A Pa for Toby (by DebbieB)

Summary: Young Toby’s parents have been killed in an accident, and Ben takes the boy under his wing. But Toby wants something that Joe has, and he sets out to take it away from the youngest Cartwright. Someone has been silently observing the goings on, does that person save for Joe, what Joe has feared most in his life of losing?

Rated:  G (11,125 words)

 

 

                        A Pa for Toby

 

“ADAM! HOSS!” shouted Ben in his deep voice. “GET OUT HERE, HURRY!”

Both Adam and Hoss came running from the house. Ben had hopped down from the front seat of the wagon and was crawling into the back by the time that the brothers answered the urgent call.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam said as he slid to a sudden stop, surprised by the young boy who sat as if in a daze in the seat next to the spot Ben had just emptied.

Hoss’ blue eyes widened in shock and he pointed to the blanket.

“Who ya got there?”

“Who’s the boy, Pa?” Adam asked as he raised the corner of the cover and examined the faces of the man and woman who lay dead, their bodies twisted and broken.

“He hasn’t said anything…not one word. I found them back on the road. Their wagon must have had a broken axle and went down a ravine. The boy probably jumped free, or was pushed out just before it went over. I assume that the man and woman are the boy’s parents,” Ben explained.

“You don’t have a clue who they might be?” questioned Hoss.

“No…not yet,” Ben said. “Adam, I want you to take the bodies into town. Tell Roy what I’ve just told you and have the doctor come out to take a look at the boy. Oh…and stop by the school, Joe can ride home with you, please.”

“Sure thing, I’ll be back later. What about the boy?”

Ben walked around to the side and smiled up at the boy, but the boy stared straight ahead without acknowledging him.

“I guess he’ll stay here, at least until I talk to Roy and see if we can find some relatives,” Ben answered. “Son, why don’t you get down and we’ll go inside…I’m sure you must be hungry, I’ll have our cook fit you a nice sandwich, or maybe you’d rather have some milk and cookies,” Ben said softly to the lad.

The boy, his eyes saddened by the events of the day, climbed slowly down and stood, looking up at Ben. Adam nodded his head at his father and climbed into the wagon. Ben’s arm automatically slipped about the boy’s shoulders feeling the tremors that coursed though the young man’s body.

“Where’s he takin’ them?” the boy asked softly.

Ben glanced at Hoss, surprised that the boy had finally spoken. He turned compassionate eyes downward to look into the tear filled eyes.

“Into town, son…to the…undertakers. He’ll take care of them for you and then…tomorrow…we can bury your parents,” Ben explained in his loving and fatherly manner.

Ben and Hoss heard the boy make sniffling sounds and then surprised Ben by wrapping his arms about Ben’s middle, loosing himself in his grief. For several long minutes, Ben allowed the boy to cry. His arms wrapped themselves protectively about the youth; his fingers entwined themselves amid the thick locks of the boy’s hair.

“That’s it, get it all out,” soothed Ben.

Hoss’ own eyes misted but he was quick to wipe away the dampness. His large, tender heart cried along with the boy over his loss.

“So, how old is this kid?” Joe asked Adam.

Adam had made his stops and the last stop was at the schoolhouse where he was requested to pick up his youngest brother. Joe sat next to Adam on the wagon seat and had listened with a growing concern about the dead man and woman that his father had found earlier that day. Joe was interested in hearing about the boy that had somehow survived the horrible crash.

“He’s about your age, I reckon,” Adam said. “He’s banged up some, but I think he’ll be alright.”

“Golly, he’s lucky he didn’t die too,” Joe said softly.

His thoughts were racing as he tried to imagine what it must feel like to see both of your parents killed at once, and in such a senseless way.

“Adam?”

“Yeah, Joe?” he answered, looking over at his brother whose voice suddenly sounded strange.

“What’s gonna happen to him? The kid, I mean?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know yet,” Adam said. “Why?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno, I was just wondering, that’s all.”

“I guess Pa will think of something. He’ll probably let Roy try to find out if he has any relatives round about and if so, I would think they’d take him in,” Adam explained.

For a spell, Joe was quite and the two brothers rode along seemingly lost in their own private thoughts about the matter.

“I’d be scared,” Joe said after a time.

“How so?”

“Being all alone. Not having anyone, not knowing what was going to happen to me or where I’d live or with whom,” Joe said in a strangely soft tone.

Adam glanced over at his brother and could see that the fear Joe spoke of was real; it showed in the boy’s eyes. He had never thought that his kid brother would still be harboring such hidden qualms.

“Look Joe, you don’t need to worry about things like that. We’d always be together, you, me and Hoss, if anything ever happened to Pa we’d stay right here on the ranch…”

“Don’t talk like that, Adam!” Joe said hoarsely. “I don’t wanna hear it…I don’t wanna think about it…I…”

“Alright Joe, simmer down. I thought maybe you were worried about what would happen to you if Pa suddenly…”

Joe turned dark eyes up at his brother. Adam could see that Joe’s chin had begun to quiver and that the hazel eyes had misted.

“Shut-up Adam…”

Adam let the crude demand pass, it was evident that his brother was overcome with emotion and knew that Joe might not even understand why he was reacting in the manner he was. But Adam knew, he had always known. For years after the death of his mother, Joe had come to him at night, his eyes red from crying, his face streaked with tears, his tiny body trembling in fear of the unknown. Adam glanced again at Joe and saw the inner struggle. Without saying another word, Adam nudged Joe with his elbow and when Joe turned to him, Adam handed the reins to his brother.

“Here, you drive, I’m gonna catch a nap,” Adam said laughingly, “and you need the practice,” teased.

Joe took the reins from his brother and then watched as Adam leaned his head back and pulled his hat down low over his eyes. He didn’t know that Adam saw, but Joe grinned and then slapped the leather down on the wide rumps of the team. Sometimes, thought Joe, his oldest brother was actually nice to him.

“Yeah…get on home,” he shouted to the horses.

“Joe, Toby here has offered to help out around the place, while he stays with us. I thought perhaps you’d like a little extra help doing your chores, so why don’t you show Toby what he can do to help?” Ben said, smiling at both young boys.

For a moment, a sense that something wasn’t quite right flickered across Joe’s thought waves, but he pushed the feeling to the back of his mind. He had noticed that ever since he’d gotten home and had supper, the new boy seemed to be clinging to his father, but Joe tried to reason it out. The boy was alone and probably scared half out of his wits, not knowing what was going to happen to him now that both of his parents were gone. He watched how Toby looked up at Ben, and how Ben smiled warmly in his fatherly way that had always brought him a measure of comfort and warm feeling of being loved when he was hurting or frightened or in trouble. Joe could only suppose that it was in his father’s nature to want to protect the new boy, knowing how much Toby had lost in one day. Joe tried to push his uncommon disquiet out of his mind and turn his thoughts instead to helping the boy overcome his grief.

