Summary: For my beloved adopted son, Shawn, who has two mamas, who love him!
Word Count: 10,300
“What’s wrong with him?”
Ben looked from his newspaper at his son. His face bore an odd expression. “What do you mean, ‘what’s wrong with him’? I didn’t realize that anything was wrong with him.”
Hoss scrunched up his face, rubbing the back of his head with his hand. “He’s actin’ all strange like, ain’t he, Adam?”
Adam, who had been reading from Shakespeare, laid aside the book and nodded his head. “I don’t know about strange, Hoss, but it is out of the ordinary, the way he’s been acting…you know, Pa…your youngest cub hasn’t been in trouble for about…hmm two weeks now…and, I might add, he’s been very agreeable,” Adam explained.
Ben looked more perplexed than before as he sat down on the corner of the coffee table, facing Adam. Hoss was standing in front of the hearth and sat down.
“I don’t understand the two of you…isn’t this what you wanted of him…to be ‘agreeable’ and to stay out of ‘trouble’?” Ben asked. “It’s like I’ve been trying to tell you both, your younger brother is growing up, he’s a good kid…he always has been…most of the time,” Ben added.
“Why sure, Pa…but Joe…well, sir…he ain’t been exactly himself…” Hoss started.
“Yeah, Pa…Joe’s been too agreeable…too good…something’s going on with the boy; I guarantee it,” Adam stated with certainty as he leaned back and picked up his book. “You best keep your eye on him,” he added.
Ben stood to his feet, his hands firmly on his hips as he shook his head. “That’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say, Adam,” groaned Ben. “I still say, Joe’s growing up…and as for being too agreeable, that makes for a much more pleasant environment for all of us. I would think that the two of you would appreciate his efforts,” stormed Ben as he moved to his desk and pulled out his ledgers. “I have work to do, I’d suggest that you boys follow your younger brother’s example and turn in, we have a long, hard day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Hoss pinched his lips tightly, refraining from making a comment. As he stood to his feet and joined his older brother, already on his way upstairs, he paused. “Night, Pa…and just so’s ya know…I am proud of Little Joe…but it ain’t natural, not for him leastways.”
Ben had glanced up but at Hoss’ words, shook his head in disbelief and returned to working on his figures. “Good night!” he called.
Ben waited until he knew that both Adam and Hoss had closed the doors to their rooms before he looked up. A deep sigh slipped silently into the peaceful atmosphere as Ben set aside his work, closing his ledger. His thoughts seemed to amble about in his head, confusing thoughts that, though he had not mentioned them to his sons, had been plaguing him for several days. What Adam and Hoss had both tried to tell him about the behavior of his youngest son had been worrying him as well.
Ben had first noticed the change in Joe several weeks ago. They had been minor, subtle little changes, but non-the-less, noticeable from the onset. At first, Ben had tried to reason them away, thinking that perhaps Joseph was trying to please him to gain favor for something he intended to plead with his father to be allowed to do, or have. But when the request never came, Ben just assumed that Little Joe had taken another step toward manhood, an ongoing process that seemed to be taking him far longer to obtain than it had his two older brothers. But the change in the boy was pleasant, and Ben had kept his thoughts to himself, watching constantly for signs that the pleasantries might vanish as quickly as they had appeared.
‘This is silly,’ Ben grumbled to himself, pushing back his chair. ‘I have more faith in my son than to just assume that his good behavior is anything other than what it is…’
Joe joined his family at the breakfast table just after everyone else had sat down. He smiled happily at his father and then turned with a cheery face to greet his brothers. “Morning Hoss, Adam,” he grinned as he pulled out his chair and sat down.
Hoss and Adam exchanged quick glances and then returned the greeting.
“What’cha got for me to do today, big brother?” Joe said as he popped a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
“Need you talk with your mouth full?” Adam corrected the boy.
Joe swallowed, glanced at his father to check his reaction, but Ben was busy discussing something with Hoss.
“Sorry,” pleaded Joe. “What do you need me to do? I can start breaking those mustangs…”
“Yeah, sure you can!” Adam laughed.
“Really?” Joe asked, surprised that his brother had so readily agreed.
Adam frowned and shook his head. “No…not really…you need to clean out the chicken coop and then the tack room, or you can do the tack first, makes no difference to me…”
“The chicken coop! Aw…Adam, come on, let me do some real work…”
“Like breaking the mustangs?”
Joe flashed his brother a bright smile.
