Between a Rock and a Hard Place (by DebbieB)

Summary:   Caught between squealing on a friend or keeping silent, Joe learns that it’s not always in his best interest to turn a deaf ear.

Rating:  G (10,270 words)

 

 

                Between a Rock and a Hard Place

 

Ben cupped the quivering chin in his hand. The hazel eyes had filled with tears and they rolled slowly down the dirty cheeks, leaving tiny white tracks in their wake. Ben felt his heart flutter at the pitiful sight of his youngest son. The pout on the boy’s face made Joe look more like ten than twelve, and Ben couldn’t help but brush away the dampness from the boy’s face and offer his son a smile.

“Joseph, don’t cry son, everything will be fine,” encouraged Ben.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen, Pa…really, it just did.”

Ben swallowed the lump that had unexpectedly grown in his throat as he pulled his son into the folds of his arms. “I’m glad to know that it was an accident and that you didn’t do it on purpose, son,” muttered Ben.

He could feel his son’s body becoming rigid within the folds of his embrace and heard Joe sniff.

“It was an accident…honest,” whimpered Little Joe.

“I don’t doubt you son,” Ben stressed. “Why don’t we sit down and talk about it? You can tell me how all of this mess got started in the first place.”

Ben pulled Joe back from the embrace and gently guided him over to the settee. “Go on, sit down,” he ordered gently and then sat down next to his son, once Joe had settled himself onto the couch. He offered Joe his handkerchief so that the boy could wipe away the remainder of the tears from his face. Ben had to smile for the dampness only served to smear the dirt that remained on his son’s face, that much more.

“Now Joe, why don’t you explain to me what happened?” encouraged Ben. “Start from the very beginning.”

Joe sniffed and swiped the sleeve of his shirt under his nose, glancing up at his father when he heard Ben groan lightly.

“Joseph, that is what the handkerchief is for.”

“Oh, sorry Pa,” said Joe meekly and then used his father’s handkerchief to blow his nose. When he finished, he handed it back to his father. “You keep it son, for now,” Ben smiled sickly.

Joe held the handkerchief in both hands and nervously began twisting one corner around with his fingers. When he glanced up, his father was watching him and Joe could see the skepticism shining in his father’s dark eyes and he wanted nothing more than to throw himself into his father’s arms and cry.

Ben watched the way in which Joe’s eyes studied his face, and knew instantly that Joe was contemplating just how much he should admit to his father. Ben suppressed a smile.

“Joseph, why don’t you tell me your version of what happened?” Ben requested for the second time. His voice became soft when he saw the slight hesitancy in his son.

“Promise ya won’t yell at me?” muttered Joe, casting worried eyes up at his father.

Ben groaned inwardly. Six words and already his stomach had started to churn. He recalled other times when his youngest son had been in some sort of a fix and had begun explaining situations with the familiar opening phrase.

“Joseph, I can’t promise anything, until you tell me what brought all of this about,” said Ben.

Joe took a deep breath and looked at his father. “It was that ole Lucas Tatum. He’s always gettin’ me trouble.”

“Joseph…”

“No, really Pa, he is…and I’m always the one who gets a wallopin’ or restricted. It’s the same at school too, I’m always the one who ends up in the corner or havin’ to stay after class, and he never gets caught. Ole…ere I mean, Miss Jones, she don’t never believe me when I tell her what really happens and half the time she never even listens to me when I try to explain about things. She just starts yellin’ at me and tells me to get in the corner.” Joe looked sadly up at his father as his eyes began pooling with unshed tears.

“I don’t think she likes me much, Pa.”

Ben’s throat constricted and he was forced to swallow several times to relieve the thickness. “I don’t really think that the teacher dislikes you, son…” started Ben.

“But she does…dislike me, I mean. She’s always askin’ me why can’t I be more like Adam. Adam was always such a pleasant child, and once she even told me that she understood why your hair was so white, cause of me…that’s what she said, Pa.” Joe swiped his shirtsleeve under his nose again and glanced up at his father. “Is that the truth, Pa? About your hair being that color? Did I cause that?”

Ben ran his opened hand across his mouth to cover the smile that threatened to expose him. “No son, it was a combination of many things, years mostly,” Ben answered and smiled for real this time when he saw the look of relief flood his son’s young face.

Joe returned the smile with one of his own. “I didn’t think she knew what she was talkin’ about Pa, cause even I couldn’t have been that worrisome to ya.”

This time, Ben could do nothing to retain his laughter and he laughed for several moments before regaining control of himself. He tousled his son’s thick mass of curls. “No son, even you have not been that worrisome.”

“Now, will you please explain to me what led up to my being summonsed to the sheriff’s office this afternoon? With all of that shouting everyone was doing, I’m still confused by what led up to the school being destroyed.” Ben asked as he tried to turn the conversation back to how his son had come to be in the middle of all that had transpired.

Joe dropped his head.

Ben placed his hand gently under the boy’s chin and tilted it upward. Joe was trying to divert his eyes from his father’s.

“Joseph, I’m waiting, please.”

Joe finally met his father’s gaze. “I got a lickin’ today…but it wasn’t my fault…honest Pa.”

Ben seemed puzzled, he had never heard of Miss Jones giving one of her students a whipping and with her away, Ben knew that the paddling had to come from the substitute teacher, Mr. Edison. Ben’s temper began to simmer for the thoughts of the pretentious man putting his hands on Joseph, made him furious.

“Joe, please tell me why Mr. Edison paddled you? I’m confused because in all of my years of knowing Miss Jones, I’ve never heard of her doing something so dramatic, yet with his man…I’m sure he is capable of doing most anything.”

“Oh, she didn’t do it, Pa. It was the substitute teacher that walloped me. If’n Miss Jones had been there, she’d ajust made me stand in the corner or keep me after school. But Mr. Edison was there, and he’s real mean. He don’t like me either, Pa, he even said so.”

“I’m aware of all that son, just tell me what he said, but first, tell me about the whipping,” instructed Ben.