“Sure, Pa,” Joe said, smiling at last. “Come on Toby, I’ll let you help. Do you know how to…muck out stalls?” Joe said with a gleam in his eye as the thought popped into his head.

“Joseph!” Ben said in a deep voice.

Joe turned to look up at his father. There was no need for words; Joe understood the warning look that his father gave him. He quickly rephrased his question into a simple statement, which in turn brought a smile to his father’s face.

“I’ll show you, you can watch me so when it’s your turn, you’ll know how,” he said to Toby but he turned and gave his father a cheeky grin as he turned to close the door behind them.

For the next few days, everything about the ranch seemed to take on a routine. The two young boys got on well together, or so it would appear to the others. But Joe wasn’t as happy with the new arrangement that had been made concerning Toby as what his father and older brothers assumed.

Late at night, Joe had heard the boy crying and had gone into Toby’s room to see if he could be of some comfort. Joe was told in no uncertain terms, by Toby, to get out and stay out. He went as far as to tell Joe that the only person he wanted right then was Ben. Thus Joe, furious, complied, seeing that it was fruitless on his part to offer any sympathy. It was during the days when the overwhelming sadness surged down upon the visitor that Joe saw a change in his father toward him, slowly begin to take shape.

When Toby was on the verge of tears, or when something had failed to please him, Ben was always there to soothe his tears, to wipe them away and to offer the boy a comforting embrace. Once Joe was in the middle of explaining to his father a problem he had at school and Toby came bursting from the barn, angry because Adam had insisted that he do something a particular way and he had not liked the idea. Toby had come running up to Ben and had thrown his arms about Ben’s middle, sobbing about how Adam was always trying to boss him around and didn’t Adam understand that he had no clue as to how to do the required chore, let alone the way Adam expected it done.

Ben had gathered the boy into his embrace and had tried to consol Toby and then, with no thought to his own son who needed his help, turned away and left Joe standing by himself as he led the distraught boy into the house. The fact that Toby had somehow managed to free himself of his work, and turn the attention Ben was giving to Joe onto himself, seemed not to have any affect on the doting father figure.

Joe decided then and there that he didn’t really like Toby much. Sure, he felt sorry for the younger boy, but he didn’t like the idea much that his father’s attention was being snatched from him. Hadn’t he lost his own mother and hadn’t he always lived in fear that something as horrible as what had happened to Toby’s father, might happen to his own father?

The old fears came back to haunt him. Joe had believed he had finally been able to put to rest his childhood nightmares, but with Toby’s arrival and the circumstances in which Toby had come to them had stirred the dying embers of old fears and had caused them to be rekindled, sending a new infectious dread into Joe’s young and impressionable heart.

“I didn’t start anything, honest, Pa…honest!” Joe beseeched.

“Yes you did, you called me a baby…you said I should grow up and stop whining!” shouted Toby. “And when I called you a spoiled brat, you punched me!”

“Liar!” stormed Joe, his eyes dark with anger. “I never said such a thing and you know it!”

“HUSH!” shouted Ben.

Ben held the two boys at arm’s length to keep them from ripping in to one another again. Joe’s right eye was turning black and blue and Toby’s lip had been busted and the swelling was obvious, along with the blood that seeped from the cut.

“Joseph, go to your room. I’ll deal with you later!” demanded Ben, pointing his finger toward the stairs.

Joe’s temper was overheating and he stomped his foot.

“But Pa!”

“Joseph, do as I say and do it quick before I thrash you right here and now for disobeying me!”

Joe looked as if he was about to cry, but he willed away the tears. His shock that his father would not hear him out stunned him into compliance as he walked slowly across the room and up the stairs. His anger dissolved and was replaced with disappointment and an ever-growing resentment directed at both his father and the young boy that his father seemed so enthralled with.

At the top of the steps he paused, looking back. Toby was locked in a tight embrace within Ben’s arms. His head rested gently on his father’s broad chest as Ben ran his fingers tenderly through the boy’s soft yellow hair. Joe felt his throat constrict and he turned, running the length of the hall and into his room, slamming the bedroom door behind him.

When Ben opened the same door, sometime later, and entered the room, Joe was lying face down on the bed, sleeping. Ben debated whether or not to wake his son and have the little talk he knew he must, but seeing the boy so soundly asleep, his arm curled into a fist, the thumb tucked beneath his slender fingers and Joe looking so much like the boy his father remembered of bygone years, Ben could not bring himself to wake and discipline his son.

“It’ll wait till morning,” he told himself as he reached for the hand-stitched quilt and pulled it over Joe’s slender form.

Ben turned the lamp down low and with one last glance, left Joe to his dreams.

The house was quiet and dark when Joe woke. He pushed himself up from the bed and fumbling in the dark, found the table where the lamp was and turned up the wick. Not having a clue to the time, only knowing that his stomach growled and begged for food, Joe opened the bedroom door and went into the hallway. He’d grab a snack from the kitchen and then go back to bed, he decided.

At the top of the staircase, Joe stopped. Down below in the great room, he could make out his father’s voice and that of his brothers. Joe glanced down the hall and saw that the door to Toby’s room was closed assuring him that Toby had retired for the night.

‘Good,’ thought Joe. ‘I don’t wanna have any more dealings with you tonight, you’ve already lied about me and earned me a good thrashing, once Pa makes up his mind to give it to me.’

“Pa…really…” Joe heard Adam say.

“Adam, I’m telling you, I don’t know what on earth is wrong with that boy lately. He’s done nothing but stir up trouble for days now…weeks even. Every time I turn my back, he and Toby are into it about something,” fumed Ben.

“I don’t understand it either, Pa. I’ve tried talking to him, but he just snaps at me…course that’s not unusual,” Adam said lightly.

“Doesn’t matter, he’s been rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious, unfeeling toward the sorrow in Toby’s life. Why he’s even been disrespectful to the poor boy, and to me I might add. I’ve seen a side of Joe that I had no clue even existed, Adam. I would have never guessed that a son of mine could be so uncaring about another individual, especially one his own age.”

Ben looked up from his pacing to stare into the faces of his older two sons. He shook his head in a disbelieving way.

“I’m sorry to say, I’m ashamed and disappointed in my own son.”

“Aw…Pa, ya can’t mean that?” Hoss stammered.

Ben sat down in his chair, still shaking his head.

“I mean every word of it,” Ben declared.

