Summary: Unable to keep a promise he made to his father, Joe must now pay the price. Is it too high? Can Ben forgive and learn to trust his most impetuous son once more?
Rated: G (11, 470 words)
His aching back was cause enough for the older man to pull his horse to a standstill. The three younger men stopped, swapping looks with one another while the older man leaned forward and rubbed his obvious soreness.
“Something wrong?” questioned the dark headed man as he inched his mount forward enough so that he was sitting beside the man on the buckskin horse.
“Just my back…it’s a might sore,” Ben Cartwright grumbled softly.
Joe snickered, drawing a dark look from his older brother. Instantly Joe fell silent.
“I guess I shouldn’t have tried riding that stallion of McNeil’s,” Ben said as he twisted around in the saddle. “It stove me up some.”
“I tried to warn you…”
Ben glared at Adam. “I think I’m old enough to make my own decisions about such things,” snapped Ben.
Adam’s eyebrows rose slightly as he glanced back at Hoss and Joe who were grinning.
“I’d wipe those smirks off your faces if I were you two,” Ben called without even looking back at his two youngest sons. His parental instinct told him that his sons were mocking him.
The smiles faded immediately.
“Pa…you should have let me have a go at it,” Joe said as he nudged Cochise up a little further. “I might have been able…”
“To break your fool neck. That’s what you would have accomplished,” Ben retorted. “And then what…did you think you could have just gotten up and walked away?”
Joe made a face. “You did and…”
“And I’m a grown man, Joseph, you are barely sixteen. That’s hardly old enough to break wild stallions and…”
“Oh for heavens sake Pa…you use that same excuse for everything I want to do. When are you going to start treating me like a man?” fumed Joe.
Ben’s eyes grew dark as he glared at his youngest son. His entire body ached from his head to his toes and he was certainly in no mood to listen to his youngest son’s foolishness, especially with his bones reminding him of his age.
“I’ll treat you like a man when you become a man…until then, I’ll continue to treat you like a boy as long as you continue to act like one.” Ben straightened up in his saddle and kicked at his horse’s side. “Come on, let’s ride, I want to get home and soak in a tub of hot water!”
‘Oh, the presumptuousness of youth,’ thought Ben.
For the remainder of the ride home, Joe lagged behind, quiet and sullen as his mind continued to repeat over and over his father’s words to him.
“I ain’t a boy,” he muttered, unaware that he had spoken aloud.
“Better not let Pa hear ya muttering such talk,” whispered Hoss who had slowed Chubb down to a walk and gave his younger brother time to catch up with him.
Joe pulled his mount to a stop next to Hoss and gave his brother a sideways glance.
“Well, I ain’t a boy, Hoss. When is he and Adam ever going to see that? I could have ridden that ole nag easily, but Pa won’t give me a chance to do anything, other’n muck out the stalls and clean the chicken coop. Well, know what? I’m tired of poop jobs, I wanna show them that I’m every bit as much a man and can do man things, same as the rest of ya!” grumbled Joe.
Hoss glanced quickly at his father and Adam riding a short distance ahead of them. He looked Joe carefully in the eye and whispered.
“Joseph, ya got that look on ya face. Ya better not be dreamin’ up somethin’ that’ll get ya ornery hide in trouble with Pa.”
Joe looked in the opposite direction. He tried to mask the expression on his face, wondering how in the world that Hoss could read his thoughts, for it was that he had a plan forming in his head.
Joe turned and smiled at Hoss. “Golly Hoss…what makes ya think I’d do a thing like that?”
“Cause I know ya…that’s how. I mean it Little Joe, ya better forget whatever it is ya got goin’ on in that hard head of yours!” ordered Hoss as he checked to see if his father was paying any attention to them.
“Don’t worry Hoss…”
“I do worry…now whatever it is…just forget it. Come on, Pa ain’t feelin’ none too good and I don’t wanna make him mad, not in the mood he’s in,” said Hoss as he kicked Chubb gently and rode away.
The moon slipped behind a dark cloud as Little Joe crept from the shadows and into the barn. He dug in his pocket until he found a match and then keeping the wick turned down low, lit the lamp.
“Shh…” he whispered softly to Cochise as he edged his way between the horse and the wall of his stall in order to toss the saddle over his horse’s back.
Joe made quick work of readying his mount for riding and soon extinguished the lamp and led his horse out into the darkness. Joe glanced toward the house, all was dark and he took a long deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Move on, boy,” he whispered as he led Cochise around the corner of the barn.
Once away from the house, Joe felt safe about mounting up. He sprang into the saddle and gently nudged his horse’s sides.
He moved cautiously through the growing darkness, careful so as not to allow his pinto to step into a hole and possibly throw him or worse, break a leg. It took only a couple of hours to arrive at his destination and the blind canyon where Mr. McNeil kept the palomino stallion corralled.
Joe led his own horse behind some rocks and tethered Cochise there. He gathered his things, removed his saddle and carried his bedroll to a place he had spotted the day before when his father had worked so hard at trying to ride the stallion.
The stallion watched with wide eyes, the young man who stirred about settling himself in for the remainder of the night. He charged the fence, snorting and causing Joe to pause in what he was doing. Joe looked up at the beautiful horse and smiled.
“You sure are a pretty thing,” Joe said in a soft voice.
He rose to his feet and moved slowly to the fence where the horse stood, ears alert, eyes following his movements, nostrils flaring.
“You ain’t got any reason to fear me, fella. You and I are going to be friends…I just know we are,” smiled Joe, extending his hand outward.
The stallion snorted and turned, galloping off to the far side of the canyon wall where he stopped and turned back toward the boy. He snorted again and raised his front legs high into the night sky, whinnying loudly of his disapproval at the stranger.
Joe laughed softly and returned to his bedroll. He snuggled down into the warmth of his blanket, casting off thoughts of his father, and how angry Ben would be when he realized that his youngest son had slipped out of the house sometime during the night and was nowhere to be found. Joe shuddered; Pa would probably thrash him once he learned his whereabouts and what he was planning to do.
With those thoughts to keep him company, Joe yawned and was soon, fast asleep.
The loud booming voice jarred the sleeping boy from his dreams as he struggled to open his eyes.
“Alright, alright, do have to shout?” Joe groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he sat up.
When he moved his hands, he was stunned to see his father towering over him, blocking the radiant morning sun from his eyes. Joe swallowed hard and hurried to stand up.
“Oh…hi ya, Pa,” the boy stammered, looking rather pale, thought his oldest brother, Adam, who stood slightly behind their father, frowning.
“HI YA, PA?” roared Ben.
The stallion whinnied loudly, tossing his head. Ben made a quick glance at the animal and then turned his attention back to his wayward son.
“Would you mind explaining to me just what the devil you are doing out here?”
Joe lowered his head, trying hard to think of an answer that would satisfy his father. He hem-hawed around for several seconds, buying himself a little time.
