Big Brother Hoss (by DebbieB)

Summary: Joe worships his older brother Hoss, more so after being beaten by a gang of bullies who hold a grudge against the older brother.  Hoss then deems it his duty to become his younger brother’s protector.

Rated: PG13  Contains some graphic fight scenes. (22,375 words)

 

 

                  Big Brother Hoss

 

Seven-year-old Joe located Hoss behind the schoolhouse.  It appeared to the younger boy as if his older brother had been crying and when Little Joe saw Hoss swipe away the remains of his tears, Joe’s own hazel eyes began to cloud up in sympathy for his older brother, for it was seldom that Little Joe had seen his bigger brother reduced to tears and it frightened him to see Hoss crying for no apparent reason that Joe could detect.

“Hoss, why ya cryin?” Little Joe quietly asked his brother, looking around to be sure that there was no one near by that might hear him, for he knew that Hoss would be upset with him if he let it out that the bigger boy had been caught in tears.

“I…I ain’t acryin’ Little Joe, I got somethin’ in my eye, now go away and leave me alone,” Hoss turned his head away from the tiny little boy so that his younger brother could not see his tears and how much his face had discolored by his embarrassment.

“Ya is too cryin’ and I bet I know why now. I didn’t know at first but its cause what them other boys called ya,” Little Joe, sure of himself, moved around the tree where Hoss had been standing and looked into his brother’s sky blue eyes.  “Ya want me to punch’em for ya, Hoss?  I ain’t scared of’em.”

Hoss could not help the smile that spread across his round face, just the thoughts of his miniature little brother trying to take on the gang of twelve and thirteen year olds who had been teasing him and making fun of his size, was enough to make Hoss laugh.

“What’s so funny?  Golly Hoss, what’s wrong with ya?  One minute ya acryin’ and the next minute ya alaughin’?” complained Joe, not grasping the idea as to why Hoss would be acting so strangely, he had seemed just fine this morning when they had left the ranch but as the day wore on, Joe noticed a change in his brother’s usually happy-go-lucky mood.

Hoss wiped his face with both hands, drying the remainder of the dampness from his eyes and ruffled Joe’s mass of curly hair.  “Aw shucks, Punkin, ain’t nothin’ wrong, I was just havin’ a bad day.  And ya needn’t worry ya self none about punchin’ anyone.  Ya know as well as I do, if’n Pa finds out ya been afightin’ he’d tan ya hide for sure.  Come on, let’s get back to class.”

Hoss took his little brother’s hand and led him back into the classroom where class had just started for the afternoon.   Slowly as the brothers came into the class, Miss Abigail Jones turned to watch as the pair entered and made their way to their designated seats, across the room from each other.  She had not been aware of the riff that had taken place outside her classroom but she did notice that both Cartwright brothers seemed more subdued than usual though she did not take the time to question either boy.  Slightly irritated at them for holding up the class, she only pointed at their seats indicating that they take their places.  Miss Jones was not the only person to watch, the same small group of boys who had carried out the teasing and name-calling were also watching.

Joe saw the boys scrutinize both himself and Hoss and for just a brief moment felt a sense of dread as the dark menacing eyes followed him to his seat.  Just as Joe turned to take his place, his eyes made contact with the larger of the boys, the one who had been the leader and in that instant Joe, for lack of anything better to do, puckered up his mouth and stuck out his tongue at the class bully.  The boy gave Joe a dark scowl causing Joe to tremble slightly.  The boy, suddenly engulfed with rage, mouthed a come back at Joe but Joe could not understand the words, he would how ever understand them later.

Miss Jones excused the class for the day and the room full of children ran from the building.  Hoss and Little Joe lingered behind, Joe searching his desk for his writing tablet so that he could practice his letters at home under the watchful eye of his father or Adam, his oldest brother.

“I’m goin’ on to the stable Little Joe, ya hurry up now, ya hear?  Pa said if’n we were late again today he’d take no excuse and tan both our hides,” called out Hoss over his shoulder as he headed out the door to saddle his horse while his brother continued his search of the missing tablet.

Joe at last found what he was rummaging around for and hurried to catch up with his brother.  As he rounded the corner of the school building he was stopped by three of the older boys.  Joe gulped deeply, the class bully, Walter Hamilton blocked his path, Simon Miller and Josh Williamson, stood slightly behind Walter.  All three had looks on their faces that caused Joe’s heart to race with fear and he trembled slightly though he tried not to let it show.

“Hey peep squeak, ya ain’t so brave now are ya?  Why don’t ya try stickin’ ya tongue out at me now?” taunted Walt, as he advanced on the much smaller boy.

Joe took a step backward, for caution’s sake, not because he was scared but because he had to will his body to stop trembling in spite of the brave front he tried to put on.

“I ain’t scared of ya…” started Joe but was stopped suddenly when Walt, as his friends called him, reached out his arm and shoved Little Joe roughly on the shoulder knocking him to the ground.

Joe jumped up quickly, his little fingers folded to make his hands into tight fists, and the anger that showed on his face making the three older boys start laughing.  Walt took another step in Joe’s direction as Simon and Josh circled the boy, and Walt shoved Joe a second time, this time Joe was ready but instead of falling he was spun around and found himself facing Simon who took his turn at shoving.  Joe lost his balance and fell face down into the dirt.  Before Joe could get to his feet, Josh kicked out at the struggling boy and when the tip of his pointed boot connected with Joe’s mid section, Joe cried out in pain.

Walt grabbed Joe by the shirt collar, ripping his shirt and yanked the crying boy to his feet.  “If’n I find ya tongue outta your mouth again squirt, I’ll cut it off with this.”  Walt held up his knife that he had hidden in the top of his boot and pressed it under Joe’s chin.

“Ya got that?” smirked Walt.  Joe trembling, tears rolling from his eyes, dared to shake his head up and down in response to the bully’s question.

“Good.”  Walt shoved Joe one last time making him to stumble backwards; Simon finished the job for his friend and also shoved Joe, making him to fall for a third time onto the dusty ground.

Joe waited until all three of the boys had moved away before pulling himself to his feet and dusting off his clothing.  Wiping the tears from his eyes, Joe picked up his writing tablet and hobbled on to the stable.  Hoss was just coming out of the small building when Joe entered.  Hoss took one look at his little brother, noted the dust on his clothes, the ripped shirt and the tear tracks that had left streaks down his dirty face when he had started to cry.

“Short Shanks, what in tarnation happened to ya?” exclaimed Hoss, stooping on one knee to get a better look at his brother’s face as he dusted the dirt from Joe’s brow and hairline.

“Who dun this to ya?”  Hoss cast a wary glance over his shoulder searching for the culprits who had attacked his baby brother.

“I just fell down, that’s all Hoss, honest.”  Little Joe tried to stop his shaking, for in truth, Walt had scared him by sticking the sharp bladed knife against his throat and he was terrified to tell Hoss the truth about what happened, believing in his young mind that Walt would truly do him bodily harm if he should tattle on the bully.

Hoss studied Joe’s face and the strange rip in the collar of the little boy’s shirt but could not tell for sure whether or not the boy was fibbing to him.  Deciding to hurry on home so as not to be late and risk angering their father, Hoss let the subject drop for now.  Hoss scooped the smaller boy up into his arms and placed him on the horse behind the saddle.  Instantly Hoss heard the soft moan that escaped his little brother’s mouth.

“Hey, what’s wrong Joe?”  Hoss still had his hands around Joe’s waist and when Joe doubled up from the pain where he had been kicked, Hoss quickly withdrew his hands, believing that he had some how hurt the smaller boy.

“Joe?” worried Hoss.

Joe, the tears stinging his eyes tried not to cry, but a lone tear made its escape before Joe was able to wipe it away.  “I guess I must’va hurted my tummy when I fell.  I’m all right, lets just go home,” Joe lied, forcing his body into an upright position.

Hoss wasn’t at all sure that he believed Joe, but again said nothing, choosing instead to remain silent.  Quickly Hoss mounted the horse and headed for home, silently planning to have a private little talk with Adam when he got there.  Hoss had decided to say nothing to their father about the little trouble that he had had earlier in the day with the four boys who had been teasing him, but he did want to talk to Adam about it, well, part of it he thought.  He wasn’t about to admit to either his father or his brother that the cruel remarks had hurt his feelings and had pushed him into tears, crying was for babies he decided, like his little brother, Joe.

Joe held on to Hoss’ waist as the horse plodded its way homeward.  The pain in his stomach gave him reason to want to cry but Joe fought the urge hoping to avoid unnecessary questions by the brother who sat in front of him for Joe felt sure had Hoss known the real reason for his discomfort, Hoss would feel it his duty to inform their pa. And, if Pa had any inkling to the trouble he had risen by sticking his tongue out at one of the older and less kind boys, Pa would find it in his rights to punish his youngest son.  The way, in which his stomach was hurting, a ‘little discussion’ with his father was the last thing that Joe wanted to have happening.

Hoss pulled his mount to a halt and helped his brother to slide from the back of the horse, holding firmly to the boy’s hand.  Joe moaned and then cast anxious eyes upward to see whether or not Hoss had heard him.  Luckily Hoss seemed preoccupied, lost in his own thoughts and had been unaware of his brother’s body’s response to the growing pain Joe felt in his mid section.

“Well, it’s about time you two scalawags made it home.  It’s a good thing Pa isn’t back yet, or he’d have both your hides,” scowled Adam.  Adam failed to notice when his youngest brother dismounted and had placed his left arm across the front of his stomach and turned away to prevent Adam from seeing him.

“It I were either one of you, I’d be hightailing it for the barn and starting my chores.  Pa went over to the Devlin’s but should be back soon, best hurry,” Adam wasn’t really mad at his brothers, he knew they were young and still tended to twaddle along on their way home; but he did hate to see them in trouble with their father so much of the time, especially when it could be avoided.  Adam enjoyed the peaceful evenings when the day had gone smoothly and could only cringe at the thoughts that his brothers might later be the cause to rock the boat and bring discord to his evening hours.

Joe quickly took his brother’s advice and made his way to the barn to begin his afternoon chores, Hoss gathered his horse’s reins and began to follow but was stopped by Adam who had placed his hand over his brother’s arm.

“Hoss, what’s wrong with Little Joe?” Adam asked.

“What’cha mean?  Don’t reckon nuthin’s wrong with’em, just fell down at school’s atall,” Hoss explained to his brother.

“He fell down?” quizzed the older brother. “I guess that explains all the dirt, maybe even the tear tracks, but what happened to his shirt?”

“Um…his shirt?” stalled Hoss, looking down at the ground.

“All right Hoss, what’s going on?  Has the little scamp been in another fight already?” demanded Adam shaking his head in disbelief.

Just the week before Little Joe had gotten into two fights with another young boy, Lucas Tatum, and had come home looking much the same way as today.  Ben had over looked the first fight with just a warning and Joe had promised his father that it would not happen again.  But much to the boy’s dismay, the very next day Lucas had incident a name calling game, making Little Joe the butt of his unkind words and Joe, who’s temper was known to be very short, had taken to heart the cruel remarks and had rained his fury on Lucas Tatum.  Lucas had left school with a busted lip and a black eye, his clothes had been torn and later that evening, Mr. Tatum had come calling.  The result of that visit had ended with a serious ‘little discussion’ upstairs alone in his room with his somewhat irate father.  Adam and Hoss had finally grown tired of listening to the wailing going on above their heads and had quickly found extra chores that had suddenly needed their attention in the barn.  Later that evening, Little Joe ate his supper sitting somewhat uncomfortably on one of the red cushions from the settee, a look of sorrow on his unhappy face that caused both older brothers to feel pity for their younger brother.

Hoss, feeling a mite guilty about what he had been up to hardly wanted to think that Little Joe had broken yet another promise to their father and been fighting again.  But then Joe hadn’t been fighting today, least ways not that Hoss knew about.

“No, he’s not been scufflin’.  I had a little problem with some of the fellas though and Joe wanted to punch’em for me, regular little tiger sure ‘nough, but he didn’t do nuthin’ Adam, honest,” Hoss’ blue eyes were wide, he had his doubts as to what really caused the tear in Joe’s shirt, but he didn’t want to come right out and tell Adam that he thought Little Joe had lied to him, cause he tweren’t sure he told himself.

Adam sighed, doubt filling his thoughts as well but he knew if the boy had been fighting, it would mean another trip across his father’s lap and Adam, though a strict disciplinarian himself, held a soft spot in his heart for the youngest member of the family and hated to see that happening again so soon after the last time.

“Well, best get on with your chores Hoss, don’t want to get Pa in a bad mood tonight, he’s had a hard day, what with losing that new contract and all.  It wouldn’t pay not to be finished with your work by suppertime, or at least nearly finished.  I have some work to do inside, make sure that little rascal does his share, don’t you do it for him again tonight, understand?” Adam stood, hands on hips, legs slightly apart and eyed his middle brother.

Hoss, hearing the tone of Adam’s voice, quickly looked up and seeing his brother smiling at him, started to laugh.  “How’d ya know about that Adam, were ya spyin’ on Little Joe and me?”

Adam laughed and clamped his hand down on Hoss’ shoulder while walking with him to the barn.  “For your information, I have better things to do than to spy on the two of you.  I just know you did them for him, it was much to neatly finished for Joe to claim responsibility for having done them.”