Joe, his eyes filling with tears could hardly believe his ears. The sharp words, uttered by the man he loved most in life, cut him to the core. His father was disappointed in him; Ben was ashamed of him, and for what? What were the reasons that spurred his father’s sudden unpleasant opinion of him…Joe glanced down the hall at the closed door and knew what the answer was…Toby. It had all started with the arrival of Toby.

Joe felt like marching straight into the room and clobbering the boy, but knew he couldn’t, it would only earn him more disfavor from his father. Joe swallowed down his dejection and went back to his room. He paid the lamp no mind. Instead he flopped down on the bed, turning over to bury his face amid the soft pillows and though he tried not to permit them their release, the tears escaped anyway and drowned themselves into the white crispness of the pillowcases.

“I want you to apologize to Toby,” Ben instructed.

He and Joe stood in the hallway upstairs. Ben’s eyes were dark, but he had lost most of the angry feelings he experienced the night before at his son.

“Do I make myself clear?”

Joe, his heart aching to reach out to his father, could only stand with his head lowered and nod his reply.

“And this time, young man, when you speak to him, speak with a certain amount of respect…”

Joe’s head snapped up as he stared in shock at his father.

“Respect? Why should I respect him? He called me…”

“JOSEPH!” Ben said in a low voice. “Don’t use that tone with me!”

Joe bit his tongue to keep from making a sharp retort. His breathing was irregular and when he swallowed, he felt the burning sensation of animosity in the back of his throat.

“Sorry sir,” Joe mumbled.

Joe raised his head, looking into his father’s eyes.

“That’s better,” Ben said, his voice softening.

He placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder and smiled.

“I know it hasn’t been easy for you, son, having to share me with Toby. But I was hoping you’d understand, the boy’s lost so much…his mother, his father, his whole life has been changed in a blink of an eye. He needs to know that there are those of us who care about him, he’s all alone, Joe, and he’s scared…scared because he has no one, and has no clue what is going to happen to him…”

Joe felt the old fear gnawing in his gut and he gritted his teeth and clenched his jaw to keep it from spewing forth.

“I said I’d apologize, didn’t I?” he replied angrily.

Joe brushed Ben’s hand away and turned to go. At the end of the hall, he stopped and turned back to his father.

“I lost my mother too, you know…and if I remember correctly, when she died, you didn’t bother to go out of your way to comfort me, like you do him!’” snarled Joe, pointing to the boy who had just come from his room and who now stood next to Ben.

Joe’s mouth opened wide when Toby smiled at him and then slipped his hand into Ben’s. When Ben glanced down at Toby and back at Joe, it was all Joe could stand. It was the last straw, the ultimate rejection on his father’s part. Joe turned from the heart-wrenching scene and ran from the house, sure that he had just been replaced.

“I won’t be gone long, Toby. I want you to stay here with Adam and Hoss and please, do as they tell you,” Ben instructed.

“Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright,” the boy agreed.

Toby smiled at Ben. “What about Little Joe…are you going to punish him for running away?”

Ben studied the angelic face that beamed up at him and for a fraction of a second, all the things that Joe had been trying to tell him about the side of Toby that Joe claimed he didn’t see because Toby hid it well from him, raced through his thoughts. Could Joe be right and he so very wrong about the boy?

“Don’t worry yourself about Joe, I’ll deal with him as I see fit, young man,” Ben scolded.

It was the harshest tone he had used with Toby and the boy played it to his benefit. He forced tears to flood his eyes and looked pitifully up at Ben.

“I’m sorry…I didn’t mean anything by it, honest,” he said in a soft tone.

Ben sighed and cupped the trembling chin, smiling.

“I didn’t mean to snap at you Toby, but as I said, I’ll tend to Joe, you just stay here and see that you get your chores finished, understand?”

Toby wiped his eyes and gave Ben a big smile.

“Yes sir, I will. And I promise, you won’t be disappointed in me.”

“I know I won’t; now, I have to go; you be good, young man.”

Ben turned and mounted his horse, waving at Toby as he rode from the yard.

From his hiding place behind the barn door, Joe turned away from the scene in the yard. His heart was heavy, couldn’t his father see through Toby’s deception and see the kid for what he really was.

Which is? His conscious questioned him.

“I don’t know…I don’t know!” Joe muttered to himself.

He stomped away and leaned against the nearest post and growled lowly to himself. When his rage became too much, Joe doubled up his fist and slammed it into the post, instantly regretting what he had done. The pain in his fingers shot upward into his wrist, bringing instant tears to his eyes.

“Damn you, Toby,” he snarled, clutching his hand tightly.

“Aw…did Little Joe hurt himself?” Toby taunted from behind.

He had entered into the barn unannounced and caught sight of Joe just as Joe’s fist connected to the post. He laughed softly.

Joe spun around, his angry eyes glowering with hate for the one who had stolen his father’s love and respect from him.

“Shut-up!” Joe yelled.

“Tisk, tisk, tisk…is that tears I see? Oh, poor thing, I thought Joe Cartwright was too big and mighty to be reduced to tears,” laughed Toby.

Joe ignored the remark and turned away, he was determined not to be goaded into another fight.

“Why don’t you just go away and get the hell out of my life…and my father’s?” Joe snapped.

“What’s wrong, Little Joe…you jealous? You should be, your father loves me more than he does you,” Toby said with a vicious laugh.

Joe was trembling with anger as he advanced on the boy. He forgot the pain in his hand as he doubled up both fists, ready to do battle over the right to his father’s love.

“He does not!” shouted Joe. “He could never love you more…never!”

“Oh no…then ask him!” laughed the other boy.

Joe’s nostrils were flaring and he took another step forward.

“I don’t have to ask…I know!”

Toby moved around in a circle, placing his back to the door. He knew Joe was on the verge of attacking him and he wanted to be ready. It was all he needed, just one more good pounding by this angry boy to win from him, his father’s total love and devotion. Something that he, Toby, had never had from his own father, but what he longed for all the days of his life. Now it was right in the palm of his hand, love from a man whom he deemed the best father in whole world, and he had stolen it away from this green-eyed, hotheaded, impetuous youngest son of Ben Cartwright.

“Then tell me why your Pa promised me that if he couldn’t find my relatives, he would adopt me?” Toby lied.

He laughed outright when he saw Joe’s lower jaw go slack and watched as Joe struggled to contain himself. It was perfect; he’d just shattered the other boy’s heart. Joe would run away, for sure this time, and probably never come back. Ben Cartwright would be his and he’d be the youngest son very soon now.

Toby was so intent on watching Joe’s expression that he failed to see the left fist that came out of nowhere and plowed into his face. The force of the blow sent him tumbling backwards, through the opened doorway and into the yard. Again and again, Joe used his fist to beat the face of the boy who refused to stop laughing. The sound ground his nerves into fine powder making Joe relentless in his indifference toward the boy that his father had taken to replace him.