“Well it all started the first thing this morning, the bell had just rung and everyone was going inside. Lucas Tatum was the first one to go in and I was behind him. He went straight to the desk and started to mess things up. I told him he better stop or he’d get in trouble. He just laughed at me and kept right on doing it, he slung papers and books all over the floor and then ran to his seat. I was trying to pick things up and put them back on the desk before the teacher got in, but he caught me with some of the books and papers in my hands.”

Joe stopped and sniffed at his nose. He glanced up at his father to check Ben’s reaction. Joe let the wind expel from his lungs; his father didn’t seem to be getting mad at him.

“What happened then, when Mr. Edison saw you with the papers and books?” inquired Ben.

“He stomped over to the desk. Boy was he mad too. He started yellin’ at me, just like Miss Jones, only he could yell lots louder. He wanted to know what I was doin’ and I started to tell him that all I was doin’ was pickin’ up things for him what had fallen in the floor.” Joe took a deep breath. “There’s lots more, ya wanna hear it all?”

“Everything, son. Just take your time and tell it exactly like it happened,” encouraged Ben.

“Okay, this is what he said after he stomped over to the desk where I was still holding the papers.”

Joe inhaled deeply, watching his father’s face. When Ben smiled at him, Joe continued…

“Joseph Cartwright, are you trying to tell me that you are just picking up those papers?” shouted Newell Edison, the substitute teacher that had been sent to replace Miss Abigail Jones. Miss Jones had been called away due to an emergency with her family and would be gone for several weeks.

“Miss Jones warned me about you!” he continued in a sharp tone of voice that caused the young boy to tremble slightly.

“Honest, I was just pickin’ em up,” stammered Little Joe.

“They weren’t on the floor just a few minutes ago when I went out to ring the bell. So how do you explain how they managed to be in the floor now?” he demanded.

Little Joe’s eyes sought Lucas’ but the other boy was refusing to look at him. “I…I…I don’t know, sir,” Joe continued to stammer.

Mr. Edison snatched the papers and books from the trembling hands and slammed them down on the desk. He reached across in front of Joe and grabbed his thick ruler and then grabbed the boy’s left hand, startling the boy as he clasped his long thick fingers around Joe’s wrist.

“Open your hand young man,” Edison ordered, glaring angrily at Joe who stood dumbfounded at the man before him.

“Why?” Joe questioned as he tried to free his hand from the teacher’s vise like grip.

The teacher was taken back by what he considered the boy’s insolence. His eyes flashed black. In a low tone, he muttered. “Because I said to, now do it.”

Joe gulped and opened his hand. He was totally shocked when the substitute teacher slammed the thick ruler down several times against the palm of his hand. He struggled to control his tears for the last thing he wanted was to start crying in front of the whole class. The palm of his hand now stung and when Joe looked down, he could see the redness that caused the stinging sensation.

“What’d ya do that for? I didn’t do nuthin’,” he moaned and jerked his hand free of the teacher’s.

“Oh, don’t play the innocent with me Joseph, Miss Jones told me all about you before she left. And, I might say, she was correct in her assumption of you. Now, finish picking up this mess and then return to your seat. You will stay inside today during the noon break,” the teacher ordered.

Joe finished doing as he was instructed and quickly hurried to take his seat. He glared at Lucas on his way down the aisle and wished more than anything that he could wipe the smirk off the other boy’s face.

Joe was silent during the rest of the morning. He concentrated on finishing his assignments, but with the pain in his left hand, he knew that he would be taking part of the work home. His hand hurt more than he cared to admit and he couldn’t help but worry about what his father would say when he read the note that Edison was sure to send home with him.

By the noon break, Joe’s stomach had started to growl. Having forgotten that he was to remain inside during the break, he jumped to his feet when the teacher called time. He grabbed his sack lunch that Hop Sing had prepared for him and hurried to catch up with his friends who were all filing out through the door.

“And just where do you think you are going, Joseph?” a voice from behind said.

Joe felt the fingers pressing into his shoulder and stopped in his tracks. When he turned to look up, he saw the dark angry eyes glaring down at him; it was at that second that he remembered he was not to be joining his friends.

“Oh, sorry,” he stammered, “I forgot.”

Mr. Edison pointed to the far corner of the room, indicating the place where Joe was to stand. Joe dropped his head and started for the appointed place. Mr. Edison grabbed the sack from Joe’s hand, catching the boy off guard.

“Hey!” snapped Joe. “That’s my lunch.”

“Not any more it isn’t. You will stand in the corner as instructed for your misconduct this morning. Lunch is not an option for you,” the teacher smirked.

“That’s not fair!” Joe shouted. “My Pa won’t like it, me not being allowed to eat lunch,” Joe dared.

“I’m not worried about what your father likes or dislikes. Personally, I would tend to think that your father is much too lenient with you. What you need, young man, is the seat of your pants warmed. Now, I would suggest that you do as instructed or you will find sitting very uncomfortable for the rest of the day.”

Joe’s mouth dropped opened but he fought the urge to make a snappy comeback. He spun around on the heels of his boots and stomped to the corner. How dare that despicable man speak ill of his father? Joe glanced back at the teacher and when he was sure that Mr. Edison was not looking, he stuck out his tongue at the man. Mr. Edison held Joe’s lunch in his hand and walked out of the classroom. Joe sneaked a peek out the window and watched as the man tossed the boy’s sack lunch into the trash barrel outside. His mouth dropped opened in surprise.

“Dadburnit,” he said, using a familiar term often used by his middle brother. “And Hop Sing sent me a piece of chocolate cake, too,” he grumbled to himself.

Just then, the back door opened and Lucas slipped inside. Joe spun around shocked at the daring older boy.

“What are you doin’ in here?” whispered Joe, glancing out the window to see Mr. Edison talking and laughing with a group of his students.

“Oh, I just thought I’d see how ya was doin’ Cartwright,” laughed Lucas.

“You better get outta here before Mr. Edison comes in and catches ya,” warned Joe.

Lucas laughed, “he ain’t gonna catch me, he’s talkin’ to them girls. Hey, Little Joe thanks for not squealin’ on me this mornin’. I owe ya one, pal,” Lucas said and then moved to the teacher’s desk. He pulled opened first one drawer, prowled inside and then slammed it shut, moving to the next one.