Hoss laughed, glad to see the smile on Adam’s face, “Aw shucks Adam, the kid’s so doggone little, he has a hard time doin’ some of the stuff Pa makes’em do.  I felt sorry for’em; after all, he could hardly walk.  ‘Member, Pa dusted his britches for that fight he got into that day.”

“Well, you just make sure the little scamp does them tonight,” Adam stopped as Hoss led his horse into the barn before turning back towards the house, the smile he wore making his face to show the dimples that always made his face so handsome.

Hoss found Joe in the stalls spreading fresh hay for the horses and smiled at the sight of the little fella using the pitchfork that was twice his size.  “You’re doin’ a good job Short Shanks,” smiled Hoss as he unsaddled his horse and began rubbing down the animal.

Joe gave Hoss a small smile and continued working.  When the last stall was finished, he paused, holding the pitchfork with one hand and moved to watch Hoss.  Hoss was just putting away the currycomb and brushes and nearly tripped over the smaller boy as he turned around.

“Sorry, didn’t see ya.  What’s wrong Joe?  You look sorta troubled,” Hoss sat the brushes down and knelt down in front of his little brother, placing a hand on top of Joe’s shoulders.  It was then that Hoss could feel the tremors that suddenly passed beneath his hands.

“Joe?  What’s wrong, buddy?” questioned the concerned older brother taking the pitchfork from Joe and standing it against the wall.

Joe fought against the urge to throw his arms about Hoss’ neck and burst out crying.  “Nothin’,” Joe shook his head slowly from side to side.

“I know better’n that, now why don’t’cha tell ole Hoss what’s botherin’ ya?  I might be able to help,” Hoss gave Joe an encouraging smile and pulled the boy into his arms.

Joe allowed his brother to hold him; the warmth of the embrace, the comforting feeling that he got from his brother whom he idolized calmed the trembling Joe had been suffering from just moments before.

“Hoss, how’s come ya let them boys make ya cry today?  Why didn’t ya just punch them?  They’d astopped for sure if’n ya had of?”  Little Joe moved so that he could see his brother’s face and waited patiently for Hoss to explain to him why he allowed the other boys to make him cry.

Hoss felt his face grow warm, so Joe had seen thought Hoss and the knowledge embarrassed him for he did not want to appear to be either scared of the bullies or be a cry baby in front of his younger brother.

“Aw shucks, Short Shanks, it tweren’t nuthin’…” he began.

“But Hoss,” Little Joe flung his arms up in the air, exasperated, and let the wind out of his lungs.  “Ya could’va made them stop if ya just of hit’em good and hard.”

Hoss sat down on a wooden box and motioned for Joe to sit next to him.  “Looky Little Joe, I know I could’va made them stop by hittin’ ‘em, but if’n I had of, I might’va really hurt one of them.  Looky at these hands boy, looky at how big they are,” Hoss folded his hands up into fists and held them out for his brother to see.  Joe placed both of his hands over his brother’s tight fists and looked up into Hoss’ troubled eyes.

“If’n I’d ahit one of’em, I might’ve even kilt’em with these here.  Joe, I couldn’t take a chance on doin’ nuthin’ like that, so I just try to ignore’em when they tease me…like Pa tells me to do…shucks, I just let’em get the best of me today.  ‘Sides Joe, ya know Pa don’t uphold us fightin’; he says fightin’ never solved any problem, only makes for more.  And he’s right little brother, why, if’n I’d a got into a fight today, Pa would be dustin’ my britches tonight, and ya know it.  But don’t worry ya self none Joe, I don’t care what they call me, so long as they leave ya alone.”  Hoss ruffled the mass of curly hair that adorned Little Joe’s head and smiled at the little boy.

“Now if’n ya were to call me an ugly name like that, I’ll stick ya in the water trough!” laughed Hoss but stopped when he saw that Joe had not found his comment funny.

Suddenly little arms enclosed around Hoss’ neck taking the larger boy by surprise.  “I would never make fun of ya Hoss, I love ya, and besides, you’re my brother,” proclaimed Joe proudly, “It just made me mad when I saw ya cryin’.  And then when ole Walt and his bully friends did what they did to me I just sorta got…” Joe stopped suddenly realizing that he had said too much.

Hoss pulled Joe’s arms from about his neck and stood the boy in front of him, holding him tightly but gently by both arms so that Joe could not pull away.  “What are ya talkin’ about Joe, what did Walt and the others do to ya and when?”

Joe tried to pull away from the strong hands that held him, he wasn’t about to tell Hoss that Walt had pulled a knife on him and then threatened to hurt him.  “Nuthin’ Hoss, he didn’t do nuthin, now let me go so’s I can finish my chores before Pa gets home.”  Little Joe struggled against the hands, but Hoss held firmly.

“I wanna know, right now Little Joe, was it Walt who tore ya shirt and got ya all dirty?  Is he the reason why ya been holdin’ ya tummy?” Hoss gently shook Joe to stop him from squirming so much.  “Answer me, now!” Hoss fairly shouted at Joe.

The tears began pooling in his eyes and Joe could do nothing to stop the overflow, his arms held snuggly in his brother’s grasp, Joe was not free to swipe them from his face.  With his brother’s head hung low, Hoss could still see the trembling of the chin and watched in dismay as the tears rolled down his brother’s cheeks and dropped onto the knee of his own pants, leaving tiny round wet spots on his trousers.

Hoss, the tears beginning to form in his own eyes, pulled his baby brother into his arms and hugged him.  “I’m sorry Punkin, I didn’t mean to make ya cry.  I just need to know if’n those boys hurt ya any…and they did…I can tell.  I’m right ain’t I?” Hoss whispered to Joe who had buried his face into the curve of his brother’s shoulder and had wrapped his arms around Hoss’ neck as well.

Joe sniffed his nose and whispered into Hoss’ ear, “They just shoved me down Hoss when I was comin’ to the stable after school and one of’em kicked me.  That’s why my tummy hurts, but that’s all, my shirt got tored when Walt yanked me up off the ground.”

Joe knew that Hoss would be mad at him later when he found out about the knife, if he did, but he was not going to tell his brother about the way in which Walt had stuck the sharp pointed knife against his throat, Joe was just enough afraid of the older boys not to double cross them for fear of getting either himself and maybe even Hoss hurt badly.  He promised himself not to tell for he could sense the anger building in his usually gentle, kind brother and Hoss’ anger scared him some, for it was seldom that Hoss was pushed to the point of being so mad that he lost control of his judgment and his common sense.

“Please Hoss, don’t tell Pa, promise me ya won’t tell him.  If’n ya do, he’ll dust my backside good, and I didn’t do nuthin’ to them, I only stuck my tongue out at Walt when me and you went back to class after they made ya cry,” Joe pulled free from Hoss’ embrace and wiped his tear stained face with the backs of his hands and waited for Hoss to reply.

“I don’t know Joe, Pa needs to know that the older boys are pickin’ on ya so’s he…” began Hoss but stopped when Joe butted in.

“But Hoss, if’n ya tell Pa what they did, then Pa’s gonna ask me why I stuck my tongue out at’em and then I’ll have’ta tell him it was cause they made you cry and then Pa will asked you why they made you cry and then you will have to explain…”

Hoss gently clamped his large hand over Joe’s mouth to silence him.  “Okay, Little Joe, I get the point, now be quiet.  I won’t say anythin’ to Pa, but you’d better have a good excuse for gettin’ ya shirt tore like ya did.  Better yet, why don’t ya go inside and get washed up afore Pa gets home, and put on a different shirt, I’ll finish up in here, now get.”

Joe smiled at Hoss, “that’s a great idea, and Pa won’t ever know about the shirt, unless Hop Sing tells him when he finds it on wash day.  Maybe by then I can come up with a better reason for the rip than just fallin’ down.  Thanks Hoss, you’re the best.”  Joe hugged his brother, placed a wet kiss on Hoss’ cheek and ran from the barn smiling, satisfied that for the time being his secret was safe.

By bedtime, Joe had all but forgotten about his near miss earlier in the afternoon, the ripped shirt that he had stashed under his bed and the sore spot in his tummy.  Hoss too seemed to have let by-gones be by-gones, Adam noticing nothing unusual about his two younger brothers, shrugged off his plans on having a talk with his father in respect to his suspicions letting the matter drop instead.  Ben, who had been working on his ledgers had no clue to the day’s events, therefore found no cause on this particular night to be put out with any of his three sons.  As Ben moved from his desk to his favorite red chair, he smiled at the sight of his three sons huddled together around the checkerboard.

Adam was helping Joe, who was trying to decide which checker he wanted to jump first of the ones in his path.  Hoss watched, aware of the fact that given half a chance, Little Joe would slide one of his checkers onto the next square making his chances of winning more favorable.  Hoss had known for a long time that Joe would cheat given the opportunity but he never said anything to the little tike about it for Hoss’ heart was as his older brother’s, it too had a soft spot in it reserved only for Little Joe.

“Boys, don’t you think it’s time for bed?  Little Joe, come on son, I’ll help you get ready and then I’ll read you a story.”  Ben scooped Joe up in his arms and nuzzled his son’s neck with his day old whiskers.  Little Joe giggled and tried to worm his way free of the prickly little hairs on his father’s face.

“Oh no you don’t, up you go,” Ben swung Joe up onto this shoulders and galloped for the stairs, the little boy hanging on tightly and laughing loudly.

“You comin’ Hoss, I want you to read me that new story book you got in town the other day.  Is that okay with you Pa, I mean if’n Hoss reads to me tonight?  Heh Pa, heh?  Pretty please,” begged Joe, his arms wrapped around his father’s head hanging on for dear life as Ben bounced up the stairs.

“It’s fine with me little boy, if Hoss doesn’t mind,” replied Ben huffing as he lowered Joe back down to the floor.

“I don’t mind Pa, just let me put the checkers away and then I’ll be up,” called out Hoss as he helped Adam gather the little wooden pieces and return them to their box.

By the time that Ben had Little Joe ready for bed, Hoss appeared in the doorway, book in hand and ready to read the story to his younger brother.  Ben smiled as he watched Hoss crawl onto the bed and sit next to Little Joe who was propped on his pillows, excitement shining in his hazel eyes.

“When you’re finished Hoss, I expect you to get to bed as well, long day ahead of you boys tomorrow.  Joseph, I’ll be up when Hoss is finished to say good-night,” Ben eased himself out the door and turning smiled again at the sight of the two boys bent over the opened book.

Hoss had only read a couple of pages when Joe stopped him.  “Hoss, thanks for not telling Pa about them boys shoving me around today.”  Joe looked up at Hoss; his heart shining in his eyes and Hoss nudged him with his shoulder.

“Hey kid, that’s what big brothers are for, keeping little brother’s outta trouble,” laughed Hoss.  “But it won’t happen again, Joe,” Hoss lowered his voice to a whisper just in case his father or Adam might be close by, “I plan on makin’ sure of that tomorrow.”

Joe’s eyes widened at the news, “What’cha goin’ to do Hoss, beat’em up?”

Hoss scrunched up his face and shook his head no.  “Naw, I’m just gonna give’em a warnin’.  They better not bother ya again Joe, or I might just get mad and if’n I do, well ya know what happens.”

Hoss studied his little brother’s face and vowed to himself not to let anyone pick on the boy he loved with all of his heart.  “I don’t wanna hurt’em mind ya, but I will pound’em into the ground if’n they touch ya again.  I won’t stand by and see my baby brother hurt by no one.”  Hoss gave his head one final nod for emphasis.

Joe forced his eyes back down to the pages of the book, suddenly afraid for his bigger brother.  Fear that the bullies might gang up on Hoss and if Walt still carried his knife in his boot, Hoss could very easily be hurt badly.

“Hoss,” said Joe weakly.

“Heh Joe?” suddenly aware that his brother had grown strangely quiet.

“Why don’t ya just let it go?  Maybe they won’t do nuthin’ to either of us anymore,” Joe suggested though he doubted his own words.

“Ain’t likely Joe, they been pushin’ me for a fight ney onto a week now.  And I’m about to oblige’em if they don’t leave ya alone.  Don’t worry Punkin, they ain’t agonna hurt me.  Now forget it, let’s get this story read afore Pa comes up and makes us go to bed without finishing.”

Hoss picked up the book and started reading.  Joe leaned back into his pillows and tried to concentrate on the words of the story but his mind kept going over the events of the day and worry began to seep into his mind about what would happen come tomorrow when Hoss faced off with the three boys who had deemed it their duty to make life miserable for both himself and his older brother.

The scream split the stillness of the night into a zillion pieces.  Ben jerked his eyes opened as the second scream all but shattered the upstairs windows.  Quickly the concerned father kicked the covers from his bed and rising, ran barefooted down the length of the hall where he nearly collided with his oldest son.  Adam gave his father a worried look as together they bolted through the door and into Joe’s room.  Adam hurried to brighten the lamp that burned low as Ben bent over the bed trying to gather his frightened son into his arms.  Joe sat upright in his bed, his face covered and dampened with sweat, his arms fraying wildly in mid air as he fought with his unseen assailant.

“No!” he screamed, his eyes shut tight in sleep, “No, you can’t cut me…Hoss…Hoss…help me!   Watch out…Hoss…NO, NO!  The knife…”

Ben’s arms gathered the wailing boy into his arms, “Joseph, wake up son.”
“Hoss…gotta help’em…” Joe continued to whine.

Ben’s arms tightened around the beleaguered boy as he continued in his deep but soothing voice to bring his distraught son from the nightmare that Joe’s subconscious mind had locked into.