The ruckus brought Adam and Hoss running from the house. Hoss grabbed Joe and pulled him from the other boy. Adam grabbed Toby, who lay face down on the ground and pulled the lad to his feet.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Adam demanded.

“He started it,” Toby said, pointing to Joe. “He hit me first!”

The laughing had stopped and Joe was amazed that now tears shown in Toby’s blue eyes.

“Liar!” Joe screamed.

He fought against his brother’s hands, trying desperately to separate himself from the powerful clutches.

“Joe,” said Adam, in a tone that Joe recognized all too well. “Did you hit him first?”

Joe’s lips pursed tightly together and Adam could see his brother’s jaw clenching just as tightly. He knew the answer, even before Joe spoke, but something in his brother’s eyes caught his attention and Adam’s anger seemed to have dissipated. An inner voice, soft as a whisper, told him that what he had suspected for days now, was so. It showed in his brother’s heartbroken expression and in the empty and hollow look deep within the emerald crystals of Joe’s eyes.

“Let him go, Hoss,” Adam ordered.

“Go…but Adam, he’ll run off…” stammered Hoss, glancing from one brother to the next.

“I said, let him go,” Adam repeated the words.

Hoss released his fingers from about Joe’s arms, waiting for Joe to make a break and run. For a moment, Joe refused to budge. He searched Adam’s face for something, not knowing for what.

“Go on Joe, I know you want to…and I think I know why,” Adam said using as gentle a tone as he could muster.

The quivering chin and sad expression tugged at Adam’s heartstrings as he watched Joe run across the yard and leap onto his horse’s back. Adam felt the constriction of his own throat as he turned and watched his youngest brother ride off out of sight, praying that when the time came, Joe would come home again.

The moment he swung down from the saddle, Ben ran across the yard toward the barn. Hoss and Adam were bending over Toby who sat on a crate just outside the door. His nose was bleeding and his lip had swelled. The boy’s right eye sported a bright ring of blue and purple and Toby’s chin was quivering, a sure sign that the lad had been crying.

“What now?” fumed Ben as he pushed Adam’s hands away from the boy so that he could see for himself the damage that had been done to Toby’s face.

He really had no cause to ask the question, it was obvious that Toby and Little Joe had been fighting again. Ben made a quick glance around the yard, but his own son was nowhere to be seen.

“Ouch,” Toby said in his boyish sounding voice.

“I’m sorry, Toby,” Ben said. “Are you alright, now?”

“Yeah,” the boy grumbled.

Hoss and Adam stood back as Ben knelt down so that he could be face to face with Toby. They knew by the angry look in their father’s eyes that Ben was fit to be tied. They remembered the warning he had given to their younger brother about fighting with Toby…but obviously, Little Joe had not remembered.

“What happened this time?” Ben asked.

Toby lowered his head, his chin quivered again and when Ben gently tilted his head up, soft, gentle tears rolled from the corner of each eye.

“I tried not to fight’em, Mr. Cartwright, honest. But he wouldn’t pay me no mind. Little Joe just started clobbering me, I had to fight back…”

“But why? What the fight about this time, Toby? What reason did Little Joe give you for starting another fight?” Ben pushed. “I thought we had everything all worked out between you two boys.”

“So did I, but then this morning he was out here in the barn, just waiting for me. He accused me of…of…stealing…”

“What?” Ben practically shouted. “Stealing what?”

“Pa,” Adam said in a steady voice. “Could I have a word with you?”

Ben turned to look up at his oldest son, his eyes dark with anger.

“Can’t you see that I’m trying to get to the bottom of this? That brother of yours is going to get a good…”

“Pa, please!” Adam said sternly.

Adam moved away, into the barn, and waited for his father to join him. Outside, he could hear Ben speaking to Hoss and Toby.

“Hoss, take Toby to the house and clean him up. Hop Sing should have a beefsteak to put on that shiner. I’ll be with you in a few minutes, after I speak with Adam.”

“Yessir, Pa. Come on little buddy, let’s get his face taken care of,” Hoss said, placing his arm about the boy’s shoulders and walking to the house.

Ben waited until Hoss was nearly to the house before entering the barn.

“Alright, Adam, what is so important that it couldn’t wait until I was finished talking to Toby?” Ben said.

Ben stood in the light that cast its glow onto the barn floor from the opened doorway. Adam was leaning against a post, his arms folded across his chest. Something about the way he looked at him caused Ben to forget his anger.

“What’s wrong, son? What is this all about?”

“Why don’t you sit down, Pa?”

Ben glanced at the bales of hay stacked to one side, but remained where he was.

“Why?”

Adam made a mock grin and moved to the bales himself, and sat down.

“Alright then, I’ll sit…”

Ben moved deeper into the barn and watched the expressions on his son’s face.

“Adam, please…something’s troubling you. Is it Joe?”

“Yeah, Pa, it’s Joe,” Adam said softly.

This time when Ben moved, he moved to sit down next to Adam and waited while his son searched for the words he wanted to say.

“I know you warned Joe about fighting with Toby…”

“That’s right, and apparently he disregarded my warning. What do you know about this fight? What was it that Joe thought Toby had stolen from him that was so important that he saw fit to beat the…”

“You,” Adam said softly.

Ben’s words hung in his throat and his eyes widened in surprise.

“Me? I don’t understand, Adam,” Ben stated.

“Look, Pa…I’m not even sure if what I think is going on, is actually going on. All I know is that Little Joe is…well…hurting…and it’s because of Toby…”

Ben looked even more puzzled. “Toby?”

“Well, it started when you found Toby and his parents and brought them all here,” Adam explained.

Ben took a deep breath and stood to his feet, moving across the barn and turning around.

“What started? I’m not following you son, I have no idea what on earth you are talking about?” Ben said nearing exasperation.

Adam got to his feet as well and went to Ben. His expression was one of worry.

“Look Pa, when did Joe’s attitude about everything suddenly change? It was when you brought Toby home. Oh, not the first few days, but later, Joe seemed mad all the time. He was edgy and sullen; you couldn’t even speak to the boy without getting your head bit off. And then the fights started and it seemed that Joe was always the one at fault. Everyone of us, especially you, sided with Toby…poor Toby…he’s lost everything, his father, his mother…he had no one…no one that is except for Ben Cartwright, his newfound surrogate father.”

Adam pinched his lips tightly, he hadn’t meant to be so blunt, but it came out that way and he could only imagine what his father must be thinking, if anything. Adam chanced a quick glance in his father’s direction.