“No way…you’re too young…”
“I’m fourteen going on…”
“You’re too young, Joe…ask Pa, he’ll tell you.”
Adam took a sip of his coffee and waited for his father to support his decision. Joe looked over at Ben and smiled.
“Your brother is right son…you are too young yet to start breaking horses…give it a couple more years and then…”
The smile remained on the young face, but Ben saw the disappointment in the boy’s eyes.
“It’s alright, Pa…I understand,” Joe said and then turned to his older brother. “I’ll do the chicken coop first, before it gets too hot outside,” he said as he resumed his eating.
Adam’s fork stopped midway to his mouth as he stared in awe at his younger brother. He had been expecting an argument, for he knew how Joe was chomping at the bit to get on a wild horse and be the first man to ride it. And he knew how badly Joe hated cleaning the chicken coop, so when Joe accepted so heartily, Adam was stunned.
When he looked in his father’s direction, he saw that Ben was watching him and smiling. The almost, ‘I told you so’ look that Ben gave him, irked Adam somewhat but he smiled regardless.
“Thanks, Joe,” Adam muttered, pushing back his chair and standing. “See you later; I’ve got work to do.”
“Me too,” Hoss said, following along after his older brother. “See ya, Shortshanks,” he laughed as he stopped to ruffle Joe’s wayward curls. “Ya do a good job on that ole coop, ya hear?”
Joe giggled. “I will, don’t ya worry,” he called after his brother.
When Ben heard the front door close, he turned to Joe smiling. “You certainly are in a good mood this morning, any special reason?”
“Nope…may I be excused, Pa…I’m not really very hungry…especially when I think about what I gotta do today,” Joe said as his smile died away.
“Well, I suppose…”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said with a bit more spirit. Pushing back his chair, he tossed his napkin in his plate. “Pa…when I’m finished with the chicken coop and tidying up the tack room, do ya mind if I ride over to Bobby Griffin’s house? We sorta thought that since it was Saturday, we might do a little fishin’?”
Ben set his coffee cup on the table, watching his youngest son fidget with a button on his shirt. “Don’t pull that thread, Joe…you know Hop Sing hates it when we lose a button.”
“Oh, sorry,” Joe said as he twisted the thread around the button. “Can I, Pa? Please?”
“May I…” smiled Ben. “And yes, after you finish your chores.”
Joe gave his father a cheeky grin and bolted from the house.
“JOE, THE DOOR!” Ben yelled as the door banged shut.
Seconds later the door reopened and Joe peeked his head around. “Sorry, Pa…and thanks!”
The door banged louder the second time, and Ben couldn’t help but scrunch up his face at the sound of the windows rattling.
Joe was just finishing up when Adam returned and entered the barn. He stuck his head out of the tack room and smiled a greeting. “Hey, Adam, how’s your day going?”
“Hey, Joe…it’s going pretty good. We’re getting things done at least. I just came back for more supplies. What about you, are you finished yet?” Adam said as he moved to the door of the tack room and peered inside. “Not bad, kid,” laughed Adam as he gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Gee, thanks. Say, ya need me to help you and Hoss? I don’t mind; Bobby Griffin and I were going to go fishing later, but if you need me…?”
Adam paused to study the boy’s face and then shook his head. “No thanks, you’ve done what I needed you to do. If Pa says you can go fishing, who am I to disagree?”
Adam carried an armload of supplies to the wagon and placed them in the back. As he turned, he nearly collided with Joe, who had carried the last of the items out for his brother.
“Thanks, Joe,” smiled Adam as he climbed into the seat and picked up the reins. He looked down at his brother, trying to figure out the boy’s motives. “Tell me something, Joe,” he began. “Why all of a sudden are you trying so hard to please everyone?”
Joe’s face suddenly became solemn and he lowered his head, no longer willing to look his brother in the eye. “I don’t know what you mean,” he muttered.
“What’s with you? I mean, you never argue anymore…you do everything Pa and I ask…regardless of how distasteful the job is…and you never complain. I appreciate the change, but personally, I think you’re up to something…”
“That’s not fair,” growled Joe, his hurt feelings showing on his young face. “And I’m not up to anything…”
Joe turned and stomped off back to the barn. Adam twisted his head and watched as the boy moved across the yard, sure that he had hit the nail on the head. For a fraction of a second, Adam had seen a spark of the old Joe ignite the hazel eyes, but just as quickly, he had noticed how Joe had avoided a confrontation by escaping to the barn. Adam clicked to the horses, still trying to figure out his younger brother’s motives.