“Well…I was…hmm…hmmm…just getting an early start, that’s all. I thought I’d ride out here and keep the stallion company…hmm…make sure he didn’t break loose and then…and…hmm.”
“Joseph, I’ve a good mind to take my belt to you right this minute…but since it appears that we’ve got an audience, I’ll not embarrass myself, nor you in front of everyone.”
Ben’s eyes were dark with anger and it took every ounce of restraint he could muster to keep from thrashing the boy here and now.
“I know what you were planning on doing and…”
“I wasn’t goin’ to do anything…honest…I was…”
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben. “DON’T…make matters worse for yourself by adding lying to your crime! I want you to saddle your horse and go straight home. You will go to your room and stay there until I come home…do you understand me? And…” he added, shaking his finger in front of the boy’s nose. “Do not defy me or you will be taking your meals standing up for a very, very long time. Is that clear?”
Joe had lowered his head again, unable to trust himself to look into his father’s angry face.
“Yessir,” he muttered.
“Now GO!” Ben declared, swatting Joe’s backside as Joe hurried to do as his father had commanded.
Behind him, Joe could hear the men snickering. He glanced over his shoulder as he saddled Cochise to see who had witnessed the swatting. Three of the men worked for his father, two worked for Mr. McNeil, and then there was Adam, who seemed to Joe to be smirking at him. Joe’s face formed a frown and he glared at his brother, wondering how he and his father had found out so quickly that he had sneaked out of the house. Joe paused before mounting up, deciding to have a talk with Hoss, for Joe now felt sure that his middle brother had ratted on him.
Joe rode straight for home without stopping. His horse was well lathered by the time that the youngster led his mount into the barn. Joe paused in the doorway; Hoss was saddling his own horse and turned to smile at him as he led Cochise into his stall.
“Ya better rub that animal down good, Joseph, he’s sure lathered up. How come ya rode’em so hard?” Hoss snickered. “Devil chasin’ ya or somethin’?”
“As if you don’t know,” snapped Joe as he pulled the heavy saddle down from the horse’s back and tossed it across the rail.
Hoss had a strange look on his face as he stopped to stare at his brother.
“What’s that suppose to mean?” he questioned.
Joe stopped what he was doing to glare at Hoss. His brow was wrinkled in a frown as well.
“As if you don’t know…”
“I don’t know…I ain’t got no ideay what ya talkin’ about Short Shanks,” Hoss said, looking confused.
“You ratted on me…that’s what you did!”
“Hey, ya wait just a galldang minute! I ain’t ratted on ya about nothin’ to no body! I ain’t even got one clue what ya done that ya shouldn’t have!” Hoss said in an angry voice. “But knowin’ ya…ya probably got found out and now ya in trouble…ain’t that right Joseph?”
Joe grabbed the towels from the bin and began wiping down his horse. He glanced a couple of times at Hoss who had refused to move from the spot where he stood.
“Well? What’cha do this time?”
Joe kept his eyes on his work. “I snuck outta the house last night and rode up to the canyon…to keep an eye on that stallion and…”
“YA WHAT?” shouted Hoss. “Little Joe…ya gotta be kiddin’. That’s where Pa and Adam headed out to this mornin’,” Hoss informed his brother.
Joe stopped, placed his hand on his hip and snarled. “No fooling? Oh man, Hoss…sometimes I don’t think there’s a brain in that head of yours…”
Joe shook his head and went back to his work, ignoring Hoss.
“He caught ya tryin’ to ride that stallion, didn’t he? I warned ya, Joe…I warned ya, but do ya ever listen to me? NO…so what’s he gonna do…thrash ya butt good when he gets home?”
Joe pushed Cochise to the side so that he could move out of the stall. He tossed the towels on a table and stood with his back to his brother, saying nothing.
Hoss felt a pang of sorrow for the boy and followed Joe to the table. The gentle giant placed a hand on his little brother’s shoulder and turned the boy around to face him.
Joe glanced into the blue eyes that looked with such feeling down at him.
“I was gonna give it a try…but I didn’t, honest. I was still asleep when Pa and Adam got there. He sent me home…to wait.” Joe’s lips puckered into a frown. “He always does that to me…makes me wait…it’s the worst part of any punishment,” he said in a whispered voice.
“Dadgumit, Joe…why’d ya go sneakin’ off in the first place?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno…I just wanted to prove to him…that I’m man enough to do a man’s job…like the rest of the fellas. What’s so wrong about that? Pa let me quit school cause he said I was old enough to put in a man’s day of work, but then when I try, he tells me I’m still a kid and won’t let me do anything but clean out the ole barn.”
Joe pulled away and walked toward the door. He stopped, looking back.
“It ain’t fair Hoss…he has two sets of rules that he expects me to live by. One for when he wants me to work like a man and one he uses as excuses to keep me from doing the work of a man. And he always says it’s because I’m still a boy. It don’t make no sense,” grumbled Joe as he turned and raced for the house.
Joe stood at his window, watching as his father walked across the yard. He had wiled away the hours, pacing back and forth across the room and now as the slamming of the front door hailed the arrival of his father, Joe turned, ready to meet his fate.
“It’s opened,” he called when the rapping at his door stopped.
Ben pushed the door opened and stepped into the room, closing the door gently behind him. He almost smiled at the picture his young son made, standing before him, looking as if he were about ready to face the firing squad. But he refrained, for in his mind his son had almost succeeded in making a very grave mistake. Ben had no doubts to the fact, had he and Adam not arrived at the canyon when they had, and found Joe still sleeping, the boy would have tried his hand at riding the palomino stallion. Had the boy been injured, Ben would never have forgiven himself for having allowed the boy to go along with him, to watch him try his luck. It had only served to deepen the boy’s own desire to ride the wild one and prove himself to his family. In Ben’s mind, his youngest son had no need to prove anything to him, or to his brothers, but Ben realized that in Joe’s way of seeing things, he had everything to prove. Well, decided Ben, Joe was not about to start proving anything by attempting to ride a stallion, wilder than any he had ever encounter.
“Hello, Joseph,” Ben said, moving across the room to stand before his son.
Joe instantly lowered his head. His voice was soft when he spoke.
“Hi,” he said.
He glanced up, relieved to see that his father’s anger from earlier that day had vanished. Joe felt himself relax just a bit.
Ben placed a hand down on Joe’s shoulder and gave his son a small smile. “I think we should talk, don’t you?” he asked.
“I suppose,” muttered Joe, turning and moving away from Ben. He turned back toward his father and looked into the dark eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa…I know I shouldn’t have sneaked out of the house like I did, but…”
“Joseph,” Ben interrupted, “but you just wanted a chance to ride that horse, didn’t you?”
Joe lowered his head, his father knew him so well! There was no need to try to lie his way out of this mess, he reckoned; it would only make things worse for him in the end, he concluded. Joe fought against the angry feelings that swelled within him. He raised his head, giving his father an almost defiant look.
