Summary: Little Joe overhears disturbing news.
Word Count: 1025
He had not set out to eavesdrop. Little Joe Cartwright was hiding in the back corner of the loft for an entirely different reason when his older brothers came into the barn deep in conversation. He could not reveal that he was in the barn without endangering his backside, so he stayed still and listened.
“Do you think he could know?” Hoss’ tone was quite serious.
“Hoss, how could he know?” Adam insisted.
“Well, not know maybe, but do ya think he, well, maybe he feels something.”
“I suppose it’s possible that he senses that he is dying,” Adam relented.
The next bit of conversation was lost in the noise from the horses, even though Joe now had his ear to a crack in the loft floor.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be real hard on Pa.” There was a tremble in Hoss’ voice.
“It will be hard on all of us, Hoss, but sometimes you just have to face facts. Death is part of life.”
“There’s nothing we can do?” A desperate pleading tone had entered Hoss Cartwright’s voice.
“Nothing. I even asked Hop Sing if he might know some Chinese cure we could try. There’s nothing we can do but make his last few days as pleasant as possible.” Adam Cartwright stated with certainty as the two brothers exited the barn.
Who? The question echoed in Little Joe’s mind. Who was dying? Well, thank God it wasn’t his Pa or one of his brothers or even Hop Sing, but who was it? Suddenly, Joe clutched his stomach. The thought that had taken root in his mind brought a physical pain. No! It could not be. He was only thirteen. He could not be dying! Pa had taken him to see the doctor a couple of weeks ago, but Pa was always worrying about his not eating. He had lost some weight, and Pa had wanted to be sure nothing was wrong. The doctor had said nothing was wrong. Of course, he had talked to Pa alone for a few minutes. They would have told him if he was dying, wouldn’t they? Would Pa think he was too young to know the truth? Yes! Pa always thought he was too young to handle things. Lord in heaven help him. He was going to die!
“Joe. Joseph. Joseph!” Little Joe jerked in his chair and looked toward his father.
“Yes, Pa?” Joe had been pushing his food around on his plate wondering if the slight nausea he felt when he looked at food was caused by whatever was killing him.
“You’re not eating, son. Is something wrong?” Was there more concern than usual in his father’s voice?
“Just not hungry, Pa. I guess I’m kinda tired.” Joe’s voice sounded weak.
“Are you feeling sick, Little Buddy?” When was his eldest brother’s voice so gentle?
“Maybe a little.” Joe saw Hoss give his pa a sad look and then quickly look down.
“Well, if you’re not feeling up to par, it might be best for you to stay home from school tomorrow. You can sleep in, and we’ll see how you feel tomorrow afternoon.”
Joe stared at his father as tears stung the back of his eyes. You had to be truly sick before Pa let you miss school. “May I be excused?” Joe whispered darting from the table when his father nodded his head.
Upstairs in his bedroom, Joe buried his face in his pillow and sobbed. He was dying, and his family was trying to make his last days as pleasant as possible.
“NO! NOOOO!” Joe’s screams tore the night and brought his father and brothers running to his room.
Taking his youngest in his arms, Ben rubbed Joe’s back and talked to him quietly. “It’s all right, Joe. It was just a dream. Pa’s here. It’s all right.”
“I don’t want to die,” Joe sobbed, “I don’t want to die!”
“You’re not going to die, son. Just calm down now.”
Joe choked back his sobs and drew back to look into his father’s face. “I know, Pa. I know I’m dying. You don’t have to hide it from me anymore.”
“Dying! Joe, you think you’re dying?” Adam squatted beside his father and brother, so he could look into Joe’s face.
“I know, Adam. I heard you and Hoss.”
“Heard me and Hoss?” Adam’s mind did a quick shuffle of his recent conversations with his middle brother and turned up the correct card. “Today in the barn?”
Adam felt like both laughing and cursing. Instead of doing either, Adam rolled his eyes, stood up, and stared at Joe with his hands on his hips. “And how exactly did you do that, Joseph, if you were cleaning the chicken coop as you’d been told?”
Since not even Adam would spank a dying child, Joe confessed. “I was hiding in the loft. I heard you and Hoss talking about me dying.”
Realizing what had happened, Hoss shook his head and declared, “Not you, Joe. We weren’t talking about you.”
“Don’t lie to me, Hoss. Not now.”
Hoss took his brother’s chin in his hand and forced Joe’s eyes to meet his. “Ya know I don’t lie to ya, Short Shanks. Ya ain’t dying. Adam and me was talking about old Sam.”
“I’m not dying? I’m not dying!” Joe turned and looked to his pa for final confirmation.
“No, Joe, you are not dying,” Ben Cartwright spoke in his most confident and reassuring tone, and felt his son relax in his arms.
Adam’s voice grew cold as he observed, “And you would not have had to worry about it if you had been obedient instead of an eavesdropping little…”
“Adam! Your brother and I need to have a little talk. You and Hoss go back to bed.”
“A talk, Pa?”
“A very necessary talk!”
Little Joe buried his face in his pillow once again and reached back to rub his backside. Well, at least his pa had proved to him that he wasn’t a dying child.