Inside the barn, Joe paused to lean his back against the closed door. He willed his wildly beating heart to return to a more normal rhythm. His chest hurt as he sucked in large gulps of air to steady his breathing. Joe knew that he could not keep up the good-boy act much longer, his nerves were wearing thin but only Adam suspected there might be a reason other than just wanting to please his family and prove to them that he was grown up. Inside, his stomach churned.
“What kept you? I thought you weren’t coming,” Bobby said as he swung down to the ground.
The boy had been perched on a branch in the oak tree that stood near the stream where the two boys were supposed to be fishing.
“Sorry, Bobby,” grinned Joe, dismounting. “I had to do an errand for my pa after I finished my chores.”
Joe hobbled his horse so that the animal could enjoy munching on the tender growth of grass that grew along the water’s edge. “Where’s your fishing pole?” he asked Bobby.
Bobby had moved to the edge of the bank and had sat down. Joe propped his fishing cane against the tree where Bobby had been waiting and joined his friend. Bobby was tugging at his boots and once he had his feet free, he dipped his toes into the cold water.
“Ain’t you gonna fish?” Joe asked.
“Sorry, Joe…I’m not in the mood for fishing…” the boy said in a sad voice. “Can we just talk?”
When Bobby turned Joe’s way, Joe noted the sad countenance on his friend’s face and the tears that glistened in the boy’s eyes. “Sure,” agreed Joe, “if that’s what you’d rather do.”
Bobby nodded his head, picking up a stone and tossing it into the water.
“What’s the matter, Bobby…ya look like ya about to…cry?” prodded Joe, slipping his boots off and tossing them up on the bank.
Bobby ran his shirtsleeve across the front of his nose and looked at Joe. His eyes were sad and the sight made Joe feel sorry for his pal. “You remember what I told ya the other day?”
“Sure…about your parents…not really being your parents?”
“Yeah…that’s it…and how my real mama gave me away when I was just a little baby?”
“I remember…you said that your ma…your adopted ma, I mean, Mrs. Griffin…told you that when your real mother gave you to her, your real mother told her that she was going on a trip or something like that,” Joe said, recalling the day that his friend had shared his secret with him.
“Ma said that she, Lacy…that’s her real name, had to get away…but no body really knew why…but my ma said Lacy said she’d be back someday…”
“But she ain’t never come back, has she?” Joe asked.
“What about your pa…your real pa, not Mr. Griffin. What happened to him?”
“Don’t know…don’t reckon anyone knows what became of him. Joe…ya wanna know what’s so strange?” Bobby said, glancing sideways at Joe.
“My ma told me that my real mother really did love me…but I don’t believe it.”
Joe looked puzzled. How could a mother say that she loved her baby and then give him away? “Why not?” Joe questioned.
“Cause…if she loved me…she wouldn’t have given me away. Would your Pa give you away?”
Joe’s eyes widened…he didn’t reckon his Pa would give him away…what reason would he have? Joe had been thinking on the matter for weeks now, ever since Bobby first told him about how his real mother, Lacy, had given him away to the Griffins.
“I hope not,” Joe said, thinking out loud. “Why do you reckon she gave you away…I mean, if she was only going on a trip or something, why’d she not come back?”
“Pa told me that my mother promised to come back to get me…once she got settled and all, but she never did. Pa said she must have been too busy…had too many places to go and just didn’t want a kid under foot all the time, you know Joe, to get in her way and all,” Bobby reasoned.
“Pa said she was just young and scared and that she didn’t really know how to take care of a baby. He said she told him that I cried all the time and made a lot of extra work for her and that the man she was with, didn’t want me hanging round…haha…me a baby, hanging around,” Bobby said with a disgusted laugh.
“Don’t make much sense, does it, Bobby?” Joe said, thoughtful of the idea.
“Nope, but guess what else, Joe?” Bobby muttered.
Joe heard his friend sniff his nose and turned to see tiny droplets roll from the boy’s eyes and trickle down the front of his face.
“Bobby,” Joe said, unsure of himself. “What’cha crying for?”
Bobby stood up and walked over to the tree and leaned his forehead against the rough bark. “Ma and Pa got a letter from my real mother last week…she’s coming by to see me…”
A sob caught in the back of the boy’s throat. Joe had gotten up and moved to stand behind his friend. He placed his hand on Bobby’s shoulder. “Aren’t you glad, Bobby…to get to see your real mother?” Joe asked hesitantly.