“Joseph, wake up son.  Joseph, open your eyes sweetheart…It’s okay, Papa’s got you now.”  Ben’s large hands rubbed up and down his trembling son’s back, gently soothing away the boy’s fear that his nightmare had caused him.

Ben gave his son an encouraging smile, “Are you okay now, precious?” whispered Ben, tightening his arms for more comfort.

Joe wiped the tears from his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt and nodded his head.

“Yes sir,” he barely whispered.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Ben asked softly and watched the expression suddenly change on his son’s face.

Joe cast wary eyes around the room, seeing Hoss and Adam standing nearby and shook his head no.  There was no way that he was going to tell any of them that his nightmare had been about Walt and his sidekicks and how they had been cutting away at both he and Hoss with Walt’s sharp knife.

“I just wanna go back to sleep,” fibbed Little Joe, knowing full well that sleep was the last thing he would be doing for the rest of the long night.

Ben gently lowered Joe back against the mattress and pillows and began pulling the covers up around his still trembling body.  “How about if I sit with you then until you fall to sleep?” smiled Ben.

Though Joe truly believed that sleep would not come again, he agreed and turned over, shutting his eyes tightly.  “Night Adam, night Hoss,” he called over his shoulder as his older brothers excused themselves from the room.

Ben pulled the chair closer to the bed and waited until the room had emptied before lowering the wick on the lamp and settling down in the old worn chair.  Ben leaned his head back, listening to the sound of Little Joe’s breathing.  It wasn’t long until the recognizable sound of soft snoring told the older man that at last his son was sleeping.  Carefully, Ben adjusted the covers, planted a kiss on Joe’s cheek, and turned the wick lower and slipped from the room.  It was well passed one in the morning before Ben was finally able to fall asleep himself and he had not much more than turned over when he was rudely awakened by the bouncing little boy whom he thought had just gone back to sleep.

“Mornin’ Pa,” greeted Little Joe happily as he straddled his father and bounced up and down, the nightmare just hours old completely forgotten.

Ben groaned and tried to turn over on the up side of his little boy’s bounces.  “Good morning to you.  My, you are up early, and look at you, already dressed,” smiled Ben, noting the mismatched way that Joe’s shirt was buttoned.  Laughing, Ben gathered Joe into his arms to still the movement that caused the head of the bed to bang loudly against the wall.

“Yep!  Today’s Friday, fun day at school.  We gets to play outside most all day, that is us younger kids while the older kids have to take some tests.  Some of the dumber big boys don’t gotta test and they gotta stay outside too.  Not Hoss though, he gets to test cause he’s smarter than he looks,” Joe proudly stated.

“Joseph!  I hardly think that’s a nice thing to say about your older brother,” exclaimed Ben, scowling somewhat though he could not help but smile.

“What Pa?  I didn’t say nuthin’ bad about Hoss, he is smart, when he wants to be,” giggled Joe as if the news was just that, news, to his knowing father.

“Well, I know that, it’s just the way you said it,” Ben had to laugh at the expression on Joe’s face for it was pure innocence.  Ben realized that Joe had expressed himself the only way he knew how, just say it like it is, again Ben laughed.  “Oh never mind you little scamp, let’s get downstairs before that big intelligent brother of yours eats all of our breakfast.”

Ben swung Joe off his stomach and scooted him towards the door adding a little love pat to his backside.  “You go ahead son, I have to get dressed first.  I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

“Okay Pa, but ya better hurry, cause I’m hungry too and I bet I can eat as much as that big telligent son of yours,” piped Joe skipping across the room and out the door.

Joe’s good mood seemed to change as they neared the school.  He suddenly had lost interest in the things around him that had kept him chattering non-stop to Hoss who had long since turned a deaf ear to the boy’s rattling.  It was the sudden silence that brought Hoss back from his daydreams and into the present world around him.

“What’s wrong Little Joe?  Somethin’ troublin’ ya?” Hoss tried to look over his shoulder to see Joe’s face but couldn’t quite make out the trouble expression that Joe wore on his face.

Hoss felt Joe’s shoulders shrug against his back and pulled his horse to a stop.  Twisting in the saddle, the unhappy expression that his brother wore was the first thing he spied and it worried him.  “Joe, somethin’s eatin’ at ya.  I know that look, now what is it?”

Joe cut his eyes up to meet Hoss’ feeling as if his brother’s were boring into his.  “I was just thinkin’ about Walt and his friends.  Ya ain’t really gonna pound’em are ya?”

Hoss pursed his lips tightly together and moving only his eyes, scanned the area around them.  “Not if’n ya don’t want me too.  I mean to have my say with’em, as to poundin’ ‘em, that will depend on them.”

“Well, just don’t do it on my account.  They didn’t really hurted me yesterday, just sorta scared me a little.  Please Hoss, I don’t wanna see them jump on ya and hurted you.”  Joe looked pretty close to tears and Hoss’ temper cooled some.

“Okay little brother, I won’t start nuthin’, but I’m gonna warn’em to leave ya alone.  I don’t care what they do to me, but by golly, they’s best not mess with my best friend,” Hoss gave Joe a wide gap-tooth grin and ruffled his hair.

“Dadburnit Hoss, now lookit what ya dun and did, ya messed up my hair,” frowned Little Joe, running his fingers through the thick mass trying to tame the wildest of curls.

The day progressed nicely, even after Hoss had confronted Walt and his friends about leaving his younger brother alone.  Miss Jones had not been far from view so Walt, Simon, Josh and even Albert, had done nothing but stand and listen to Hoss’ proclamation of what he would do, should they choose not to heed his warnings.

All was going smoothly, that is until the younger students were excused from class so that Miss Jones could begin the testing that would determine who got moved forward for the next year and who would have to remain behind.  Joe turned just as he reached the door and gave Hoss an encouraging smile.

He had all but made it onto the small porch at the door when he heard Miss Jones calling out names.  “Listen for your names children and when I call your name, you may be excused to go outside with the younger children.  I’m sorry but if your name is called, it does mean that you will not be passing into the next grade level when the new school year begins due to the fact that you have fallen far behind in your present studies.  Albert Blankinship, Walter Hamilton, Simon Miller and Josh Williamson.  You four boys may be excused.

‘Great,’ thought Joe as he hurried outside, ‘just what I need, the four bullies and Hoss trapped inside.’

Little Joe quickly looked around for a hideout, thinking he might be wise to stay out of sight until Hoss finished with his testing.  He told himself he wasn’t really afraid of the boys, not one on one, but four against one was not odds to take lightly, especially when one of them was known to carry a knife as sharp as Walt’s.  And, he reasoned, Adam had often told him that discretion was the better part of valor.  Little Joe had never been sure just what Adam had meant by the statement but he felt now might just be one of those times his oldest brother had been referring too, so he hurried to the back side of the building in hopes of staying out of view of the four older boys.

Joe had no idea how long he had been sitting behind the bolder but it had seemed like half of his short lifetime.  When he finally managed to pull himself to his feet, he peeked out from his hiding place, relieved to see that the gang of bullies was nowhere to be seen.  Joe straightened his back and headed directly for the outhouse to relieve him self.  He hurried his steps, as the pressure on his bladder seemed to intensify the faster he moved.

Just as he reached the door and started to open it, the strong hands that clamped down across his mouth startled him, stopping him from being able to cry out for help.  Joe struggled against the hand that gripped his face; using his feet and legs, Joe attempted to kick out at his assailant, but other hands quickly grabbed his thrashing legs, preventing him from moving.  In just a matter of moments, the hands had dragged his body into the edge of the woods far behind the schoolhouse.

Joe felt the first of many blows as the hands pounded first on his stomach, then his sides, moving to his face where the battering continued until Joe lost sense of his surroundings and dropped to the ground, blood oozing from cuts about his face and arms.  His young face had quickly turned several shades of blue and black as the bruises began covering first one half then the other half of his delicate features.  No one would know until later when Joe had been stripped of his clothing, but his arms as well as his upper torso, back and sides had also begun changing to the ugly shades that bruising could cause.

Joe moaned, the pain intensifying as he curled his body into a protective ball.  His trousers were wet where his bladder had seen fit to release its self at the first punch to his lower stomach and Joe could hear the laughter of the older boys as the mocked him.

“Lookit there, the baby pissed his pants,” shouted Simon joining the others in the menacing laughter.

“Oh, poor thing, too bad big brother Hoss didn’t bring his baby brother a dry diaper,” sneered Walt, who could not refrain from kicking Joe with the toe of his boot.

Joe cried out, the sound seemingly to be a match for the boys fuses for all four boys dropped to their knees and began pounding away at Joe’s already battered body.  Fists rained their fury onto his back, his sides and when Joe felt his body being flipped over, the fists pounded into his stomach.  Joe did the natural thing when the body is being attacked and covered his mid section with his arms, which took most of the beating.

“STOP! DANG YOU!” screamed out Hoss, enraged at what he was seeing.  With speed that surprised even himself, Hoss covered the distance from where he had stopped and spotted the huddle of boys, only suspecting that at the bottom of that huddle lay his baby brother, his body twisted and broken from his beating.

Hoss yanked the first boy to his feet by the scuff of his neck and slung him into the air.  The second boy was tossed over Hoss’ shoulder in the other direction.  As Hoss reached to grab for Simon, who was the third boy, Simon spotted him for the first time, saw the raw fury in the bigger boy’s dark eyes and ran.  Hoss caught up with him in record time and smashed his fist into the boy’s face, sending Simon sailing through the air.  Hoss paid no heed to the loud thump Simon’s body made when it finally landed on the hard ground.

Hoss turned back to Joe, saw the still form lying in a heap on the ground and felt the tremors as they roared forth from deep within his chest.  Walt stood astraddle Joe’s body poising as if he were a wild animal ready to claim its victim, but Walt had made a fatal mistake, he had underestimated his opponent.  Hoss, head down, charged the boy who was nearly as large as him self, driving his upper body into the middle of the startled young man and knocking him to the ground.  Hoss fell on top of Walt and began pounding him with his fist.  At first Walt held back finding it more important to protect his body than to chance getting in his own blows.  Suddenly Hoss groaned, Simon and Albert who had recovered from their flights in mid-air grabbed Hoss from behind and hauled his heavy frame from Walt who took advantage of the fact that Hoss was incapable of doing anything other than trying to fling his attackers free from his arms.

Walt dove at Hoss with all of his strength succeeding in knocking his opponent to the ground.  Walt, Simon, Albert and Josh converged on Hoss like bees on honey.  Hoss struggled to get to his feet while protecting his own body and had it not been for the adrenaline that pumped through his veins, a lesser man might not have survived the brutal attack.  Once again bodies sailed through the air and when only one remained standing, did Hoss turn and face the one who served as leader of the group and who had first struck Joe.

Hoss had never known hate such as he was feeling at this minute, for four half grown young men to beat nearly to death a helpless seven year old curdled his blood and the hatred showed in his blue eyes.  Walt trembled and Hoss saw the fear that spread across the bully’s face and he smiled, unnerving the other boy.

“Now you know how my baby brother must have felt.”  Hoss said no more, there was no need, Walt dropped to his knees weeping and pleading with Hoss not to hurt him.  Hoss stared opened mouthed at the boy who minutes before had seemed so brave.

Staggering, Hoss approached the boy and yanked him to his feet, his temper cooling slightly, his hate turning to pity as the frightened boy knelt before him sobbing.  “Even Little Joe is braver than you, ya sorry varmint.”

Hoss left the boy where he was, the leader’s friends making their way slowly to his side as Hoss hurried to Joe who still lay motionless on the ground.  Hoss knelt to his knees and gently lifted Joe’s head into his arms, brushing the twigs and dirt from his blackened face.  A sob caught in the older brother’s throat as he gazed into the battered face of his little brother.

“Joe, Punkin, open your eyes…please,” cried Hoss whose tears had pooled and spilled over, dropping onto the front of Joe’s dirty shirt.

Joe eased his good eye opened, seeing Hoss’ face in front of him; he tried to smile but the split in his lower lip made it impossible.  Something caught Joe’s attention and he turned his head slightly in Hoss’ arms.

“Hoss…behind you…the knife…” cautioned Joe weakly as he tried to point at the approaching attacker.

Hoss glanced over his shoulder and saw Walt running at him, knife held high in his hand. From somewhere a girl screamed, then another scream ripped through the air. Hoss barely had time to lay Joe’s head onto the ground and turn before Walt was upon him.  Hoss struggled to maintain his grip on Walt’s arm and squeezed Walt’s wrist with all of his strength.  Walt held tightly to his weapon, determined to use it against his foe, for Hoss had not only angered him but had also shamed him in front of his friends and fellow classmates who had been brave enough to watch the war that had been waged.

Suddenly a shot blasted the air, hands grabbed at Walt and pulled him free of Hoss, and others grabbed Hoss’ arms and forced him to back a way from the other boy.

“What in tarnation is going on here?” shouted Roy Coffee loudly, aiming his attention at Hoss.

Hoss jerked free of the restraining hands and pointed to Joe.  “What the…” Roy stopped in mid sentence and rushed to the side of his best friend’s youngest son.  Hoss was a step ahead of him.

“Roy, I gotta get Joe over to the docs, he’s hurt bad,” Hoss carefully placed his arms under Joe’s body and lifted him from the ground.  Miss Jones had at some time, found a blanket in the closet and wrapped it around the unconscious little boy.