“Well why not? What’s wrong with me trying to ride him? You did…Adam did…even Hoss had a go at it…and Clint…that new hand, he’s only a year or so older than I am, and you let him try…what’s wrong with me having a go at it?” Joe demanded, his voice rising slightly in volume.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with you attempting to ride that stallion. First reason is because I told you to stay away from him; he’s too much horse for you. Second, I’m a full grown man, as is both of your brothers and as for Clint…he’s hired to break wild horses and third…”
Joe was beyond control and his anger was about to over ride his mouth. He frowned at his father and stomped across the room to the window, yanking back the curtains to watch as his brothers led their mounts into the barn. Adam rubbed his backside, a sure sign to Joe that his oldest brother had made another attempt at breaking the wild horse. Joe spun around on his heels, glaring angrily at his father.
“So it’s okay for you, or Adam or Hoss, or even a hired hand to take a chance on breaking your necks, but not for me? Tell me something Pa…why is that? When am I ever going to be a man in your eyes? When are you ever going to stop thinking of me as a little boy? You let me quit school to work full time on the ranch with you and Adam and Hoss…but when I want to do a man’s work, you refuse to let me. I might as well have stayed in school,” he growled.
Ben sighed deeply, forcing himself to swallow his anger. Joe had turned his back to his father once more and was standing with his head bent low. He knew that his son was struggling with his emotions, and being in that time frame of life where a boy is bordering on manhood yet lingering in boyhood was a stressful time for any young man. He remembered the times he had gone through, not so very long ago, with Hoss and earlier with Adam. Both had seemed to emerge from boyhood into young adulthood with little or no major upsets, so unlike his youngest, most impressionable son. Ben yearned to turn the clock back, just a few years but knew in his heart that could never be.
For half a second, Ben tried second guessing himself. Was he responsible for holding Joe back? His mind said no, but his heart, more truthful than the brain, told him yes…the father in himself wanted to cling, just a little longer to the boy in the budding man.
“I suppose, Joseph…I should not have let you quit school just yet…”
Joe spun around, his eyes wide in wonder as he stared at his father, his questions forgotten.
“What?” he stammered in disbelief.
“It’s not you son…I guess it’s me. I know that you are trying hard to please me. I appreciate that. But I do not appreciate you defying me and sneaking out of the house, just to try to prove something…in that, I still see you as a boy, because that is what a boy would do, not a man.”
Ben smiled. “If I am giving you mixed signals, son, it is because I am receiving mixed signals.”
Joe lowered his head, suddenly understanding what his father was trying to tell him. He swallowed away his grief and when he looked up, his eyes were filled with remorse.
“I’m sorry, Pa…I won’t do it again, I promise,” he said in a low voice.
Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gently squeezed.
“Alright, Joe, I’ll take that as your word of honor. I should thrash you for disobeying me the way you did, but I think you’re much too old to be turned across my knee. You will however be restricted to the house and yard, until further notice. Mr. McNeil is bringing that stallion over in the morning…”
Joe quickly snapped to attention.
“And I want you to stay away from the corral…stay away from that horse…do you understand?”
“But Pa…can’t I even watch the men work with him? What harm could do that do?” pleaded Joe.
“Joseph, you heard me! Stay away from that horse…or I will give you what you most certainly deserve…do you hear me?” growled Ben.
Joe’s lips puckered up and beneath his hand, Ben could feel the tremors that warned him that his youngest was on the verge of an outburst.
“I hear you!” Joe said loudly. He spun around, distancing himself from his father. “But I don’t think it’s fair…all I ever wanted from you was to be treated like an equal…not like some snot nose kid,” he complained.
“Joseph, I just don’t understand your thinking or your reasoning. Please, tell me, why are you so set on becoming a man before you’re actually ready? Do you believe that it would make your brothers and I think more of you, or love you any less because you are still a boy? Because if you do, you are wrong son.”
Joe, his head low, shrugged his shoulders. How could he explain to his father how he felt? He didn’t understand it himself; therefore it was impossible to answer the barrage of questions his father had just tossed at him.
“Joseph, look at me when I’m speaking to you,” Ben ordered gently.
Joe gulped hoping that the tears he felt building in his eyes, would not drip down his face when he lifted his head and betray him to his father that it was as his pa suggested, he was still a boy.
“That’s better. I like to look a man in the eye when I’m speaking to him,” Ben smiled softly, gently allowing the backs of his fingers to trace the outline of his son’s face.
Ben noted the swell of moisture in the hazel eyes and knew that Joe was fighting against their downward flow. He turned, giving his son time to collect himself as he sat down on the edge of the bed and looked up at Joe.
“Son…don’t be in such a hurry to grow up…to be a man. You are only a boy for a few short years and once you’ve become a man, well…you’re a man for the rest of your life. As a boy, there are many things that you have yet to learn about what it takes to be a man. You still have boy things to learn, and those things that remain are what shape a boy into being a man.
It takes more than just being able to tame wild horses, or branding calves or shooting straight, or knowing how to properly tend to a herd of cattle, or mucking out stalls and chicken coops.
It’s knowing how to handle yourself in certain situations and knowing when to fight and when to walk away. It’s learning how to judge a man for his self-worth and not for what that man can do for you or give to you.
It’s being sure of yourself, knowing whom you are…inside. It’s learning values, what’s important and what’s not. It’s learning to trust yourself, your judgment and then knowing how to make the right decisions and living with those decisions whether they are right or wrong. It’s taking a stand for something you believe in, even if it means going against those who love you or who you love.
It’s all those things and much, much more that make a man out of a boy. Do you understand, Joseph, what I’m trying to say? Can you see my concern for you when you push yourself to grow up too quickly? I know you want to be a man more than anything…and that’s good, to a point. And I want you to be a man, someday, when you’re ready. I want to watch you grow into it, to learn the lessons of your youth so that when you are a man, you’re the best man that you can possibly be.”
Ben smiled and took Joe’s arm, forcing the boy to sit next to him on the bed. He laced his arm around Joe’s and took his son’s hand into his own, gently caressing it with his bigger and stronger fingers. He grinned at Joe, causing Joe to wonder what his father was thinking.
“I’ll be honest with you, as much as you want to be a man, I’d like to keep you as my little boy, just awhile longer,” Ben said softly. “You are the last son I will ever have a chance to father, and that makes you special to me, son,” Ben smiled, his eyes taking on a faraway look. “Your mother and I planned on having more children, but…that just wasn’t meant to be, Joe.”
Ben stopped talking for a moment and lowered his head. “Call me selfish if you like…but I just don’t want to see you grow up too quickly, I’d like to take it slowly, a day at a time and one day, very soon, I know I’ll look up and there you will be…all grown up…a man.”
Joe heard the catch in his father’s voice and looked, amazed to see that Ben was smiling at him and that his father had tears in his eyes.