“I…don’t know, Joe…I’m scared.”
“Scared? Of what…she’s your mother…”
Bobby turned around and faced Joe. “What if she doesn’t like me? What if she wants to take me away with her? What about my mama and my pa? Joe…I’m scared…just plain scared!”
Bobby walked back to the water’s edge and tossed in a stick. He spun around again, facing Joe. “I was a burden to her, I cried a lot, I made extra work, she didn’t want me to get in her way of having fun…she had friends who didn’t want me tagging along…think about it Little Joe. You’ve always said how your brothers hated for you to tag along after them all the time, Hop Sing complains about how much extra work you cause him, why, I’ve even heard your own father ranting about some of the stupid things you do and just how much trouble you can get into…”
“I know that, Bobby!” snapped Joe, losing his temper.
Bobby had said the same thing to him before, and the thoughts had plagued him something fierce for days now. In his heart, he never meant being such a pain to his family, but since Bobby had reminded him of it, Joe had lived in fear that perhaps his father might be harboring thoughts of…dear God…no…Pa wouldn’t…give him away…would he? Joe shuddered. “You don’t have to repeat it, Bobby…my pa ain’t like your ma…he loves me…” Joe realized what he had just said and hushed. “I’m sorry, Bobby, I wasn’t meaning that your real ma didn’t love you…but…”
“But she didn’t…why Joe…why didn’t she love me?”
Joe was surprised to see his entire family in the yard when he rode up. He almost snickered; Hoss had two chickens under one arm and was holding the old red rooster by his legs. But when he glanced at his father, coated in bird feathers, he decided he’d best not start laughing, yet.
“What are you doing to the chickens?” Joe asked, straining to keep a straight face. “We having company for supper?”
Adam ran from the barn about that time, before Ben could answer his son’s question. Joe turned, just in time to see his oldest brother make a daring dive toward Hop Sing’s prize egg layer.
“Got her!” shouted Adam, grabbing the hen and trying hard to hold on to the chicken’s legs. The hen squawked loudly, protesting against her capture.
Adam followed Hoss and his chickens to the coop where Hop Sing waited beside the door. Once all the chickens were secure, the family converged on Joe, circling him. Each wore angry looks that made Joe draw up inside. He smiled, not sure why they were all glaring at him the way they were.
“What’s going on?” he mumbled.
“I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S GOING ON, YOUNG MAN…YOU LEFT THE DOOR TO THE COOP OPENED AND WE’VE BEEN ROUNDING UP HENS ALL AFTERNOON!” bellowed Ben in a loud voice.
Joe could see that the anger had turned his father’s eyes dark and he inwardly cringed.
“SORRY! IS THAT ALL YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?” stormed Ben.
“Yeah, Shortshanks, ya got any ideay just how much work you cost us this afternoon?” Hoss demanded. “I’ll probably never be able to eat chicken again…why I’ve been pecked, speared, pecked some more. I’ve stepped in, slipped in and sat in more chicken…you know what…why I outta pound ya good!”
“Not to mention that the chickens made so much noise that the cow kicked me when I was milking her and then the bucket of milk got turned over and ole Bessie tried to kick me again when one chicken landed on her butt and pecked her good….Little Joe, I should…”
“Li’tle Joe, bad boy…let Hop Sing’s chickens run wild. They get in garden, eat seeds, dig in dirt…make mess…stop laying eggs…Li’tle Joe verily bad boy…Papa should take boy to wood shed and thrash! Hump…” snorted the servant as he marched angrily toward the house.
Joe swallowed hard and lowered his head, ashamed. “I’m sorry…honest, Pa…”
“You should be, young man…your carelessness cost your brothers and I a lot of time we could have used on more important things…”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Joe said in a weak voice. He glanced up at his father and then at his brothers; they were still very much put out with him, it was easy to see.
“You never do anything on purpose…do you?” jeered Adam. “I knew all this good behavior couldn’t last long…come on Hoss, let’s get cleaned up…”
Adam stormed off toward the house. Hoss shot Joe a glaring look and then followed after his older brother.
Ben stood in the center of the yard with his youngest son, trying to decide what he should do about the matter. He watched his son’s face, seeing the pitiful expression of remorse and judged the boy to be near tears. When he reached out with his hand and tilted the quivering chin upward, Ben’s heart melted.
“Honest…I didn’t leave it opened on purpose,” murmured Joe.
