Word Count: 9942
Adam Cartwright rode straight for the Ponderosa as fast as he thought it safe to ride on the muddy roads. His excitement showed; he was smiling, his eyes were shining and his face lacked the usual strained look that was generally just below the surface for most of his young life. At 16, Adam had experienced a hard life with great losses and responsibilities for the first 11 years. Things had improved considerably about five years ago and their life was much better, but those first years of hardship had left an indelible message on his heart and in his mind. But today was different; today he was happy and carefree, for today he had finally gotten word that Gloria Sterling and her parents had accepted Marie’s invitation for dinner on Monday night. He had been dancing with Gloria at several of the town socials, but she had told him that her parents would not let him call on her until they had met his family. It had taken a lot for him to bring the subject up with his Pa and Marie, but Marie had figured it out right away and had taken responsibility for arranging it. He couldn’t wait to get home and give her the news – it was tomorrow night and she had been planning as if she knew they would accept. He was relieved that she hadn’t gone to all that work for nothing.
Adam rode into the courtyard of the Ponderosa and saw that his father’s horse was tied to the hitching rail by the house. He decided to go ahead and put Sport up and then he would see if his father wanted him to put Buck away for the night, too. He walked into the barn and began the routine tasks of cooling down and bedding down the horse for the night. He was about halfway finished when he heard the unmistakable laughter and giggles of his little brother. He thought that it sounded like it was coming from the bunkhouse. He grinned, relieved that Little Joe had been preoccupied elsewhere when he came home, because he was able to get Sport put away without answering a thousand questions. Just as he was finishing up and heading out of the barn, he saw his father come out of the house with a worried look on his face.
“He’s in the bunkhouse, Pa,” he called to his father before the latter had a chance to call for Little Joe. Ben looked at Adam and smiled, then shook his head in wonder.
“I can’t believe how fast that little brother of yours can move, Adam. One minute he was there and the next he was gone!”
“Joseph!” Ben said in a loud voice before he entered the bunkhouse. He did that not so much to call his son, but to let any men who might be in the bunkhouse know that he was coming in. He felt that the men deserved privacy from their boss and he respected that. When he got to the open doorway, he was met with an enthusiastic “Hi, Pa” from four-year-old perpetual motion machine, Little Joe. His greeting was just as exuberant as it would have been if it had been 15 days since they had seen each other instead of 15 minutes. Ben reached down and swung his son up; Little Joe straddled his hips and began talking excitedly to his father, telling him about how he was talking to Luther and Luther was “gonna” play checkers with him.
“Whoa, Little Joe, slow down,” Ben said, laughing at his son’s rapid-fire conversation. “Luther, how’s that leg of yours?” Ben asked, looking toward the ranch hand sitting on his bunk with his leg propped up on a pillow. “How are you making out?”
“It’s gittin’ better, Mr. Cartwright. Doc Martin said two more weeks oughtta do it. I sure will be glad when I can git up and go, though. Mr. Cartwright, if it hadn’t been for yore boy there comin’ to see me now and then, why I’d be bored outta my head by now. I never did larn to read and they ain’t much fun in playin’ checkers by yoreself. Why, every time I win, I beat myself.”
He laughed loudly at his own humor and Ben and Little Joe laughed with him. “Well you just do what the Doc says and it’ll heal up good as new. Let us know if you need something.” They were still standing there talking with Luther when Ben heard a horse approaching and turned to see his middle son ride into the yard. Little Joe squirmed out of his arms and ran excitedly toward Hoss. Hoss, seven years older than four-year-old Joseph, adored his little brother and the feeling was obviously mutual. Hoss dropped down to the ground so that he and Little Joe were at eye level and they carried on a lively conversation, out of hearing of Ben and Luther.
Ben stood there, his arms across his chest, and watched the two in satisfaction. He was a man who valued family relationships above all else and it did his heart good to see the natural ease with which the younger members interacted with each other. He knew that all three of his sons cared for each other, but there was just something special between these two. He sighed, realizing that Adam as a youngster had never had the opportunity to be carefree and that was the reason he was not as open or spontaneous with his affection. Though, he thought to himself, he seemed to be downright effervescent when he saw him a few minutes ago. Realizing that it was the residual effects of seeing that pretty young girl he’d been making eyes at, he laughed to himself, “Like father, like son.”
Sunday morning dawned clear and sunny and the Cartwrights went through the same routine that they did almost every Sunday. It was one which was probably carried out in countless other homes – the battle between the people who wanted to get up and go to church and those who wanted to turn back over and sleep late. The only problem was that, in this family, the odds were not distributed fairly. The people who wanted to get up and go to church were the clear majority, leaving just one lone holdout – a small boy who was four years old, had soft curly hair and big hazel eyes and, if awakened before he was ready, had the disposition of a wounded grizzly bear. Still, the family managed to get everyone up, dressed, fed and into the buggy to head off to church without too many major catastrophes. Little Joe spilled his milk, but Adam had been right behind him and managed to jerk him out of his chair before the milk spilled onto his clothes. Finally, outside and ready to leave, Adam chose to ride astride his own horse while Hoss, Little Joe, Marie and Ben started for Virginia City in the buggy.
The minister really had “the spirit” that day and he preached a long and very enthusiastic sermon, punctuated by raised voice and pounding of fists on the pulpit. Joseph, after much squirming and wriggling around and several stern looks from both his father and mother, had finally fallen asleep in his mother’s arms. When her arms became tired, she passed him over to Ben. He looked down at his son, wishing he could get away with taking a quick nap himself. Guiltily, Ben looked up and forced himself to listen to every word the minister said after that. Near the end of the sermon, as the pastor whipped himself into a fervor, Little Joe was awakened by a particularly loud shout and pounding on the pulpit. He watched, fascinated by the reverend, who was moving about and practically yelling and beating his fists on the pulpit, as if the devil himself were there. Little Joe didn’t say anything, but he was enthralled by the performance and it made quite an impression on him. It also reminded him of something that Luther had said yesterday. He couldn’t wait to get out of that church. Finally, the minister sat down, as if the zeal had somehow run out. The hymn leader then called out a song and they began to sing. A closing prayer followed and the long, drawn out service was finally over. Ben reached down and picked his youngest son up.