“Can’t you indulge an old man…for just a little while?” Ben whispered.
Joe smiled, his anger and disappointment gone now and in answer to the question, Joe leaned over, resting his head on his father’s shoulder. He found that when he tried to speak, his words were stuck in his throat, but Ben knew that somehow, he had managed to keep his son a boy, just a while longer.
Joe sat on the side porch and watched Mr. McNeil and two of his hired men lead the stallion into the corral. He sighed, the animal was the most magnificent creature he had ever seen and although he had been warned to stay away from the horse, his heart yearned to be the one who tamed the stallion.
Joe’s thoughts were interrupted when Hoss came running from the house. Joe turned to look up at his brother, envying his older sibling, for Joe knew exactly where Hoss was heading.
“Howdy Short Shanks,” Hoss grinned, pausing to speak with the boy. “Ain’t he somethin’? That’s one mighty fine lookin’ piece of horseflesh,” he said as he skid addled across the yard toward the corral.
“I wouldn’t know,” muttered Joe in disgust watching as Hoss perched himself on the fence to watch the palomino prance around the fenced area.
“You wouldn’t know what?” a deep voice from behind him asked.
Joe, startled, jumped to his feet and spun around. He’d been unaware that anyone had been standing behind him and he felt his face redden in embarrassment. His anger flared.
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to sneak up on a man like that?” Joe snapped at Adam.
Adam’s dark brows rose slightly and he wore a lopsided grin on his face.
“If I’d been sneaking up on a man, I would have made my presence known before now,” Adam said curtly as he moved off the porch and began making his way to the corral.
Joe jumped to his feet, instantly engulfed with anger. He charged his brother, but Adam whirled around and more or less caught Joe in his arms as Joe flung himself at Adam.
“Easy boy!” Adam said, holding the squirming boy in his arms. “I was only teasing!” he said, trying to get Joe to be still.
“WELL IT’S NOT FUNNY!” shouted Joe, jerking free of Adam’s grasp as Adam set Joe on his feet.
Joe doubled up his fist and took a swing at Adam’s pointed chin. Adam leaned back allowing the fist to barely brush passed his face. He didn’t mean to laugh at the boy, but he couldn’t stop either, which only added to his little brother’s frustration.
“Stop it Joe,” Adam snickered. “You’re making a fool of yourself…”
“I DON’T CARE…I’M SICK OF YOU CALLING ME NAMES AND MAKING FUN OF ME!” shouted Joe with a fervor as he took another swing at his brother.
Adam sidestepped the second punch and as Joe’s body lurched forward, Adam gently pushed on Joe’s back, causing the boy, but not meaning to, to fall face down in the dirt.
Joe quickly turned over, glaring up into the smirking face of his older brother.
“Damn you!” he spat, jumping to his feet.
He charged Adam a second time, but Adam moved. Joe stumbled, tripping over his own feet and would have fallen, had it not been for the out-stretched arms of his father catching him.
“Whoa…what in thunderation is going on?” Ben bellowed, glaring at Adam as he tried to keep Joe from falling.
“Nothing,” Adam said in a calm voice.
“Nothing!” snapped Ben, glancing at Joe and then again at Adam.
“I just saw you shove your brother…”
“I didn’t shove him…he…tripped over his own feet while in the process of trying to duke me and I only moved aside…to protect myself,” Adam said, grinning slightly at the angry glare he was getting from his younger brother.
Ben turned to Joe, whom he still held by the arms.
“Joseph?” Ben said in a tone that Joe knew all too well. “Is what Adam saying the truth?”
“Surely you aren’t suggesting I lied?” Adam asked, his smile suddenly gone.
“Oh of course not…don’t be ridiculous,” Ben snapped. “I only meant…oh…never mind. Joseph, don’t you have chores to do?” Ben looked up at Adam. “And don’t you have something to tend to as well?”
“Yes sir…and I was on my way to do just that when I got…distracted,” Adam replied, glancing at Joe.
He tipped his hat at Joe who still glared at him, and went about his business. Joe sighed deeply, wrenching his arms free of his father’s grasp. He leaned down, picked up his hat and dusted the dirt from the rim before replacing it on his head.
Joe turned to go, but paused, looking back at his father with an unhappy look. His breathing was labored from the exertion of the attempted scuffle.
“What was that all about?” Ben asked calmly.
“Nothing,” Joe said, turning to walk away.
“Wait just a minute, young man,” Ben ordered.
Joe stopped, but refused to turn around. He felt the wounding of his pride and that in itself made it difficult to face his father.
“Why were you and Adam fighting?”
“We weren’t fighting…at least he wasn’t fighting,” Joe said honestly. He glanced over his shoulder at his father.
Ben’s voice softened. “Then why were you fighting him?”
Ben heard Joe expel the wind from his lungs and saw the boy lower his head. He smiled slightly.
“I don’t know…I suppose because he…”
“He what?” prompted Ben when Joe’s words died in his throat.
“Hurt my feelings…can I go now Pa…I have chores that need tending to?” Joe said, barely able to meet the dark eyes.
Ben felt no need to push for more information. It was evident to him that his son needed to separate himself from the prying eyes of the men who gathered around the corral and who had witnessed the exchange between the two brothers. He glanced in their direction and quickly several heads turned from the scene to the stallion in the corral. They hadn’t expected their boss to find them all gawking at his youngest son.
“Go on,” Ben said, watching Joe as he ran to the barn.
“We’ll be back later Joe…you finish up in here and then go help Hop Sing with his garden. The weeds are growing so fast, he’s having a hard time keeping them hoed,” Ben said from the doorway of the tack room where Joe had spent the last two hours working at putting everything in order.
He glanced up from his work and gave his father a smile that his father could not resist. Ben chuckled in return.
“I take it that you don’t like hoeing any better than…let’s say…cleaning the chicken coop?” snickered Ben.
Joe giggled. “I don’t mind hoeing…really…at least it gets me outside…where the air is fresh,” Joe said.
His mood had improved since he’d worked so feverishly at cleaning the tack room.
“I like working with Hop Sing…and…I like watching things grow. I remember when I was just a kid…” Joe paused and looked up at his father, his smile died somewhat and he turned away. “Never mind,” he mumbled.
Ben started to speak, but decided to let the matter drop. He saw no sense in getting the boy upset all over again.
“We should be back in time for supper,” Ben said, turning to go. “Joseph…remember what I said about…”
“I know…I know…don’t you think I’m even old enough to remember what you tell me?” the boy snapped. “I promised you I’d stay away from the corral…I have no intentions of breaking that promise!”
“Joseph…watch your tone of voice young man,” Ben instructed sharply.
Joe looked at his father, an unhappy frown on his face. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said. “But I thought my word was good enough for you…yet you doubt me,” he said sadly.