“Hey, get outta there. What’d ya think your doin’?” questioned Joe, watching Lucas with suspicion. “You better leave his things alone!”

“Aw…I ain’t gonna bother nothin. ‘Sides, I just wanna help ya out some, ya know, get even with the old man for what he done to ya this mornin’. Boy, I bet that hurt, him hittin’ ya with that ruler and all,” Lucas said, pulling a beautifully bound book from the bottom drawer.

“Hey lookit this,” smiled Lucas, holding the book up for Joe to see. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” he read.

“Put that back! Now!” Joe shouted, forgetting about the teacher just outside the partly opened window.

When Lucas refused to do as Joe had suggested, Joe made a grab for the book. Lucas burst out laughing, holding the book high over his head where Joe could not reach it.

“Take it easy Cartwright. I’ve got the perfect way to get back at ole’ smartie-pants.”

Lucas reached into his coat pocket and pulled out several juju beans. He opened the book at random and began dropping the soft candies between the pages of the book.

Joe’s eyes widened in horror, and he grabbed the other boy’s arm in an attempt to stop the boy from destroying the beautiful book. Joe knew about books such as Lucas was holding, for Adam had several just like it and they were valued and prized possessions of his oldest brother. Joe had been taught that all books, were to be treated with care, for there was much to value and learn from the written words within the pages.

“Stop!” snapped Joe, “You’re going to ruin it!”

Lucas pushed Joe’s grappling hands away and snickered. “Who cares, Cartwright? It’s just an old book, and besides, old man Edison won’t find out who done it.”

Lucas snapped closed the book, squishing the sticky candy between the pages as he shoved the book back into the drawer. “See ya later,” he laughed as he slipped out through the back door.

Joe stood motionless, scared to move and not knowing what to do. He thought about taking the book and perhaps hiding it until he could see how much damage Lucas’ nasty trick had done, but he was scared that he might get caught. He thought to just leave the book as it was and hope against hope that Mr. Edison would not take the book out and find the mess within the golden embossed pages.

Joe turned back to his corner, the noon break was almost over and he still had not decided what to do about the book, which he now knew must surely be ruined beyond repair. A noise at the front of the room drew Joe’s attention to the door. Mr. Edison could be seen through the opening, pulling on the rope that was attached to the big bell. Almost immediately, students began making their way inside to their desks. Joe caught a glimpse of Mitch Devlin, his best friend, as the boy made his way past. Mitch cut his sparkling blue eyes over at Joe and paused for a split second.

“Keep moving, Mitch,” the teacher scolded.

Mitch shrugged his shoulders at Joe and went on his way. Joe pressed his forehead against his corner wall and fought back the tears that threatened to fill his hazel eyes. ‘Ain’t fair, I didn’t do nuthin’,’ he mumbled under his breath.

“Did you say something, Joseph?” inquired Mr. Edison, as he pulled his desk chair out and sat down.

Joe glanced over his shoulder in the teacher’s direction, astonished that the man had heard his muted remark. “No…no sir,” Joe said in a soft voice.

“Good, now, press your nose against the wall and do not move from that spot until I tell you too,” the teacher ordered.

It was getting harder and harder for Joe to fight back the tears, but he took a deep breath and did as instructed. The day seemed to drone on and on as Joe stood silently with his nose pressed against the wall. His back ached from having to lean forward and the backs of his legs had begun to cramp. Joe fought back the tears, he felt himself nearing the brink of breaking down and asking the teacher for leniency, but his pride would shoot forth from deep within at the last minute and stop him.

It was nearing the end of the day when he heard the sound that he had been dreading all day. He glanced over his shoulder at Mr. Edison who had his back to him and stared in horror as the substitute teacher pulled the book of Shakespeare from the bottom drawer of his desk. Joe cast a quick glance toward the back of the room where Lucas Tatum was also watching the removal of the book. The other boy caught Joe’s slight movement and unseen by the teacher, mouthed a daring warning to Joe that he best keep his mouth shut.

Mr. Edison cleared his throat and scooted back his chair. “Class, if I may have your attention. I have in my hand a most delightful book that I aim to share with each of you. It was a gift from a very trusted and loyal friend of mine who has now passed away. It is one of my most cherished keepsakes.

From his corner, Joe groaned, as his heart grew heavy with dread for Lucas. Though he didn’t really care for the boy, he didn’t necessarily hate him either, and the thoughts of what Mr. Edison would do to Lucas once he found out that the boy had destroyed his book, were weighing heavy on Joe’s young heart.

Mr. Edison, smiled, something that Joe thought possibly the man rarely did. Joe peeked from under his arm and saw the teacher open the book. The man froze, his face drained of all color and for just a split second, Joe thought the tall heavyset man might faint. Joe heard the man’s breath expel from his lungs and was totally caught off guard when the man’s deep-set bronzed colored eyes turned to look at him.

“Joseph Cartwright,” growled the man in a voice that though very low and deep, sent spasms of fear racing through his veins. “Come over here…now!”

The voice was so calm and collected that he was sure that he was the only person in the class, except for Lucas Tatum, that knew just how angry the teacher really was. Joe glanced up once again into the man’s eyes, judging his anger and rating it on a scale of one to ten, a sure twenty. Joe gulped and slowly turned to face the enraged man.

“Did you want me?” Little Joe asked in a tiny, wee voice that started the classroom of children giggling. Joe had his pointer finger pressed into his chest, worried, for he had no idea that Edison had judged him at fault for the horrendous condition of his valued book.

The teacher turned dark angry eyes at his class, bringing an immediate halt to the laughter and then turned back to face Little Joe.

The teacher snapped his finger and pointed at a spot on the floor directly in front of him, but said not a word. Joe inched closer little by little until he stood exactly where Mr. Edison had indicated.

“Yessir?” stammered Joe, his voice quivering as he spoke.

“What do you know about this?” Edison demanded, pointing with his free hand to the pages where the juju beans had squished between the pages. Slowly, the teacher turned a few more pages, finding more jujus as he thumbed through the book.