Ben looked thoughtful, his dark eyes looked like smoldering lava about to erupt, but Adam saw his father take a deep breath and let it out slowly. He knew Ben was trying to maintain a measure of composure.

“Just what is that suppose to mean?” Ben said in a strained yet deep voice.

Adam looked his father straight in the eye with flinching.

“That all of a sudden it seemed as if Toby was the son and Joe was the outsider.”

Ben’s eyes flashed dark and for a moment Adam thought his father would start to shout at him. He hurried on, it had weighed heavy on his mind these last few weeks, these disturbing thoughts and fears that had been bothering him needed clarifying.

“Or so it must surely have seemed to Joe.”

Adam placed a hand on his father’s arm, surprised to feel how tense the muscles beneath his fingers were.

“Pa, don’t you see what’s happening to Joe?”

“No, I don’t…why don’t you tell me?” Ben stated rather than asked.

“Toby represented everything to Little Joe that Joe has feared most all of his life,” Adam explained.

“And that is?”

“Losing you.”

“Losing me? How for heaven’s sake?” Ben said, his anger beginning to dissolve.

“Pa…all Joe’s life, he’s lived in fear that something might happen to you, that you would be killed and he’d be…left alone in a way. I thought he’d finally outgrown it, but since Toby came here, since Toby lost his mother and his father…the reality that death can happen in a snap of your finger, and one could find himself all alone, with no one, became all to real to Little Joe. It awoke in him, the old fears and when he watched you doting on Toby’s every move, his every whim, Joe got all mixed up inside and…well, I guess he thought that there was more than one way of losing the person he loves most in his life…”

Ben seemed truly shocked by the information that Adam was giving him. He paced the barn, to and fro several times and then stopped, running his fingers through his silver hair. The turbulence that was building inside of him was nearly ready to overflow.

“Adam, are you saying that Joe continued to fight with Toby only because he was afraid that I loved…Toby…more than I loved him?” Ben stammered as the realization of Adam’s words hit him full force.

“Joe might not understand that, is the reason he suddenly disliked Toby, or thinks he hates the boy, but I believe from what I’ve seen, that’s why Joe’s acting out as he is.

It isn’t really his fault, Pa…Joe’s just a boy, a kid, and he doesn’t understand that no matter how much you do care about Toby, or how very sorry you feel for him, Joe misinterprets your actions as acts of love…which they are, but not as Joe sees love…all he sees is that since Toby’s been here, he’s in trouble all the time, he’s always the one in the wrong, and Toby’s right and that it’s because of Toby that you stay angry at him. He sees Toby as a threat, the means by which he could lose his father…and if I’m right in what I think, then Joe’s scared, just plain scared. Pa, am I making any sense at all, do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

For several minutes Ben was silent. Adam watched his father struggle, the new fears that his words evoked stirred Ben deeply. When at last Ben turned to Adam, his eyes were full of unshed tears.

“I had no idea that your brother felt that way, or that I was causing him such inner turmoil,” Ben said, swallowing hard. “My poor boy…” Ben muttered softly, almost in a whisper. Ben wiped his opened hand across the front of his face.

“Adam, do you have any idea where Joe is? I must go to him, I have to talk to him and try to make him understand that I…that I love him more than life itself,” Ben said in a thick voice.

“When Hoss and I heard the ruckus and came running out, Joe jumped on his horse and lit out of here like the devil was chasing him. My bet would be to look up at the lake; he usually goes there and has a talk with…his mother…when he’s troubled.”

“Yes, you’re right, son, he would go straight to Marie. Help Hoss make Toby comfortable and tell Hop Sing to go ahead with supper. I’m going after your brother,” Ben said as he moved to the door.

Buck was still standing at the hitching post, saddled. Ben quickly made his way over to his horse and mounted up.

“Alright, Pa…Pa,” said Adam, standing beside his father’s horse and looking up at Ben.

Ben looked down at Adam and saw the concern in the dark eyes, “Yes, son?”

“You aren’t going to…yell at Joe…are you?”

Ben fought back the smile that tugged at his lips.

“No…I’m not going to yell at Joe,” he said, smiling at last.

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam smiled in return.

“No,” Ben said, turning Buck around, “thank you.”

It was, as he knew it would be; Joe was sitting propped against his mother’s headstone. He had his knees drawn up tight against his chest and his head was resting on top of them. His arms were wrapped tightly about his bended legs. His eyes, red from crying, could not be seen by his father who stood over him, his own heart heavy for the misunderstanding that separated them and threatened to sever their relationship.

Quietly, Ben squatted down in front of his son.

“Joseph,” he whispered.

Ben placed his hand on the soft silken curls, awakening the boy from his thoughts and to the fact that he was no longer alone with his misery.

At the sound of his name, Joe’s head snapped upward. Ben could see the collection of tears that lingered in the emerald eyes, so heartbreakingly lonely and lost. He could see the white tracks down the center of Joe’s face where the previous tears had left their mark.

“Pa!” Joe said in a shaky voice.

His eyes locked with his father’s and then suddenly, Joe pushed Ben’s hand away and jumped to his feet, moving out of reach of his father. Ben watched as Joe wiped the sleeve of his shirt across the front of his face, desperately trying to hide all traces that he had been caught crying.

Ben’s heart melted as it always did when Joe’s actions moved him as they did now. He wanted nothing more than to take the boy into his arms and hold him as he had when Joe had been so much smaller and younger. But he sensed in his son a smidgeon of aloofness and reasoned that the moment for such endearment was not at present.

“Son…” began Ben, “I think we should talk.”

Joe had moved far enough away that he felt safe in that his father could not touch him. He had his back to Ben, but at the words, Joe turned his head and looked over his shoulder.

“Talk?” he muttered, “about Toby…about how I stomped his butt…about how you…”

Joe’s words trailed off into a whisper and then stopped completely. He turned to hide his face from the dark, probing eyes.

“About how I what, son?” Ben asked.

The concerned father willed himself not to go to his son, but remain for now, where he stood.

“Nothing,” Joe said firmly, his tone laden with resentment.

Ben pursed his lips together and then took a deep breath, ready to jump in and do battle if need be to win back his son’s affection.

“Adam said you accused Toby of stealing something that you believed belonged to…just you,” Ben stated, toying with a blade of grass he had stooped down to pull.

“I didn’t accuse him of stealing, only of trying to,” Joe muttered. He still refused to turn and look at his father.

“Then I take it by that statement, what Adam thought is correct…you do, for whatever reason, believe that I have stopped…loving you…and now love Toby more?” Ben asked, taking a couple of steps closer to his son.

He could see Joe’s body stiffen at his words and worried that the boy might get it into his head to run away again. Instead, Joe turned to face him, his eyes dark with anger or fear, Ben wasn’t sure which of the two it might actually be. But nonetheless, the look in Joe’s eyes broke his heart, for it screamed of heartache and despair.