Joe moaned, the pitiful sound bringing fresh tears to Hoss’ eyes and he turned his head to shield his face from the bystanders as he hurried passed.  Roy looked around at the others, smaller children peeked from behind the bushes and trees, a few were venturing out of their hiding places, their eyes wide with fright as they huddled together in small groups and watched as Hoss carried off their wounded classmate.

Roy gathered up the four boys and herded them off to jail, dreading what he must do next.  Clem met him half way, having seen Hoss carrying the smaller boy in his arms running towards the doctor’s office.

“Suppose I’d better ride out and get Ben Cartwright, from what I just saw, he ain’t gonna be none too happy about this,” Clem pulled the brim of his hat further down on his head and glanced at Roy.

Roy was steaming mad, Clem had never seen the sheriff as angry as he was now and he could not blame him, those bigger boys had no business picking on a boy so much younger and twice as small as they were.

“No, Clem I’d rather you take this scum over to the jail,” he tossed his head toward the four boys who stood huddled together, silent at last.   “I best be the one to speak with Ben.  Besides, I have to ride out to see the daddies of these boys.  Make sure you lock’em up good.  I’m goin’ over to the doc’s first to see how Little Joe and Hoss are so’s I’ll know just what to tell Ben.” Roy tossed his hand in the air bidding Clem so long and reached for the reins to his horse.  He did not mount up and ride the short distance to the doctor’s office but he did quicken his step.

There was no one inside the office when Roy entered, death like silence was all that could be heard and for a moment, his heart crept into his throat.  “Doc…you in here?” Roy called out.

The door to the back room opened, Hoss stood before him, his eyes filled with tears streaming down his boyish face.  Roy noted the frightened look behind the well of tears, the quivering chin and his heart went out to the boy.

Roy stepped through the doorway and slipped his arm about Hoss’ shoulders.  “How’s the boy doing?” he asked though by the grave look on Paul Martin’s face as he tended to his patient, no answer was needed to know that it was bad.  Paul glanced first at Hoss but Hoss’ attention had turned to his younger brother and when the physician locked eyes with Roy he shook his head sadly.

Roy lowered his head and swallowed the lump that had tried to squeeze off his passageway; his own eyes brimmed with unshed tears.  Quickly before Hoss could see, he wiped away the dampness and took a deep breath.

“Hoss, you stay with Little Joe, I’m riding out to the ranch to get Ben and Adam.  I won’t be long.  Paul,” Roy motioned for the doctor to follow him outside.

“I’ll be right back Hoss, keep that cool compress on his forehead and call me if he wakes up, I won’t be but just a moment.”  Paul closed the door behind him and trailed after the sheriff.

“Tell Ben the truth Roy, he won’t settle for anything less.  Tell him I am doing all I can, but the boy is in bad shape.  He has some broken ribs, cuts, I think he may have some internal bleeding, but it’s too early to tell.”  Paul took a deep breath and let it out slowly hoping to still his nerves, “I think you need to tell Ben and Adam to hurry, Roy.  I’m not sure if Joe will regain consciousness or not, he seems to be slipping further and further away from us.” Paul turned then and retraced his steps to his patient without another word to the sheriff.

Roy mounted his horse and kicked sharply at the horse’s sides.  The horse took off at a run, Roy bent low over the saddle as the horse literally flew through town. Roy rode hard; he knew he was racing against time as he thought of the young boy who lay near death.  The boy’s father had been his friend for years now, his best friend and he dreaded telling the man that his son might die, dreaded more telling Ben why his youngest son may not live to see daybreak.

It seemed such a long ride from town out to the Ponderosa when you needed to get there quickly, but in truth, it never really took very long.  Ben and Adam were just coming from the barn when he pulled his puffing horse to a sudden stop at the front of the house.

“Roy, what’s the hurry, is there a fire somewhere?” joked Adam unaware that anything had happened to the little boy that he was helping his father to raise and who loved the boy as if the child had been his own and not just his baby brother.

Roy swung down from his mount, his face flushed and Ben, concerned, waited until his friend could catch his breath.

“Ben you best get to town, Adam you too…”started Roy.

“Why Roy, what’s happened?  Is it my boys?” questioned Ben, now apprehensive about his sons who had yet returned home from school.

Roy clenched his teeth and nodded his head up and down.  “I’m afraid so Ben.  Joe’s been hurt pretty badly, Hoss was only cut on the arm, ain’t too bad, but the boy…Paul said you should hurry Ben, he’s in a bad way.”

The color drained from Ben’s face and he swayed slightly but managed to grab onto the fence railing and shake the woozy feeling.  “What happened Roy was there some kind of accident?”

Fear had taken root in the bottom of Ben’s heart.  It had only been a couple of years that his wife Marie had been killed in a riding accident, now her little boy seemed to be facing the same fate and Ben wasn’t sure whether his heart could stand the stress or not. Gasping for air, Ben repeated his question.

“An accident Roy, or what?” stammered Ben.

Adam had rushed to the barn and was leading their horses out when he noted his father’s distraught expression and had heard what his father had asked.  “Well, Roy, was there?” demanded Adam as he handed his father Buck’s reins.

“No, it was no accident.  Four of the older boys jumped Little Joe at school earlier and beat him nearly to death.  Hoss fought off the boys as best he could, but it was nearly too much for even him.  He’s with Little Joe over at Doc Martin’s office.  I’m sorry Ben, I wish I had of gotten to them faster, but I didn’t know…I just didn’t know, I’m so sorry.”

Ben heard the catch in his friend’s voice and placed a hand on Roy’s shoulder to calm him.  “I know you did all you could Roy.  I understand, honest I do, but right now I have to get to my sons.  Adam mount up.”  Ben did the same, turning to Adam once again.  “Let’s ride.”

“Joe, hey Punkin, can ya hear me?” whispered Hoss, his head bent down so that he could speak softly into Joe’s ear.  “Open your eyes Little Joe, please,” begged Hoss pitifully.

Joe lay upon the small bed, unmoving, unresponsive to his brother’s pleading and unaware of the tears that dripped from his protector’s quivering chin.  The physician had bound the broken ribs, stitched the cuts on both the boy’s face and arms, taking extra care when he had to stitch the split in Joe’s bottom lip.  Joe’s face was pale, what could be seen of it beneath the mass of bruises that covered most of his young face.  Both eyes were swollen nearly shut, his stomach and back blackened by more bruises and there was even the print of a boot on his back between his shoulder blades where he had been stomped in a cruel and unkind manner.  Joe’s breathing was shallow and Hoss could not force his eyes from the rise and fall of the tiny chest, lest his brother stop breathing and he not see.

Hoss’ hands held one of Joe’s and he caressed his brother’s arm as he whispered his name over and over.  Paul Martin had tried to get Hoss to lie down on the other cot but Hoss had refused to leave his brother’s side.  His own arm throbbed from where Walt had sliced it with his knife but Hoss ignored his pain, for in his heart, his greatest agony was the fear of losing his best friend, his youngest brother, Joe.  Hoss lowered his head again to his brother’s ear.

“Joe, I know ya can hear me boy…please baby…” Hoss sniffed, “please Joe, don’t leave me.  Please don’t die, I couldn’t bare it without ya,” wept Hoss.

With his free hand he wiped the back of his sleeve across the front of his face to clean away the clear drops that ran from his nose.  “I love ya little buddy…please don’t die, ya can’t leave me.  Ya gotta fight Joe, like ya did when ya had influenza last winter, ‘member?”

A strong but gentle hand touched the shoulder of the sobbing boy and looking up, Hoss stared into the warm loving eyes of his father.  He had been so absorbed in talking to Joe that he had not heard his father and brother enter into the room.

Ben and Adam stood in shock at the sight of the youngest member of the family.  Ben had prepared himself for the worst, but nothing he had imagined had prepared him for the sight of his youngest son who laid so lifeless on the bed before his eyes.

“Dear God in heaven,” prayed Ben as he knelt on his knees beside the bed and surveyed the damage that four half grown young men had done to his baby.

Adam, teeth clinched tightly, jaw twitching, said nothing, only stared in disbelief at his brother.  He neared the bed and when his hand touched the swollen cheek of the boy, he gasped, the rage in him boiling to the surface.

“I want to know who did this!  Hoss, tell me now!” demanded Adam, his voice low but strained.  “I will kill who ever it was!”

Ben’s eyes shot upward and he stood to his feet facing his enraged son.  “There will be no killing, do you hear me young man?  The law will see that whomever beat Joseph like this will pay.  I’ll not have you do to boys what was done to mine!”

“And if the law doesn’t do anything?  What then?” demanded Adam, “Do we just sit back and let them get away with this?”

“Adam, please, not now son.  Don’t you realize that the ones who did this,” he pointed down at Joe, “were just boys themselves, the same age as Hoss.”

“Yes and look at the size of Hoss.  He’s nearly as big as a full grown man, so are those boys, Pa…look at your baby…and that’s all he is…a baby…those boys are nearly men!”

Adam felt himself grow weak, it was more than he could bare, knowing that his baby brother might die at the hands of bullies, boys, with nothing more to do than to gang up on a seven year old.  Adam slumped over covering his face with his hands and let the tears drip into his palms.

“Ben, I brought you some coffee.  I know it’s going to be a long night; I thought you and the boys might need some,” Paul sat the tray on the side table and poured Ben a cup.

“Thanks Paul.”  Ben accepted the cup and pulled up another chair.  “Tell me the truth Paul…how badly is he hurt?”

Paul explained the injuries to Ben, what they needed to watch for, how he had treated the wounds, bound the ribs and given the boy something for pain.  Joe must have taken that as his cue, for he moaned softly drawing the room’s occupant’s attention to himself.

“Hoss,” the word was spoken so softly that it was barely audible, but Hoss had heard for he had been waiting for Joe to call out for him.

“I’m right here Punkin,” whispered Hoss, a tiny smile gracing his face for the boy’s sake only for the usual glimmer never reached Hoss’ tear filled eyes.

Joe said nothing more, his head tossing from side to side in his pain.  Hoss glanced at his father, sure that his parent could do something to help his brother’s agony.  Ben saw his son’s tears, the undisguised fear in the expression on the young face and reached out his arms and drew Hoss into his embrace allowing his most tenderhearted son to cry out his sorrow.

“Hoss, Joseph will be fine, I have faith in the doctor, and in God.  Surely God knows how much we love the boy, how much joy and happiness he has brought into our lives, surely…surely,” proclaimed Ben, giving another tight squeeze to Hoss’ shoulders for his comfort and reassurance as well as for Hoss.

“Hoss…” came the tiny cry from the bed once again.

Both Hoss and Ben turned their attention to the boy, Adam already at his bedside.  Ben nodded his head at Hoss, signaling him to speak to his brother.

“I’m right here Joe.  Ole Hoss won’t leave ya, never…you just promise me ya won’t leave me either, ya hear me, Joe…ya gotta promise,” Hoss’ voice quivered as he held his brother’s hand and pleaded with him not to give up.

“I…promise…Hoss…you saved…my life…” Joe forced his eyes opened and attempted a smile which looked more like a grimace to his family.

“Pa…” Joe sought for his father’s face amid the faces that loomed over him.

“Pa’s right here sweetheart, you just try to rest.  We’re all here, we aren’t going to leave you son.”  Ben brushed at the tiny tears that rolled down his son’s battered face and watched as Joe’s eyes slowly closed.

Ben paced the floor as the long night dragged on.  Adam dozed in a nearby chair while Hoss maintained his vigil at Joe’s bedside.  Each time that the mournful whimpers slipped from his brother’s cracked and swollen lips, Hoss was there to whisper words of encouragement to the small boy who had stolen his heart the day that the squalling bundle of joy had first emerged into his world.  It was big brother Hoss who kept the chilling sweat from collecting on the tiny forehead and it was Hoss who continued to replace the warm blankets each time that Joe kicked them off during moments when he tossed about in his bed.  And it was Hoss who prayed to God to deliver his baby brother from death’s door and restore to him the boy whom he loved with all of his heart.

“Please God…he’s so young and little…and I love him so…” whispered Hoss, his head bent in reverence to his Lord, his hands clasping to Joe’s, believing that as long as he held on tightly it would hinder Joe’s departure from this world.

Ben turned from the window where he had been sending his own petitions heavenward and listened as Hoss prayed for his brother.  He felt his heart quiver as he watched the love that shone in his middle son’s eyes while he cared for his brother and Ben thanked God for the brotherly affection that his three son’s so unashamedly demonstrated toward each other not only in words but in actions as well.

“Hi ya Hoss,” moaned Little Joe from his bed.

Hoss opened his eyes, the words startling him from his nap.  “Hey Short Shanks, how ya feelin’?” smiled Hoss, surprised to find his brother watching him.

“Hey Pa, Adam, looky here, Joe’s awake,” Hoss called over his shoulder, gaining his father and older brother’s attention.

Ben bent over his ailing son, joy showing plainly on his face.  “Welcome back son, how are you feeling?” his father asked.

Adam was beside his father and sat on the foot of the bed.  “Hey little buddy,” he greeted Joe happily.

Joe smiled up at his family, “I hurt all over, but not too bad, just a little.  Can we go home, Pa…please?”  Joe hurt more than he would admit to his family but his desire to go home where he knew he would be safe forced him to tell his fib. The thoughts of the boys who had beaten him frightened him and he wanted to put as much distance between himself and his attackers as possible.