Joe’s eyes were opened wide. The candy treats had certainly ruined the highly regarded treasure. Joe moved his head ever so slightly and glanced back at Lucas. Lucas had allowed his body to slump down into his seat, making himself almost invisible behind the bigger boy who sat directly in front of him.

Without warning, Edison slammed the book shut, making a loud noise and causing Joe to jump. “I asked you a question!” he roared and flung the book on his desk.

“I…I…I…”

“Stop babbling, you simple minded little fool, and answer my question!” the teacher requested in a sharp tone.

Joe bristled at the name he was just called and from somewhere deep within his inner self, Joe found the courage to speak up. “Who you calling a fool? I ain’t no fool, you old…you old…”

Joe stopped suddenly for the man had turned and picked up his thick wooden paddle. “I asked you one simple question, and you cannot even give me an answer. I will give you five seconds to tell me who and why my book was destroyed and after that, you will get a thrashing like you have never had before. And…you had better not lie to me!”

Joe began to panic, his eyes sought Lucas’ and they begged the other boy to own up to what he had done.

“One…two…three…four…”

Joe’s eyes filled with tears and his chin quivered as he chewed on his bottom lip.

“Five…”

“I don’t know…honest…Mr. Edison…I don’t know,” cried Joe, taking a step back from the advancing man.

“A lying tongue will send you straight to hell, young man. Hasn’t your father ever taught you that lying is one of the seven things that the Lord doth hate? Or doesn’t your father care?” shouted Mr. Edison.

“He cares…” stammered Joe. “He…taught me that it’s wrong to lie…you stop saying mean things about my Pa…ya hear me?” shouted Joe as he pressed his back up against the wall.

Mr. Edison reached out and grabbed Joe by the upper arm and yanked him forward. Joe could see the man’s nostrils flaring as he spoke and the red fiery sparks from the man’s eyes. Joe chanced a quick look at the top of the man’s head, half expecting to see horns sprouting from under the man’s thining hair. Surely this man was the devil, come to wreak terror in his heart believed Joe.

“You did this!” ranted the man, pulling Joe forward to face the front of the class.

“ME?” screamed Joe, suddenly terribly frightened.

Edison was waving the paddle around in the air with his free hand and Joe had to duck to keep from being whacked in the head by the flailing object.

“I didn’t do it…honest Mr. Edison,” pleaded Joe inbetween sobs. “I’d never destroy a book, my pa taught me better’n that…honest, it wasn’t me,” stammered Joe.

Newell Edison yanked hard on Joe’s arm, pulling him up on his tiptoes. He leaned his face down, close to Joe’s. “Then who did it and when? There hasn’t been another person in the classroom while I have been out except you, at the noon break. Not only are you responsible for destroying another man’s property, but you are also a liar,” snorted Newell.

Joe was shaking his head back and forth; the tears ran from his eyes and dripped off his quivering chin. “No…no…it wasn’t me…it was…it was…I don’t know…who it was,” he lied.

Newell Edison dragged the trembling boy over to his desk and forced him to lean across the front, his backside facing the frightened children who sat and watched, too terrorized to say or do anything.

“Learn well children. This is what becomes of an unruly, sinful, willful and disrespectful son of Satan, whose father is more engrossed in amassing a fortune than in teaching his wayward son the ways of the Lord,” shouted Newell as he swung back his arm.

“Repent sinner, for the wages of sin is death!”

The paddled landed hard against the backside of the young boy. Joe’s body jerked forward in a natural reflex, attempting to escape the next blow. Again, the paddled connected with the fleshy part of Joe’s anatomy. Joe bit down hard on his lip to keep from crying out loud and giving the raving man the pleasure of hearing him weep.

Three more times Joe felt the thick wooden board across his bottom. The fiery sensation that he felt through his clothes sent an outpouring of immense pain shooting upward into his upper body, and downward through the backs of his legs.

Joe heard his own voice as he cried aloud for the man to stop. One final blow was delivered to the devastated youth. His legs buckled and Joe would have fallen to his knees when Edison stepped back, had it not been for Mitch Devlin who had left his seat and rushed to the front of the room to grab his friend.

Mitch turned tear filled eyes up at the substitute teacher. “You’re a monster, you’re the devil, not Little Joe. You just wait until Ben Cartwright finds out what ya done to his boy!”

Mitch pulled Joe to his feet, but Joe, heartbroken as well as humiliated at having been called a liar, and whipped to tears in front of the entire class, jerked free of his friend’s grasp and fled the classroom. Mitch glared up at the teacher and ran off after his best friend.

Once out into the open, his vision blurred by the tears that filled his eyes, Joe ran. He wasn’t aware of the direction in which he ran, but none the less he ran. Mitch stood on the tiny porch and shading his eyes from the sun’s bright rays, searched ardently for his friend.

“JOE?” he shouted as he caught a glimpse of Joe’s jacket as Joe dashed into the woods. “Wait up!”

Joe ran for what seemed like an eternity before his legs gave out on him and he crashed to the ground. Joe lay face down in the dirt, weeping, not fully able to believe that the teacher actually believed that he had been responsible for putting the juju beans in the treasured book.

Mitch spied Joe just yards ahead, lying on the ground and he rushed on until he dropped to his knees beside of his friend. He could hear Joe crying and the sound tore at his heart. He knew that his friend had been disgraced and humiliated in front of everyone, and then to break down and cry in front of his friends had been the last straw for the proud youngest Cartwright.

“Joe?” Mitch whispered. “Ya all right, buddy?”

Mitch heard Joe sniffing his nose. “Go away…just leave me alone,” Joe grumbled.

“Aw…come on Little Joe…I’m ya best friend. I seen ya cry before, shoot, you’ve even seen me cry,” Mitch said hopefully.

“It ain’t that…it’s…it’s…what he said about my Pa…now go away…please,” sobbed Joe.

“Joe…”

“GO AWAY…I DON’T WANT YA HERE!” screamed Joe raising his head just enough off the ground to glance at his friend.

Mitch stood to his feet and began slowly backing off from where Joe laid. He continued until he was better than ten feet away and out of Joe’s range of sight. He sat down on a log and waited.