“Pa,” Adam turned to his father, “I’m going to go over and see Gloria for a minute, then I’ll meet you on the way home. Is that all right?” he asked, smiling and obviously in a rush to do just that.
“Sure, son, go ahead, but don’t be late. I want you riding home with us, not after us.” Ben and Marie guarded Sundays as family time and frowned upon any plans that would disrupt that time. Adam was off like a shot. Little Joe was squirming, trying to get down from his father’s arms so that he could get out of there, too. Ben and Marie usually chatted with the people sitting near them briefly after the service.
“Pa, can me and Little Joe go on out to the buggy and wait for you?” Hoss asked, eager to get out of the church himself.
Ben considered this for a moment and said, “Hoss, I think Little Joe had best stay here with his mother and me. But do you think you could go get the buggy and bring it around to the front of the church to pick us up?” Ben was pleased to see the excitement Hoss showed when he heard that request.
“Sure, Pa, I’ll go right now,” he said, turning and moving around people towards the door.
“Papa, let me go help him, please. Please, please, Papa?” Little Joe pleaded with his most cherubic smile on his face.”
Ben and Marie said in unison, “No, Joseph. You are staying right here with us.” His father’s face had that look that told Little Joe that nothing good would be gained from arguing with him.
“Well, can I at least get down, Papa? I can walk, you know,” he said. Ben looked around and decided that the crowds had indeed thinned out enough to make that safe, so he put Joseph down, but held firmly onto his hand. Marie, seeing what Ben had done, grasped the other one. So, hand in hand, the three Cartwrights moved slowly with the flow of the other church members leaving the church and speaking to the minister on the way out. Little Joe was aggravated because his father and mother were talking so much that they were letting too many people get ahead of them. Even old people were getting out before they were. Finally, however, Little Joe realized that they were next in line and there were just the Martins behind them. When the family in front of them moved aside to the left of the church, Little Joe found himself right in front of the preacher, who asked him, “Well young man, what did you think of the sermon today? I hope you were paying attention.” His tone of voice was very patronizing as if a child this young couldn’t possibly understand anything. Little Joe didn’t know what it was about the minister’s question and the way he said it, but he knew he didn’t like it. The words he had heard Luther say yesterday popped into his mind and he answered the reverend’s question in a clear and strong voice, “It was a helluva sermon, Reverend.”
For a long second there was no sound as everyone held his or her breath. Little Joe, not sure what was going on, seized the opportunity to reiterate his point. “Yes, sir, a helluva sermon.”
Ben recovered first and immediately grabbed Little Joe and picked him up, pulling him away from the reverend. He looked at Marie for help, but he saw that she was still in shock. The reverend meanwhile had recovered from his initial shock and said loudly, “Well, I never.” Several other people, who had been walking away when the scene had unfolded, had stopped in their tracks to see what would happen. Several of the older children accompanying their parents had started to giggle and Little Joe, glad to see that someone appreciated his new word, started to repeat it. This time his mother deftly circumvented that by firmly placing her own hand over his mouth and giving him a stern look. Paul Martin saved the day by stating loudly, “Hey, no problem here, folks. Why don’t we all go on home before our roast beef burns in the ovens?” Most of the people around laughed; roast beef was the typical after church meal because it could be placed in a heavy pan with some vegetables and left to cook in the coals of the cook stove and be ready to eat upon their return. The laughter broke the tension and the others headed on towards their waiting buggies and wagons. Little Joe was confused at what was going on. He had no idea why the grownups were acting the way they were. He decided he would just rest his head on his father’s shoulders and, while Ben and Marie stood there in shock at his language, he nodded peacefully off to sleep on his father’s shoulder.
“Ben, did you hear what he said? Did you hear what our baby boy said?” Marie asked, her speech finally returning.
“Yes, Marie, I sure did hear what he said,” Ben responded tersely.
“Ben, who could have taught him those words? He is only four, Ben. Someone had to tell him those words!” Marie said, thinking out loud.
“Yeah – and I am going to find out before bedtime which one of his brothers is responsible for that,” Ben said, jumping to the conclusion that it had to have been either Adam or Hoss. Then Ben turned around and said, “Reverend, I am very sorry for what my son said. I can assure you that he will be punished for this.”
“Well, I certainly hope so. I have never heard such talk from a child in my life,” came the reply.
Paul Martin had been keeping back, not saying much and waiting to see what would happen, but now he felt that he needed to bring some perspective back into the situation. “Ben, Marie, I don’t think you should be overly concerned about this. Sometimes children who acquire language skills at an early age do this. It really isn’t so unusual.”
“Not unusual for my four-year-old son to say something I wouldn’t say in front of his mother?” Ben asked incredulously.
“That’s right, Ben. Little Joe heard the word somewhere and liked the sound of it. I am sure he has no idea what it means. You need to be careful how you approach this. If you make too big a deal out of it, you might inadvertently reinforce the language.”
The immediate crisis passed, the Cartwrights walked toward their buggy with the Martins right behind them. When they got about halfway, the Martins turned to go in the opposite direction. Paul again reassured Ben and Marie, “He may do it a few more times, but if you don’t react to it, it will soon lose its appeal and it will stop. Besides, you have to give him credit – he used the word appropriately.” Laughing, the Martins walked off. As the Cartwrights, somewhat subdued from the morning’s escapade, continued on toward the buggy, Ben started smiling and soon broke into laughter. “Ben, now what are you laughing about?” Marie said, looking at him with her eyebrows raised.
