for the last month or so, but to no avail. That pike has been in the lake forever, getting bigger and bigger each year, well today, I think he’s met his match.”
“That sounds like a great idea, Little Joe; I’ll get Hop Sing to make you a picnic basket. There’s a bit of a chill in the air so just remember to wrap up warm; I wouldn’t want you to catch a cold.”
Joe rolled his eyes to the ceiling and was just about to remind his father that he wasn’t a child, when Ben cut him off in mid sentence.
“A father doesn’t stop worrying just because his sons have grown up – just ask your brothers! And another thing – be sure to be home, washed and changed, by 6pm, ready for your party. It wouldn’t do for the guest of honor to be late.”
“Sure, Pa,” Joe replied. “I’ll be all washed and ready like a good little boy.”
As Joe walked over to the credenza, a smile appeared on Ben’s lips. “Well see that you do, young man, I’ll be inspecting behind your ears just to make sure.”
With a resigned sigh, Joe walked outside, his brother’s laughter ringing in his ears. Some things were destined never to change!
Joe lay back on the embankment with his eyes closed, totally ignoring the dampness of the grass as it seeped through the blanket and into his jacket. He had tied his fishing line to his boot and was prepared to leap to attention at the first tug of the line.
For some strange reason, Joe began to feel he was not alone. Very guardedly, he opened his right eye and surveyed his surroundings, then in one fluid movement he sat up and pulled his gun from its holster. His mouth dropped open in surprise when he found a young woman preparing to seat herself beside him on the grass.
Looking round in dismay to see who else might be present, Joe finally turned back to her and said, “Where did you come from?” The girl just shrugged and Joe replaced his gun. “I didn’t hear you ride up.”
“That’s because you were sleeping,” she replied.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” Joe protested. “I was only resting my eyes.”
The woman didn’t seem to hear him; she just sat and gazed at his face as if she couldn’t get enough of him.
“Anyway, you never said where you came from,” Joe pressed, beginning to feel uncomfortable under her intensive stare.
“Didn’t I?” she shrugged evasively. “Well, I might ask you the same question. Where do you come from?”
“I live here,” Joe replied indignantly. “This is the Ponderosa, my family owns this land.”
“Then you must be Little Joe Cartwright,” the woman confirmed. But she said ‘Little Joe’ in a caressing way that made Joe’s skin tingle.
“Yes I am,” Joe said huskily, now looking at the young woman before him more closely for the first time. She really was beautiful, probably the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. There was something about her that made Joe feel drawn towards her and he found himself warming to her instinctively. He had only been in her presence for a few minutes, but already he felt as if he had known her his whole life.
“Aren’t you cold?” Joe asked, suddenly noting her thin cotton dress and bare arms.
“No. Are you?” the woman chuckled, the sound of her laughter echoing round the lake.
Joe thought for a second and then realized no, he wasn’t cold; in fact, he was quite warm and would need to remove his jacket. How could that be? It was the end of October and only that morning there had been a slight frost on the land. The blanket he was sitting on no longer felt damp and he could feel the warmth of the sun on his face.
The close proximity of the girl, the heat of the sun and an eighteen-year-old’s hormones all came into play and Joe found himself leaning towards her and whispering seductively, “Anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?”
Joe’s eyes closed and he licked his lips in anticipation, but the reaction he got wasn’t the one he was hoping for. The hand that slapped his face was anything but soft and the angry words that followed took him completely by surprise.
“You young scoundrel,” she shrieked. “Why, I’m old enough to be your…to be your…”
Joe jumped back in surprise. “Old enough to be my what?” he asked in a voice tinged with indignation and just a little sarcasm.
“Never you mind,” the woman scolded, spluttering as if she had been caught out, and then turning her back on him.
“I’m sorry” Joe apologized, now thoroughly ashamed of his behavior.
The woman turned back to him and smiled, “No harm done,” she conceded. “Now let’s see if we can catch some fish.”
The next few hours were filled with laughter and joy and Joe could not remember when he had ever had such a good time with such a perfect companion, wishing the day would never end.
Joe had lots of questions to ask, but somehow they didn’t seem important any more. All he wanted now was to enjoy her company and make the most of the rest of their day. If a question did pop into his mind, it seemed to pop out again just as quickly, before he even had time to ask it.
At one point, he dug into his pocket and pulled out his new pocket watch, proudly passing it over. He could see tears suddenly form in the young woman’s eyes as she fingered the ornate case and read the inscription. And as she handed it back into Joe’s palm, she’d tenderly squeezed his fingers over it. “Keep it safe, Little Joe. Keep it safe for all time.”
