A Secret Worth Keeping (by Doreen)

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,500


It was the last Friday in April. Torrential rain had been pouring down at regular intervals all morning, but by early afternoon the heavy showers drifted away to leave a grey-clouded but dry Nevada sky.

After obtaining help and support from his stepmother to convince his father he was now old enough, sixteen-year-old Adam Cartwright had left at midday to join a seasoned crew of ranch hands who were driving a large herd of prime beef cattle to the vast luscious Ponderosa meadows situated high in the upper reaches of the snow-capped mountains that dominated the landscape.

Once his eldest son had departed for his week long trail, Ben was left alone in the barn to keep a watchful eye on Hoss’ favorite old mare who was about to foal. The ten-year-old had been reluctant and unwilling to leave her until she’d produced her offspring, so for Hoss’ peace of mind and to persuade him to go to school without further protestation Ben had promised he’d keep a lonely vigil by her side until he returned home from his much hated lessons.

In the house, Marie was taking care of four-year-old Little Joe, who’d been unwell with a high fever for over a week. Fractious most of the time and with no appetite, he’d been demanding of his mother’s attention day and night. But as his temperature noticeably lowered and he was persuaded to finish up a small bowl of Hop Sing’s delicious chicken broth, the visibly improved little boy then fell asleep contentedly for the first time in days.

Although tired herself, Marie decided to take full advantage of her child sleeping soundly, hurriedly changing into her riding habit, then taking out her much loved thoroughbred bay stallion for some well deserved exercise while there was still a lull in the weather and a let-up from her son’s constant demands.

Marie was an accomplished rider — fearless, competent and more skillful than most men, enjoying nothing better than racing across the countryside, then riding back to the house at a full gallop before expertly easing up her horse to a standstill in front of the hitching rail with practiced ease.

It was something she’d done countless number of times, but on that day when Marie galloped back into the yard, for some reason her powerfully muscled horse, who was usually sure-footed and well balanced, slipped suddenly, without warning, losing its balance in the process, and after pitching its rider headlong onto the ground, toppled over onto the ill-fated Marie, killing her instantly.


Fourteen years later….

Autumn had arrived once again, but even though there had been a few mornings of frost and signs of winter showed clearly in the high alpine meadows of the Sierra Nevada, the weather was strangely mild for the time of year on the Ponderosa, the Indian summer days mainly sunny and warm and the evenings lacking their usual damp autumnal coolness.

The grandfather clock inside the house chimed once to signify the first hour of a new day, and Ben Cartwright made the most of the pleasant conditions outdoors as he unbuttoned his jacket for comforts sake and thankfully eased his tired body down onto the old rocking chair that stood invitingly on the edge of the porch.

The night was quiet and a single lamp flickered above his head as Ben savored the ever present fragrance of sweet-scented pine; his thoughts centered on his beloved youngest son who had just celebrated his birthday. Joseph Francis Cartwright was now eighteen years old.

A smile slowly lit his face as Ben blew out a deep breath of incredulity and ran his fingers absently through his hair. How was it possible? Where had the years gone?

He stared up into a clear, cloudless sky filled with a myriad of stars and where a silvery full moon shone down over the peaceful landscape. What a difference to that night of eighteen years ago, Ben remembering clearly as if it were yesterday how a raging and spectacular thunderstorm had struck the Ponderosa without warning just as Marie was giving birth to their child.

Joe had been born an hour before midnight, three weeks earlier than expected and smaller than was deemed healthy. However, even though undersized, his lungs were more than adequately developed, and so for the next few hours, his newly born wailing continued to echo at regular intervals throughout the house, at times ear splitting, piercing and almost as deafening as the claps of thunder outside.

Come the dawn, a six year old Hoss had been introduced to his baby brother then stared with wide-eyed fascination towards the red-faced crying infant lying in its mother’s arms who showed no desire to quiet down or sleep for any length of time. “He may be a tiny thing but it looks like our little Joe is aiming to be the center of attention around here from now on,” he’d commented with a childlike logic way beyond his years, much to the amusement of his father, step-mother and elder brother.

And so from that day on, the nickname stuck for the newest member of the Cartwright family…Little Joe had well and truly arrived!

Ben smiled fondly at the memory as he pulled out his pipe and fished for a small pouch from within his inside pocket. Taking a small amount of tobacco into the bowl, he tamped it down then struck a match and lit it. Slowly drawing the smoke into his mouth, he exhaled as he sank back into his seat and gave a heartfelt weary sigh.

It had been a long hectic day…and an even longer and exhausting evening; the ranch house having been filled for hours with music, dancing and the laughter of many friends as they’d celebrated the birthday of the youngest Cartwright in style. The party had been an unparalleled success and enjoyed without question by everyone who’d attended. But all good things must eventually come to an end, and so after father and sons had waved goodbye to the last of the many guests as they’d trundled slowly out of sight on their way home, Ben was left to draw on his pipe and finally relax.

He listened to the muted sound of his boys in conversation within the house, the three of them bantering light-heartedly and exchanging teasing remarks back and forth while clearing away the dirty dishes and glasses into the kitchen.

Boys? Ben silently chided himself with a smile at his incorrect use of the word. Hardly boys any more, he mused with a rush of pride.

Adam at nearly thirty had been without doubt his father’s mainstay on the ranch over the years. Steadfast and intelligent, the successful growth of the Ponderosa was due in no small part to his ideas, excellent organizational skills and forward planning.

Hoss, physically big and diligent; he was as honest as the day was long. Smarter than he ever let on, he had a heart of gold and a way of getting the best out of any man who worked for the Cartwrights with his genial and generous nature. But heaven help anyone who tried to harm his family in any way…his protectiveness towards those he loved was without equal.

And then there was the youngest, Joseph – charismatic, mischievous and still trying to find a niche on the ranch that he could make his own. Totally unpredictable, he’d been an enigma to his family at times, showing a feisty and rebellious side as he grew up that those close to him could barely comprehend or understand. It was a blessing Adam and Hoss hadn’t been as petulant and volatile, Ben mused gratefully, accepting his youngest son could well have been a contributing factor to his graying hair. But still he couldn’t help but smile with contentment. For all Joe’s faults, Ben wouldn’t have him any other way.

Taking a moment, the grateful father closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Almighty. How lucky and fortunate he was, how truly blessed to have such wonderful sons, then, without warning, a stray tear of sentimentality unexpectedly escaped and ran down his cheek. “Ah…stop it you, old fool,” Ben silently mouthed as he brushed it away and the corners of his mouth curved into a self-mocking smile.

Suddenly the front door creaked open, and as Ben turned his head in its direction, Adam appeared, peering around into the darkness as if trying to locate his father. Catching the recognizable aroma of a familiar blend of tobacco in the air, he walked slowly over towards the shadowy figure sitting in the rocking chair, stumbling slightly in the process and just managing to keep his balance.

“Hey, Pa…I thought you were going to bed once everyone had left?” Adam questioned with a faint drunken slurring as his concerned gaze lingered on Ben’s face. “Are you feeling all right?”