“Well, Marie, Little Joe was right. It was a helluva sermon!” Marie tried to look disapproving, but she couldn’t manage it and she soon burst out laughing, too. They walked over to where Hoss had the buggy waiting and Adam was waiting with Sport. Hoss gathered up the reins to drive his father, stepmother and little brother home, while Ben and Marie enjoyed the view and a quiet conversation.
Monday morning found the Cartwright household in a rush of activity as they prepared for their guests. Marie was used to entertaining Ben’s business clients, friends, and the occasional overnight visitor that Adam or Hoss brought home, but this was the first time that they had entertained a family to see if they were “good enough” for Adam to call upon their daughter. Marie had had very little contact with any of the Sterling family, though she had seen Gloria at town socials and at church. She could see why Adam was smitten with her, as she was a very pretty girl. She knew this was important to Adam and she wanted everything to go perfectly. She and Hop Tseng had planned the menu carefully, aiming for something uncommon, but not too fancy. She didn’t want to seem to be trying to put on airs to impress the Sterlings. Marie and Hop Tseng had cleaned the house from top to bottom and all that were needed that day were the routine touches that she added: fresh flowers for the vases, crisp red apples in the fruit bowl, a cozy fire laid in the great hearth, a bottle of wine ready to go with dinner and cigars and brandy for the men after dinner. When Ben heard Marie talking about flowers for the table on the front porch, he felt his wisest move was to get out of the house that day. He sneaked up on Marie from behind and said, “Guess who?” with his hands over her eyes.
“Roberto?” Marie guessed.
“Roberto!” Ben said in mock anguish, turning her around and looking into her laughing eyes.
“Oh, it’s you, Ben. My mistake!” Her laughter was stopped by his kiss, though her eyes were still dancing with merriment.
“I’ll deal with you later, woman,” Ben said as he grabbed an apple and headed out of the door.
“Ben, I want everyone home by 4p.m. sharp.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Ben said, bowing to her, then quickly ducking out of the door before she could respond.
Adam and Hoss went with their father that day, leaving Marie to deal with final preparations. She had her hands full, helping Hop Tseng with the meal preparation, doing the household chores and keeping an eye on a very active four-year-old boy. Marie had just put the finishing touches to the great room and walked into the kitchen to get a drink for her and Little Joe. She decided to try to interest Little Joe in something that might keep him occupied so she could make final preparations – then she would put him down for a nap and get dressed herself. “Little Joe, would you go out and water the flowers in our garden for me?” She knew that he would get wet and dirty, but she could use the time very wisely and she had to give him a bath anyway.
“Now, Little Joe, you can’t carry the big bucket, so you will have to carry the dipper full and give each plant a dipperful.” She figured this would keep him busy for long enough. He enthusiastically ran towards the door to start his new task. Little Joe was halfway finished when the bucket ran out of water. He ran to the door of the house and looked for his mother to come and fill it up, but he didn’t see her. He decided to avoid Hop Tseng, who had been mighty touchy this morning, doing lots of grumbling. “I know,” he said out loud, “I bet Luther can help me,” and he ran to the bunkhouse to see if Luther could help him get the bucket refilled. Luther had moved from his bed to a chair now, but his leg was still propped up.
“Luther, can you walk yet?” asked the small boy.
“Not yet, Little Joe. Doc says one more week, though, and then I can begin to put some weight on my laig.”
Little Joe’s face had a temporary frown as he considered his water problem, but then he saw that Luther was smoking a pipe and he became fascinated with it. “Hey Luther, can you make those rings of smoke like my Papa can?” he asked.
“Huh, well now, let’s jest see, Little Joe. I ain’t done that in a long time. I usta could, though.” With that he began to take some serious puffs on the pipe and worked on perfecting his smoke rings – to the delight of Little Joe. Little Joe climbed up in the chair next to Luther and watched the smoke rings and began to ask questions of the ranch hand. Before long, Luther was regaling Little Joe with tales from his past as a logger, a sailor and his job before the Ponderosa, a crewman for a traveling circus. The adventures, accent, and colorful vocabulary that Luther knew fascinated little Joe. He was imagining life as a circus worker when he first heard Marie calling him. “Uh, oh, Luther, I better get out of here. Mama is calling.”
“Come back anytime, Little Joe, I shore could use the company,” Luther called as Little Joe scampered out of the side door of the bunkhouse and around to the flower garden.
“Joseph, where were you? You haven’t finished watering the flowers.”
“I ran out of water, Mama, and you told me I couldn’t try to get some from the well and I didn’t see you or Hop Tseng.”
Marie interrupted by saying, “Well, okay. Here, we will fill the bucket together and then we will finish the flowers together.” Marie filled the water bucket and together they quickly finished the watering.
“All right, Joseph. Hold still, we are almost done,” Marie said in exasperation. She had just finished giving him a bath and shampoo and was now trying to comb the still damp mass of brown curls so they wouldn’t be quite so unruly. Finally, she conceded that his curls had a mind of their own and nothing she could do would change that, so she said, “All done, now.” Little Joe pulled his head away and gave her as near an imitation of his father’s “look” as he could. “Now then, young man, it is time for your nap.”
“No, Mama, I’m not sleepy at all.” His face belied his statement and Marie knew that he would be asleep before she was out of the door.
“Be that as it may, Joseph, you will lie down and rest.”
He started to argue, but saw the expression on her face and knew he stood no chance, so he conceded as graciously as he could. “All right, I’ll lay down, but I’m not going to sleep.”
“Fine, Little Joe, you just lie down here.” She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, enjoying the fresh clean scent of his clean skin and hair. At the doorway she turned around and looked at him – his eyes were already closing. Laughing, she headed towards her room to begin getting her own bath.