Ben gently caressed the bruised cheek and smiled at his son.  “I don’t think Doctor Martin will be letting you go home so soon son, but I promise you, just as soon as he says I can take you, I will, but until then you will have to stay here.”  Ben saw the fear that spread across the young face and hurried to reassure the boy that he would not have to stay alone.

“Joseph, I’ll stay with you, or Adam, but you will never have to be alone, son,” Ben promised and then sighed with relief when the fear seemed to dissipate into mid air.

“Promise?” asked Joe weakly, his eyes beginning to close.  Paul had given Joe another dose of medicine to aid in subduing the pain and Joe had grown sleepy.

“I promise sweetheart.” Ben bent down and placed a kiss on Joe’s brow.  Joe’s busted lip twitched and tried to make a smile, the eyes closing at last to the healing sleep that was needed to restore his young body to a more healthful condition.

Later Joe awoke and found that Hoss had remained by his side but was dozing; his brother’s snoring making him to force a smile.  Joe raised his head to locate his father, Ben had stretched out on the spare cot and was sound asleep, but Adam was no where to be found.

“Pisst…Hoss,” whispered Joe softly as he reached out a hand and shook his brother’s knee.

Hoss jerked to a start, nearly falling from the chair where he sat.  “What’s wrong Joe, are ya ahurtin’?”

“No,” Joe motioned with his index finger for Hoss to come closer and glanced at his father to be sure that Ben was still sleeping.

“What’s wrong then?” Hoss replied and then cast a glance in their father’s direction, unsure of what Joe needed.

“Shh…don’t wake up Pa,” said Joe barely above a whisper.  “I’m scared Hoss…”

Hoss heard the quiver in his little brother’s voice and moved closer, resting his hand on Joe’s arm to offer a small amount of comfort.  “Scared Joe, what are ya scared of buddy?” wondered Hoss.

Hoss saw the tears that threatened to spill over and hurried to comfort his brother.  Hoss turned so that his body was sitting next to Joe’s and Joe, with a little help from Hoss, snuggled against the bigger boy’s body.  Hoss slipped his arm around Joe’s trembling shoulders as Joe rested his head against Hoss’ chest.

“Now tell ole Hoss what’s got ya scared little brother.”

“Them boys Hoss, where are they?  Are they gonna come back and get us?” whispered Little Joe, cupping his hand over his mouth so that only Hoss could hear him. “That Walt tried to cut ya with his knife Hoss, he even tried to hurted me with it.”

Hoss tightened his arm about Joe, “Naw, they’s in jail, Roy and Clem dun locked’em up.  Ya don’t gotta worry none about them, they ain’t agoin’ no where,” Hoss quickly reassured Joe.  “Now lay your head over here and go back to sleep.  I’ll stay right beside ya till ya do; how’s that?”

Joe turned his head so that he could see into Hoss’ eyes, sure that Hoss had told him the truth about where his attackers were.  “Okay Hoss, promise me ya won’t leave me?”

“I promise squirt, now close ya eyes,” Hoss watched to be sure that Joe had done as he had instructed.

“I love ya Hoss,” whispered Little Joe.

“I love ya too, now go to sleep,” replied Hoss, a smile spreading across his face.

He wasn’t the only one smiling; their father had witnessed the exchange between his two youngest sons and in the dim glow of the lamplight he smiled as well.

It was nearly a week before Doc Martin deemed Little Joe fit for travel and only after a lot of pleading and crying from the difficult patient would the physician allow Ben to take his son home.  Hoss had remained by his brother’s side the entire duration of his stay at the doctor’s.  And that too had been the result of continuous pleading and begging and Joe had seen fit enough to try a tantrum or two, which had succeeded in granting him what he had wanted and that was his brother, Hoss.

Ben had moved his young family over to the hotel, finding the accommodations much more roomy than Paul’s stuffy little back room which the busy physician had needed for other patients.  Adam had returned to the ranch each morning to see to the many chores that needed tending, but had returned to the hotel each evening, bringing with him goodies that Hop Sing had baked for Little Joe to help speed the boy’s recovery.  Ben had rode out to the ranch only once whereas Hoss had refused to leave Joe’s bedside.  Ben had not pushed his middle son into returning to school, the test that determined where or not he would be promoted to the next grade level were long over, Hoss having finished his just in time to happen upon the fight where Joe had been attacked.

Joe had been persistent that Hoss be allowed to stay with him, entertaining him during his waking hours with games of checkers, story books and when Pa was not around, a game of cards.  So far Hoss had lost his ten-gallon hat, his vest, his pony and his favorite rifle to Joe’s expertise card playing, which he had learned from some of Ben’s hired help who lived year round in the bunkhouse.  Joe thought that Hoss’ losing to him was the funniest thing ever, Hoss though didn’t laugh much, he was embarrassed that he had lost to a seven year old, even if the winner were his own brother.  Joe, sensing that Hoss’ feelings were hurt, happily returned the items which brought a smile to the older brother’s face who in turn gave his younger brother a tight hug.

It was a happy time for the two brothers, a time to heal not only their bodies but also their spirits.  Hoss had begun to feel guilty about what had happened to Little Joe; he worried because he had not been able to protect Joe from the bigger boys, he worried because he was afraid that his baby brother held him responsible for what happened to him and Hoss, in his young mind feared that even his father held him accountable for the injuries that Joe suffered.

To make matters worse for both Hoss and Joe, Joe had started having nightmares again and though his father was the one whom Joe most loved, it was Hoss who was the one to chase away his demons in the wee hours of the morning and it was Hoss’ arms that held him tightly, reassuring the trembling child with words of comfort.  During those quiet times when the brothers were alone, both voiced to the other the fears they held in their hearts, the mixed emotions about what they wanted to see happen to their attackers, but most of all, the love relationship between the two young boys grew deeper and stronger as each day passed and by the time that Joe had been given the okay to go home, nothing, not man nor beast could separate one from the other.

Ben watched as Hoss helped Little Joe into the waiting carriage and tucked the thick warm blankets around his little brother’s body before settling himself on the seat beside his brother.  Adam nudged his father and smiled.

“Those two are thicker than thieves Pa.  We may be in for some hard times, what with Joe’s conniving and Hoss’ inability to say no to the youngster, I think we should stay alert and keep on our toes,” said Adam, trying hard to sound serious and not show his jollity in his smile.

Ben had to laugh; “I think I made a mistake by not sending Hoss home days ago. Look at those two, I bet they are planning something right now.”

Adam shook his head, agreeing with his father.  Joe and Hoss sat huddled together, their heads bent over toward one another and both Adam and Ben wondered at what could be so interesting for the pair looked so serious and then suddenly began to giggle as only young boys could do.

“Ben, hey Ben!  Wait up.”  The yell halted Ben’s steps just as he was climbing into the carriage and Ben turned toward the sound of his name being called.

“Sorry Ben.  Hoss, Little Joe, how ya afeeling son?” greeted Roy Coffee as he huffed and puffed from his short run down the street to greet the family.

“I’m fine, thanks,” smiled Little Joe, the bruises still a painful reminder of what the boy had been through.

Roy nodded and then turned his attention back to the elder Cartwright.  “Can I have a word with you Ben?  Privately,” inquired Roy as he stepped away from the carriage out of the hearing range of the boys.

Adam glanced at Hoss and Little Joe whose attention had returned to the book that Hoss had gotten from the mercantile and then glanced at his father who was slowly following Roy to the boarded walkway and wondered at Roy’s secretiveness.

As Adam watched, he saw the expression on his father’s face change and thought that for just a brief moment, Ben had paled, his face turning a pasty looking white.  The two men continued talking in low tones for another minute or two before Ben returned to the carriage and without a word to anyone climbed aboard.  Adam sensed the anger in his father and determined that now was not the time to ask what had transpired between the sheriff and his father deciding instead to wait until Ben was ready to talk to him about whatever it was that Roy had said that caused his father’s happy mood to turn sour so quickly.

They were just at the edge of town when Adam saw them and then he knew instantly why Ben’s mood had changed.  Quickly Adam glanced at his father and knew that his father had seen them as well.  Ben glanced over his shoulder, Joe and Hoss were still caught up in the new book, Hoss explaining something to Joe about one of the pictures and not noticing the four boys who watched them as their carriage rolled past.

The boys stood together, menacing looking smirks on their faces and as the Cartwright carriage drew near, the four boys stepped out into the street, blocking the path of the approaching buggy.

“Hey Cartwright,” yelled Walt.

Hoss and Joe’s heads snapped to attention at the unexpected sound of Walt’s voice.  Hoss spied his enemy before Joe who was confined by the blankets that Hoss had so carefully wrapped around him and that now kept him from rising up from his seat to see what was happening.

“It would be in your best interest if you moved out of our way,” Adam called to the boys as Ben pulled his horses down to a slow walk.

“Aw…ya making threats big man?” Simon yelled back at Adam.

Adam started to rise from his seat but was stopped by the pressure Ben placed on his son’s arm.  “Leave them be Adam,” cautioned Ben as he glanced around at the crowd that had begun to gather.

It was no secret around town what had happened at the school just a little over a week ago and some of the towns people had been angered by the incident and fearing for their own small children; others had placed the blame on the larger Cartwright boy, Hoss, while others shook their heads in disbelief when Walt and his pals had told the sheriff and their fathers that Little Joe had incited the fight in the first place.  Ben had become enraged at the statement that insinuated that his seven year old son could have done anything that would give cause for the four half grown young men to nearly beat to death such a young boy.

Ben stood in the buggy, his hands holding tightly to the reins, “Get out of our way, now,” he demanded in his deep voice that Joe and Hoss recognized as being the voice of authority.

The boys stood their ground, laughing.  “Hey old man,” Walt sneered and then seeing that he had an audience, continued, “did ya know that that little brat of yours pissed his pants?  The baby was so scared that he couldn’t hold himself.  That’s what he gets for startin’ up trouble.”  Walt began laughing loudly and glanced over at his friends who took that as their cue to join in with their leader.

Joe turned startled eyes up at Hoss who was intently listening to the bully.  He had forgotten all about wetting on himself when Walt had first hit him and now, as he looked all about him, Joe’s eyes began filling with tears as he realized that nearly everyone in town who stood listening to the exchange between his tormentors and his family, knew that he had peed on himself.

Hoss turned at the sound of soft whimpers behind him and realizing that Joe had heard the comment and was horribly embarrassed at having the onlookers know of his shame, sat down and quickly gathered the weeping boy into his arms.

Joe buried his face in the front of Hoss’ shirt and jerked the blanket up over his head to hide his face.  “I wanna go home, please Hoss, tell Papa to take us home,” sobbed Joe from beneath his hiding place under the blanket.

“PA!” shouted Hoss.

“I heard him, son.  YEAH!” shouted Ben slapping the reins down hard on the buttocks of the team horses.  The horses came to life as they bolted forward at a run, the four laughing boys suddenly startled by the explosion of hooves, scurried to safety as they jumped to the side of the street just as Ben’s big team of horses bolted passed.

Ben allowed the team to run for several minutes, leaving Virginia City far behind before slowing them to a stop.  Quickly he jumped from the front and leaning over into the back, gathering his weeping little boy into his arms.

“Shh…don’t cry sweetheart, it’s okay now,” Ben tried to soothe his son.

Joe’s arms had somehow managed to free themselves from their blanket prison and find their way around his father’s neck where he clung tightly.

Adam had joined his father and gently ran his hand up and down his brother’s back trying to comfort the still sobbing child.  “Hey Little Buddy, don’t cry…it’s over, they’re gone.  I promise you, they won’t hurt you again.”

Joe had his face buried deeply into the fold of Ben’s neck, his face totally hidden from view.  “They told everyone that I peed my pants.  Now the whole town knows…” cried Little Joe sadly.

Suddenly he raised his head and turned to Hoss who remained sitting in the buggy, “You lied to me!” he screamed out, his unexpected anger taking them all by surprise.

Startled by the statement, Hoss looked in shock first at his father then back at Joe.

“What’cha mean I lied?  I ain’t told ya no lie Short Shanks,” said Hoss, the tears beginning to pool in his crystal blue eyes.

“Yes ya did!  Ya told me they was in jail and they ain’t!  Ya lied to me, Hoss, ya lied!”  Joe burst into a new round of tears, once again burying his face in his father’s neck.

“Joseph, listen to me…” began Ben.

“No…I don’t wanna listen to no body…Hoss lied to me…he said…”

“Now wait just a minute young man,” stated Ben, sitting Little Joe back onto the seat next to Hoss.  Joe refused to look at his brother or his father, his arms folded in defiance across his heaving chest, his lower lip puckered out and his chin resting just above his arms.

Ben cupped the quivering chin with one hand and raised his son’s head so that he could see into the hazel eyes that still dripped tears.  With his free hand Ben brushed back the wayward curls that had fallen out of place and noted the sadness and the fear in the face of his youngest.

“Son, Hoss didn’t lie to you.  Those boys were in jail, up until just a little while ago.  That’s what Roy came to tell me when we were leaving the hotel.  The boy’s fathers got a release from the judge and he let them out; Hoss had no way of knowing that they were free.  I should have said something back in town, but I didn’t think we would have a run in with them so soon.”  Ben watched as Joe’s crying ceased and his son absorbed his words.

Sad hazel eyes willingly met his and Ben smiled at the tiny boy.  “Hoss really truly didn’t know?” he asked almost shyly.