Ben lowered his pipe and gave the tall figure of his eldest son a searching stare, concluding almost immediately Adam had consumed one drink too much that night, though making no mention of the fact. “Apart from a few aches in my knees and legs after all those jigs and reels I was persuaded to join in with, I’m fine,” he told his son with a smile. “I just decided as it’s such a lovely night, I’d enjoy a few extra minutes peace and quiet on the porch before I turned in.”

Accepting his explanation without further comment, Adam pulled over an old rickety chair, and with a sigh of weariness, slumped down by his father’s side. Stretching out his arms, he linked his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes, Ben and his eldest sitting together for the next few minutes in companionable silence. Then, just as Adam could feel himself nodding off, familiar footsteps could be heard and the large frame of his brother loomed in the doorway.

Standing with his back blocking the light from the living room, Hoss beamed a broad yet sober smile while holding a glass of steaming hot punch in his hand. Slowly ambling towards his father, he passed the drink over to him.

“I wondered if you might still be out here so I warmed up a night cap for you, just in case, Pa. It’s all that’s left of Doc Martin’s recipe he made up especially for tonight, but take your time sippin’ it, though,” Hoss cautioned wisely. “I’ve never tasted a more potent mixture in all the years Doc’s been makin’ it and could only manage one small measure myself all evening as it darn near blew a hole out the top of my head!”

After accepting the glass, Ben tentatively sipped then took a longer swallow, appreciating how straight away the liquid warmed a seductively comforting passage all the way down his throat. He gave a frown, slightly puzzled. His drink wasn’t that strong or intoxicating, he mused silently, wondering why Hoss had been so cautious with his warning. But within a few seconds, Ben suddenly found his head reacting as predicted from the legendary concoction as he brushed away beads of sweat that had quickly formed on his forehead.

“Oh my word! Thanks for the warning, Hoss!” Ben exclaimed gratefully towards his son as he straightaway placed the unfinished drink on the floor. “You weren’t wrong…Paul really did excel himself this time and that’s a fact.”

Then mindful of the many glassfuls of the Doc’s recipe he’d noticed Adam consuming during the evening, Ben inclined his head pointedly in his son’s direction and exchanged a knowing wink. “I have a feeling someone not a million miles away from here may regret in the morning how many glasses of punch they’d had tonight!”

Realizing straightaway he was the subject of conversation and knowing the precise cause of the thumping pain that pounded loudly and relentlessly in his head, Adam gave a deep sigh at his self-inflicted pitiful state. “You’re not wrong there, Pa,” he woefully conceded under his breath, his face twisted with mild disgust and his stomach giving a low groan of queasiness as he breathed in the all too familiar and unmistakable bouquet of warmed fruit, wine, spices and a secret ingredient only known to its creator.

Hoss’ eyes sardonically twinkled when he caught his elder brother’s muffled admission and he gave out a loud booming cackle, Adam noticeably flinching at the irritating snigger thrown his way. And for a moment, Ben’s mouth twitched into a grin then his gaze settled once more on his middle son. “I take it everything has been cleared away and the house is back to normal?”

With his blue eyes continuing to flash down at his brother with unsympathetic amusement, Hoss leaned up against the wall for support and nodded as he folded his arms. “Yes sir. All the furniture’s back where it came from and Joe is in the kitchen giving Hop Sing a hand with the last of the washing up. There wasn’t that much left to do, so we made our escape when they weren’t looking.”

“Not that I expect they’d notice we’d gone anyhow,” Adam murmured wryly towards his father, though his eyes remained firmly closed. “The pair of them started one of those incomprehensible conversations that no one else can understand so we just left them to it. After all this time we know when we’re not wanted!”

Ben shot his son a quick glance but there was no sense of sourness or resentment in Adam’s tone. They’d all recognized and accepted a long time ago Joe and Hop Sing shared a special and close relationship that often precluded the other members of the Cartwright family.

“Do you think everythin’ went well tonight, Pa?” Hoss then asked, the big man nervously uncrossing his arms and wiping his sweated palms onto the seat of his pants. “I didn’t forget nothin’ important, did I? Sure wanted Little Joe to have himself a perfect 18th birthday party he’ll never forget.”

Ben eyed him affectionately and gave a reassuring smile. “Considering we seemed to have entertained most of the citizens of Virginia City, hired just about every musician available in Nevada and had enough food to feed the 7th Cavalry, I think you covered just about everything, Hoss!” he responded, chuckling drolly. “And judging by the look on his face and the number of young ladies seeking his undivided attention, I’m sure Joe had a wonderful time. You did a fine job organizing such a grand birthday surprise for your brother and should be proud of yourself!”

Visibly relieved, Hoss nodded with pleasure and smiled happily at his father’s reassurance and congratulations. “Thanks, Pa. I must admit it took a load of plannin’ to keep it all a secret from him! Our Joseph always seems to have a nose for smellin’ out anything he ain’t supposed to know about!”

Then his eyes lit up as a thought came to him. “Hey Pa…did you see the look on Joe’s face at breakfast after we gave him his presents then you told him you were looking forward to an evening with just the four of us? And when Adam agreed and said an early night wouldn’t do any of us any harm for once, I was sure he was about to burst into tears! Thinking he was going to have a quiet end to his birthday sure made him look really fed-up and sorry for himself!”

Ben smiled, nodding in agreement. “I couldn’t bear to look your brother in the eye after that, Hoss. Thank heavens he left the table soon afterwards to get on with his chores, as it was all I could do to stop myself laughing and giving the game away! But it was certainly worth the effort to keep the party a secret from Joe just to see the reaction on his face when he walked through the door this evening and everyone started clapping and singing Happy Birthday. I’ve never seen him so lost for words or so taken aback! For a moment, I even thought he was going to faint dead away!”

There was a muffled yawn from Adam as he opened his eyes and rubbed his face with his hands in an attempt to keep himself awake. Then he focused his faintly drunken gaze on his brother.

“Do you really think Joe had no idea what was going on, Hoss?” he asked, raising his eyebrow skeptically, clearly unconvinced. “This is our little brother we’re talking about! The exact same little brother who claims there’s no one alive who can ever pull the wool over his eyes! If you ask me, when Joe got back from Carson City this evening, he looked a little too surprised and shocked to see so many people waiting for him, and it was almost as if he’d been rehearsing his grand entrance for days! For a moment, I was tempted to shout out encore for such a convincing performance!”

Hoss’ face sagged dramatically, clearly disheartened to think his attempt at secrecy had been unsuccessful. He frowned and pressed his brother further. “You really think Joe knew what I’d planned. Adam? I mean I tried real hard from the start to keep it all a secret from him and make sure he didn’t suspect nothin’ was goin’ on.”

Biting his lip hard. Adam immediately regretted admitting out loud his qualms of doubt and suspicion. For knowing how much time and effort Hoss had taken in planning and organizing the surprise party. the disappointment in the tone of his voice was impossible to miss.

Adam forced his gaze away from the blue doleful eyes that stared unhappily at him. “Never mind me, brother, and just forget everything I said,” he pleaded apologetically, giving out a low moan as he rubbed his hand gently back and forward over his still throbbing forehead. “I was just rambling, and at the moment, I’m not thinking clear. I’m sure Joe had no idea what was going on and you gave him a birthday party that will be the talk of Virginia City for years to come!”