“Oh Joseph,” Ben said, reaching out and pulling Joe to him. “I don’t mean to doubt you, son, it’s just that at times you can be so impetuous. You do things without taking the time to think them through and by the time you realize you shouldn’t have done something, it’s usually too late and you find yourself in a pile of trouble,” Ben explained.
Joe couldn’t help but to giggle. He raised his head from where his father had it pressed against his chest and looked up into the dark eyes.
“It amazes me that you know me so much better than I know myself,” Joe laughed. “Don’t worry Pa…I made you a promise, and I aim on keeping it…no matter what,” Joe promised.
Ben smiled down at his son, running his fingers through the thick mass of curls. “Thank you,” he whispered, surprising Joe by leaning down and planting a kiss on the boy’s brow.
“PA!” Joe said in a whispered shout. “The men might see!” he said, pulling away.
Ben laughed. “Alright, alright…so now I have to sneak around and kiss my own son?” he said as he turned to go.
Joe stood for several moments, watching his father walk across the yard to join his brothers. He waved as the trio rode away and then turned to continue his work.
Another half hour later, Joe closed the door to the tack room and began making his way across the yard to find Hop Sing. He glanced toward the corral where he saw several of his father’s hired men watching as Clint attempted to ride the wild horse. Joe paused, watching and then snickered when he saw Clint sailing through the air. He longed to join the men at the fence and just watch, but he had made a promise to his father and with a disheartened grunt, continued on.
“HEY, LITTLE JOE!” someone shouted.
Joe stopped and turned toward the sound. Clint was climbing up the railing of the fence and waved at him. Joe frowned, but waved back.
“COME ON OVER!” Clint called out.
“NO…CAN’T…GOT WORK TO DO!” Joe shouted, begrudgingly. He wanted nothing more but to join the men.
“AW…YOU CAN SPARE A MINUTE, CAN’T YOU?” Clint said, tempting the boy.
Joe hesitated briefly before shaking his head and started on.
“WHAT’S WRONG…YA CHICKEN?” dared the older boy.
Joe paused, without looking back. His face, had he been able to see it, had reddened and his eyes had grown dark. He felt himself tremble in anger and he forced himself to take another step, ignoring the remark. Hadn’t his father told him earlier that part of learning to be a man was knowing when to walk away from a situation? Well, he’d prove to himself that he could do handle this. He took another step.
“PAPA AFRAID THAT HIS LITTLE BOY MIGHT GET HURT IF’N HE GETS TOO CLOSE TO THE BIG HORSY?”
Joe’s footstep faltered as he spun around. He took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself. His insides quivered with unbridled anger. How dare his father to put him in such a situation that he was unable to defend himself to the hired help. The harsh, cruel words struck a cord deep within his soul…for they were the truth…his father was afraid for him, and Joe felt his father’s fear unjustified. Throwing caution to the wind, his promise forgotten by the anger and embarrassment that over shadowed it, Joe walked across the yard toward the corral.
“Well, well, will ya lookit here. I guess the boy has a little spunk after all,” laughed Clint, turning to the men to see them all watching and snickering.
“Why don’t you shut your mouth?” Joe snapped.
“Why don’t you try to make me? Or better yet…why don’t you prove to us that you’re a big boy and…ride that stallion?” dared Clint. “Or are ya yella?”
Joe’s fist came out of nowhere and the other young man staggered backward, off the fence, landing inside the corral from the force of the blow. The men, who stood by watching, laughed at Clint as he pulled himself up from the dirt and rubbed his chin. Clint glared through the railings at Joe.
“That only proves ya can fight…but can ya ride?” he said, pointing to the palomino.
“I can ride…in fact, I can ride anything that you can ride. But I don’t have to prove myself to you, or to anyone else,” Joe stated.
He turned to go, but hesitated when Clint shouted out at him.
“PROVE IT RICH BOY!”
Joe turned back.
“I dare ya…I think ya nothin’ but a spoiled rich kid who’s never done an honest day’s work ya whole life. Ya chicken…ya afraid of this horse…and ya scared to prove it to me and to everyone else! Ya’re a papa’s boy…Ben Cartwright’s precious little baby boy,” laughed Clint. “Yella to the core!”
Joe’s nostrils flared as he climbed over the fence. He turned to one of the men, glaring.
“Put the saddle back on that horse,” he ordered.
The man hesitated, glancing around at the others as if to ask their opinion. One man separated himself from the others and moved to stand before Joe. He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulders and felt the trembling of the boy’s body beneath his fingertips.
“Joe…you don’t have to do this…remember what your Pa said,” the old timer said.
Chuck had worked for the Cartwright’s for several years and had watched Joe grow from a small boy into the young man standing before him. He had always favored the youngest of Ben’s sons, for the boy had reminded him of himself when he had been young.
“Don’t pay the kid no mind, he’s a loud mouth,” Chuck cautioned.
Joe took a deep breath. He knew that his father’s trusted man was speaking the truth, but he had stuck his neck out on a limb and to back down now would only earn the disrespect of the others. Or so the youngest Cartwright thought.
“I said to put a saddle on him,” Joe ordered, turning from the man.
Chuck shook his head and then motioned for two of the men to do as requested. Clint laughed. He tied the rope for Joe, around the boy’s hand to the pommel where Joe would be holding on for dear life. Clint snickered as he glanced up at Joe and noted how pale the boy had become. He raced across the corral and climbed back up on the fence with the others to watch the downfall of the young bronco rider.
“I can’t wait to see this,” he muttered.
“Why don’t you just shut the hell up?” barked Chuck, taking his place on the fence. “If that boy gets hurt, his father’s liable to string you up by your scrawny neck!”
Clint became serious as he stared at the older man. For a brief moment, a vision flashed before his eyes of his body swinging from the highest tree in the yard, and he gulped.
“READY!” shouted Joe, who had climbed into the saddle. “LET’EM GO!”
The two men back away from the wild horse, one held the bandana in his hands that had been used to cover the stallion’s eyes. They raced for the fence, away from the pawing hooves that ground up the air between them. The stallion reared up, twisted, kicked out his hind legs, yet the boy held on. When his movements failed to rid his back of his rider, the stallion changed tactics, twisting first one way and then twirling back around, slinging Joe from side to side in the saddle as the animal snorted angrily. His hind legs stretched out behind him, his middle folded, nearly slinging his rider over the top of his massive head. Joe’s body slumped forward, the stallion tossed back his head in a fit of rage, banging Joe’s brow hard with the force. The men sitting about the fence cheered the boy on, little realizing that blood spurted from the open gasp caused by the blow.
Joe’s head seemed to spin. The fence, the corral, the men, they all seemed to whirl about in front of him. His vision blurred as the blood blinded his eyes. He felt himself growing weak and he struggled to pull the rope loose that held his hand prisoner to the pommel.
Joe heard someone shout out his name, caught a glimpse of a man running toward him, all the while the stallion bucked and kicked, twisted and jerked. The swirling motion became too much, the pounding in his head unbearable, and the blood so thick on his face that he could no longer see. He squeezed his eyes shut as a wave of nausea washed over him, and then, seconds later, his world went black.