The Sterlings arrived promptly at seven o’clock and Ben, Marie, and Adam met their guests at the door. The Sterlings, John, Sheila and Gloria, were dressed in their Sunday best. Ben welcomed them into the great room and Hop Tseng was there right away to offer them drinks. Ben and John enjoyed a glass of sherry, while the ladies settled for iced tea. Adam and Gloria also had iced tea, while they sat a little apart from the others talking quietly. Ben and John chatted about business, each asking about the other’s field. Conversation for the women centered on their children, their homes, and their committees. Gloria was an only child and it was obvious to Marie that no one was good enough for her, according to her mother. After spending a lot of time outlining all Gloria’s wonderful talents and traits, Mrs. Sterling was interrupted by her daughter. “Mother, please stop talking about me. You’re embarrassing me.”
Marie thought to herself that she didn’t appear to be at all embarrassed. However, Mrs. Sterling said, “Oh, I apologize, I do go on sometimes about our Gloria. Now tell me about your three sons. I am surprised that someone of your age could have a son as old as Adam.”
“Adam is my stepson, Sheila. Ben and I have only been married five years.” She noted a slight frown on Mrs. Sterling’s face, so she added, “Though he is as fine a son as any woman could ever wish for.”
Just at that moment, Hoss and Little Joe came bounding down the stairs. Hoss looked clearly out of his element in his white starched shirt and string tie. Little Joe also had on a white shirt and an untied string tie. Unlike Hoss, Little Joe didn’t appear to be nervous at all. He bounded down the stairs, ran to his mother and said, “Mama, Hoss was choking me with this thing. Can you fix it?”
Marie put one arm around Little Joe and motioned for Hoss to come over. “Sheila, these are my other two sons. This is Erik, though we call him Hoss. And this is Joseph, whom we generally call Little Joe.” Mrs. Sterling made the usual niceties towards Hoss, but she seemed to be captivated by Little Joe. Soon, Hop Tseng came and announced that dinner was ready. Mrs. Sterling asked specifically if she could sit near Little Joe and she devoted much attention on him early on. As the meal progressed, the talk passed through the awkward, getting-to-know-each-other small talk, and settled into a fairly comfortable conversation. The meal that had been selected with such care was perfect. Hop Tseng served the courses flawlessly and made sure that the glasses remained filled throughout the meal. Mr. and Mrs. Sterling asked questions about the Cartwrights that were designed to determine whether or not Adam would make a suitable caller for their Gloria. During this part of the meal, the tension in the room was just a little higher and Adam and Gloria both were listening intently to what was being said. Hoss was paying attention to his meal and paying no attention to the conversation. Little Joe had enjoyed the attention of Mrs. Sterling at first, but now found her to be an unacceptable dining companion. Left to his own devices, he was eating more than usual, but the problem was – he needed a roll. Hop Tseng had made warm yeast rolls and he loved them.
He politely asked no one in particular, “Please may I have another roll, please?” But the grownups and Adam and Gloria paid him no attention, as they were deeply involved with the question and answer session taking place. A little more loudly he asked again, not quite so politely this time, but not rudely either, “Can I please have another roll?” He looked at the roll basket; it was way on the other end of the table. Even if he got up and walked around there, he wouldn’t be able to reach it. He tried to get Hoss’s attention, but Hoss, seated at the opposite side of the table too, had tuned out all conversation so he could enjoy the meal. Little Joe looked around at everyone sitting at the table; only Hoss was actually eating – everyone else was watching Mr. Sterling talk. Little Joe’s mouth watered as he looked at the basket of soft, warm rolls and the butter he already had ready to put on one. He was at a loss as to what to do and then he remembered something Luther had told him.
“Hell’s bells! What do I hafta do to get a roll?” he said in a very loud and quite audible voice.
You could have heard a pin drop as everyone present held his or her breath for a few seconds. This time Marie was the first to recover. She jumped up from her chair, went around and grabbed Little Joe out of his chair and rushed towards the living room. Little Joe’s face was a mixture of surprise, alarm and confusion. When they got to the living room, she put him on the floor and said, “Joseph, go directly to your room right now and do not make another sound. Do you hear me?” He looked at her and started to say something, but that look stopped him. Instead he turned around and, crying, ran toward the stairs, entered his room and slammed the door. Marie took a deep breath and tried to assume a calm countenance that she didn’t feel. She walked back over to the table and said, “I don’t know what got into that boy. Please finish your meal.” Ben tried to pick up the conversation, but it was soon apparent to everyone there that the meal was finished, as was Adam’s future with Gloria Sterling. The Sterlings were polite and didn’t say anything specific, but they hurriedly finished their meal, declined after dinner drinks and dessert and said they had to get back into town right away. The Cartwrights kept up the semblance of gracious hosts until their guests were out of the door, then Marie looked at Adam and said, “Oh, Adam, I am so sorry.” This said, she collapsed into a chair.
Adam was so angry and upset that he could hardly contain himself. He was pacing up and down, muttering and reciting what he was going to do to “that little brat.” Ben let him go on for a few minutes, then said, “All right, Adam. That’s enough. Marie and I are both sorry.”
Before he could continue, Marie said, “Adam, he’s just a little boy. He didn’t do it on purpose.” Hoss was unsure what to do. He knew what the dinner had meant to Adam, but he could also hear the wails of his little brother upstairs. About this time, Hop Tseng came into the great room, fussing about the company leaving without dessert, while the family strove to the best of their ability to understand what he was saying, half in English and half in Chinese.