With a sigh of relief, Hoss’ toothy grin transformed his face to one of happiness again and the sorrow in his eyes vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “You really think so, Adam? I ain’t never arranged nothin’ on my own that you’d call memorable before. You really think everythin’ went that well?”

Adam gave a weak yet reassuring nod. “It was a triumph of planning and I couldn’t have bettered it myself! I just hope Joe realizes all the trouble you went to on his behalf. It’s about time that young man grew up and appreciated what others do for him around here instead of being at loggerheads with us all when it suits him and spoiling for a fight at every opportunity like he has been in the past. And don’t try to deny it, Hoss…we all know I’m right!”

Ben raised a surprised eyebrow at Adam’s seemingly hostile tone that had appeared out of the blue but looked on in silence while Hoss’ face fell, thinking his elder brother was being a little too hard on their younger sibling. “Ah shucks, Adam…Joe ain’t such a bad kid anymore,” he replied quickly in his defense. “He’s calmed down a lot over the past couple of years and you’d be really pushed to find anyone workin’ as hard as he does around the ranch these days. Why he….”

Hoss paused as he saw the beginnings of a not-often-seen playful grin tugging at the corner of his brother’s mouth. “You’re joshin’ around with me, ain’t you?”

It was a statement more than a question and Adam’s faintly glazed brown eyes flashed teasingly as he nodded towards him. “I couldn’t stop myself, Hoss…you’re so gullible at times,” he chuckled with amusement. “But it’s good to see I can still rely on you to be the first to rush in when it comes to protecting our baby brother’s good name.”

Feigning irritation, Hoss playfully flapped a hand across Adam’s head as Ben laughed quietly to himself, a warm feeling of affection filling him as he looked between his two eldest sons as they both exchanged good humored brotherly smiles.

Then Adam leaned back in his chair. “To be honest, Hoss, I agree completely with what you said about Joe. In fact, just between us three, I was more than impressed by the way he wheedled out the best from that herd of yearlings Chief Winnemucca was trading during the summer without any help or guidance from anyone. But please don’t tell him I said so, as I wouldn’t want that head of his to get any bigger!”

Then Adam hesitated for a moment as if making up his mind about something and his voice became noticeably more earnest, even in his slightly inebriated condition. “The truth is, I’ve been wondering for a while whether to give him sole charge and responsibility for the Army contract Pa negotiated last month. It’s obvious he’s got a keener eye than any of us for good horseflesh and I’m sure he’d have no problem sorting out the breeding program, selecting and breaking in the horses needed then delivering them to Fort Davis every year. But as the contract is one of the most long-term and lucrative we’ve ever secured on the Ponderosa, I wanted to check with you both before I mentioned it to him and gave him the go ahead. What do you think?”

Hoss gave a gasp of delight at his suggestion and nodded his head emphatically. “That’s a great idea, Adam. Joe’s the perfect choice to take it on and I’m all for it. It’ll be just the chance our little brother has been itchin’ for to make his mark around here. What do you say, Pa?”

For a few moments, Ben sucked on his pipe in silent thoughtful contemplation, then he stared over at his eldest son, smiling softly and giving a nod, his decision quickly made. “It’s going to involve a lot of hard work and commitment for the next few years, but if you think Joe is up to taking charge, I’ll accept your judgment and am more than agreeable.”

Then with a sudden impulse, he reached over and placed a gentle hand on Adam’s knee. “I’ll leave it up to you to tell Joe the good news in the morning. I know there’ve been times when the pair of you hasn’t always seen eye to eye around here…but thank you, son. I really appreciate the faith and trust you’re placing in your brother and I’m sure he won’t disappointment us.”

“I know he won’t, Pa…I’ve never doubted Joe for an instant and I’d stake my life on him. After all, he’s not his father’s son for nothing.”

Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve or show much outward emotion, Adam’s comment took Ben by surprise and for a moment he wondered if it was the drink talking. But when his son flashed him a brief but meaningful smile, the sincerity of his statement was impossible to mistake.

As tears of emotion prickled his eyes, Ben watched as Adam then pushed back in his chair and slowly eased up. But as he straightened and the cooler air hit him without warning, Adam’s head began to spin, and swaying wildly, he kicked out his leg as he tried to steady himself by holding onto the porch upright, sending his chair flying noisily into the yard.

There was a momentary stunned silence then with a red-face Adam bent over and retrieved his seat, smiling ruefully as he placed it back down on the porch. “I do apologize, gentlemen,” he slightly slurred. “Maybe I’d better make for my bed before I do any further damage, and hopefully if I survive the night, I’ll see you both in the morning….though not too early if I can help it!”

Swaying wildly in an obvious effort to keep upright, Adam then gave a mock salute of farewell and made a slow albeit unsteady exit with his father and brother watching his slightly staggered departure, the usually composed and unflappable Adam tripping up in the doorway and the sound of laughter following him as he disappeared into the house.

“I ain’t ever seen Adam like that before, and that’s a fact. Sure glad I stayed clear of Doc’s punch if that’s what it does to ya!” Hoss concluded once he’d calmed down and wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes. But as he looked down, he could see his father’s smile had somewhat faded and his mind seemed to be far away. Intuitively he knew what he was thinking and he placed a large work-worn hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“Don’t you go worrying yourself about Little Joe, Pa,” he firmly instructed. “I know he didn’t do as well as we’d hoped at his schoolin’, what with the way he carried on and all, but he’s really a smart kid and he’ll do a good job with that there contract. Like Adam said, he won’t let us or the Ponderosa down…I can guarantee it.”

Ben eyed his son keenly with a loving stare, appreciating both his intuitive perceptiveness and confident optimism. “Ever the loyal and dependable brother, eh Hoss? What would those two do if you weren’t around?”

Flushing slightly, Hoss’ broad face broke into a fresh smile. “Oh I ain’t planning on going anywhere Pa, not while I can continue to be the rose between that pair of ornery thorns!”

As Ben gave out a chuckle, Hoss swallowed back a genuinely weary yawn. “All this organizing secret birthday parties sure wears a fella out. I think it’s time I followed elder brother’s lead and turned in as well now. Ain’t you ready for bed? It’s real late, you know.”

Though it had been on his mind to call it a night there and then, for some reason he couldn’t explain, Ben found himself shaking his head. “I think I’ll wait until the birthday boy has finished his clearing up, Hoss. But you go on ahead…you look dead-beat!”

Hoss could see his father was determined to sit out for a while longer and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment. “I don’t want you catchin’ your death of cold out here, Pa. You want me to get a blanket for you? How about a cup of coffee? I can soon rustle one up.”

Noting the look of concern that a pair of blue eyes threw over at him, Ben smiled gratefully towards his son. “Thanks for the offer but I’ll be fine, Hoss, don’t worry,” he responded warmly. “I can guarantee Paul’s hot punch will keep the chill off me for quite a while yet, so you go and get some well deserved shut-eye.”

Hoss nodded, knowing there was no point arguing. “Well…if you’re sure Pa. G’night.” He smiled, then turned and disappeared in the same direction his elder brother had gone, leaving Ben listening to his son’s unmistakable heavy footsteps on the oak planked floor as he made his way slowly up the stairs and into his room.