Joe’s limp body slipped from the horse’s back, yet his hand remained tied tightly to the saddle. His body flopped lifelessly down the right side of the frightened horse. The stallion whinnied in terror, raced across the corral, and turned, sending Joe’s body smashing into the fence.
Some shouted for help. The men had entered the corral; some with ropes, some on horseback, trying desperately to catch the palomino in order to free their boss’ son from the horse’s back.
“SOMEONE GET A ROPE ON THAT HORSE!” Chuck screamed.
With all the commotion, not one man was aware of the three men who had entered the yard. Ben pulled his horse to stop, glancing toward the corral to see what all the ruckus was about. Adam and Hoss paused, each watching, unaware of the danger that their impetuous younger brother had gotten himself into.
“Let’s see what’s going on,” Ben said, nudging his mount to the fence.
He slid off his horse and climbed to the top railing of the fence. At first he did not recognize the boy. Joe’s face and the front of his jacket were covered in blood. The boy’s body was battered and from the way he hung precariously from the saddle, it was easy to see that the arm had been broken.
The horse bolted for the fence again, but stopped short, seeing Ben, Adam and Hoss. Joe’s body was swung outward and into full view of his family.
“JOSEPH!” screamed Ben in a panic as he jumped from the fence and charged after the horse. Adam was close on his heels.
Clint, who had been watching the proceedings, tossed a rope to Adam who then formed a loop and on the second try, managed to get it around the horse’s neck. He yanked back, digging the heels of his boots into the earth. The horse ran to the end of the rope and twisted around. Men on both sides jumped up, wrapping their arms about the stallion’s neck and holding him to prevent him from raising up.
Hoss and Ben hastened to cut away the rope that had been miss-tied around Joe’s hand and wrist in such a way to prevent the pulley from releasing. Father and son gently moved Joe to safety, and with care, lowered the his body to the ground.
Ben jerked his neckerchief from around his neck and quickly dabbed away the blood that coated Joe’s face.
“Joseph?” he cried. “Joe…please…can you hear me?”
He glanced up into the faces of those gathered around. “Someone, get the doctor, hurry,” he issued.
“Umm,” moaned the wounded boy.
“Here Pa,” said Hoss, handing a clean wet cloth to his father.
Ben took the cloth and wiped the blood from the hazel eyes.
“OHHH…” Joe cried, trying to rise.
“No…son…don’t move,” Ben said, forcing Joe to lie still.
Adam had squatted down on the other side of his father and was gently running his hands over his brother’s body to check for injuries. He glanced up at his father and saw the worry and fear etched into his expression.
“His arm’s broken…and I can feel some ribs protruding, we best be careful moving him,” he advised his father.
Ben nodded his head. “Hoss, help me get him into the house.”
Hoss took Adam’s place and together with his father they carried Joe to the house.
Adam held back until this father and brother was out of hearing range and then spun around, an angry, dark glare on his face as he looked from one man to the other.
“I want to know how this happened,” he demanded. “Each one of you knew that my brother was forbidden to come near this corral and I want an exclamation as to why one of you did nothing to stop him!”
“I tried Mister Cartwright,” Chuck spoke first. “But he had his head set on riding that horse. I warned him, but he refused to listen.”
Adam glanced around at the others who were nodding their heads.
“He ordered me to saddle him,” another man said.
“And you take orders from a kid?” Adam asked, practically shouting.
“Well…no sir…but…I mean…he is the boss’ son and we just thought…”
“You didn’t think, obviously!” stormed Adam. “Are you telling me that my kid brother, a sixteen year old, just wandered over here to the corral, ordered you to saddle a wild stallion and then without a word from any of you, mounted that horse and…”
“No, it wasn’t like that Adam,” Chuck intervened. “He rode the horse on a…a…”
Chuck hesitated, swallowing as he glanced around at the others.
“Don’t tell me Joe tried to ride this horse on a…dare?” stammered Adam, the thought only serving to add fuel to an already smoldering flame.
“It wasn’t really a dare, sir,” a third man added. “It was like he was coerced riding the horse.”
Adam had a puzzled look on his face. “What do you mean…coerced? Who coerced him, and how?”
The men all lowered their heads, each one waiting for another to speak up and explain to the boss just why the boy dared to try to ride the wild stallion. None looked in Clint’s direction but one man, Chuck. Adam immediately singled the younger man out and aimed his question at the new man.
“Clint…what do have to say about all of this?” Adam said, looking the man straight in the eye.
He had known from the first day that Clint was trouble. He had even tried to tell his father that the young man was too free with his mouth and that one day, someone would wind up either in trouble or hurt because of the man’s foolishness. Adam had no idea that it would be his own brother who would end up being the one suffering.
“Me?” the man stammered. “I…don’t know what you mean,” he lied, casting a worried glance at the others, silently asking for their silence.
“I think you do,” Adam said, taking a step closer to the other man.
“He called ya brother a papa’s boy…”
“And told the kid he was yella,” another man said.
“Forced the boy’s hand, Mister Cartwright…it was either ride, or run…the boy chose to ride. I can’t say I blame him none…being called a coward in front of a group of men would cause any man to take a stand.”
Adam’s anger lay just beneath the surface. His hazel eyes were dark with the fire of hate that consumed him. His fingers had balled into tight fists that hung to his sides. The look that passed to Clint was unnerving to the others. They fell silent as they watched to see what Adam would do.
“Who tied the strap?” he asked, referring to the rope that holds a rider’s hand in place.
“He did,” said Chuck, pointing to Clint. “Why?”
“Because it was tied in a way that the pulley rope could not release a man’s hand. And it was done intentionally,” growled Adam.
Adam turned back to Clint who had backed up a step or two. The younger man never saw the fist, until it was too late. He toppled over backwards, trying to break his fall as he fell face down into the dirt.
“GET UP!” shouted Adam.
“No…” Clint said, refusing to get up and leave himself wide open for more of the powerful punches, for his jaw ached and he felt sure a bone had cracked. He was no fool, he knew when to stay down, and now was certainly one of those times.
“Get out of here,” Adam said in a strained voice that was laced with anger. He sucked in a deep breath to calm himself. “And if my brother should die…I’ll come looking for you. There will be no place on earth where you can hide…do you understand me?”
Adam glared at the others. “The rest of you, get back to work…Chuck, I want a word with you.”
“Yessir,” the older man said as the others scattered.
“I want you to do something for me,” Adam asked.
“Anything…just name it,” the ranch hand said.
“I want you to take that stallion back to McNeil’s…I don’t want to find that horse here in the morning,” Adam ordered.
“Yessir…give me half an hour and he’ll be gone.”
“Take it easy son,” Ben cooed.
He and Hoss had Joe stretched out in his own bed and were busy removing the blood soaked clothing and dusty boots.