Later that evening, alone at last, Ben and Marie sat next to each other by the fire without saying anything for several minutes, each reliving over and over the words that they would never forget, “Hell’s bells! What do I hafta do to get a roll?” The sobs from upstairs had slowly ebbed, as either Little Joe’s tears had dried up or, more likely, he had fallen asleep. Finally, Marie looked at Ben and said, “Well. That went well, didn’t it?” Then they both laughed at the absurdity of the situation. “All he wanted was a roll, Ben.”
“Well, he sure picked a fine way to ask for it,” Ben said.
“Ben, we weren’t paying attention to him. I bet he had asked politely.”
“Nevertheless, Marie, I will not tolerate that behavior. Regardless of what Paul Martin says, we have to do something,” he added with a determined look.
“I know, Ben, I know. Besides, I think I scared him to death anyway. I guess it’s a little late to not overreact.”
He turned and looked at her with a smile and said, “You know, Marie, I haven’t seen you move that fast since you chased me down to the altar.”
“Benjamin Cartwright! I didn’t chase you to the altar!” she said in a mocking, wounded voice.
“Well, I think we had better go check on the little miscreant now,” he said, pulling her to her feet. They walked arm in arm up the stairs and turned into the first door on the right of the hallway. Marie’s breath caught in her throat when she saw Little Joe. He was sleeping on his bed on his side, still dressed in the white shirt, though he had taken off the tie and probably flung it off. His boots, too, had apparently been flung off, as one was near the window and one was by the door. His left thumb was in his mouth and with his right hand he was twisting his hair. He had visible tear tracks down his face and his eyes were slightly puffy from crying. Marie pointed out to Ben that he had turned the silver-framed picture of the two of them towards the wall.
Ben pulled her close to him and said, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine tomorrow.” Gently, so as not to awaken her son, she got him into his nightshirt and then tucked him under the covers. While she was doing this, Ben picked up the tie and the boots and put them away and returned the picture to its original position. Both finished, they stood for a moment and looked down upon their son. Then, by unspoken agreement, they each leaned over and kissed him softly, then turned and left the room.
Hoss came in from the barn to breakfast the next morning and noted that everyone was there but Little Joe. “I’ll go get Little Joe,” he said, heading towards the stairs.
“No, wait, Hoss, come on over here,” Ben said. Hoss came over, looking around at Adam and Marie to see if he could get a clue about what was going on. Adam shrugged his shoulders and made a slight movement with his eyes to indicate he had no idea. Marie gave him a tiny half-smile which made him feel a little better.
“Boys, I want to ask each of you if you are responsible for your younger brother’s new vocabulary,” Ben said, staring at both Adam and Hoss. Hoss blushed and said, “No, Pa. I don’t even say them words!” The expression on his face and the vehemence of the denial was sufficient for both Ben and Marie to know that Hoss couldn’t have been responsible.
Ben then turned his sole attention toward Adam. “Adam, what about you? Do you say those words?”
“Pa, I may have said those words now and then. But I didn’t say them to Little Joe.”
“Can you be so sure that he didn’t hear you, though, Adam?” Ben asked, still looking at his eldest son.
“You know what they say, Adam. ‘Little pitchers have big ears,’” Marie added softly.
Adam thought for a minute and then said, “Pa, I don’t think Little Joe could have heard me swear. It isn’t something I do often.”
“Well, at this point, the most important thing to remember is to not let it happen anymore. It is too late for the minister and too late for the Sterlings. And it’s too late for your little brother, too. He’s going to have to be punished and, I don’t mind telling you, boys, I’m not looking forward to that,” Ben said. Hoss and Adam both looked slightly uncomfortable. Marie looked devastated. “Now then, you boys go and have your breakfast and get on with your chores. I have to go talk to your little brother.” Ben’s face showed his displeasure at his own task. When Ben entered Little Joe’s room, Little Joe was still asleep; his covers were on the floor and he was turned sideways on his bed. Ben rolled his eyes and went over to wake him up. He shook him on the shoulder and said, “Little Joe, it’s time to get up.” Little Joe’s only response was to turn his head in the other direction. Ben shook him again, only harder this time, and called his name louder and more insistently. “Joseph. Get up now, son.”
Little Joe finally opened his eyes and groggily said, “Hi, Papa.”
Ben smiled and said, “Well, it’s about time, young man. Come on and get up now. We have to get you ready for breakfast and then we have to have a talk about last night.”
Little Joe looked puzzled at first, unsure what his father was talking about, then he remembered. Ben could see his facial muscles tense. Little Joe remembered all right – everybody ignoring him and getting mad at him just for asking for a roll! Oh, he remembered all right, and he was as angry as his four-year-old little heart had ever been. He looked at his Papa with a defiant look on his face, but he didn’t say anything.
“Joseph, your behavior last night was not acceptable. You insulted our guests and embarrassed your family. That will not be tolerated.” Ben was clearly confused by the lack of remorse Little Joe was showing. Usually, when he had to discipline Little Joe, the boy was contrite and apologizing or crying by now. Instead, he was acting like his father was mad. Ben tried again to get the point across to Little Joe and to get the appropriate reaction from him. “Joseph, do you hear me? Don’t you have something to say?” Ben stopped talking and stood looking at his son, waiting for a response. For just a second, Little Joe looked at him as if he were going to say something, then shook his head defiantly. “Joseph. I see that you intend to be contrary today and I do not have time to do battle with you. We will talk about this later. But you had better understand that if another episode occurs like last night, you will get a spanking, is that clear?”
Little Joe stared at his father, his anger still bubbling; but he was also confused. It was not like his Papa to get so mad at him for interrupting – especially to ask for more food. He hesitated, trying to decide what to do or say. “Do you hear me, Joseph?”
Well, that was easier for Little Joe – at least he knew the answer to that, and unconsciously his face relaxed a little. “Yes, I hear you, Papa.”