Alone once more, Ben leaned back in his chair, drawing on his pipe while waiting for his youngest son to emerge from the kitchen. But fatigue from the long chaotic day finally claimed another unsuspecting victim as Ben’s eyes slowly grew heavy then eventually closed. And with his pipe now cold and held limply in his hand, the minutes passed by as he slept fitfully in his chair and the distant clatter of pots being cleared away in the kitchen eventually ceased and all went quiet.


Careful to observe the correct Cantonese custom and show his unquestionable respect, Joe clasped his hands together in front of his chin and gave Hop Sing a grateful bow of thanks for all his hard work that had contributed to making his birthday party one that would never be forgotten.

Although small in stature, the Cartwright’s cook and housekeeper was for the most part a whirlwind of unparalleled energy — trusted, much loved and appreciated by them all. And it was also an undeniable fact Hop Sing was just as devoted to all the Cartwrights, especially the youngest. He’d played an integral and vital role in Joe’s upbringing since the death of Marie, and with his help Joe, had come through that terrible period of his life virtually unscathed, Hop Sing the constant calming yet firm influence in number three son’s occasionally turbulent world for as far back as could be remembered.

The relationship between the two of them went way beyond that of employee and employer’s son. It went far, far deeper. For Joe, Hop Sing was without question an honorary member of the family, and as the old Chinese man politely returned his bow and padded silently away towards his bedroom at the back of the house, Joe gazed after him with undeniable affection until he disappeared from view.

Suppressing a tired yawn, Joe then gave the kitchen a final cursory glance before blowing out the lamp and rolling down the sleeves of his shirt, heaving a sigh as he made his way into the living room. Much as he’d enjoyed every minute of the evening’s celebration, he was well and truly worn out, and so with all his chores finished, looked forward to heading straight up to bed. But as he made his way towards the stairs, he noticed the front door was still wide open and gave a slight frown of apprehension as he walked over.

Joe’s eyes narrowed as he stared warily into the darkness but when his keen ear caught the faint sound of a familiar snoring he took a few steps forward then stared down at the sleeping figure in front of him. He should have known his father would want to wait up until he’d finished his chores Joe mused with a soft smile, but then it quickly faded.

He’d never noticed it before but his Pa looked older somehow as Joe caught sight in the flickering lamplight the deep lines etched on his tired looking weathered face; lines formed by years of adversity, hard work, sorrow…and worry.

How many were down to him, Joe mused guiltily. For he’d openly acknowledged many times he’d never been the easiest of sons to raise since entering his teen years, his unusually quick temper and unruly nature having given the whole family – his father especially – quite a few headaches and sleepless nights. If only his mother could have still been around to help bring him up and so share the burden of parenthood and ease the pressure from his father’s broad shoulders.

At the thought of her, Joe’s hand went to his shirt pocket and he brought out a small yet ornately carved silver locket – a birthday gift from his father and presented to him at breakfast. It contained a photograph of Marie and had straightaway become Joe’s most treasured possession.

Gazing down at his mother’s smiling face, Joe allowed his mind to drift back to his childhood and could feel tears of sadness building up as he thought about her, the accident that had claimed her life, and how with the innocent yet morbid curiosity of a four-year-old he’d asked his father again and again in the months that followed to explain to him what had happened on the day she’d passed away. And every time Ben would stop what he was doing in an instant, and with no thought of his own pain at the heartbreaking memory, would gather his son into his strong arms and describe without hesitation details of the tragic event.

Talking so freely and without restraint had helped quicken the healing process for the grieving little boy who accepted all he was told as he continually found solace and comfort in the safety of his father’s tender embrace.

Little Joe’s childhood had been so uncomplicated then, so untroubled, so secure.

Joe sighed. Those carefree days seemed suddenly far distant as he brushed a hand across his moistened eyes and remembered the resentful and angst-ridden young man he grew into — a troubled young man who was tormented by irrational thoughts and feelings and who was unable to find the courage to confide in his father in the way he once could. And Joe knew for certain that was the main reason he’d turned out the way he did in those disturbed few years between childhood and adulthood — the only alternate course of action he could come up with to deal with his highly charged emotions to fight, disobey and rebel against those he loved the most.

Cringing at the recollection, Joe wondered if his father had ever blamed himself for the way his youngest son behaved, recalling the pained questioning look of bewilderment that had frequently flashed across his face when Joe’s adolescent temper would flare up in an instant, seemingly without provocation or reason.

However, thankfully, those argumentative and irresponsible days were now long gone, and to his credit, Joe had been working hard to cast off the mantle of immaturity from his shoulders, though he wondered if anyone had noticed. And while he continued to clasp the locket tight to his chest, Joe took a deep calming breath as a thought came to him.

Maybe the time was now right to finally come clean about what had been going on in his mixed-up head during those awkward years of growing up, admit what he’d intentionally kept hidden in the deep folds of his mind all this time. Maybe he should act like the man he kept telling everyone he now was and explain the reasons why….

Returning the locket to the safety of his pocket, Joe forced out a smile and gently squeezed then shook his sleeping father’s arm. “Pa? Isn’t it about time a man of your mature years was in bed?” he playfully joked while easing down onto the wooden step by his feet. “At your great age, you need as much beauty sleep as you can get!”

Shaken awake by the sound of his son’s voice and touch, Ben shivered from the early morning chill in the air. Scowling, he gave a grunt of feigned annoyance as he straightened in his chair and flapped his hand towards him. “Less of your cheek, young man! Just because you’ve celebrated your birthday, don’t think you’re not too old or too big to put over my knee even now!”

Ben passed over a teasing smile. Joe had inherited his mother’s delicate features and expressive hazel eyes, and as he grinned back, they flashed warmly towards his father in such a way Ben could almost imagine he was staring into the glowing face of Marie again. For a few moments, his gaze remained fixed on his son, unwilling and unable to break the precious link to the past.

How Ben’s heart still ached and yearned for Marie. For despite the passing of time, his love for his third wife was as strong as it had ever been. How he wished she could have stood by his side over the past years; been his constant companion as they grew old together. How he wished….

Inwardly sighing, Ben knew it was no good wishing for the impossible; Marie had been lost to him forever on that tragic cold grey afternoon, so purposely shaking free of such unhappy thoughts, his attention was soon drawn to the half-empty glass that still stood enticingly by his side.

Fleetingly, Ben was tempted to finish the celebrated brew, but as the vision of Adam staggering into the house appeared in his minds eye, he quickly thought better of it, knowing what the consequences could well be in the morning. “I hope you haven’t had too much of Paul’s recipe tonight, Joe?” he warned with a meaningful grin, looking down at the unfinished punch. “Unlike previous batches he’s brewed, it’s certainly got a kick like a herd of mules this year!”

Joe shook his head. “You’ll be surprised and impressed to know I’m as sober as a judge, Pa, even though you said you’d turn a blind eye if I had a little too much tonight! I was far too busy entertaining the prettiest girls in Nevada to think about drinking myself senseless with the Doc’s punch.”