Joe tossed his head from side to side in a fruitless attempt to ward off the pain. His face had been wiped relatively clean of the blood and the gash that spread across his brow was not as ghastly as Ben had first feared.
“Ohh…ohh…” whimpered Joe. “Pa…” he cried in a tiny voice.
“I’m here Joseph,” his father assured him as he took Joe’s hand into his own.
“Shh…we’ll talk about it later, Joe…when you’re better. Try not to move around so much, son. Your arm is broken and I think you’ve cracked some ribs,” Ben whispered.
“Laughed…” Joe said in a near inaudible voice.
Ben exchanged glances with Hoss. “What did he just say?” Hoss whispered to his father.
“I’m not sure…I thought he said laughed…whatever that means,” answered Ben.
They worked together in total silence for several minutes until they had Joe washed clean of the dirt and grime he had collected while trying to ride the palomino. Ben frowned at the bruises and the arm where the bone had broken through the skin and knew that his son was in for some painful moments when the doctor arrived.
It seemed like it was taking forever for Paul to get there. Joe tossed and turned, moaned and cried out, his words jumbled and incoherent. Ben sat in a chair beside the bed, Hoss stood at that window, watching for Doc Martin’s buggy to roll into the yard. Adam propped against the post at the foot of his brother’s bed, his eyes rarely leaving the young face that twisted in pain.
“I fired Clint,” he said absentmindedly to his father.
Ben’s attention turned to Adam. “Why?”
“He set Joe up to ride that horse, and I fired him for it…for what he said to Joe, for how he used him in front of the others and for what he’s done to the boy. It was either fire him, or kill him,” Adam said with no emotion.
Ben pulled himself from his chair and moved to Adam’s side. He clutched his son’s arm.
“What happened…how did he set Joe up?” Ben asked.
“Clint called him names, said Joe was a papa’s boy, spoiled rotten, a rich kid…told the others that Joe was…a coward…said he was afraid to ride the stallion. He even called him…yellow,” Adam explained, feeling his wrath slowly beginning to rise again.
Hoss had joined his father and older brother and stood stunned by what he was hearing. He shook his head in disgust.
“It’s a dang good thing I wasn’t there when ya found that out…I’d a pounded that boy good,” Hoss swore.
“Don’t’ worry, Hoss,” Adam said with a smirk, “I clobbered him…and then I fired him.”
“ADAM!” Ben said in a clear voice. He cast his eyes at Joe who still moaned softly though he had fallen to sleep.
“Don’t worry, Pa, I didn’t hurt him…not like he hurt Joe, leastways,” Adam said, moving to the side of the bed and sitting down.
He touched the swollen fingers of Joe’s left hand and thought back to the day before when he had teased his brother to the point of forcing the boy to take a swing at him. Guilt suddenly pushed it’s way into his conscience and he felt like a heel…trader would be a better word his heart told him. What had made him think he was any better than Clint, to gourd his brother into a senseless fight? Adam sighed deeply, remorse for being part of a sequence of events that had led his kid brother into doing something he was far from being ready to do.
“Adam…he’s going to be alright,” Ben said in a muffled voice.
Ben sat down in the chair, watching how Adam tenderly caressed his brother’s face. He leaned over, putting his hand on Adam’s arm, causing his son to turn to look at him.
“Clint might have been responsible for saying things to your brother that he had no call to say…but Joe is responsible for his own actions. He made a choice, the wrong choice…he should have walked away and…”
“And have all the men laughing at him? To have that big mouth boy call him coward…call him yellow?” Adam’s eyes had grown dark. “Would you have walked away…humiliated?”
Ben released his hand and sat back in his chair. “No,” he whispered. “I suppose I would not have…but this is different Adam,” said Ben looking up into his son’s face. “Joe is just…”
“A boy…a sixteen year old boy, I know that, but he isn’t without feelings. He isn’t without pride…”
“That’s right Adam, Joe is just a sixteen year old boy…but tell me, what’s a little wounded pride to…this?” Ben asked pointing down at Joe. “Look at him, is a busted head, a broke arm and God only knows how many cracked ribs, worth proving a point to a bunch of foolish old men and one loud mouth braggart?” Ben demanded to know. “He was nearly killed, that horse could have trampled him…I could have well, lost a son today. No! I do not think it was worth it!” Ben stood and walked across the room, turning his back to Adam.
Adam glanced up at Hoss who had witnessed the exchange.
“Why don’t you go see if Hop Sing will bring up some fresh water? Joe’s feeling a might warm, I’ll bathe his face,” Adam suggested.
“Alright Adam…Adam…Pa’s right ya know, Joe shouldn’t have broken his promise. He done wrong, and I think ya know it,” Hoss said softly.
Adam’s eyes remained on Joe’s face and he refused to look again at Hoss. His middle brother was right, Joe had broken his promise to their father, had gone back on his word, but wouldn’t he, Adam, have done the same thing, under the same circumstances? Yes decided Adam, it would have been impossible for him to stand before a group of men and been called coward…to be accused of being…yellow. Even saying the words in his mind gave him cause for his stomach to churn. How much worse must his younger brother have felt when those words had reached his ears and pierced his young heart? When Adam looked up at last, Hoss had gone and his father stood in the doorway. The doctor had arrived at last.
“Ben, he’s going to be laid up for some time. I had to take a couple of stitches in his forehead, but other than that, his head is fine. He’s likely to have a headache for a couple of days, but that will pass. His arm was broken, in two places, but I’ve managed to set the bones and put a plaster cast about the arm. I’ve bound his ribs to ensure that he doesn’t move about so as to puncture a lung. And the muscles in his arm and down his left shoulder and side has been strained. I suppose having been unable to free his hand when he slid off the horse, and the way he was flung around, was the major cause for that. He’s going to be one mighty sore young man for a good number of days so I’ve left some pain powders with Hop Sing, with instructions on how to administer them.”
The physician closed his black bag and turned around to face the worried father. He offered his friend a comforting smile.
“He’s going to be fine, Ben…in time, but it will take awhile for his body to heal. Joe’s a lucky boy, he could have easily been killed,” Paul explained.
Paul took Ben by the arm and gently led him into the hallway. “I’ve known you a long time, Ben…I know when there’s something eating away at you. Want to talk about it?”
Ben lowered his head, and then raised it, smiling at his friend. “You know me too well, Paul. But it’s not anything I can’t deal with, it’s more that I’m worried for the boy.”
“Of course you are…you worry about everything…pertaining to Little Joe.” Paul snickered. “I’ve never known a moment since I brought that boy into this world, that you haven’t been worried about something concerning Joe. What is it this time, Ben…honestly?”
Together the two men walked to the top of the stairs, pausing. Paul placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder, studying the fine lines that creased Ben’s brow.
“What’s he done this time…besides trying to ride a wild stallion?”