Joe refused to move or get up, he remained on the ground for better than fifteen minutes before raising his head once more and looking around him. He could not see Mitch behind him and thinking he was alone, pulled himself up to sit on his knees. He groaned loudly as the pain in his backside intensified. Slowly he hauled himself up to his feet and stretched before turning around.

“What the?” he stammered as his eyes met Mitch’s. Mitch smiled a crooked little smile and then laughed, standing to his feet and moving to stand next to Joe.

“Ya didn’t think I’d really leave ya out here all by yourself, did ya?” the blue eyed blond smiled.

Joe wiped the dampness from his face and giggled. “No, I should have known you’d be close by. You’re worse than my brothers, ya know that?” Joe grinned.

“Come on, we’d better get back and get our horses, old man Edison should be gone by now.” Mitch fell into step beside Joe and together the two friends walked slowly back to the schoolhouse.

“Does it hurt?” Mitch asked a little while later as he watched Joe limp along.

Joe cut his eyes over at Mitch. “What do you think? Hell yes, it hurts! My butt feels like someone set a branding iron to it.”

Mitch couldn’t help but giggle and when he did, Joe stopped and folded his arms across his chest. “So, ya think it’s funny, do you? Well, you just wait until you get home and your pa finds out what you said to the teacher. You’re butt is gonna be hurtin’, same as mine!” declared Joe and then giggled when he saw the color drain from his best friend’s face.

“I didn’t think about that,” stammered Mitch. “Ya reckon Mr. Edison will go visit our fathers?”

“I’d bet my life on it. I can just see him now, yelling at my Pa about what a misguided son he has and how if I don’t change my ways, I’m doomed to hell.” Joe stopped and looked at Mitch. “Pa’s gonna be really mad at me this time, Mitch. I’ll probably never be able to sit down again, not after Pa gets finished with me.”

Mitch who had stopped along side Joe started walking again, “But ya didn’t do anything…did ya? Now, don’t go getting’ mad at me, I’m just asking’,” said Mitch when he saw the sudden anger flash in Joe’s eyes.

“Ya didn’t really put those juju beans in his book, everyone knows that the only person at school that likes those things is Lucas Tatum. But what about this morning? Who threw old man Edison’s papers and things in the floor?” Mitch asked.

“Lucas, he thought it was funny. I was just trying to get everything put back on Mr. Edison’s desk before he saw what happened. I just got caught, that’s why he blamed me, like always,” groaned Joe.

“Then during the break, Lucas slipped in through the back door and said he had the perfect plan to get even with the teacher for what he did to me. He started going through the desk and then when he found the book, he started stuffing the jujus between the pages. I was so scared, Mitch. I didn’t know what to do, I thought about taking the book and hiding it until I could see if I could clean it up, but I knew that if I did happen to get caught with it, it really would look like I was the guilty one.”

Joe snickered softly, not really finding the situation funny in the least. “Didn’t do me much good, I still got blamed and that darned old teacher wouldn’t even believe me. It ain’t fair Mitch, when I get home, I’m still gonna be in trouble, and I didn’t do nothin’!”

The boys had reached the small stable where the horses where housed during the school hours. Joe glanced up toward the schoolhouse and was glad to see that Mr. Edison had left for the day. He sighed, he knew it was just a matter of time before the man confronted his father about what happened.

The boys hurried to saddle their horses and lead them from the barn. Joe gave one last look at the school and then stopped in his tracks. It appeared that someone had left the door standing opened. Hesitating, Joe debated about going to shut the door or to just let it be. He knew the right thing would be to secure the building, but a resentment toward the teacher in question and about whether he really cared that someone might come in and steal things from the school, fogged his thinking.

“Look,” said Joe, pointing to the opened door. “Mr. Know-it-all forgot to shut and lock the door.”

“Yeah, I see. What’cha goin’ to do about it?” Mitch wanted to know, as he stood ready to mount his horse. “Ya ain’t gonna do him a favor, are ya, not after what all he done to ya today?” Mitch stated flatly.

Joe pushed back his hat and scratched his head. “I shouldn’t…but I’d hate for anything else to get ruined. As much as I dislike Miss Jones, it wouldn’t be fair to her, to find all her stuff messed up or stolen when she comes back. Stay here Mitch,” ordered Joe handing his friend the reins to his horse.

He limped his way back to the front of the building and reached for the knob to pull the door closed. The door was just about closed completely when Joe’s ears picked up on a rustling sound from inside. Glancing back at Mitch, Joe put his finger to his lips, giving his friend a silent signal to be quiet. He then wiggled his pointer finger at Mitch, motioning for him to join him. Mitch dropped the reins and hurried to Joe’s side.

“What’s wrong?” whispered the boy, trying to look around Joe to get a peek at what was happening.

“Someone’s inside,” whispered Joe. “Come on, but be quiet,” he ordered and then eased the door opened another inch or two.

The racket inside grew in volume as the two boys pushed opened the door. Joe moved his head around the edge of the door to get a better look. He stopped suddenly, causing Mitch to plow into him and sending him stumbling into the room.

Two frightened boys whirled around, startled by the blundering pair that had discovered them.

“Hey, Cartwright, what the hell are you doing back here? I thought you went running home to your daddy!” laughed Lucas Tatum, when he saw that the intruder was none other than Joe Cartwright.

“What are YOU doing in here? Looking for something else to destroy and blame on me?” retorted Joe, angrily.

“I don’t care who gets the blame for this. Timmy and I plan of wreckin’ the place. I hate school anyway, so if we do a good ‘nough job, the school board will have to shut it down. That’s one way of getting’ rid of the nasty ole teacher. What’ll ya think, Cartwright? Wanna join us?” laughed Lucas as he began turning over desks.

“No, and you better stop Lucas before it’s too late,” Joe demanded as he glanced at Mitch.

“What are you goin’ to do, Joe?” Mitch said in a whining voice. “You can’t stop them, look at them, they’re nuts!”