Joe never did catch the pike he had been seeking, but secretly he hoped he never would. That fish had managed to elude him for many years and he would be sorry if the game ever ended. But he did manage to catch plenty of other fish, enough to feed the family for dinner the next day and even satisfy brother Hoss’ appetite.
It was late afternoon and the sun was still shining; this really was a strange day. Joe lay once more on the blanket and looked at the sky. The woman came and lay next to him.
“Do you ever look at the stars?” Joe asked wistfully.
“All the time,” she replied. “All the time.”
Joe smiled. “I like looking at the stars on a clear night, because that’s when I’m able to pick out the brightest star of all and that really makes me happy.”
The woman rolled onto her side so she could look down at the young man’s innocent face. She knew the answer to her question, but she had to ask it anyway.”
“Why does it make you happy, Little Joe?”
“Because it makes me think of my Mama. She died when I was little and Pa used to take me outside and point to the brightest star in the sky and tell me that it was my Mama looking down on me.”
The woman’s eyes clouded and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Joe was immediately contrite. “Hey, I’m sorry, truly I am. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just a silly kid’s story and it all happened such a long time ago.”
Wiping away her tears, the woman was quick to reassure. “Don’t worry you haven’t upset me, you haven’t upset me at all. It’s just such a beautiful story; you must have loved her very much.”
Joe’s chin trembled and dropped to his chest. “Yes I did. She was the most wonderful woman in the world, and the truth is, I still miss her.”
“Don’t mourn her,” the woman said softly. “You know you never really lose someone. Every time you think of them, you keep alive their memory and then they will always be with you.”
Joe tried to change the mood. “That’s what my Pa says.”
“He’s a wise man.”
Joe nodded his head in agreement. “And at the end of the day, I still have my Pa and my brothers – Adam and Hoss. They’re the best family a guy could have.”
“Yes they are,” the woman agreed, and once again the question as to how she knew sprang to Joe’s lips only to be forgotten before he had time to ask.
Joe lay down again and looked once more at the sky. His eyes began to feel very heavy, and within minutes, he drifted off into a peaceful sleep, dreaming of his mother. When he awoke, it was almost dark and he was alone once more. Jumping quickly to his feet, he looked around for his companion, but she was gone. He went to call her name, but realized he didn’t even know what it was. In fact, he knew nothing about her, nothing at all – only that she had made him feel happy and content and had given him the best birthday he could ever remember.
When Joe arrived home that evening, the house was a hive of activity. Happy Birthday banners hung from the veranda and his Pa, brothers and Hop Sing were dressed and rushing round making final preparations.
“Where on earth have you been?” Ben admonished, but then held his hand in the air preventing Joe from giving an explanation. “Never mind. And why aren’t you wearing your jacket, boy; you’ll catch a cold in this frost. Haven’t you got the sense you were born with?”
Joe didn’t move and Ben lost patience. “Guests will be arriving in thirty minutes and I want you washed, dressed and in here to greet them if you know what’s good for you.”
Joe was only just quick enough to escape his father’s heavy hand as he headed for the wash house. Man or not, some things never change.
Twenty minutes later as Joe stood combing his still wet hair in front of the mirror, he smiled at his own handsome reflection, and just for a second he thought he saw the beautiful stranger smiling back at him. Their faces almost became one. This was so odd. Joe scratched his head and tried to make sense of it all. Was she real or had it all been a dream?
“You only just made it; two more minutes and I would have had to shut the gates.”
The young woman sprinted inside like a young colt, laughing as she went.
“Did you have a good day?” Peter asked unnecessarily as he looked at her radiant face.
“Oh the best,” she replied, her excitement bubbling over so she couldn’t get her words out fast enough. “He’s grown up so well. He’s going to be fine, I just know he is.”
“Just as long as he takes after his father,” Peter teased.
The woman pretended to be offended, but then she remembered someone else and she looked around furtively.
“He didn’t notice I was gone did he? I’m not in any trouble?”
“Oh, He has too many things to worry about than one young woman who can’t be trusted not to break the rules,” Peter chided. “Now be off with you, Marie Cartwright, before I take a switch to your hide.”
As she skipped off laughing, Peter sighed and shook his head. She really was a handful, but then again, that was what they all loved about her.
St Peter turned and winked at the Lord and the Lord winked back.
“Just you make sure that boy of hers lives to a ripe old age,” Peter instructed. “I don’t think Heaven’s ready to cope with two of them.”