Ben shook his head back and forward.

“I didn’t know Punkin, honest I didn’t,” said Hoss from behind Joe.

Joe turned to look at Hoss and spied the tears that slipped slowly down the rotund face and then glanced at his father.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered to Ben.

“I think you owe the apology to your brother, not to me, son” Ben whispered in return.

Joe slowly turned to his brother, his chin quivering, his eyes filled once again with tears as he whispered,  “I’m sorry Hoss.  I didn’t mean to make ya cry and I should’a knowed that ya wouldn’t lie to me.”

Hoss wiped away his tears and smiled at his little brother, “Aw…shucks Joe, that’s all right.”

Hoss slipped his arm around Joe’s trembling shoulders and Joe laid his head against Hoss.  “I guess I was just prized to see them boys in the street and then they told the whole dang town that I peed my pants…I hate’em Hoss.”

“I don’t hate’em Joe, we’s ain’t suppose to hate no one, but I sure do pity’em,” Hoss told Joe as he replaced the blankets back in place around the boy.

“Well…maybe I don’t hate’em either, but I sure ‘nough scared of’em,” whispered Joe in a low voice so that only Hoss could hear his words.

But Adam had heard, and he cut his eyes over to his father’s face and saw that Ben had heard as well.  Ben’s brows raised ever so slightly when his eyes found Adam’s and knew in his heart that he would do all he could to see that the boys involved would be punished for their part in beating and terrorizing his youngest son and for what they had done to Hoss as well.

Joe, who was worn out, had fallen to sleep, his head resting in Hoss’ lap by the time that the family had reached home.  Ben hurried to gather the sleeping boy into his arms and headed straight for Joe’s room where Hop Sing had made ready the bed.  Once Joe was placed into his bed, the covers pulled snuggly around him, Ben ordered both Hoss and Adam out of the room so that Joe would not be disturbed.

Adam headed straightway to the barn to begin the evening chores but Hoss hesitated at the bedroom door.  He had been by his brother’s side for days and was reluctant to leave him even now regardless of the fact that they were now home and his father had assigned himself the job of staying with Joe.

“Hoss, go ahead son.  Your brother will be fine,” whispered Ben, giving Hoss a smile.

“Aw…Pa, do I gotta?  I’d rather stay here with him,” Hoss asked, the look on his face making his father to smile to himself.  His middle son looked so pitiful that Ben almost relented and allowed the boy to stay but quickly decided that Hoss needed a break and also needed to be outside in the fresh air where he could put some color back into his usually rosy cheeks.

Ben rose from his chair and moved to stand next to Hoss who looked pleadingly into his father’s dark eyes.  “Yes son, you ‘gotta’.  When you finish with your chores and eat your supper, you can come back, for a little while before bedtime.”  Ben placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and smiled at him.  “I promise Hoss, if he wakes and asks for you, I will call you.”

Hoss seemed satisfied with that idea and giving his father a smile in return, gave Joe one more quick glance and hurried to complete his work so that he could eat supper and return to his brother’s side.  “Thanks Pa,” Hoss called softly as he rushed from the room.

Once Joe was home where he felt safe with his family and his surroundings, his recovery seemed to be miraculous for each day he grew stronger and stronger until Ben had grown weary with trying to keep his rambunctious little boy in the bed.

“Please Pa, please?  Can’t I just go downstairs for a little while?  I wanna see Hoss and I wanna see Adam and I wanna eat at the table and I wanna play checkers and I wanna…

“You sure do have a lot of wanna’s little boy,” laughed Ben interrupting the constant chatter.  “I suppose you can join us for supper and I suppose you can play one game of checkers with Hoss, but then it’s back to bed with you.”

“Aw Pa…I just wanna…” began Joe but stopped in mid-sentence when he saw the look on his father’s face.

“Okay, but…”

“No buts…you eat supper, play one game of checkers and then to bed, agreed?”  Ben forced the mock frown to stay on his face.  He didn’t want to take any chances of his youngest son getting overly tired, Joe hated having to stay confined to the bed and Ben was sure that the over zealous boy would over do himself if he, Ben, did not put a limit on the time that Joe would be allowed to remain downstairs with the family.

Joe dropped his head, placing a sad and pitiful look on his face in hopes of buying himself some more downstairs time.  Ben cupped Little Joe’s chin in the palm of his hand and lifted the angelic face that still bore the last faded hues of bruises and in a stern voice spoke softly to his son.

“That look will earn you nothing Joseph.  Now I asked you a question, I expect an answer.  Do you want to come downstairs or not, on my terms little boy, not yours?” Ben struggled to keep the smile from forming on his face.

“Yes sir, I understand and I agree, if’n that’s the best ya can do,” Joe met his father’s gaze and batted his long thick lashes; the result of which could not stop the smile from brightening his father’s face.

“Okay you little charmer, two games of checkers, but not a word to either of your brothers that the deal was one game…agreed?” laughed Ben.

“Agreed,” smiled Joe and then spat on his hand and offered it to his father to seal their deal.

Ben looked at the open hand of his son and scrunched up his nose.  Moving too slowly for Joe’s liking, Joe grabbed his father’s hand in his wet one and pumped both hands up and down.  “Thanks Pa,” smiled Little Joe as he crawled back under the covers.

Ben looked at the palm of his hand and without thinking brushed it against the leg of his trousers.  “I’ll be back up to get you tucked in after a little while Joseph.  You try to rest, please.”

Ben turned to leave but was stopped at the door.

“Pa, can Hoss come up and get me?  Please, I can walk by myself now, no need for you to carry me, I’m a big boy anyhow,” stated Joe firmly.

“I think I can arrange that, if you stay in bed until Hoss is finished with his work,” Ben shook his finger at Joe to add emphasis to his statement.

Joe’s face beamed with happiness as he snuggled down deeper into the blankets, “I promise Pa…and thanks…I love ya Pa…”

“I love you too, you little scamp,” smiled Ben and closed the door. Thus the nightly routine was established and remained so for many more nights.

“Hoss, Adam has gone into town to get the mail and check on a few things for me.  I just got word that there has been an accident up at the logging camp and I am needed there.  I hate leaving you alone, just you and Joe, but with Hop Sing gone to his cousin’s in San Francisco, I have no other choice,” Ben explained to Hoss as they walked out of the barn together.  Ben’s hand rested on Hoss’ shoulder while Ben glanced nervously in the direction of the house.

“Little Joe is sleeping, in fact he just fell asleep so he should sleep for a couple of hours.  Adam should be home by then Hoss, do you think you can handle everything until one of us gets home?” inquired Ben, not all together sure that he was ready to leave the two young boys alone but knew that he had no other choice in the matter if he were to see to the business at the camp.

“Aw…sure Pa.  I got plenty of work right here in the barn.  I’ll just go in and check on Little Joe every so often and when he wakes up, I’ll make him sit in the rocker on the porch til I’m finished, how’s that?” beamed Hoss, proud that his father could trust him to manage things in his absence.

Ben had seen the way Hoss had straightened his back, saw the look of pride that crossed his young face and knew that if anyone could manage the little rascal upstairs, it would be Hoss.  Ben gave his son an encouraging smile.

“Alright son, just be sure that Joe does not stay out too long, it will be getting dark soon and he doesn’t need to be in this night air,” instructed Ben.

“I’ll take care of’em Pa.  Don’t ya worry none about us, we’ll be fine,” Hoss promised as Ben mounted up and turned to leave.

“Hoss?” called Ben.

“Yeah Pa?”

“Keep your eyes open son.  Roy doesn’t seem to think that that gang of boys will cause any more trouble, but I want you to take extra care and watch your back.”

Hoss quickly scanned the area around the yard and glanced up at his father.  “I will Pa.  Now don’t ya worry, best be getting’ on your way, those men need ya, Pa.”

Ben gave Hoss one last smile and turned Buck in the direction of the logging camp.  “I’ll see ya tonight, son.”

“Bye Pa,” called Hoss as he threw his hand up to wave.

Hoss busied himself with his chores, his mind drifting from time to time thinking about the hours that he and Joe had spent together over the last couple of weeks.  At times the thoughts caused him to smile as he worked, other memories brought near tears to his eyes as he recalled the beating that his younger brother had taken from his four classmates and for what, Hoss asked himself?  Was it because Joe was smaller than most of the kids in school, because he was younger or because they were brothers?  Hoss thought hard on this last idea and decided that had been the reason for Joe getting busted up as he had.  Walt and his sidekicks had been baiting Hoss for several days and when he refused to fight with them, they goaded him into it by picking on his baby brother.  They knew that Hoss would not stand for anyone picking on the boy, everyone in school knew how Hoss always stuck up for his kid brother, everyone knew that they were close and that Hoss was Joe’s protector.  It was common knowledge and if you had only just met the boys, one could tell just by watching the brothers together that Joe idolized his bigger brother and the best way to start trouble with Hoss was to first start it with Little Joe.

Hoss lost in his thoughts, had not heard the silent footsteps as they approached him from behind until it was too late.  Hoss felt the pain sear through his shoulder as the old axe handle came crashing down onto the back of his collarbone.  Taken by surprise, the pain seemingly to burn a hole into his skin, Hoss fell to his knees where he was quickly pounced upon by Walt, Albert, Josh and Simon who hammered away at his flesh with their fists.  Dazed, Hoss fought with all the strength his young body could muster.  Josh was shoved aside, landing with a thud against the hard boards that separated the stalls. Albert grabbed Hoss from behind, wrapping his arms tightly about Hoss’ neck, nearly cutting off his air supply until Hoss grew weak from lack of oxygen and released his grip on Simon whom he had been holding tightly to.  Simon pulled free and moved back a couple of paces out of the angry boy’s reach.  Walt took advantage of Hoss’ weakened condition and using his fist, slugged Hoss in the nose putting as much power behind the punch as he could force.

Hoss felt his nose break; somehow he managed to free himself from Albert and covering his throbbing face with both hands fell backward into the hay where he lay moaning until the pain became unbearable and he slipped into unconsciousness.  Walt pulled his knife from his boot and straddling Hoss’s still form, raised the knife high into the air aiming it at Hoss’ heart.

“WALT!”  shouted Simon, “Ya ain’t gonna kill him are ya?”

“What if I am?  Who’s gonna know but the four of us?” Walt knelt down over Hoss’ body, ready to finish what he had come there to do.

“I’m getting outta here, I didn’t come here to kill no one,” said Josh in a trembling voice.

“Me neither Walt.  You’re on your own, I’m goin’ home,” Albert exclaimed.

“Oh, you three are just a bunch of babies.  I wasn’t really goin’ to kill him, come back here all of you,” complained Walt, though he did have it in his mind to do Cartwright in, he hated the big fella, for several reasons, cause he was a rich kid mostly and because Hoss had humiliated him in front of his friends and gotten him into trouble with not only his strict father but with the law as well.  To sum it all up, Walt Hamilton blamed Hoss Cartwright for all of his sorrows.

Simon, Josh and Albert stopped their retreat after Walt promised to put away his knife and came back into the barn.  Hoss still lay unmoving on the ground at their feet.
His would-be attackers stood immobile, shocked at the blood that still spewed from Hoss’ nose and mouth.  Three terrified boys glanced from one to the other, all three believing that they had just killed Hoss Cartwright and the fear they felt in their hearts showed on their faces.

After several moments, Walt found his voice.  “Tie him up, be sure to make it tight.  I don’t want him to get away, not that he is in any shape to be going anywhere,” ordered Walt who tossed a coil of rope to Josh and Albert.

“He ain’t dead is he?” asked Josh, catching the rope from Walt and stepping nearer to where Hoss lay.

“Naw…he ain’t dead, he just passed out, now tie him up good and tight, I have some unfinished business in the house,” said Walt with an evil gleam in his eyes. Walt waited to be sure that Josh and Albert did as he ordered before motioning for Simon to follow him.

Slowly the two boys made their way to the house and quietly opened the front door and let themselves in.  “That was a good idea ya had about sending Zack to tell old man Cartwright that there had been an accident at his logging camp,” whispered Simon.

“Yeah, Zack owed me a favor, so he said he’d go along with the joke.  That’s what I told him it was, a joke, and he fell for it.  Shh…I think someone’s coming, it might be the kid.”  Walt pulled Simon down behind the settee out of sight.

Joe slowly opened his eyes and looked around his room.  “Hoss?  Pa?” he called as he climbed from his bed.  Joe rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand and moved across the room to the door.  He hadn’t bothered to slip his feet into his house shoes and he shivered slightly as his bare feet shuffled along on the cold floor.

“Hoss?” Joe called out again as he neared the top of the stairs.  The empty house seemed so much larger than when his family was about and Joe shivered a second time, wondering where everyone had taken off too leaving him behind alone.

Joe saw them peeking at him over the top of the settee the second he stopped at the top of the stairs and his heart skipped several beats.

“Howdy brat.  Bet ya never expected to see me again, now did ya?” taunted Walt as he and Simon eased their way slowly toward the steps.

Joe felt his heart racing with fear as he slowly began to back up.  “HOSS!!  PA!!” screamed Little Joe as he turned and ran back down the hall to Hoss’ room.

Joe could hear the footsteps of the two boys behind him as they raced after him.  Quickly Joe pushed opened the heavy wooden door to his brother’s room and turning hastened to slam it shut.  He almost made it but the door stopped suddenly.  Joe leaned into the door and pushed with all the strength that his seven year old body held but it was no use, Walt had his boot in the doorway and when he and Simon shoved on the heavy door, Joe was knocked backward and the door flew opened.