“Very well, then. Let’s have no more of this nonsense. Hurry up and get dressed and go eat your breakfast.” Ben was relieved to have that over with and to get out of his son’s room, although he was still surprised at Little Joe’s reluctance to apologize and his stubbornness. He thought to himself, Oh well, he has just turned four years old and he does have his mother’s temper! Marie was waiting for him anxiously when he came down the stairs. She seemed relieved to have heard no sounds of spanking or crying.
Ben said, “That boy has a stubborn streak a mile wide. Now I wonder where that came from?”
“Why, it’s a well-known fact that a boy’s temperament comes from his father,” Marie replied, laughing. Then, seriously, “Did it go all right, Ben?”
“Well, I think I made my point, though I have to tell you, he was being awfully stubborn about the whole thing.”
“Did you find out where he heard the words?”
“No, I decided to leave that for another day. I wanted time to go over my figures for that lumber contract this morning. You didn’t forget that Harrison and Ford are coming by here this morning, did you?”
“No, Ben, I didn’t forget. Hop Tseng will serve cold cuts, pastries, and coffee, if you want it. I will try to keep Little Joe busy with me.”
“Thanks, sweetheart. This is an important timber contract; it means a lot to the Ponderosa.” He gave her a hug. She gave him a quick peck on his mouth and then said, “Then get your figures in order and let a lady get on with her work. I better go get Little Joe to come eat before he really turns into a bear.” With that, Marie headed upstairs and Ben turned his attention to business.
Little Joe was sullen when Marie went in to hurry him for breakfast. He was dressed except for buttoning his shirt and she attempted to help him, but he said, “I’ll do it myself.” She sighed and let him finish, noting that the buttons were not aligned properly and his shirt was going to be crooked all day, but she let it go. Four-year-olds, she thought. She hurried him along as best she could and, since Hop Tseng had already cleared the breakfast table, he fixed Joe a plate in the kitchen. Although Joe wasn’t talking to his mother, he did seem to be ready for breakfast, giving her a tinge of guilt that perhaps he had still been hungry when she sent him to his room last night. Marie noticed that Little Joe didn’t seem to be in a bad humor with Hop Tseng – just with her and Ben.
“Hop Tseng, would you mind keeping an eye on Little Joe while I do the upstairs cleaning?” she asked, as she never wanted to take Hop Tseng for granted. She wanted to get the upstairs finished quickly so she would be on hand when the men from the timber company arrived.
“You leave little boy with Hop Tseng. Little Joe can help Hop Tseng. Is okay.”
When Marie passed through the living room she saw her husband engrossed in paperwork; she smiled and hurried upstairs. She started work in her and Ben’s bedroom, making the bed and straightening and dusting. She moved quickly onto the older boys’ rooms and removed the dirty clothing. Ben insisted that they straighten their own rooms. She knew that soon he would say Little Joe was old enough to begin to do his own straightening, but truthfully she enjoyed doing it – it seemed like he was growing up too fast. When she had finished upstairs she headed downstairs and was alarmed to see that Ben’s guests had already arrived. She straightened her hair and her dress as she descended the stairs and went over to greet the visitors.
“Mr. Harrison, Mr. Ford, this is my wife, Marie. Marie, Mr. Harrison and Mr. Ford.”
“How do you do, gentlemen? May I offer you some coffee?” Marie asked.
Mr. Harrison was tall and very stout and Mr. Ford was tall and thin. Marie thought that they both looked very grim and unsociable and she was glad she didn’t have to be present at this meeting. “Thank you, yes,” was all the reply she received and she was relieved to get out of there.
“Hop Tseng do you have…?” Marie cut her question short as she entered the empty kitchen. “Hmm. That’s odd. I wonder where Hop Tseng is?” she said to herself, but she didn’t think anything else of it and began to get a tray ready for the coffee service. She reached for the silver coffee urn, but then decided that the porcelain one might be more appropriate for those two men – they didn’t look the “fancy” types. She put the pot of freshly brewed coffee and homemade pastries, together with cups, cutlery, napkins, cream and sugar, on the tray. Just as she was preparing to take it into the study, Hop Tseng entered with Little Joe right behind him.
“Hop Tseng go get fresh eggs, Missy. Thought Little Joe right behind but he slow. Hop Tseng find in bunkhouse. Sorry Hop Tseng late. Want me to take tray?”
She could tell Hop Tseng had probably been frantically looking for Little Joe – he was known to wander off if you took your eyes off him for one second. She smiled at Hop Tseng and said, “No, Hop Tseng, I’ll take the tray; you sit down and rest.” She looked over at Little Joe, who seemed to have lost his earlier bad disposition and said, “Little Joe, would you like to go say ‘hello’ to our guests?”
He looked at his Mama smiling at him and smiled back and said, “Sure, Mama. Can I help?”
She laughed and said, “No thanks, son, better let me carry this one.” So together they headed into the study, Marie first with the tray, Little Joe confidently beside her. When Ben looked up and saw Marie and Little Joe coming in, he smiled and was rewarded with a return smile from them both. Marie set the tray down on Ben’s desk and, as she prepared to pour the coffee, Ben made the introductions. “Gentlemen, this is my youngest son, Joseph. Little Joe, this is Mr. Harrison and Mr. Ford. Say ‘hello.’” The men were clearly not interested in Little Joe, but they both stuck out a hand in a semblance of a handshake. Little Joe, glad that he knew what was expected of him, walked over to Mr. Harrison and said, “How the hell are you?” Then he went right on to Mr. Ford and said, “Damned hot day, ain’t it?” with a smile.