Then Joe began to laugh. “Unlike Adam, though! He’d obviously had far more than he should have, and I’ve never seen him staggering about so much or being as clumsy or ham-fisted as he was when we were clearing up. I thought for sure he was going to drop every plate and glass he was given to dry! Poor Hop Sing was having a fit and couldn’t wait for him to get out of the kitchen quick enough!”

Ben smiled. He had a feeling his youngest son would take great pleasure in reminding his elder brother just what kind of state he’d been in for a long time yet. He reached in his pocket and took out another match then struck it on the sole of his boot and quickly lit up his pipe again. “I take it you enjoyed everything about your birthday celebration then, Joseph?”

“I sure did, Pa; it was the greatest party ever and I couldn’t have asked for better. Thanks.”

Ben gave a silent nod as he drew on his pipe. “I just hope you take time to tell Hoss how much you appreciate all he did to make it such a success. Your brother insisted on organizing everything and worked very hard to make sure it was a big surprise.”

Holding his knees tightly to his chest, Joe gave out a quiet chuckle under his breath. “I know Pa…poor old Hoss. If he only realized…”

Not sure if he’d heard right, Ben cocked his head on one side and gave him a close penetrating stare. “Joseph? What do you mean poor old Hoss?” he asked as he raised his eyebrow questioningly. “Your birthday party was a surprise, wasn’t it?”

Joe grinned impishly. “Between you and me, Pa…I’d known what Hoss was up to from the start. But I think you’ll agree I managed to give you all a convincing performance of complete ignorance on the subject over the past few days!”

Unprepared for his son’s startling declaration, Ben stared open mouthed for a moment unable to say a word. “Are…are you telling me you knew all along what was planned?” he finally stuttered. “And even though you knew you were having a birthday party, you let me and your brothers continue with our charade of pretending that you weren’t having one?”

Joe gave a slightly smug smile and nodded. “Sure did. Though I’ve had to bite my tongue more than once rather than let on I knew what was going on. I mean, I didn’t want to spoil all your fun and the three of you were doing such a convincing job towards the end, I almost wanted to believe you!”

“But…but how did you find out?” Ben queried in a puzzled tone.

“Oh come on, Pa…you know Hoss can’t hide any secrets or surprises from anyone, least of all me. I know him far too well and that face of his is an open book!”

“But surely just looking at your brother’s face wouldn’t have told you what he was planning?”

“No, but it sure helped to confirm it!” Joe exclaimed with a laugh. “After all, it doesn’t take a genius to work out something was being organized when I see Hop Sing baking one of his special celebration cakes before he shoos me out of the kitchen and tells me not to come back for at least two hours. Then I notice twice as much supplies as we need in a month delivered from the mercantile and hidden at the back of the house by a couple of the hands when Hoss thought I wasn’t around! I mean to say…how many more clues would I need?”

Ben shook his head in mock disbelief. “Joseph, you never fail to amaze me. Maybe you should think of taking up a job as a Pinkerton’s Detective? You’re a natural!”

“Gee Pa, thanks!” Joe replied, now grinning broadly and oblivious to his father’s veiled sarcasm. “But I must admit, even though I knew what was coming, when I opened the door I still couldn’t stop myself from staggering back in amazement when everyone suddenly started clapping and shouting happy birthday all at once. I had no idea you could get so many folk in our living room and I reckon if I hadn’t known what was going to greet me I’d have been left lying flat on my butt with the surprise of it!”

Unable to stop, Ben smiled back, then Joe continued, “Hoss is sure going to bust a gut once I come clean and tell him I knew exactly what was going to happen when I got back from Carson tonight.” He gave out one of his unmistakable high pitched giggles. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face. It will be priceless!”

Staring at his son for a few moments, Ben then gave an exaggerated unhappy sigh. “That’s a great shame, Joe. It was Hoss’ idea to make your party a complete surprise and he worked really hard to try and make sure it was. In fact, he spent hours working out all the details, going around and reminding everyone again and again who’d been invited it was to be kept a secret from you, making sure they knew to hide their buggy’s and wagons behind the house when they arrived. I reckon he’s going to be very disappointed and upset when he finds out he’s failed after all the effort he’s put into it.”

As he pretended to be interested in the smoke from the clay bowl as it slowly rose and disappeared above his head, Ben watched out the corner of his eye as Joe’s smile faded and he absently raked his hand through his hair before eyeing his father questioningly. “You really think Hoss will be that bothered?” Joe casually queried though his voice was now noticeably more somber.

Ben sank back into his chair with his pipe clenched tightly in his teeth. “You know how sensitive and thin-skinned your brother can be at times, Joseph,” he replied. “What do you think?”

Thoughtfully, Joe scanned his eyes towards the heavens for a minute, considering his words, and then he sighed heavily. “Well, er…I guess it won’t hurt for once if I let Hoss think I didn’t know what was going on,” he finally declared, looking sheepishly over at his father. “I mean, considering all he did to give me such a great time tonight, I owe it to that big lump of a brother to let him think he’s turned the tables and outwitted me for the first time ever.”

A faint smile tugged at Ben’s lips. “I think you’ve made a good and wise decision there, son. Looks like turning eighteen has sure brought your mature side to the fore and no mistake!”

“You reckon, Pa?” For a few moments, Joe grinned happily at the compliment, delighted to be given such praise. Then slowly his mood seemed to change as his expression grew serious and he pushed himself up and walked a couple of paces into the yard, standing motionless, his thumbs hooked in the back of his pants as he looked thoughtfully up at the star filled sky.

“Pa…I need to tell you something that’s been playing on my mind for quite a while. Something important that needs to be said…”

Ben immediately sensed Joe’s cheeriness had disappeared, knowing by the tone of his voice something serious was on his mind as his son eased back down by his side. “Yes, Joe?” he prodded gently. “What is it, boy?”

Joe nervously cleared his throat. “First off, I know it’s been a long while in coming but…but I need to say sorry for all the trouble I caused during the last couple of years I was at school,” he said as he stared up into his father’s concerned yet puzzled looking face. “When I think back to what I got up to during that time, I can’t believe how crazy and idiotic I was! You must have been really tearing your hair out when you saw me getting into more fights than any fool kid should, playing hooky on a few occasions — well, maybe a lot of occasions when I think of all those trips to the barn with you and your slipper. Taking that bottle of your favorite brandy and sharing it with a gang of the older boys one time….”

At this revelation, Ben’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “You did what?”

Joe shuddered uneasily with disquiet. “Oh…guess you never found out about that eh?”

Ben slowly shook his head, fighting hard to hide the desire to laugh out loud at the look of consternation that flickered across his son’s face.

“I’m real sorry, Pa. Anyway, as you can imagine, the list goes on, but I seem to remember the Reverend telling us a few times at Sunday Service confession is good for the soul so maybe if I get them all off my chest at once there’ll be hope for me yet. Like the time…”

As Ben interrupted, he couldn’t stop a chuckle of forgiveness escaping. “I get the picture Joe; however, I don’t think we need to go into further details!” he laughed. “I accept your apology but there’s no need to feel too badly about what you got up to during that time. What you’re describing is behavior all parents expect to have to tolerate to some degree from their children when they get to that certain phase in their life. Even your brothers had their moments of foolishness and disobedience at the same age…it’s quite normal and all part of growing up.”