Joe ran to the other side of the room, trying desperately to find an escape but Walt, older and quicker than the little boy, grabbed Joe from behind, wrapping his strong arms around Joe’s mid section.  Once Walt had his hands on Joe, Joe fought like a tiger in a trap but his struggle was useless, Walt tossed Joe onto the bed, face up.  Joe’s body bounced on the soft mattress and before Joe could collect his muddled thoughts, Simon had grabbed both of his feet and held him while Walt jumped onto the bed and straddled Joe’s fraying body.  It took only once for Walt to slam his fist into Joe’s face to still the senseless struggle.

Walt sat on Joe’s chest, his knees pressed into Joe’s shoulders, holding his arms tightly against the mattress and erasing any chance Joe might have had of getting away.

“Might as well stop fighting me squirt, ya ain’t goin’ no where,” laughed Walt while Simon watched from the opposite side of the bed where he had moved.

Joe tried not to cry, but he hurt, his ribs had not completely healed and with all of the running and bouncing on the bed the activity had brought forth new pain around his middle.  His face, now sporting new bruises, stung where Walt had hit him and much to his dismay, the tears slipped slowly down the sides of his face.

“Aw…the baby’s cryin’ Simon, lookit,” snickered Walt.  “Want something to make ya really cry?  How about this?”  Walt reached behind him and withdrew his knife from inside his boot and held it up to within inches of Joe’s face.

“Wanna know what I just did?  I kilt that ole fat ass brother of yours,”  Walt saw the fear that suddenly washed over Joe’s expression and he threw his head back and laughed.

“You’re a liar,” accused Joe, bravely, the anger beginning to wash through his fear.

Walt looked down at Joe and shook his head, “No, I ain’t lyin’.  Ole Hoss Cartwright won’t be shamin’ me no more, cause he’s dead.  Tell’em Simon, tell him about how I kilt his brother.”

Simon took his cue.  Bending over Joe’s head from the side of the bed where he stood, Simon told Joe how they had jumped Hoss while he went about the barn doing his chores and how Walt had first hit Hoss from behind with the axe handle.  When Simon saw Joe trying to squirm out from under Walt’s weight, he laughed, catching the enraged little boy’s attention.

“Walt hit him one time, in the nose.  That ox dropped like a ton of bricks, and then before your brother could get up, ole Walt here pulled that sharp knife out of his boot and went just like this….

Walt held the knife high into the air and as if on cue, stabbed the sharp weapon deeply into the mattress, just inches from the side of Joe’s head.  Joe, thinking that now Walt was going to kill him as well as Hoss, screamed in terror.

“HOSS! HOSS!”

Walt slapped the screaming boy across the face several times until Joe’s screams were reduced to whimpers. Laughing, Walt reached for a hand full of dark curls and in one swift move, sliced a path from forehead to crown, cutting away the mass of dark hair that adorned Joe’s head.

Joe, wide eyed, stared at the hand full of hair that Walt held up in front of his face.  Joe could see specks of blood on the blade of Walt’s knife, felt the stinging where the blade had nicked his head and then felt his stomach begin to churn and when Joe opened his mouth to scream, nothing came out.  Joe fainted, his eyes closing to the wickedness that surrounded him.

Walt jumped from the bed laughing.  He tuned Joe face down on the bed and grabbing the heavy blankets he pulled them over the tiny body, covering him from view.

“Come on Simon, let’s get back to the barn and see if Hoss is awake yet.  I wanna show him this,” Walt held up his trophy of dark silky curls and hurried from the room.

“I can’t wait to see his face, ya gonna tell him ya kilt the boy?” asked Simon as he followed Walt down the stairs.

“How about I tell old big britches that I scalped the kid?”

Both boys started laughing, thinking their cruel treatment of the Cartwright brothers to be rather funny.  Little did they realize what a deadly game they played, nor the outcome that would result from their cruelty.

Walt and Simon rushed back to the barn to join Albert and Josh who stood watch over Hoss.  Hoss was just beginning to come around as the boys pushed through the barn door, leaving it slightly opened behind them.

“Well, fatso, it’s about time you woke up,” sneered Walt who still held Joe’s curls behind his back and out of Hoss’ view.

Hoss managed to pull himself into a sitting position despite the ropes that held his hands behind his back and bound his ankles together.  Hoss, still dazed, made no comment as the boys stood before him, their backs to the barn door.  Secretly, Hoss wished that his father or Adam would suddenly appear and help him out of this mess he had foolishly let himself fall into, but he knew that Ben had not been gone long enough to reach the camp, let alone tend to the problems there he might find and then return home.  As for Adam, Adam could be gone until after dark for once in town and finished with his errands, Adam would make his usual stop at the saloon to have a couple of beers.  Nope, decided Hoss, he was on his own.  Briefly his thoughts turned to his little brother and he prayed that Joe would remain asleep and would not venture out to the barn in search of him.  Little did Hoss know the condition that Joseph was now in or what the troublemaker Walt held in his hands behind his back.

“I’m gonna get ya for this, Walt.  Don’t ever forget that,” Hoss told the leader of the gang as his blue eyes filled with hatred for his former classmate.

“Oh…I’m scared.  Just look in the mirror at that ugly face of yours.  It will be a long time fore you’re ready to do anything, besides, in just a few minutes, I’m gonna have to kill ya,” sneered Walt.

The other three boys cast worried glances at one another and then back at Walt.

“What’cha mean, Walt?  I thought ya said there wasn’t gonna be no killin’?” asked Simon nervously.

“Yeah, well that was before this big ape here tried to kill me.  Ya see, I’m gonna tell him somethin’ and show him what I got here behind me and when the big galoot sees it, he’s gonna try to kill me,” Walt laughed and continued, “then I hav’ta protect myself, so’s I’m gonna stick him with this!”  Walt pulled his knife from around his back and held it up for everyone to see.

Kneeling down in front of Hoss, he showed the knife to his captive, “See these here red spots?” Walt asked Hoss using his head to nod at the places where Joe’s blood had stained the sharp edges.

Hoss forced his eyes from Walt’s face and looked at the bloodstains. Suddenly his heart leapt into his throat, his thoughts turning to his little brother who, hopefully, was upstairs in his room still sleeping.

“I asked ya if ya saw them?” shouted Walt and shoved the knife closer toward Hoss’ face.

Hoss moved his head backward and looked into the face of the boy in front of him.

“Yeah, I see’em, so what?”  Hoss swallowed and clinched his lips together tightly.

“This here blood belongs to that brat of a brother of yours,” smiled Walt evilly.

Hoss straightened his back and tried to still his trembling.  “What are ya talkin’ about?”

“Are you stupid as well as ugly?  I said this here blood is your brother’s.  He’s in the house, that is what’s left of him.”  Walt backed up quickly as Hoss tried to throw his body into Walt’s.

The boys laughed as Josh shoved Hoss back down on his backside.  “Tell us what ya did to the kid, Walt,” encouraged Josh.

“Ya hurt him and I’ll kill ya, ya hear me?” screamed out Hoss.

“Did ya Walt, did ya kill the kid?” Albert asked as he squatted down next to Walt who still faced Hoss.

“Here, what do ya think?” laughed Walt as he tossed the dark curls on the ground in front of Hoss.  ‘If’n he ain’t dead by now, he will be soon ‘nough.  I scalped him, just like the injuns do.”

“Whoa….”shouted his friends, as they slapped their leader on the back and watched Hoss’ expression as the color drained from his face.

The four boys were so engrossed in their laughter and sneers that none of them noticed Hoss had somehow in his anger, managed to get to his feet.  Suddenly Walt was shoved to the ground, the wind knocked from his lungs as Hoss’ heavy body barreled into his stomach.

Hoss landed on top of Walt but was quickly pulled back by Walt’s friends.  Simon drove his fist into Hoss’ middle and when the bound boy doubled up from the pain, Albert and Josh shoved him to the barn floor where he landed against the half wall of the stall.

“Stop!” shouted Walt as he pulled himself up to his knees.  The other three boys stopped their punches but remained close just in case Hoss tried to pull something else.

Walt, his soul consumed with anger and hate, shoved Hoss on his cracked shoulder, making the wounded boy to lie flat on his back.  With dark eyes that resembled black coals, Walt straddled Hoss and when his hand holding the sharp knife flew upward, Hoss shut his eyes tightly waiting for what he knew would be sure death.  Images of Little Joe lying dead in the house swiftly ran through his thoughts and in his mind he sought to apologize for not being able to protect the brother whom he had loved all of his life and with all of his heart.

“Hold it right there,” came the deep voice from behind the boys.  All four boys froze; Walt slowly turned his head in the direction from which the deep warning had come.

In the doorway of the barn stood Ben Cartwright, his pistol pointed and ready to fire.  To his left stood Adam, his gun in hand as well and to Ben’s right stood the sheriff, Roy Coffee.

Josh, Albert and Simon raised their hands high over their heads, Walt never moved, his arm still upright and gripping his knife.

“You boys move away from Hoss,” ordered Roy as he waved them back with his gun.

“Ya’ll hav’ta kill me Cartwright, cause I aim to kill this ape son of yours,” warned Walt, as he shifted his weight around onto Hoss’ chest.

Hoss had opened his eyes and he watched with worried eyes as his father and Walt faced off with each other.

“Drop the knife son, please don’ t do this,” came a voice from a man who Walt had not seen.  The man gently pushed his way between Ben and Adam standing now slightly in front of the Cartwrights.

“Walt, put it down son, now.”  Walt stared in shock at his father who stood just feet from him, his own gun drawn and ready to fire.

“You wouldn’t kill your own flesh and blood now, would ya Pa?” Walt finally asked, shaken to see his father among the group of men.

“I don’t want to boy, but if you don’t put down that weapon, I will.  I won’t stand here and see you kill an innocent boy,” promised Walter Hamilton, senior.

“I don’t believe ya.”  Walt’s arm began the downward descent, the knife centered to the middle of Hoss’ pounding heart; but the arm froze in flight just inches from it’s mark as the sound of a shot echoed within the walls of the barn.

Walt’s body swayed and then finally fell to the side, removing its weight from the bound and frightened boy beneath him.

Ben ran to his son’s side, Adam hurried to check the condition of the young Hamilton boy and when his eyes met his father’s, Adam shook his head.  The boy was dead.

Quickly Ben removed the ropes from around Hoss and gathered the boy into the folds of his arms, holding him tightly.

“Pa, Pa…”wept Hoss, “Joe…he kilt him, he’s dead,” Hoss continued to sob.  “Looky,” Hoss pointed to the mass of curls that had gotten scattered about during all of the ruckus.

“They scalped him,” Hoss strained to sit up and when he finally did, his hand reached out and picked up a lock of his brother’s hair.  “He’s dead…Pa…he’s dead.”

“Adam, stay with your brother.”  Ben bolted from the barn giving the senior Hamilton man a swift glance and ran to the house, shoving the door wide open he took the steps two at a time.

“Joseph!” shouted Ben as he paused outside of Joe’s room, wanting desperately to open the door and rush to his son, but hesitated briefly, fighting the fear that had consumed his heart.

Gulping, Ben opened the door and slipped inside.  “Joseph?  Joseph, sweetheart, answer Papa,” called Ben softly.

The room was silent; Ben all but tore the interior apart searching for his missing son. And then he heard the soft whimpering coming from down the hall.  Quickly Ben rushed from the room and following the piteous sounds, eased slowly in the direction where the sounds could be heard the loudest.  Ben stopped just outside of Hoss’ bedroom and listened.

“Joseph?” he called.

“Papa…Papa…help me,” screamed out Little Joe.

Ben forced the door open, his eyes searching the dim light for any signs of his injured son.  The room appeared empty but then he saw the slight movement from under the blankets on the bed.  Quickly Ben grabbed the covers and flung them back.

His heart pounded in his chest, his breath was expelled from his lungs and his dark eyes clouded with tears.  “Sweet Jesus, son of God,” wept Ben as he gathered Little Joe into the folds of his arms.

“What in the name of Heaven have they done to you boy?”  Ben cradled Joe’s head against his heart as he pulled his baby onto his lap.

Joe snuggled deeply into his father’s chest, safe at last in Ben’s loving arms though he continued to sob out his sorrow.  “He’s dead Pa…they left him in the barn.”

“No son, no…Hoss is hurt but he’s not dead,” Ben tried to assure his son.

Joe raised his head from Ben’s chest and studied his father’s face.  Ben had tears in his eyes, but even Joe could tell that his father was not overly upset at hearing about Hoss’ presumed dead but surely, thought the small lad, if Hoss had been dead, his father would have been beside himself.

“Are ya sure Pa?  Hoss is really truly alive?”

“I’m alive Short Shanks.”  Hoss stood, with Adam’s arms holding him upright, in the doorway of his own bedroom.  “I ain’t agonna be smellin’ anythin’ for a while, but at least I ain’t dead,” smiled Hoss.

Joe’s eyes misted with tears as he tore himself from his father’s arms and ran to Hoss, who waited with one opened arm, his injured arm had been slipped into a make shift sling.  His inability to use both arms did nothing to hamper his joy at seeing his youngest brother alive, though looking somewhat the worst for wear.