“You can’t deny it…” Joe said, his voice trembling. “I’ve seen the way you’ve changed since he’s been here, since you brought him home and decided that he’d make a better son than I would…”

A sob caught in Joe’s throat and drowned out his words. Ben could see the tears that fell from his son’s eyes as Joe lowered his head and turned his back toward him for the second time.

“Joseph,” Ben said, his own voice thick with raw emotion. “I could never stop loving you, I haven’t stopped loving you…”

“You haven’t?” shouted Joe, spinning around and giving Ben a disgusted snarl. “You sure have a funny way of showing it…always yelling at me, blaming me for everything that happens to ‘poor Toby’, sending me to my room when I haven’t done anything…ignoring me…adopting him!”

The tears rolled freely down the boy’s face as Joe nibbled his lower lip and tried to make his words have meaning.

“I heard you tell my own brothers…my brothers that you had no idea that I could be so…so…nasty to another person. I heard you tell them that…”

Joe’s sobbing became uncontrollable and he turned away, leaning heavily on the nearest tree, shielding his face from his father’s and began to weep sorrowfully. Ben could stand no more, he moved quickly to Joe’s side, placing a tender hand on his son’s back. Ben made a sniffling sound and swallowed hard.

“Joseph, I…”

Again Joe managed to move away. Ben could see that the boy bordered on hysteria. He moved to comfort his son before Joe could run away.

“DON’T!” Joe shouted, slapping Ben’s hand away. “It’s happened Pa…I always knew it would…I just didn’t know it would happen like this,” he ranted. “I’ve lost you…” wept Joe. “I’ve lost…you!”

Joe’s crying came in broken sobs that wrenched the heartstrings of the man who had fathered him. Ben’s eyes misted with tears and when Joe sank to his knees in the soft, moss-covered earth, Ben sank down along with him.

Ben’s hands grasped Joe’s trembling shoulders. Giving in to his misery and wanting nothing more than to feel his father’s arms locked about his weakened body in a loving embrace, Joe allowed his father to pull him into the folds of his arms and leaned willing against his father’s breast.

For several lingering minutes, Ben held his son and allowed Joe to cry out his sorrow. When it appeared that the weeping had stopped, Ben leaned down his head, kissing the top of the chestnut curls. Joe’s arms had laced themselves about his father’s mid-section and he clung desperately to the warmth and the love that he suddenly realized had not been stolen from him.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe muttered after a spell.

“Shh…you have nothing to be sorry for, son. It was all my fault,” Ben whispered. “I should have seen what was happening, I should have been more observant of what I was doing to you,” Ben replied.

Gently, Ben tilted Joe back and cupping the quivering chin in his strong, but loving hand, tipped Joe’s head upward so that he could look into the hazel eyes.

“I could never love another boy more than I love you at this very second. I love you with all my heart and soul, as I do your brothers. No one…understand me, Joe, no one…could ever replace you, or be the son to me that you have been. I would rather die a thousand deaths than to have you believe otherwise.”

Once more tears filled the boy’s eyes as Joe’s arms wrapped about his father’s neck.

“I’ve been so scared…ever since my mother died, that I’d lose you,” he whispered in broken sobs.

Ben eased Joe back and then sat down on the grass, bringing Joe down next to him. He pulled Joe close and placed his arm around his son.

“Why don’t you tell me about it, son? I had no idea that you still had such thoughts,” Ben encouraged.

Joe swiped his arm across his face, under his nose and looked up sadly at his father.

“For a long time, a very long time, after my mother died, I would cry myself to sleep. I didn’t understand what death was, only that she had gone away, but not realizing that death was so final that my mother would never come home to me, to us.

When I got older and understood about death, I was afraid that you would die and I’d be left all alone. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d still have Adam and Hoss…I only thought about what would happen to me if something happened to you.

And then you started going away on business…I’d feel all alone and…frightened. I had dreams…nightmares really…and it was always the same. You’d leave and never come back…and I could see myself, running through the dark…I’d have no idea where I was going…but I’d be calling for you…pleading with you not to leave me. I could see you off in the distance and I’d run faster and faster to try to catch up with you, but I never could. And then you’d disappear…it was awful, I felt sick to my stomach, like now…and all alone…and…and…”

Joe blew his nose on the handkerchief that Ben pulled from his hind pocket and handed to him.

“I know it sounds silly…really silly when I say it out loud,” Joe said shyly.

He looked up at his father and saw the understanding he yearned for reflected back at him from the warm depths of Ben’s eyes.

“I don’t think it’s silly, Joseph,” Ben said, tightening his arm about Joe’s shoulders.

Joe leaned his head over, resting it against his father.

“When you brought Toby home and I saw what he was going through…what with his ma and his pa dying…I guess I sort of got to thinking, that could be me. And I got scared all over again. I saw how Toby hurt,” Joe sniffed his nose again. “I saw how sad he was, and I heard him lots of times, crying, mostly at nights when he thought everyone was sleeping and didn’t hear him. It made me ill, just hearing him calling out for his ma and especially his pa…”

Joe looked up at his father, his eyes wide and fearful. “I…didn’t mean to fight with him, I wasn’t mean to him on purpose, honest, Pa.”

“Then why, Joe…did you seem to be?” Ben asked gently.

“I dunno…I guess because he reminded me that it could happen to me…that I could lose you…he even told me one day that he wished it had been my pa rather than his that died. Him saying that made me mad…and…I punched him. But he only laughed at me and said that you loved him more than you loved me…I punched him again…”

Joe stood to his feet and walked a short distance off before turning around.

“I knew in my heart it wasn’t so…but then, I saw that every time Toby did something that pleased you, you’d glance at me, and I thought you were comparing us. I’m always doing something wrong…I’m always getting in trouble and worrying ya with silly things, but Toby…”

Ben got to his feet and moved to stand in front of Joe, resting his hands on the slim shoulders.

“But Toby…nothing. Oh yes, Joe, I felt sorry for the boy, he had lost so much…and I knew he was hurting. Perhaps that’s why I showered him with attention, to ease his sorrow and make him feel as if he were still loved. I knew that at this point, he had no one, not even relatives who could comfort him, so…I guess I over-indulged Toby. I didn’t mean too, I was only trying to make him feel as though we cared…and I ended up hurting you, leaving you to think that I’d stop caring for you…”

“Joseph,” Ben said, tilting the head upward and smiling down into the cherubic face, “I could never stop loving you…I will never stop loving you, do you understand?” smiled Ben.

The last lone tear was free and rolled slowly down the face of Ben’s youngest son.