Joe was watching, and what he perceived, was making him sick to his stomach. Lucas and Timmy were turning over every desk in the room and had started slinging chairs about in the air. Some were breaking apart and one had already been tossed through the window, shattering the glass. Joe and Mitch watched in horror as the other two boys yanked and pulled on the chalkboard until it had fallen from its hinges that held it in place on the long wall. When the team of destructive boys began stomping on the board and breaking it to pieces, Joe had seen enough.

“STOP IT, RIGHT NOW!” he screamed.

His voice had cracked and sounded shrill, but it had the desired effect.

“Who’s goin’ make us?” taunted Lucas, stepping across large pieces of the chalkboard and coming to stand in front of Little Joe. “You ain’t gonna do it, cause you’re a crybaby,” laughed Lucas and was soon joined by Timmy who stood in front of Mitch.

The four boys had never liked one another. Lucas and Timmy were a year or so older than Mitch and Joe and had always dubbed it their duty to make school life as miserable as possible for the two younger and somewhat smaller boys. They had tangled many times over the years, usually it was Joe and Mitch who came away looking the worse for wear and had never really taken the others in a fight.

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that Tatum. I might cry, when beat like an animal, but I’ll never be afraid of you, never,” he said in a voice barren of fear.

Lucas studied the face of the younger boy and for the first time ever, saw something in the hazel eyes that he had never seen there before, and he took a step backward.

“Clean up this mess,” Joe ordered, sensing that Lucas had seen the deep embedded resentment that had built over the course of the long day.

“Make us,” taunted Timmy and then laughed. “Come on Luke, let’s get the teacher’s desk.”

When Timmy turned and stepped away, Lucas did the same but was stopped by Joe, who had grabbed his shoulder. “Oh no you don’t,” he said and threw the first punch.

That was all it took, chaos broke out in the classroom. Bodies were slung about the broken debris but each time that one boy landed on the floor, he sprung to his feet. Lucas and Joe were locked together, swapping blows. Blood had begun to seep down the faces of both boys but still the two fought. They had inched their way closer to the door; Joe tripped and fell on his back. Lucas jumped through the air, hoping to land on Joe who lay sprawled among the rubbish, but Joe rolled out of the way and Lucas landed with a thud on his face.

Joe heard the boy scream in pain and paused, just long enough to give Lucas time to turn over. Blood spurted from the boy’s nose, his wailing brought Timmy and Mitch to their senses and both stumbled their way over to where Joe stood over Lucas who continued with his loud shrieking.

“Lookit what ya done, now! Ya broke my nose!” sobbed Lucas, holding his hand up to his face and glaring at the boys who stood over him.

“Me? I didn’t break ya nose, ya tried to jump me and landed on your face!” snapped Joe.

“Liar, ya hit me…just wait ‘til I tell my Pa!” Lucas shot back.

“Just wait until I tell all of your Pas!” shouted Roy and Clem from the doorway.

All four boy’s heads snapped around and stared in frightened surprise at the sheriff and his deputy.

Roy surveyed the room, his disgust written all over his face. His eyes searched each face of the now silent boys, but slowly made his way back to Joe’s. Joe had dropped his head, making if difficult for the sheriff to see the unbridled fear in his eyes.

Roy stepped up to Joe and stood silent for just a second. “Joseph Cartwright, what is the meaning of this? What in Sam Hill do you think you’re doing, runnin’ with the likes’ of them and wreckin’ this here school?” Roy had pointed at Lucas and Timmy when he had seen Joe raise his head a bit and look at him. “Just what do you think Ben Cartwright will say when he hears about this?’

Roy turned to Mitch and shook his head. “And you…why you should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Clem, let’s take’em all over ta the jail.” Roy pointed with his chin for Clem to lead the way. The deputy had a tight hold on Lucas and Timmy’s arms and was practically dragging the pair of ruffians from the building.

Roy nodded for Mitch and Joe to move on out and he followed behind his best friend’s son, shaking his head sadly and wondering what in the world had gotten into Ben’s youngest son that he should mingle with hooligans like the Tatum boy and his side-kick, Timmy.

It was hours later that the fathers of the four boys had been sent for. Each man grumbled and complained about having to report to the sheriff and post bail for their sons as if their child had been a common criminal. All but one and that one sat stone silent in a chair, waiting for his own son to be released to him.

Mr. Tatum and Timmy’s father were most vocal, just like their loud-mouthed sons. Lucas and Timmy had started right in, once they were hauled off to jail about how everything had been Joe and Mitch’s fault and how it was them that had happened upon the other two tearing apart the classroom and why Joe had deemed it his right. The ranting and raving had continued even after all four fathers, and Mr. Edison had entered the jailhouse. Roy and Clem were hard put to bring an end to the ruckus.

Meanwhile, Joe and Mitch sat solemnly and quiet, each boy eyeing their fathers from downcast eyes, and lashes laden with the dampness of tears.

Ben heard Joe sniff his nose and watched how his son squirmed about in his chair. On more than one occasion, he watched a troubled and frightened young boy wrestle with an unknown pain that seemed to have settled in the lower part of his son’s anatomy. Yet Ben had held his tongue, he would save what he had to say, for the privacy of his own home.

Deep within his heart, he knew that Joe would never take a part in the shenanigans that he was being blamed for. Yet the boy had been caught red handed, by the sheriff and his deputy, but Ben still refused to make a judgment call until he had heard his son’s side of the story.

And then there was Newell Edison, Miss Jones’ replacement teacher. Ben watched how the man continually cast his eyes at Joe and how the boy seemed to cringe each time that he felt the man’s eyes on his face. Ben listened as the teacher described the events of the day and he watched Joe’s face and the troubled eyes that filled with tears that dripped slowly down his face.

Joe too was listening, he seemed shocked by the way that the teacher told his side of what happened and was even more stunned when the teacher had failed to tell the sheriff and his father about the wicked things that had been said to him. Joe wanted to run to his father and blurt out everything, even the way that Mr. Edison had beaten him with the paddle, but he had seen his father watching him and Joe was unsure of the expressions that he had seen come across his father’s face. Therefore he held back, and waited, with dread.

“I think I’ve heard just about enough,” Roy said at long last. “You four men, get these boy’s out of here. Take them home and make darn good and sure, they stay there!” ordered Roy.