“Not in my case, Pa. I bet Adam and Hoss never came close to how I carried on! I know for sure my behavior went way past normal, and I can’t imagine what you all made of me at times with my outbursts, sulks and mood swings. I was a real pain in the butt and I can still see the look on Adam’s face when I was ranting and raving over nothing and he’d stare at me as if he couldn’t quite believe we’re related!”

Joe then shook his head ruefully. “I was totally out of order and I truly regret everything I did…especially flunking my final exams. I know that was such…I was such a big disappointment to you all then.”

Firmly yet gently Ben gripped his hand around his son’s arm. “You’ve never been a disappointment to me or your brothers, Joseph…just at times a mystery! A much loved and intriguing mystery and we wouldn’t change you for the world.”

Reddening slightly, Joe lowered his gaze. Far too overcome with emotion to comment, he continued to stare down at his hands, unable to look his father in the eye. He remained silent and noticeably apprehensive.

With a father’s intuitiveness, Ben studied him thoughtfully for a moment as he tapped out the last of the tobacco from the bowl of his pipe and placed it back in his pocket. “Level with me, son. There’s something else bothering you, isn’t there? Do you want to tell me?”

Joe could sense his father’s stare probing though him but he kept his eyes fixed on the floor. There was no turning back now and he gave a slight nod. “All my worse than normal behavior…I know for a fact I wouldn’t have been half as much trouble if it weren’t for reasons going round in my head at the time that I need to explain, reasons that I was too embarrassed and ashamed to admit…especially to you. And I hope you’ll understand what drove me to act so badly when I tell you it was all to do with my mother.”

“Your mother?” Ben widened his eyes with surprise as he sat back in his chair. “What has she got to do with it?”

Joe took a deep breath and raised his gaze. “I’ve never told anyone this before, but there came a time when I got to about thirteen, I realized I couldn’t remember anything about her anymore. I just couldn’t figure it out. It was as if any childhood memories of her had faded away leaving me feeling as if she’d never been a part of my life. I even used to sneak down sometimes in the middle of the night and just sit for hours looking at the picture of her that you keep on your desk, willing myself to remember something…anything…but there was nothing. For a while I even thought it might be some sort of divine punishment from up above, though I couldn’t work out for the life of me what I’d done to the Almighty to deserve not being able to recall my own mother.”

Momentarily Ben felt a sense of disquiet, but quickly shaking it away, his face then softened with understanding. “It’s not unusual for most people to be unable to remember their early childhood years, Joe. You were so young when your mother had her accident and it’s not surprising if you forgot everything that happened to you before then. And there was definitely no need to feel ashamed about it.”

Joe sighed heavily. “No Pa, you don’t understand. I didn’t forget everything about my childhood. I could remember a load of things that happened before she died. Like the time when you just managed to catch me by my britches as I climbed through the bedroom window onto that overhanging branch ‘cause I wanted to try to fly like a bird.”

“You can still remember that?”

Joe nodded and subconsciously rubbed his backside. “And when Adam fell into the creek behind the house and came home covered in mud and smelling like ditch water! Hop Sing wouldn’t let him go near the wash house ‘cause he stunk so much so you made him sit in the horse trough to have a bath and I laughed so much I wet my pants!”

Ben gave a faint smile at the memory.

“And then there was Hoss on his 10th birthday. He crept downstairs when no one was looking and brought up some of the leftovers of his birthday party and we both hid under the covers of his bed, eating it all till I felt so sick I ended up spewing all over his sheets.”

As Joe paused for breath, Ben took in all his son had said. He could remember clearly all three instances Joe had recounted, and also knew each time Marie had been at her son’s side. Why had Joe’s brain selectively erased all trace of her presence? But before he could ponder it more thoroughly, Joe continued, his voice now sounding noticeably sadder.

“That’s when I became so blinded with self-pity; I turned a little jealous. Well, if truth be known, I turned a whole lot jealous and bitter, especially against you, Adam and Hoss because the three of you could recall things about her and things she’d done without any problem and in so much detail. And then, to my shame, for a long time I was angry at Mama for leaving me so suddenly when she did and not being around to watch me grow, blaming her for not being here when I needed her so much.”

He gave a heartfelt sigh. “I knew all the time I was being a selfish and stupid idiot to think that way but I couldn’t stop myself. I mean, it’s not as if my own mother would deliberately die just to spite me! Anyhow I just couldn’t understand what was going on and it left me feeling confused and also a little scared…”

“Scared, son?”

Joe nodded, suddenly feeling very childish at the recollection of that time. “I was scared you wouldn’t love me any more if you knew I couldn’t remember anything about Mama. I didn’t want you to think I didn’t care about her…I didn’t want you to hate me.”

Ben reached for his son’s hand, squeezing it gently, intuitively knowing he was in need of some loving contact at that moment. “I could never hate you, Joseph…how could you ever think such a thing?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders. “As I said Pa…I was a mixed-up kid at that time. Anyhow, that’s why, in true Joe Cartwright fashion, I lashed out against those who deserved better and turned into the ‘wild boy’ of the Ponderosa, as you no doubt noticed. And for that I’m sorry…I really am.”

Shaking his head sorrowfully Ben leaned back in his chair. “I never realized and just put your behavior down to normal growing-up pains. But why didn’t you say something at the time, explain what you were feeling? You’d always managed to tell me everything before when you were small and talking to me had never been a problem then.”

“I know Pa, but I wasn’t that little boy who would climb up on your knee any more,” Joe admitted with a shameful sigh. “And like most kids at that age, I found it difficult to talk to anyone about anything, least of all about something I was ashamed of. I mean, who’d want to not only own up they were angry at their mother because she’d died but that they couldn’t remember her anyway and were jealous and bitter towards their family because they could! But on the few occasions when I did build up enough courage to talk to you, there never seemed to be the right moment to broach the subject; you were always too busy, too tired, telling me to save it for another time. So in the end, I just kept it bottled up inside and wallowed in my own misery for the next couple of years.” Joe paused and clenched his fists tightly in a ball. “Damn! I sure made life hell for everyone and everything ten times worse than it should have been!”

Purposely ignoring his son’s expletive as he silently gave one of his own, Ben felt a surge of his own guilt as the memory of those days flooded back.

The workload on the Ponderosa had been heavier than ever as the ranch expanded and took on the new ideas that had been introduced by Adam when he’d returned from college a few years before. Over far too many months, Ben became a workaholic, preoccupied and focused at making the ventures successful and leaving his youngest son more often than not to his own devices.

It was all making sense now — Joe’s rebellious nature, the fights, the unexplained anger. How could he have failed to see how his son was troubled and hurting so much? How could he have been so insensitive and failed to recognize the silent message for help Joe was sending him by his unprecedented bad behavior? Why had he allowed the Ponderosa to become more important in his mind than his own child’s emotional well being?

Never again, Ben silently promised as he smoothed away a stray curl that had fallen over Joe’s forehead. “Thank heavens you’ve talked to me at last and explained. And now I know what you were going through, it’s no wonder you acted the way you did and it certainly makes your adolescent behavior a whole lot clearer to understand…and forgive.”