“I do now,” he whispered, molding himself against his father. Joe felt the loving arms embrace and squeeze him. “I love ya, Pa,” he muttered.

“And I love you.”

Ben waited while Joe managed to collect his emotions before mounting up. He smiled at his son, pleased to see that the shimmer of happiness had returned to the boy’s eyes.

“Now…what are we going to do about our young friend?” Ben questioned.

“I suppose…I have to apologize to him for fighting.”

Ben smiled. “That’s a good start…then what?”

“I don’t know Pa…what is going to happen to Toby?”

“Do you really care, Joe, what becomes of him?” Ben asked gently.

Joe’s face took on a surprised expression.

“I don’t hate him…I know I acted like I did, but it was because of the things he said to me…and the way he made me feel. I feel sorry for him too, Pa…honest. I know…or sort of know, how he feels…it must be awful to lose both parents. I don’t want to see anything bad happen to him. What’s gonna happen if’n you don’t find any relatives? Are you really going to adopt him?”

The pair rode side-by-side back toward the house.

“No, Joe, I’m not going to adopt Toby. I suppose that he’d have to go to the orphanage, unless we found someone who really wanted to adopt him,” Ben said thoughtfully.

Joe turned to his father. His face bore a worried expression.

“The orphanage…I’d hate to see that happen,” he said.

“So would I…I’ve heard terrible things about some of them,” Ben stated.

They rode in silence for several moments until Joe broke the silence.

“Pa…”

“Yes?”

“If anything ever happened to you…before I was full grown…would I be sent to an orphanage?” Joe said in a worried voice.

Ben turned to see the look of horror on his son’s young face and instantly pulled Buck to a standstill. He reached out, grabbing hold of Cochise’s reins and pulled Joe’s horse to a stop next to his.

“Of course not…you would stay right here on the ranch, with Adam and Hoss. Joe, please, never worry that you would be sent away. A long time ago, when Adam turned twenty-one, I went to see my lawyer and made sure that you would be taken care of should something happen to me. Adam would be your legal guardian, along with Hoss who would help him care for and raise you.”

For a moment, Joe looked thoughtful, then his eyes narrowed and he looked Ben’s way.

“You mean Adam would be my boss?” he said in surprise.

Ben could not stop the smile that spread across his face. He knew his youngest son well enough to know what the boy was thinking.

“That’s right,” he said, almost laughing out right at Joe’s scowl.

“Great,” Joe muttered, kicking his heels into Cochise’s sides. “Just promise me one thing, Pa,” Joe called out.

Ben urged Buck to hurry and soon caught up to his son.

“What’s that, Joe?”

Joe looked like a little boy with his face all scrunched up like it was. But he gave his father a cheeky grin.

“Just promise me that you’ll live to a ripe old age. I couldn’t take old stuffy pants bossing me around everyday for the rest of my life,” he giggled.

Ben’s deep rich laughter joined the high-pitched giggles of his son’s.

“I promise to do my best,” Ben swore, crossing his heart in a child-like manner.

Both father and son were still laughing when they rode into the yard. Joe seemed surer of himself by then and as he dismounted, he gave his father a happy smile.

“Guess I’d better go find Toby and tell him I’m sorry,” Joe said, lacing the reins over the top of the hitching post.

“He’s probably in the barn doing his chores, I’d best get inside and see who our company is,” Ben said, nodding to the horse and buggy standing across the yard at the other hitching post.

As Ben watched, Joe hurried to the barn and disappeared from his sight. Ben headed for the house and just as he reached for the door, it was yanked opened from the inside. Hoss greeted his father with a happy grin.

“Howdy, Pa…come on in, we’ve got company,” he said, almost pulling Ben into the house.

Hoss still held the door handle in his hand and as Ben entered the house and began to remove his hat, Hoss peeked out though the opened door.

“Did ya find Little Joe?” he asked Ben, closing the door at last.

“Yes, he’s in the barn,” Ben said as he crossed the room to greet his guests.

Adam stood up and moved to his father’s side.

“Pa, this is Mr. Carl Atwell, and his wife, Doris,” Adam said, introducing the man and woman to his father. “They are Toby’s aunt and uncle,” he added.

“Sir, Ma’am, my father, Ben Cartwright.”

Ben’s eyes widened in surprise, but his smile was most welcoming.

“You don’t say, I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Atwell,” Ben said as he shook hands with the man who had gotten to his feet to greet his host. “Mrs. Atwell,” Ben nodded, smiling.

“Please, sit down,” Ben offered, taking a seat in his red chair.

Mr. Atwell sat back down on the settee next to his wife. Carl was an older man, older than what Toby’s father had appeared to be. He explained to Ben and his sons that he was Fred’s, Toby’s father, older brother. Carl and Doris lived in Stockton and Carl went on to explain that Fred and his wife, Lou Ann, were on their way to join them when they encountered the unfortunate accident that claimed their lives and left Toby orphaned.

“We’d like to take Toby back with us, Mr. Cartwright…if he’s a mind to go,” Carl stated.

“Well certainly, I’m sure Toby will agree…speaking of which, where is the boy?” Ben asked Adam.

“He’s in the barn, doing chores…and Joe?” Adam said, one brow slightly lifted.

“In the barn, doing chores…we hope,” Ben smiled.

“I take it then, that you got things straightened out?” Adam hinted.

Ben nodded his head. “Yes, just in time too, I might add. And you were right, Adam.”

“Look,” said Joe with determination. “I said I was sorry…I shouldn’t have hit you. I shouldn’t have accused you of…trying to steal my father, it was childish of me and I apologize,” Joe stated.

Toby had his back to Joe and turned around, his blue eyes were dark and Joe sensed in the boy a deep seeded resentment directed at him.

“Okay, so you’ve said it, doesn’t mean that you really mean it though…it only means that your old man made you say it,” snorted Toby.

“I meant it,” Joe said.

He was quickly losing his temper with the other boy. It seemed that Toby had a way of ticking him off like no else could do, or was it because he feared for himself what had actually happened to Toby? Joe wasn’t sure, but he swallowed his anger and moved closer, extending out his hand toward the boy.

“Come on, Toby, can’t we start all over and be friends, please?” Joe said with sincerity.

Toby looked down at the out stretched but never said a word until he looked up into Joe’s eyes.

“I’d don’t like you…you know that, don’t you?” he snarled at Joe.

Joe sighed deeply and lowered his hand.

“I figured as much and I can’t say that I blame you, I haven’t treated you very well since you got here. And to be honest, I don’t much like you either. You’ve been just as nasty to me as I have been to you, you know.”