Ben’s expression was serious and for a fraction of a second, Paul thought he saw a flicker of hurt flash within the wells of the chocolate colored eyes, and he wondered if he had pressed too hard.
“Forget it Ben…forget I asked, it’s really none of my business,” Paul said quickly.
The pair continued down the stairs. Paul stopped at the credenza and gathered his hat and coat. He turned to Ben, the hurt still shone in the dark eyes, and Paul wondered again what had transpired to put it there.
“He broke his promise to me,” Ben said without any prompting.
“Promise?” Paul chanted. “What promise?”
“He promised me he would not try riding that horse…and he did…he…lied to me,” Ben said, lowering his head so that the physician could not see how disappointed he was in his youngest son.
“Ben,” Paul said the name so softly, that Ben had to look up.
“Joe must have had a very good reason to break his promise…he isn’t prone to lying to you…even I know that,” Paul stated.
“Adam said that the men told him, that Clint, one of the new men, had been ragging Joe. Called him a coward…and told the others that Joe was spoiled and accused him of being…yellow,” Ben explained. “I guess he dared Joe to ride.”
“And Joe…being young, impulsive and somewhat hot tempered…not to mention prideful…unaccustomed to having his courage challenged and knowing his boyish inability to walk away from a dare…tried his skill at riding a wild stallion.” Paul smiled.
“And for the lack of making a better judgment call, he will suffer physically for a number of weeks and have no one, other than himself to blame for it. Because of all of this, now you suffer from what…disappointment in your son? You suddenly have lost faith in the boy? You can’t ever trust him again?”
Paul slipped on his hat and coat and turned to open the door. He paused and looked back at Ben.
“Isn’t that a bit childish on your part, Papa? The boy is only sixteen years old, for heaven’s sake. He’s at an age where he wants to prove himself as a man, but he still has too much boy in him to do it correctly. He’s caught between two worlds, Ben…have you forgotten so soon, what it was like being where Joe is right now and how hard you worked to prove yourself to your own father, your brothers and sisters and to everyone around you who was watching…just waiting to see how you would manage or how badly you would mess up. Haven’t you ever been laughed at?”
Paul stood on the porch beside Ben who had remained quiet during his lecture. His thumbs were stuck into the belt loops on his trousers. The thoughts racing through his head seemed to be multiplying too rapidly to sort at the moment.
Paul spun around, facing Ben. His expression was one of near mockery and his tone was condemning.
“And I bet Ben Cartwright has never, not once in his life, broken a promise to one of his sons, has he?”
Ben’s eyes were drawn to the doctor’s face. They were dark and angry and Ben wanted nothing better than to strike the man, for his life long friend had struck a cord of truth in his heart…and the truth hurt. Suddenly, Ben laughed, surprising the doctor.
“What’s so funny?” Paul asked.
“You…you old goat. Now I understand what Joe was trying to tell me. He was mumbling…I couldn’t understand anything he was saying other than one word, laughed. He was trying to tell me that they laughed at him…Clint…and the men…that’s why he rode the horse…they laughed at him. I’ve a good mind to fire every last one of them,” Ben growled.
“But you won’t…you need them, and Joe has learned a lesson…a hard lesson, that he will remember for he rest of his life. Sometimes, it’s better to walk away, sometimes it’s better to stay and fight.”
“And which time was this…walk away, or stay and fight?” Ben questioned.
He waited while Paul pondered his answer. It was several moments before the doctor spoke.
“I suppose Ben…that would depend on who you are. Take yourself, or me…we’d walk away and ignore the comments. But Adam, or Hoss…they’d fight, just like Joe stayed and fought…they couldn’t ignore the comments, nor the laughter. Joe’s proved his point in a way…he didn’t actually break that stallion, but he showed them all that he wasn’t afraid to try. And from now on, those men will remember the boy for his incredible courage…and faith in himself to believe that he could actually do the impossible.”
Paul climbed into his buggy and picked up the reins. He leaned out to Ben, still wearing a confident smile on his handsome, but aged face.
“Joe took a stand for something he believed in Ben…even if it meant breaking his promise to you. And if I know that boy as well as I think I do, when he wakes up, he’s going to be more upset about breaking that promise than he is about all his broken bones.”
Paul clicked to the horse. “Don’t be too hard on the boy Ben…he loves you, in spite of yourself.”
Ben’s mouth fell opened and he started to make a sharp retort, but the physician’s laughter overpowered his thoughts and in spite of himself, Ben laughed too.
“Pa…come quick…Joe’s askin’ for ya,” Hoss called from the opened window upstairs.
Ben raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time. When he pushed the door opened and entered the dimly lit room, he could hear his son calling for him. He hurried to the bedside, and leaned down picking up Joe’s hand.
“Shh…it’s alright Joseph, your Pa’s right here,” whispered Ben.
He glanced at Adam and Hoss who both stood on the opposite side of the bed.
A sob caught in Joe’s throat and when Ben studied the battered face more closely, he saw the accumulation of tears collecting in the half opened eyes.
“Joe, it’s alright son…don’t fret yourself about it…”
“I…didn’t…mean…to…break…my…promise…honest,” Joe murmured.
“I know that…and it’s alright, Joe…I understand now, why you did,” Ben said, caressing the side of his son’s face with his fingertips.
“But…I…can explain…they said…”
“I know what they said, son. Adam told me,” Ben glanced up at Adam who watched both he and Joe intently.
“They…laughed at…me,” Joe said, as a lone tear rolled silently from the corner of one eye.
“Adam told me that as well.”
“No…you did what you felt you had to do, Joe. I understand why you did what you did; I understand why you had to break your promise. And it’s alright, honest; I’m not mad at you and I’m not disappointed in you, and I’m not going to punish you. I think you’ve managed to punish yourself enough,” smiled Ben.
Adam and Hoss exchanged questioning looks, unsure what had happened to change their father’s thinking, for both had been positive that Ben would have at least grounded their younger brother for the rest of his natural life.
Ben leaned down close to Joe so that he could place a kiss on Joe’s bandaged brow.
“Rest Joe and try to sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up. And remember…I love you,” he said in a low voice.
Joe’s eyes sought his father’s face. With his good hand, he reached up to touch the whiskered chin. A painful smile spread across his young face as a second tear rolled free of its confines.
“I won’t…do it…again,” he whispered. “I won’t try…breaking…horses…until you…tell me, I can…and…I won’t break any more…promises,” Joe muttered. “I promise,” he said as his eyes closed and he drifted off into a deep drug induced slumber.
Ben smiled, he knew differently; there would be other broken promises. But as with this one, he’d survive, so would Joe and one day they’d both be able to look back on this time of their lives and laugh about it.
Joe moved slightly and moaned. It would be a while though…before they laughed about it, the pain was still too fresh, the bones not yet healed, and the boy not yet a man. But someday…it would be as he had predicted, he’d look up and there his son would be…Joe Cartwright…the man…no longer Ben Cartwright’s little boy.