“Thanks, Pa, but I don’t deserve being let off so easily. I sure ain’t proud of the way I carried on and I definitely acted like the spoilt brat Adam kept telling me I was sure to turn into if I didn’t mend my ways. And judging by the number of run-ins we had during that time, it’s a miracle I ever made it to see eighteen. I could shoot myself for being such a fool.”

Ben chuckled softly, unable to resist a little gentle teasing. “I don’t think you need to go to such desperate measures, son. After all, it would be a sure waste of a birthday party!” he smiled, hoping to lighten the mood. “But…well… it’s water under the bridge now and all in the past.”

“All?” Joe repeated the word softly, looking up into the darkness for a few moments before he turned his head and his gaze once more travelled to his father’s face. “I wish that were all but you ain’t heard the half of it yet,” he declared woefully as their eyes met. “There’s something else I need to tell you that was going on in my head at the same time…but I know you’re not going to like hearing this either.”

With a sense of foreboding Ben steeled himself for what was to come. “Very well, son. Let’s have it.”

Joe’s heart was thumping painfully as he nodded and his voice noticeably lowered to barely a whisper. “I don’t know why or where it came from but I had this idea that kept going round and round my brain, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get the notion out of my mind. It was down to me…what happened to my mother, I mean. For some reason I can’t understand or explain I had the overwhelming feeling it was my fault she died.”

Ben gave an involuntary gasp and could feel his throat tighten. And when Joe stared up into a pair of brown eyes that now glistened watery in the moonlight, the stunned expression that was now fixed on his father’s face told him he had been prepared to hear anything but this.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe quickly apologized as he viewed Ben’s grief etched expression. “I didn’t mean to upset you by blurting on about Mama’s death so much. I can see it’s not something you want reminding of….”

Quickly Ben took a deep swallow and forced out a smile of reassurance as he halted Joe in mid sentence. “It’s okay, son. I’m fine and you were right to tell me everything but you’re not making sense at all. I explained many times when you were little exactly what happened to your mother. It was one of those freakish incidents that no one could foresee…her horse stumbled on the muddy ground and crushed her when it fell. It was an accident, pure and simple, and was something that could have happened to anyone and was nobody’s fault. So why would you go and think otherwise?”

Joe shook his head. “I wish I knew,” he murmured, clearly just as mystified. “I even got to thinking I was going mad… a little crazy. And looking back, that would sure explain a whole load of things that was going on with me at the time.” A wry smile formed on his face as he stared at his father beseechingly. “I don’t suppose you could come up with any other explanation, could you?”

Ben was silent for several long moments. “For once, I’m completely at a loss and can’t help you, son,” he finally replied, willing his voice not to tremble or falter. “But don’t forget, back then you were, as you’ve admitted yourself, a frustrated, confused, muddled kid who wasn’t thinking straight or clear as you were growing up. You were going through a time of your life where your emotions and feelings were running haywire. And seeing as you’ve always been blessed with an over-active imagination, it’s hardly surprising that creative brain of yours could put such a ridiculous thought in your head.”

Furrowing his brow, Joe gave a slight nod. “Guess that makes as much sense as anything,” he conceded, though his voice was uncertain and the look on his face was a clear indication he wasn’t totally convinced. “And I sure like that notion more than being thought of as insane!”

An anxious expression continued to filter across Ben’s face. “Please don’t tell me you still believe you’re in some way to blame?”

“No Pa. Not any more. I eventually stopped thinking that way and put it behind me and just got on with my life…grew up, I guess.”

“I’m glad, so very glad.” Then Ben eyed his son gravely. “Your mother would have never wanted you thinking such absurd thoughts, making yourself so miserable for no good reason. Promise me you’ll never think that way again, Joe….for her sake, if not for your own.”

Slightly shaken by his father’s serious intensity, Joe’s curiosity was momentarily aroused by his reaction, but wishing to ease his mind, he hastily nodded, inwardly relieved and keen after finally clearing the air to forget the painful memory. “You’ve got my word, Pa…I promise.”

Ben smiled with hidden relief, then to his surprise Joe rested his head lightly on his knee as the Little Joe of old had often done as a child.

“You’d think after all this time I’d get used to not having her around, especially when it’s my birthday,” Joe confided in a muffled whisper as Ben suddenly heard the quietest of sniffles and a stifled cry. “I still love and miss her, even though my memories of her have been gone for such a long time. You do believe me, don’t you?”

Ben could feel his pain and distress and it cut through his heart like a knife through butter. “Of course, I do son,” he told him in a choked voice, fighting hard to keep his own composure. He rested his hand on the head of brown wavy hair and gently stroked it in long soothing strokes as he’d often done in the past while convulsive sobs shook his son’s slight frame.

Eventually Joe looked up, his face reddened with embarrassment as he wiped his tear-streaked face with the sleeve of his shirt. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’ve certainly made a fool of myself and you must think me a real cry baby. Good job Adam and Hoss ain’t around to see me or I’d never live it down.”

Ben placed a protective arm around his shoulders. “Joseph, there’s no shame in any man showing his true feelings for someone he’s loved and lost, whatever age he is. I know that from experience,” he murmured softly. “But I haven’t seen you this distressed for a long time. Has something else happened to bring it on?”

“Like what, Pa?”

“You’ve not been having the same old bad dreams again, have you? You know…the ones that used to leave you feeling upset for days afterwards when you were small?”

Noting the anxious tone of his father’s voice, Joe shook his head quickly. “No Pa, I ain’t had those since Adam came back from college. I reckon I’m just overly tired after everything that’s gone on and all this talk of my mother…well, guess my emotions got the better of me again.”

Joe paused for a moment. “Do you remember every time I had those bad dreams, you’d have to carry me to your bed just so I’d quiet down for the rest of the night? I don’t think you’d want to be doing that now, would you?” Joe joked through his misery.

Ben forced out a sad smile of remembrance about the recurring nightmares that haunted his youngest son for such a long time after his mother’s death and well into the years Adam was away. How clearly he could still recall when Joe’s screams would echo in the dead of night and he’d be found huddled in a ball in his bed, sobbing hysterically and crying out his mother’s name in his sleep, only the feel of his father’s comforting embrace allowing the tension to slip away from his body and settle the little boy.

Ben’s silent musings were suddenly interrupted as Joe gave out a despairing sigh. “I wonder what she would have made of me if she could see me now. Don’t expect she’d be too happy or impressed to think her son had turned out to be such a problem child.”

Another tear escaped down over his cheek and with undeniable tenderness beaming from his eyes, Ben leaned forward and brushed it away with his hand. “I know for a fact your mother loved you more than life itself and she’d have been just as proud of you no matter how you’d turned out. Just as I am, have always been and always will be. Believe it, son…believe it ‘cause, so help me God, it’s the truth.”

“Thanks, Pa…that means a lot,” Joe murmured quietly just as the sound of the grandfather clock chiming twice could be heard in the house, the reminder of the lateness of the hour causing Joe to straightway give out an involuntary yawn.