The adults were not smiling – the color drained out of both Ben’s and Marie’s faces. The two guests were so taken aback, they merely spluttered. Marie felt faint and had to sit down for a moment. Ben’s frustration with his son superseded his concern for the business deal. He stood up from his desk, grabbed Little Joe’s hand, and headed upstairs. He stopped midway and said, “Gentlemen, you must excuse me.” Then he continued upstairs, practically dragging the shocked and terrified little boy to his room. When he got upstairs he realized that he was too angry to discipline Joseph now. He took several deep breaths with his eyes closed, then he opened them and looked at the stricken face of his son. “Joseph, you will wait in this room for me. You will be punished, but I will have to wait until I am calmer.” He pointed toward the rocking chair by the window and said, “I want you to sit in that chair and do not move until I return.” With that, he strode out of the room, nearly slamming the door as he left. When he came downstairs he saw that Mr. Harrison and Mr. Ford had gone. Marie was still sitting where he had left her. She looked at him, without moving, and raised her eyebrows, as if she couldn’t find words to ask her question.
“I didn’t punish him yet, Marie. I am far too angry now. But I told him to sit in the rocking chair to wait for me and he better hope for a miracle, because that is what it is going to take to calm me down,” he said. “Our guests?”
“Ben, I am so sorry. I tried to get them to stay, but they wouldn’t. They said to tell you they would make other arrangements.” Marie gave him the bad news. “They said they had an offer from Fred Hancock and that they had decided to accept it.” She watched her husband’s face as he heard this news and noticed a tightening of his jaw line.
“Marie, I am going into Virginia City to see if I can catch them or, if all else fails, at least I need to notify our agent in San Francisco to shop the lumber deal again. Leave Joseph to me. I will handle this when I return.” With that, he gave her shoulder a squeeze and said, “It’ll be all right.” And then he was gone. When he reached Virginia City, Ben went directly to the International House to see if he could reason with Mr. Harrison and Mr. Ford. He was not surprised to find that they had already checked out of the hotel and had been picked up by Mr. Hancock. “Hmph. He sure works fast,” Ben said out loud.
“I don’t know about that, Mr. Cartwright, but he’s been here every night dining with the two gentlemen. Why, last night they even had champagne sent up to their room, said it was a celebration.”
“A celebration?” Ben prompted.
The desk clerk was only too happy to continue, following Ben’s subtle lead.
“Yes, sir. Said they had just signed a big timber contract. Funny thing is, though, one of them men, that Mr. Harrison, he told that other one – Mr. Ford – that they had really suckered that Mr. Hancock. Said they’s practically stealin’ those trees.”
Ben considered this information thoughtfully for a second, then turned and said, “Well, thanks for the information.” He then hurried over to the telegraph office to send a telegram to his business agent in San Francisco to instruct him regarding the failed timber deal. When he walked into the telegraph office, George Kirby was dozing in his chair. Ben cleared his throat and said, “George?” Mr. Kirby sprang up, almost falling out of his chair in the process. “I’d like to send a telegram to my agent,” Ben told him.
“Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright. Oh, that reminds me – we have a wire for you, just came in this morning.” He reached behind him, pulled a telegram out and handed it to Ben. Ben unfolded the yellow slip of paper and read:
DO NOT SIGN DEAL WITH HARRISON AND FORD STOP CANNOT MEET FINANCIAL OBLIGATIONS STOP HAVE NEW BUYER LINED UP STOP GUARANTEED BACKING STOP DETAILS TO FOLLOW STOP J DANIELS STOP
Ben read it through twice and then looked at George, who was waiting to send his telegram. “Never mind, George. I won’t be needing to send that telegram. The next time a telegram comes to me, would you please see that it gets delivered right away?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben walked out of the telegraph office with a much lighter step than when he had gone in. He mounted Buck and headed for home.
When he was rounding the final bend in the road before reaching the road to the Ponderosa, he met Adam riding up on Sport. “Hi, Pa,” the boy greeted his father as he pulled up along side him. “How’d the meeting go?”
“Well, Adam, you could have gone all day without asking me that,” Ben said with a roll of his eyes.
“What happened…?” Adam started to ask and then had a terrible thought. “Little Joe?”
“Yes, son, I’m afraid so.”
Adam just looked at his father, not sure what to say.
A thought struck Ben and he looked closely at Adam. “You don’t seem to be too upset over the ruined dinner last evening and the end of your romance with Gloria Sterling.”
Adam gave a snort. “That’s an understatement, Pa. I ran into Jimmy Miller at the mill today and you know what he told me?”
“Gloria Sterling has been seeing Seth Thomas from Carson City. She’d already told him she would go to the next social with him. She wasn’t going to go with me, anyway. Any girl that would go out with that conceited Seth Thomas…well, I don’t want to go out with her. I guess you could say Little Joe did me a favor actually.”
“That’s interesting, Adam. As it turns out, it seems that that deal I was about to sign was a bad business decision and we’re better off not signing it.”
Ben and Adam looked at each other, then Adam slowly shook his head.
“Pa, maybe it wasn’t Little Joe’s fault, after all. Maybe it was a miracle or divine intervention or something,” Adam said, grinning.
Ben looked at him and rolled his eyes just as they were nearing the Ponderosa ranch house. The sight of the house always gave him a good, warm feeling inside, no matter how many times he made the trip. As they rode on in companionable silence, Ben thought about what Adam had just said in jest – a miracle or divine intervention. He remembered his words to Marie earlier, that Little Joe had better hope for a miracle. Well, he didn’t know if it were a miracle or not, but he certainly was in a much better frame of mind to deal with his son’s new vocabulary than he was earlier. Ben and Adam rode into the yard and dismounted. Adam reached over and took the reins to Ben’s horse and said, “I’ll stable Buck for you, Pa.”
“Thanks, Adam,” Ben replied and turned to go to the house. He was halfway to the door when Marie came out, obviously relieved to see him.
He put his arm around her shoulder and she asked, “How did it go, Ben?”
He laughed and said, “Everything is fine, but it’s a long story that I would rather tell you later. Right now, I’m anxious to have a talk with our youngest.”