“Edison, you make a list of all of the damages and when you’ve finish, turn it in to the school board. Or better yet, give it to Ben, he’s head of the board,” said Roy and then had to turn from the teacher to hide the smile that threaten to give away his amusement at the teacher’s sudden inability to close his mouth.

“He’s what?” the teacher stuttered.

“That’s right, Ben Cartwright is head of the school board. Is there something wrong with that?” Roy said.

Edison’s eyes darted to Joe’s face and the tiny smile that he saw twitching at the edges of the boy’s mouth angered him beyond reason. “WELL!” he shouted. “I MIGHT OF KNOWN!” he yelled and all but ran from the office, slamming the door on his way out.

Roy just shook his head, “Get goin’. I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow,” groaned Roy as he opened the door and allowed the fathers to file out.

“Pa, it was Cartwright’s fault, lookit what he done, he broke my nose!” grumbled Lucas, glaring down at the smaller boy.

“Aw…shut up, hell, ya probably deserved it. Now get ya butt on that horse and get home afore I break ya dang fool neck!” growled Mr. Tatum as he gave his son a solid swat to his behind.

Joe glanced up at his father and noted Ben was watching him. The boy gulped and lowered his head as he untied the reins from around the hitching post. Joe pulled his aching body up and using care to protect his blistered bottom he lowered himself into the saddle. When Ben was mounted, he allowed his horse to fall into step next to his father’s.

It was a quiet ride back to the ranch. Joe kept going over the events of the day in his head and trying to think just how he would explain himself to his father. If need be, he reasoned, he would ask, beg if he had too, for his father to wait until his backside was better before giving him the thrashing that he knew was due.

It was after dark by the time that Joe and Ben finally arrived home. Adam and Hoss were sitting on the side porch and hurried to greet their father and brother. One look at the long face their father wore and the red rimmed eyes of their youngest brother told both, Adam and Hoss that something bad had happened.

“We’ll take your horses for you,” offered Adam when Ben had dismounted.

“Thanks son, and please, you and Hoss find something to keep you busy for a spell. Joe and I have some things to talk over, don’t we son?” Ben stated, watching how Joe’s chin had suddenly began to quiver.

“Yessir,” Joe said meekly, glancing sideways at his brothers.

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, taking the boy by surprise and causing him to jump. Ben’s heart lurched at the way this son’s body stiffened at his touch.

“Let’s go inside, Joseph.” Ben gently nudged the boy forward and slowly Joe made his way to the house. He paused and waited as his father opened the door and led the way inside. Ben stepped aside, allowing Joe to enter and then closed the door.

Joe jumped again; it had sounded overly loud in the empty house and made him feel as if he had just been locked away for the remainder of his life. Joe swallowed the lump that had suddenly produced itself within the confines of his throat and turned to his father. The sudden fear of telling his father and his frayed emotions caused him to shiver and his eyes pooled with tears, even before meeting his father’s steady gaze. He struggled to form words, to be the first to speak, but when he opened his mouth nothing came out.

Ben cupped the quivering chin in his hand………………..

“And that’s the whole story, Pa…like I said, it wasn’t my fault and it was an accident. I never meant for the school to get demolished like it did…honest,” cried Joe, who by now was wrapped in his father’s loving arms, as he and Ben sat together on the settee.

“Joseph,” whispered Ben as he placed a kiss on top of the unruly curls. “I’m so sorry son, that you had such a horrible day.”

“It isn’t your fault Pa. But Pa, what’s gonna happen now…about Mr. Edison and the school? Will the board have enough money to put the school back the way it was before Lucas and Timmy broke everything?” questioned Joe, his head resting against his father’s heart.

“I’m not sure son, I suppose we’ll have to have a meeting and see what we come up with,” Ben explained.

“What about Lucas and Timmy? Will they have’ta go to jail?” Joe turned his head up, just enough so that he could see his father’s face.

“I hope not Joe. They’re just boys, unruly boys mind you, but boys just the same. I’d hate to think of them having to spend time in jail, but that’s not saying they shouldn’t be punished. They should, but then that’s up to the school board, as to whether or not they file charges,” Ben said.

The front door opened then and Hoss and Adam came in. “Sorry to bother you Pa. I know you said you wanted time alone with Joe, but you have some visitors.”

Adam stepped aside and allowed the visitors to enter the room. Ben had stood to his feet, Joe stood next to him and when he saw the small group of individuals, he gasped loudly. Ben’s attention immediately turned from the door to his son and saw how quickly Joe had lost all color in his face.

Ben slipped his arm protectively about the boy’s shoulders and cringed when he felt the tremors that raced though his son’s body. “It’s okay Joe, I’m right here,” he whispered softly so that only Joe could hear.

Joe looked up and when he saw his father smile at him, he relaxed.

“Roy, Mr. Edison, Tatum, what brings you gentlemen out, this time of night?” questioned Ben, moving to make room for the men to sit down.

When they all had been seated, Ben moved to his red leather chair and sat down. Joe watched with frightened eyes and when Ben motioned for him to join him, Joe stepped over the mass of feet and sat down on the arm of his father’s chair. Instantly, Joe felt the pressure of his father’s fingers as they gently squeezed his leg where the comforting hand rested.

“Mr. Cartwright, perhaps I should begin,” stated Edison. “You see, I had been told certain things about your son, Joseph. I was led to believe that he was….how should I put it? A troublemaker…However…I have been corrected on that assumption. Rather pointedly as a matter of fact,” the teacher said as he squirmed in his seat.

“I must admit, I owe the boy an apology. I’m sure he has by now, told you all that has transpired today in my classroom?” he hinted.

Ben glanced up at Joe and smiled. “Yes, he has told me everything…including what was said.”

Mr. Edison hung his head. “I am so very, very ashamed of myself.” He glanced up at the men in the room. “I have never, in the twenty years of teaching, never, ever treated a student of mine in the manner that I have treated your son. I am most sorry, Mr. Cartwright, Joseph, most sorry indeed.”

Ben stood to his feet, leaving Joe to lower his body into the chair as he watched Mr. Edison fidgeting with the button on his coat. Joe could feel all his anger slowly leave him. He stifled a laugh; he shocked himself by admitting that he actually felt sorry for the poor man, as his father stood over the nervous teacher.