Hoss knelt on one knee as Joe fell into his arms, his own arms slipping about Hoss’ neck.  Joe was careful not to bump Hoss’ face for he had spied the broken nose and the bruises on his brother’s features.

“Looks like they got ya good, Hoss.  Does it hurted?” asked Joe, studying the injuries.

Hoss made a tight lipped smile as he glanced over Joe’s shoulder at his reflection in the mirror.  He couldn’t help but to scrunch up his face in disgust, “Yeah, it hurts some, but I’ll be okay, did they hurt ya Joe?” asked Hoss worried now for his brother’s welfare.

“Just a little, when they hitted me.”  Joe turned around and found his own reflection staring back at him in the same mirror with Hoss.  Suddenly, tears welled up and overflowed as he slowly raised his hand and brushed at the short hairs that remained down the middle of the top of his head.

“They sure ‘nough scalped me!” he cried sorrowfully.

Adam quickly knelt beside Joe and slipped his arm about the weeping boy’s shoulder as Joe turned and buried his face in his older brother’s neck.

“Don’t cry Little Buddy, its not so bad,” soothed Adam tenderly.

“Yes it is, I ain’t got no hair, ‘ceptin’ on the sides, I look plain ole dumb,” continued Joe, his pitiful sobs shaking his body.

“Aw…Joe, ya still got more hair than I do,” added Hoss, glancing again at his image.

“Listen Little Joe,” whispered Adam, giving his father who had come to stand over them, a wink of the eye.  “Know that new black hat that you’ve been wanting, the one with the silver studs on the hat band?”

“Uh uh,” replied Joe.

“Well, I bet if you asked Pa real nice like, he might just give you a couple of dollars so that you can buy it.  We’ll get Hop Sing to trim the sides just as soon as he gets home and then if Pa permits you to get the hat, the top part will be covered.  And no one will ever know unless you take your hat off.  And just think Little Joe, with your hair this short, you won’t have to have another hair cut for a long, long time and Pa can’t accuse you of looking like a riverboat gambler for about six months,” smiled Adam when Joe pulled away from his embrace and looked into his face.

Joe giggled, “Ya reckon Adam, ya think Pa would do that for me?” questioned Little Joe, the tears coming to a stop.

Ben stooped down to join his sons.  “I think any son of mine that has been through what you two boys have been through, deserve some sort of reward.  If it’s the hat you want, then it’s the hat you’ll get,” smiled Ben.

Joe’s happiness showed on his face.  “Thanks Pa, thanks Adam, and thanks Hoss, I love all of you!”

Ben scooped the boy up into his arms and kissed Joe’s cheek.  “What do you say we get these owies on your head cleaned up and then Hop Sing can trim your hair tomorrow when he gets home?”

“Okay Pa, but I want Hoss to come with me, he’s gotta get a beefsteak for his black eyes,” Joe pointed to Hoss’ face.

“Don’t you worry about Hoss, son, Roy is on his way back to town and he promised to send Doc Martin out to take a look at your brother.  He’ll be fine,” Ben promised.

Ben carried Joe in his arms until he reached the settee where he lowered Joe onto the cushions.  “You sit still until I get something to clean these owies,” ordered Ben as he went to the kitchen in search of the medical supplies.

Hoss and Adam both sat on the table that stood between the settee and the fireplace and faced Joe trying not to laugh, for in truth, Joe’s new haircut was rather funny looking.

“Adam, what’s gonna happen to Josh, and Simon and ole Albert?  I mean, will they end up goin’ to jail?” questioned Hoss the worry in his voice stopping any thoughts of laughter about Joe’s haircut.

“Not prison Hoss.  They didn’t try to kill you, but I dare say that they will be sent away for awhile, probably to a home for wayward boys,” speculated Adam, not really sure what would happen to the three boys in question.

“What about Walt, he was the biggest bully, won’t he end up in jail for what he done?” asked Joe, not knowing what had taken place in the barn.

Adam and Hoss swapped looks and then turned their eyes up at Ben who had just returned from the kitchen with the needed medical supplies and waited for Ben to answer their brother’s question.

Ben sat next to Joe on the settee, placing the bandages and clean water on the table between Hoss and Adam.  Adam took one of the clean clothes and began washing the blood and dirt from Hoss’ face while Ben tended to Joe’s head.

“Sweetheart, Walt was trying to hurt your brother, in fact he was just about to stab him with his knife. Walt’s father was with us, Adam happened to run into him and the sheriff when he was in town.  It was a good thing he did too; you see Joe, Walt and his friends had planned on coming out here to harm both you and Hoss.  Mr. Hamilton overheard his son and the others planning it but he wasn’t able to stop the boys in time so he rode into town to tell Roy.  Roy and Mr. Hamilton were on their way out here with Adam when Clem caught up to me and explained it all.  Seems even the accident at the logging camp had been a hoax, thought up by Walt as well.  They thought they had a fool proof plan when Adam and I both were away from the ranch, leaving you alone with Hoss, but…

“But Pa, what’s gonna happen to Walt, he scalped me and hurted Hoss on the nose and arm.  Is he gonna get a whippin’?” Joe wanted to know, “I sure bet his pa was mad when he seed that knife Walt had in his boot.”

Again the older three Cartwrights exchanged looks.  “Joe,” said Ben, cupping his son’s chin to be sure he had the boy’s undivided attention, “Walt is dead.  He was going to stab your brother; he refused to stop when his father begged him to and when he wouldn’t heed his father’s words, Mr. Hamilton shot him.”

Joe’s chin began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears.  “His own Papa shot him?”  The tears spilled over as Joe buried his face against Ben’s chest.

Ben felt the tears burn his own eyes and he fought to control them.  “I’m afraid so son, he had to do it in order to save Hoss’ life.”

“But his own Papa.  Poor Mr. Hamilton, Pa, he must be hurtin’ something terrible,” cried Little Joe, concern for the grieving parent causing him to weep more.

“Yes, I’m sure he is, I’m glad I’m not wearing his boots tonight,” Ben said more to himself than to his sons.

“Pa,” said Joe, looking up into his father’s face.

“What is it son?”

“You wouldn’t ever shoot one of us, would ya Papa?  I know I do a lot of stuff to make ya mad, but ya won’t get mad ‘nough to shoot me, would ya?” cried Joe, the pathetic look on his face tearing apart Ben’s heart.

Hoss and Adam swapped looks.  Though Joe was being totally serious, they could not help but smile at one another.

Ben caught the play between his older sons and scowled at them before answering Joe’s question.

“Joseph, I would like to think that by the time you are grown, or at least Walt’s age, you would have learned right from wrong.  Walt was a very unhappy boy, he and his father seemed to never see eye to eye on anything and Walt was a rebellious boy as well.  He refused to obey his father, he looked for trouble and he learned unfortunately, the hard way.  It’s sad, Joseph, but you must learn now that when you choose to do something, be it right or wrong, you have to pay the consequences for your actions.”

“Once a wrong has been done to someone, it is really hard, almost impossible to undo certain wrongs.  That’s why I have tried so hard to teach you to make good decisions.  I know you aren’t as old as either one of your brothers, and you certainly have a lot more to learn but I hope you have learned something from this,” Ben said while he finished with the doctoring of Joe’s head.  “Have you son?”

Joe looked first at his brothers and then at his father.  Ben’s eyes studied his young son’s face, he noted that the tears had stopped, so had the quivering chin, but still the boy looked troubled.

“Joseph?”

“I know it ain’t nice to make fun of people, but I already knowed that.  I know what Walt did was wrong, Pa…shucks, it ain’t nice, trying to hurt people on purpose.  Sides, Hoss and me didn’t do nothin’ to them ole boys,  “ceptin” I did stick my tongue out at Walt.  Pa?” whispered Little Joe.

“Yes Joe?” answered Ben, taking Joe into his lap.

Joe rested his head against his father’s chest, his ear picking up the sound of Ben’s heart as it thumped within his breast.

“Ya never did say yes or no to my question.”  Joe turned his sad eyes up to face his father.  “Ya wouldn’t really shoot me or Hoss if’n we did somethin’ bad would ya?”

Ben smiled and squeezed Joe, “No son, I wouldn’t shoot you, nor would I ever turn my back on you, or your brothers.  See son, I love you, and I love Adam and Hoss as well.  We are a family and there is nothing that we can’t overcome if we stick together and take the time to learn from each other.  That’s why it’s important for you to always do as Adam or I tell you, we will never tell you wrong, not on purpose anyways.  I have reasons for the rules I expect you to follow, those rules may one day save your life or keep you from being seriously injured.  Do you understand Joseph?”

Joe nodded his head, “Yes sir, I understand Pa.  I’ll try to be better and not make so many mistakes.”

“Joe, I don’t expect you to be perfect, it’s by making mistakes that we learn.  You just be your self and you’ll be fine.  Now, let’s get you back to bed.”  Ben took Joe by the hand and together they headed for the stairs.

“Hoss, ya coming too?” asked Joe.

“Yes, your brother is coming.  Hoss, I want you in the bed as well.  Paul will be here shortly to see about your shoulder and your nose.  Now, upstairs,” Ben pointed toward the steps and Hoss shrugged his good shoulder at Adam and slowly stood to his feet and followed his father and brother upstairs.

Later, after the doctor had gone, Ben made his way upstairs to bid his two sons good night.  When he reached Joe’s door, he was surprised to find that the lamp had not been lit and that Joseph had left his bed and was nowhere to be seen.  Thinking that Joe probably had wandered into Hoss’ room to tell his brother good night, Ben headed for his middle son’s bedroom.

Ben spotted his two sons the minute he opened the door.  Hoss and Joe were propped against the pillows, Joe held a book in his lap and when he looked up and saw his father, the little boy put his finger to his lips and warned Ben to be quiet.

Ben crept softly to the edge of the bed and sat down next to Joe.  Joe smiled at his father and Ben naturally returned the gesture.

“I was reading him a bedtime story Pa, and he fell asleep.  It was a bible story about two brothers, Able and Cain.  Did you know that Cain killed his brother?” questioned Joe, watching his father.

“Yes son, I knew that, Cain was jealous of Able and blamed him for all his sorrows, just like Walt blamed his father,” explained Ben, quietly so as not to disturb Hoss.

Joe looked at Hoss and smiled at the sound of the soft snoring that Hoss had started making.  “I could never kill Hoss, or Adam either.  I love’em Pa, ‘specially Hoss cause he always tries to take care of me when we’re together.  Did ya knowed he cried tonight?  But don’t tell’em I told ya, cause he might get mad at me.”

Ben, surprised at the news, had to ask.  “Why Joseph, what made your brother cry?”

Ben knew that it had been a hard and trying day for both boys and knowing that Hoss was very tender hearted and would worry for days about what had happened to Walt regardless of the fact that the other boy had tried to kill him and harm his younger brother.

“He said that he felt sorry for Mr. Hamilton, you know for shootin’ his own son.  He said that he thought it was his fault, but I told’em it weren’t Pa.  It could have been him or me instead of Walt who got kilt.  Then Hoss said he sure was glad it weren’t him or me and then he hugged me and said he was sorry for not keeping them boys from hurtin’ me.  That’s why he cried,” said Little Joe sadly.

“Well Hoss was right son, it could have been either one of you.  I might have been the father who had lost a son this night.  I might have even lost two sons.  But Joe, your brother did the best he could in trying to protect you, I hope you realize that,” whispered Ben.

“Course I do Pa, I know Hoss will always take care of me, Adam too, but Hoss, well Pa even if Adam is the oldest and I’m the youngest, Hoss will always be my big brother,” smiled Joe and looked at Hoss.

Joe was surprised to see that Hoss had opened his eyes and was smiling at him.  “I have an idea that I will be spendin’ the rest of my life keepin’ ya outta trouble Short Shanks!” laughed Hoss.

“I agree with you son, you have your work cut out for you with this little scamp.  I just hope it doesn’t always end up with having to call the doctor!  Paul will be a rich old man by the time I get through paying him for his services.”  Ben stood and pulled the blankets up around both boys.

“I suppose you want to stay in here tonight?” he asked of Joe.

Joe smiled, batted his eyes and shook his head up and down.  “Okay, just get to sleep.”  Ben kissed each boy.  “Good night Hoss, good night Joseph, God bless both of you.”

“Night Pa.”

“Night Papa.”

Ben smiled and closed the door softly as he walked out into the hallway.

The room was silent for several minutes.  The glow of the moon filled the room with soft light as a gentle breeze caused the sheers at the windows to move slightly reminding the boys of ghostly figures dancing across the room.

“Joe?”

“Yeah Hoss?”

“I’m glad ya all right.  And…and…well…I love ya Short Shanks.”

“I love ya too, and Hoss…”

“Yeah Joe?”

“I really am glad that you’re my big brother, Hoss. Really.”

When Ben checked in on the two sleeping boys, he smiled; Joe lay curled in the crook of his older brother’s good arm.  Both boys were snoring, one slightly louder than the other.

“You better get to town in the morning and buy that hat you promised Joe, that bandana doesn’t do much for him,” whispered Adam as he peeked over his father’s shoulder at his sleeping brothers and smiled at the sight.  “I still say we’re in for rough times with those two,” chuckled Adam softly.

Ben snickered, “You’re probably right, look at them, Hoss with a broken nose and shoulder, Joe nearly scalped, one boy dead, three more boys in jail, and they’re only what, thirteen and seven?  God help us Adam, we’re gonna need it.”

THE END
August 2002

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