Toby moved away, turning his back to Joe once again. He picked up the rake and spun around, holding the handle in both hands. Instantly, Joe noted the swell of anger and what he deemed as hate, fill the other boy’s eyes and he took a cautious step back, distancing himself from the boy and the long rake.

“It’s not because of that, that I hate you,” Toby growled.

“Then why?” Joe questioned, keeping an eye on the way that Toby toyed with the handle.

“It’s because you have it all…a family, brothers, a father who loves you…a home, money…you have everything you could possibly want. I have nothing…”

“But that’s not my fault,” stammered Joe. “I don’t have a mother…she died when I was just a kid…”

“I don’t have anything…I never did. My parents didn’t love me…they hated me. My mother hated my father, my father couldn’t stand my mother. All they ever did was argue and scream at each other. My father blame my mother for keeping him tied down to her and her damn kid…me. My mother hated my father for getting her pregnant with me and she resented me for being born. She told my father once…I heard her…she told him she wished she had died when I was born and you wanna know what he said?”

Toby’s laughter was filled with anger and hurt, hate and resentment and it sent cold chills surging through Joe’s veins. He felt his body tremble just by the sound it made ringing in the empty barn.

“My father said, ‘if there had ever been a God, he would have let the both of you die when that brat was born’, that’s how much my old man loved me. So now you know, Cartwright, why I hate you, I hate your family and I hate everything that you represent!”

A deep sob gurgled up from the pit of Toby’s stomach and tears instantly filled his eyes. Joe reckoned that they were the first real tears that Toby had shed since arriving at the Ponderosa.

Toby glared at Joe and raised the rake high over his head in a threatening manner. Joe, his own eyes wide, glanced around looking for a way to escape from the force he knew would be behind the handle once it came down on his head.

“Toby…don’t do it,” Joe said, backing up against the wall.

“I have too…I…”

“Drop the rake Toby!” a deep voice from the doorway called.

Joe’s eyes never left the other boy’s face, though he longed to see who had come to his rescue. The voice was unfamiliar and certainly not his father’s or that of Adam’s or even Hoss’.

Toby’s eyes ventured to the door, the rake remained high in the air and it seemed as if all time had stopped and the boy was frozen in that time frame.

The man moved slowly into the barn. Joe caught a glimpse of the tall figure as he cautiously inched forward. When he was just inches from the boy, the man took the rake from Toby’s trembling hands and tossed it to the side.

“I heard what you said, son. You don’t have to keep on feeling as if no one loves you. I love you Toby, your Aunt Doris loves you and we want you to come home with us. We’d like you to be our son. We’d like to give you all those things you’ve just mentioned that you have been denied all your life.”

The man extended his hand and caressed the side of Toby’s face in a fatherly manner.

“I’ve never had the privileged of having a son of my own. But I’d be honored if you would be my son. I can’t promise you that we will agree on everything, or that I’ll never not be angry with you, but I can promise to love you, care for you, teach and guide you. I promise never to turn my back on you; I’ll stand by you in everything that you do, as long as what you do is legal, moral and fitting. What do you say, Toby?” the man asked.

Toby’s tears dripped from the end of his chin. He cast water filled eyes in Joe’s direction. Joe pinched his lips tightly and nodded his approval. He had no idea who this man was or how he had come to be where he was, but Joe was glad that the man was here.

“It’s worth a try, Toby,” Joe said softly. “Now’s your chance to have those things…I don’t think I’d say no, if I were you,” Joe insisted.

Toby nodded his head and when the stranger opened his arms, Toby welded himself against the man who wrapped his arms about him in a loving way.

A movement at the door caught Joe’s attention and when he saw his father, Joe went running to him. Ben’s arms opened wide and closed tightly about his son. Joe buried his head against his father’s beating heart, his own arms encircled his father as they clung to one another.

It was bright and early the next morning by the time that Carl and Ben had the buggy loaded up and stood waiting for Doris and Toby to join them.

“I’m pleased, Mr. Cartwright, that Toby decided to give us a chance. I’ve always felt sorry for the boy, my brother and his wife were never good parents. I offered years ago to take the boy, I even asked them if I could adopt him, but strange as it may sound, they didn’t want him themselves, but they didn’t want me to have him either,” Carl explained.

“Well, it’s out of their hands now, Carl and I for one happen to think it best for the boy. He’ll have a chance for a good, happy life now,” Ben stated.

The door to the house opened and Doris came out, smiling.

“Toby will be out in a minute, darling,” she told her husband.

She turned to Ben and smiled. “He’s saying good-bye to Little Joe.”

“Thanks Little Joe…I owe you an apology too,” Toby said, offering his hand.

Joe looked at the proffered hand for only a moment and then took it into his own.

“Friends?” he smiled at Toby.

“Friends,” agreed Toby, pumping Joe’s hand up and down.

Together they walked from the house to the waiting buggy. Carl and Doris had already seated themselves and when Toby was ready, they waved their hands in the air, shouting their good-byes to the Cartwrights who waved in return.

“Come see us!” shouted Doris.

“I’ll write ya, Little Joe!” yelled Toby to his new friend as the buggy rounded the barn and disappeared from sight.

Ben wrapped his arm around his youngest son’s shoulder and smiled down into the twinkling eyes that looked up at him.

“Well, that was a happy ending,” he said cheerfully.

“Yeah, I’m happy for Toby. He’s finally getting everything he ever wanted,” agreed Joe.

“Well, maybe not everything,” Ben said. “But almost.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked, puzzled.

“Well, Toby got the family he always wanted and the love he craved, but what he doesn’t have yet is the time tested rewards of that love. You see son, when a man has a son, he loves that son, because he’s suppose to, it’s expected and the son loves the father in return for the same reasons.

But the rewards of that love between a father and his son, or sons,” smiled Ben, looking at his own three sons, “comes with the trials and tribulations of a love that has been tested over the course of their lifetimes. Usually, as with the four of us, that devotion cannot be severed by another man, war, death, or simpler things, such as being stolen.

Real father and son love grows from the day that the man becomes a father and the son is born. It suffers through many changes during the years and sometimes the way can be quite rocky and the road hard to travel. But at the end of that road, the man and his son come to a sort of understanding, a mutual respect for the other that paves the way for future generations of fathers and sons.

I hope that what you’ve learned Joseph, and you too Adam and you Hoss, is that a father’s love for his son or sons, is a God given privileged that has to be earned and that the only way to earn that love is to show himself worthy.

How? By loving his sons unconditionally, in all things and above all persons except his God and his wife. Only then can a son truthfully say that he has known the love of his father. As God loves us, His sons, our earthly fathers love their sons…it’s a gift, Joe, an honor bestowed upon me the day you were born, and definitely one of which I am most thankful for,” smiled Ben.

THE END
September 2004

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