“Ben, before you talk to Little Joe you need to talk to Hoss,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re not implying that Hoss is responsible for Joe’s new language are you, Marie?”
She smiled at the thought of gentle Hoss even using such language. “Ben, I doubt it, but he wants to tell you first. He’s inside, go get it straight from him – before you talk to Little Joe.”
“All right, Marie, I sure want to hear this,” he said, holding the door open for her to enter. She put her hand on his arm and said, “Ben, you need to hurry – Little Joe has been in that chair all day long. Even when I told him he could get on his bed and take a nap, he wouldn’t budge and he wouldn’t eat any lunch either.”
“Hoss, your mother says you have something to tell me,” Ben said, taking a seat across from his son.
“Yeah, Pa. I know where Little Joe has been learning those words from. I found out today.”
“Well, Hoss, out with it. Don’t keep us in suspense,” Ben said as he noticed Marie had now joined them.
“It’s Luther, Pa. I was talkin’ to him today and he asked how come Little Joe hadn’t been out to talk to him today and I told him he was being punished and he asked what for and I tol’ him, then he said it was his fault on account of he’s been telling Little Joe tall tales and now he’s ‘fraid you’re gonna fire him and he really didn’t…”
“Hoss, son, take a breath,” Ben said, holding up a hand.
Hoss paused a second then said, “Pa, Little Joe was just repeatin’ words he heard Luther sayin’ in his stories and Luther has just been so lonesome while his leg was broke that he liked to have Little Joe visit him, but he said he promises he won’t use them words no more.”
“Hoss, you can assure Luther that he won’t be fired, but we would appreciate a little more discretion, er, caution when talking around Little Joe, please,” Ben said, relieved to at least have the mystery of where Little Joe heard the words solved.
He looked at Marie over Hoss’s head and sighed, “Now, I will go talk to Little Joe and get this family back to normal. How about seeing if we can have supper early tonight? I suspect our youngest son may be hungry.” She smiled at him in return, knowing now that Ben would make everything right again. Ben walked straight up to Little Joe’s room and opened the door. Little Joe was still sitting in the chair; indeed, it looked like he hadn’t moved all day. His eyes jerked up to look at his father when the door opened. Ben’s heart constricted when he saw the panic in his eyes. “Hi, son, guess it’s been a very long day for you.” He walked over and picked Little Joe up, noting the stiffening of his body at his father’s touch. Ben then sat down in the chair himself and positioned Little Joe on his lap.
“Joseph, I don’t think you and I have been understanding each other too well the past few days. And I want to get that fixed right now, don’t you?” he asked, watching his son’s face carefully. He saw the relief in his eyes and he hugged him to him; this time Little Joe didn’t resist the embrace.
“Now then, son, you have been saying some words that are not good words to say. Do you know the ones I mean, Joe?”
Joe shook his head, “No, sir.”
A thought struck Ben and he asked, “Joe, what do you think you got in trouble about last night with the Sterlings?” He could see Joe was thinking and reluctant to speak, so he prompted, “It’s all right, Little Joe. Just tell me.”
Joe looked up at Ben and gushed out, “I don’t know, Papa. I just wanted a roll and nobody would give me one.” Ben could see his eyes were brimming with tears and knew that his son was telling the truth. He hugged him even tighter and Little Joe let the tears fall and Ben rocked him for a few minutes, soothing him with comforting words. Finally, the tears slowed down and there was just an occasional half sob escaping involuntarily.
“Joe, the reason we got angry last night and this morning – and at church on Sunday – was because of some of the words you used. They’re words that men shouldn’t say around ladies or children and that children should never say at all.”
Joe reflected on this for a minute and then said, “You mean ‘helluva,’ Papa?”
“Yes, Joe, that is one of them. ‘Hell’s bells’ is another. So are ‘damned’ and ‘hell.’”
Ben could tell that Joe really was thinking, so he said, “Joseph, what does ‘helluva’ mean?”
“Well, Papa, it means ‘loud.’” Joe said confidently.
“I see. What about ‘damned,’ Joe? What does that mean?”
“That means ‘very,’ Papa.”
“Joseph, that is not what those words mean. Most of the words don’t really mean anything. They are what are known as swear words. And a gentleman never uses those words around ladies or in meetings. In fact some people never use them at all.”
Little Joe’s eyes grew wide as he tried to process all this information. Then he said, “Well, Papa, when Luther says ’em, they sound funny; they don’t sound like bad words. They sound fun.”
“Joseph, sometimes men say words like that, but it isn’t something that children can do – without getting in lots of trouble.” He emphasized the “lots” to make sure his son got the message. “Do you now understand why you got in trouble, Joseph?” Ben asked his son, his hand holding the child’s chin up so that he was looking directly into his eyes.
“And do you promise not to use them again?”
“Yes, Papa, but…”
“But what, Joseph?”
“Well, how will I know if a word is a bad word or a good word?” Joe asked.
Ben laughed, thinking that was a very reasonable question that deserved a reasonable answer. “Joseph, if you hear a word and you are not completely sure of what it means, you just come ask me. How about that?”
“You promise, Little Joe?” Ben asked for reassurance.
“I promise, Papa. I promise.”
Ben pulled Little Joe closer to him and hugged him tightly. “Well, I hope we never have this kind of problem again, Little Joe.”
“Me too, Papa.”
“I’m awful hungry, Papa. Can we go eat?”
Laughing, Ben got out of the chair, swung his son onto his shoulders and said, “You bet we can, Little Joe.” And as they approached the top of the stairs, Ben Cartwright bellowed out, “Somebody better get some food ready in a hurry because me and Little Joe are hungry enough to eat a horse, aren’t we, Little Joe?”
But Little Joe couldn’t answer because he was giggling too much to speak.
Published in the Bonanza 40th Convention Anthology