Ben affectionately ruffled his son’s hair. “Anyway, young man, I reckon after all tonight’s excitement and confessions, its time you headed off to bed. You’re going to have to be up in a few hours to get on with those chores as they won’t get themselves done in the morning.”

Joe nodded in agreement. “Guess you’re right, Pa, and I have a feeling elder brother won’t be much of a help for once, judging by the way he looked the last time I saw him. But I’ll have great pleasure in waking him up bright and early just to check on him and see how he’s feeling,” he chuckled, clearly on the road back to his old mischievous self as he waited for his father to rise from his chair.

However Ben remained seated. “You get yourself off, Joe. I’ll have another few minutes before I follow you up. Talking to you seems to have given me a second wind…but I won’t be too long, I promise.”

Joe looked at this father admiringly for several seconds. “Wish I had your stamina, Pa,” he smiled as he eased up and stretched out the kinks from his back and arms. “Guess I’ll see you in the morning then. Goodnight.”

Ben nodded. “Goodnight, son…and remember…I’ll always be here for you, should you ever need someone to talk to about anything. You won’t forget that, will you?”

Joe’s smiling face grew serious. “No Pa…I won’t…and thanks…thanks for everything,” he answered.

Suddenly feeling his eyes watering again and not wishing to show himself up for a second time, Joe quickly turned and made for the living room. But after taking only a few paces, he paused and looked over his shoulder at the darkened figure in the rocking chair. He cleared his throat. “Did I ever tell you I’m the luckiest kid alive to have you as my father?”

Ben’s face softened and he smiled in the darkness. “Not often enough, son, but I’ll never tire of hearing it.”

“And about the brandy I took, Pa. You can take the cost of it out of my next wages if you like.”

“Very well, Joe…but I hope you realize it would have been a vintage bottle…and expensive…very expensive,” Ben jokingly responded towards the silhouetted figure in the doorway.

There was a significant silence for a few moments. “I kind of thought, with my run of luck, it might have been,” murmured a resigned reply.

Ben’s quiet chuckle was easily audible in the gloom.

“And, Pa…”

“Yes, Joe?”

“Love you, Pa.”

As the hurried sound of footsteps faded away into the bowels of the house and up the stairs, Ben fought hard to keep his own tears at bay as he sank back into his chair then let out a deep sigh. “Love you too, Joseph,” he whispered back. “You’ll never know how much.”

Continuing to sit motionless, Ben stared blankly into the darkness for several minutes as he gathered his thoughts, trying to make sense of the conversation that had just gone on with his youngest. His head dropped, chin resting on his chest, emotionally worn out and physically shaken. Feeling completely drained, he was about to make a move indoors when abruptly and without warning, he tensed, unconsciously gripping his fingers tightly around the arms of his chair.

Don’t do it, he silently begged as his eyes screwed tight. Don’t think about her and what happened. Not now…tonight of all nights. But it was too late, and before Ben knew it, his mind had flashed back to that final day, that final moment he’d seen his darling wife Marie.

With tears in his eyes and an ache in his heart, Ben shuddered sorrowfully at the painful memory of the moment he’d rushed outside from the barn after hearing his wife’s startled shout then scream of alarm that had alerted him to the tragedy unfolding feet from where he was now sat. But as Ben opened his eyes and looked down at his hands that were now clenched tight on his lap, his lips tightened grimly as something else only he’d seen and had desperately attempted to bury deep within him long ago forced itself to the surface again….

A vision of a four-year-old Little Joe still racked with fever, half asleep who’d wandered out of his bed and into the yard looking for his mother. A mother who seeing her son was in the direct path of her galloping steed, screamed a warning and instinctively pulled her mount to such a violent halt out of his way, it was inevitable she’d be thrown to the floor with her horse on top of her, and in so doing sacrificed her own life for that of her child.

Shivering and trembling with fear and horror, the little boy had then quickly scurried back to his bed and instantly fallen back into a deep slumber. And hours later when awakening, the emotional shock of seeing his mother rushing towards him, screaming out an alarm and within seconds lying prostrate, silent and bloodied on the ground at his feet traumatized Little Joe to such an extent he was left with no recollection of what he’d seen, Ben guessing the recurring vivid nightmares Joe was to experience in the months and years to come were really the suppressed traumatic memory of that day returned to haunt him in sleep.

No matter the tragic accident had been caused unintentionally and in all innocence, Ben knew without question his son would never be able to live with himself if he ever found out the truth. It would be an intolerable guilty weight that the shoulders of the emotionally intense Joe would never be able to bear

That must be the reason the memories of his mother had faded away, Ben mused. Joe’s selective amnesia was an attempt by his subconscious to erase all recollections of the one figure at the center of his traumatic nightmare, so eradicating any chance of further pain and distress returning to haunt him. Yet still, part of Joe’s brain must have clung to the harrowing memory, filling him in later years with the deep-rooted thought he’d been responsible for the accident that had claimed his mother’s life.

Suddenly feeling an overwhelming desire for a stiff drink, Ben lowered his hand and found the discarded punch, raising it to his mouth and savoring the cooled drink carefully as it went down his throat. Its potency was just as savage cold, and Ben grimaced but still appreciated the warming sensation that dulled the painful ache of uneasiness pounding in his heart.

He then fingered the empty glass for a few moments, absently sliding a forefinger around the rim. How close had Joe come to working out what really happened? How close had he been to remembering….to believing?

Ben gave a shudder and returned the glass to the floor. He then eased his body out of his seat his stiffened muscles aching with the effort. Keeping his balance with some difficulty he slowly walked towards the precise spot in the yard where his wife had died in his arms then bent down and placed a hand on the dry dirt floor.

He closed his eyes for a moment and a surge of pain shot through him as a vision of her beautiful, smiling face, the one he still saw clearly when he closed his eyes to sleep, stared up at him bruised and lifeless as he’d lifted her up and carried her broken body into the house.

There were tears on his cheeks as Ben straightened, for when Marie had been laid to rest, he’d buried the truth…promising himself never to think of that moment again. And he’d kept his promise…until now. He continued to stand for several seconds in grim silence, deep in thought as years of pent up emotions welled within him, then way in the distance a lone coyote cried out in the night, causing Ben’s heartbreaking reflection to be happily interrupted.

Slowly making his way back towards the house — the front door was still open and as Ben passed through, he paused, just as his son had done several minutes before. He looked back, only his eyes were focused on the familiar area of darkened and now empty yard, the scene of the tragic accident that had irrevocably turned his life and the life of his family upside down all those years ago.

The trauma of what he’d seen that day had left him with invisible scars that had never truly healed, but never one to dwell on what had happened and what might have been, he couldn’t help but give a soft smile as his thoughts returned to the present and the future.

A religious man, he’d thanked God profusely many times for the fact Joe had never remembered what really happened on that fateful afternoon. He’d even promised over the years at his wife’s graveside he would do whatever was in his power to keep their son from ever knowing the part he played towards her untimely death, the thought staying with him as he closed the door. And one thing was certain in life, Ben vowed as he slowly climbed the stairs and made his way into his bedroom.

For the love of a father for his youngest child till the day he died, it would be a secret worth keeping.

***The End***

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