“I would think that you should be sorry. From what my son has told me, I have every right under the law to have you arrested for assault and battery. Or did you forget that Joseph is just a minor?” Ben stated in a voice that spoke none of the inner turmoil he had been feeling just minutes before, when his broken hearted son had wept and related to him how he had been abused by the very man who now sat in his living room making excuses for his own behavior.

Edison stood to his feet as well. “Mr. Cartwright, to be perfectly honest with you, when I saw what had been done to my treasured book, I did not stop to think about anything other than the fact that something that was very dear to my heart had been ruined. By…what I believed to be an unruly, disobedient young man.”

“Ben,” said Mr. Tatum, who had been sitting quietly, listening to the proceedings. “Mr. Edison was right in thinking what he did. Everything that he said was correct; an unruly, disobedient young man did ruined his treasured book. But it wasn’t your son who did it; it was mine, Lucas. Mr. Edison’s only mistake was punishing the wrong boy. He was misinformed, Ben, can’t you understand that he…”

“I can understand the mistake in identity, what I cannot understand is his method of punishment. My son will carry the mark of this man’s paddle for a very long time. And for that I am not happy. No man has the right to abuse a child in such a manner. And that was what it was, abuse, plain and simple.”

Ben turned to Newell Edison. “As head of the school board, I’m going to ask the board to vote for your dismissal. I’m sorry Edison, but under the circumstances, I don’t think you are fit to teach. I understand what it is to lose a very treasure item, but to turn that loss into something so violent that it endangers the life or lives of someone’s child? No, I cannot permit it, I have to speak my mind, I have to stand up for the rights of the innocent, for the children who witnessed your behavior today in that classroom. What will they suffer in the days ahead, when they try to lay their little heads down at night only to be waken by a nightmare, seeing before their eyes a lunatic waving around a paddle and beating young boys?”

“Now get out of my house, before I change my mind and have you arrested for beating my son.”

Newell dropped his head and turned away. Roy stood to his feet and smiled at Ben. “That took a lot of guts, old friend. Thanks.”

Ben nodded his head and followed the sheriff and Mr. Tatum to the door. Mr. Tatum turned to Ben. “Ben, I’m very sorry for what my son did. And I’m very ashamed of him. He caused a lot of people a lot of misery today. What can I say? I don’t rightly know cause I guess I’m still in shock.”

Ben placed his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Tatum, everyone makes mistakes. We don’t always like what our sons do, but we can always hope that they learn from their mistakes and try never to make the same ones twice.”

Tatum laughed lightly. “Luke told me what really happened and then he wanted to go tell Edison the truth. I thought we’d best take Roy along with us, and after Luke spilled his guts that’s when Edison wanted to come here, to tell you he was sorry. I can’t say I’m happy with Luke, but his owning up to his part in the whole mess was a step in the right direction at least.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “It sure is, and you have to remember, he’s still just a boy. Give him time, lots of love, but most of all, understanding and compassion.” Ben glanced over his shoulder at Joe who had fallen to sleep in his chair. “Works every time, Tatum, every time.”

“Thanks Ben,” smiled Tatum, following Ben’s eyes. “Best get that boy in bed, he’s had one hell of a day…and look, he’s still smiling.”

Ben, Adam and Hoss all turned to look at Joe’s face. The boy was sound asleep and snoring softly, but it was true…a smidgen of a smile tugged at the sleeping boy’s mouth.

Ben leaned down and gathered his son into his arms and carried him upstairs. Adam led the way and quickly turned back the pile of blankets and waited until his father had placed Joe into the bed before pulling the covers up to Joe’s chin. He stepped back, watching as Ben sat on the side of the bed, tenderly stroking the side of the cherubic little face with his callused yet gentle hands.

Adam nodded to Hoss and together they left their father alone with Joe. When they had gone, Ben leaned down and placed a kiss on his son’s brow.

“Good night Precious.” Ben smiled. “I know you think you’re too old for nick names, but I can’t help myself. It’s times like this that I am reminded of just how much I love you,” whispered Ben as his hand moved to gather Joe’s smaller one into his own.

Ben noted the scrapes that dotted his son’s knuckles from where Joe had been fighting. Ben detested fighting, especially when the fight was over something foolish. But this time, smiled Ben as he kissed the back of the bruised fingers, his son had been fighting for something that he knew was right, something that Joe had believed in, and amid the confusion, Joe had somehow come out the victor and had, unknowingly, proved his point.

Having been stuck between a rock and a hard place, meaning that Joe could either choose to speak up or remain silent and pay the consequences, Joe had unwittingly gotten his point across to the other person. Hadn’t Lucas Tatum come forth and admitted the truth about what he had done and allowed Joe to carry the blame? Ben smiled and placed Joe’s hand under the blanket. Both boys had learned something today…it’s wrong to let another person shoulder the responsibility for something you have done, and it’s wrong not to speak up and tell the truth about who committed the wrong-doing. It was a costly lesson for both boys, for neither would be sitting comfortably for several days.

Lucas had agreed to help with repairing the chairs and desks, along with Timmy who had learned that it’s not always wise to be a follower, but better to pick and choose more carefully when asked to tag along after someone.

Mr. Edison had learned a lesson today as well, a very costly lesson. The price of a treasured item can never be measured in comparison with the cost of a child’s life. A treasured item is just that, an item that can be bought for a price, but a child’s life is priceless, and once shattered, can never really be what it had once been when still innocent.

Ben leaned down and gave Joe one last goodnight kiss. The long lashes fluttered and seconds later, Ben found himself staring down into the sleep-laden eyes of his son.

“Go back to sleep sweetheart,” whispered Ben.

“What are you doing, Pa?” muttered Joe.

Ben smiled and brushed back a stray curl. “Just watching you sleep, that’s all, and counting my lucky stars.”

“Lucky stars? How many ya got?” Joe smiled slightly and then closed his eyes again as he drifted off to sleep.

“Right now, I’d estimate…about three.”

THE END

April 2003

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