“No…I suppose you didn’t…I shouldn’t have yelled at you so…I apologize. It’s just that I had a gentleman here for a business meeting and when all the chickens got out, and Hop Sing began shouting and chasing after them, they got into the barn, scared the cow, and from there it just got worse. Mr. Bishop left, very upset mind you; one chicken flew into the house through the opened window and landed on his head. Needless to say, when the chicken…relieved herself on his head…well, Joseph…you have no idea just how angry I was with you. I’m still angry…very angry…we’ll have a necessary little talk later about your responsibilities, but right now go get cleaned up for supper,” Ben ordered, pointing to the house.
“Yessir,” Joe said and turned to go.
As he made his way to the house, Joe could feel his father’s eyes boring into his back. He tried not to steal a peek, but when he reached the door, he cast a wary glance over his shoulder; Ben was still staring at him, and the fact left him with a dread, deep down inside of him.
Supper was served but Joe was barely able to eat what was put before him. He continually glanced around the table at his family to watch their expressions. For the most part, Joe’s brothers ate in silence, speaking only to each other and to their father when Ben asked them a question. It was obvious to the young boy that Hoss and Adam were still mad at him. Occasionally, Joe would look over at his father, hoping that Ben would say something, but his father was either too busy eating or otherwise engaged in conversation with one or the other of his brothers.
Joe let out a long sigh. He was worried about the necessary little talk his father had forewarned him about. Why his father had always made him wait for such times, Joe never had been able to figure out. Was it part of the punishment, to have to wait, not knowing for sure whether his father would actually spend the time talking to him, or using his hand to warm his backside. Joe gulped and swallowed the bite that was in his mouth. It seemed to lodge in his throat and the boy was forced to gulp down his glass of milk to free the object from his throat. Joe began to cough, drawing the attention of his family.
“Are you alright, son?” Ben asked, concerned.
Joe swallowed again and nodded his head. “Yessir, I just got choked…I’m fine,” he said in a squeaky voice.
“You shouldn’t try to fill your mouth so full,” Adam commented.
“I didn’t!” snapped Joe in his own defense. “I told ya, I got choked, that’s all.”
“Just be careful, son; I saw you guzzling your milk…you need to slow down.”
Ben had turned his attention back to Hoss and picked up the conversation where it had ended moments before.
Joe was standing at his window when the knock on his door came. He turned around slowly, just in time to see his father open the door and peek into his room.
“May I come in?” Ben asked.
“Sure,” Joe said. He wasn’t sure why his father even bothered to ask, it was his house, he could go into any room he wished, and besides, thought Joe to himself, he sure wasn’t about to tell his father no, that he couldn’t come in, even though right at the moment, he wished he could.
Ben walked across the room and stood in front of his son. He could see the anxiety in the boy’s eyes and knew that his son thought himself in big trouble. Ben almost smiled…he had been mad at the boy…very mad, but over the course of the last couple of hours, his anger had died down. He had no intentions of doing to the boy, what Joe feared most.
“Why don’t you sit down, son?” Ben offered, pointing at the bed.
“Do I have’ta?” Joe asked, almost shyly.
“No, if you’d rather stand, but I think I’ll sit,” Ben said, taking the place on the bed that he had offered his son.
“About today, Pa,” Joe said, his words hesitant.
“Yes, about today, Joseph…”
“I didn’t leave the chicken coop door opened on purpose,” Joe stammered, “honest…I thought I had latched it.”
“Well, apparently you thought wrong, didn’t you?”
“Apparently…” Joe murmured, raising his head slightly. “I’m sorry, Pa…it won’t happen again.”
“Joe, come here, please, and sit down,” Ben said, again pointing to the edge of the bed.
This time Joe did not refused, but sat down next to his father.
“Son,” began Ben. “I’ve never asked anything of you that I knew you were not ready to handle, now have I?”
“And the things I do ask of you, really are quite simple, are they not?”
“Then why is it that you seem to always be in such a hurry to do the simplest of tacks, that you cannot take a few extra minutes to do them properly?”
Joe had lowered his head, unable to meet the probing eyes of his father. He shrugged his shoulders and muttered. “I dunno.”
“Neither do I, Joseph…but from now on, I will expect you to do your work with the greatest of care. I expect you to do your best…nothing less…is that understood?” Ben asked.
“Good, because leaving the coop opened is not your best…I know it may seem like a trivial thing to you…but to Hop Sing, it was most important. He depends on those chickens to keep his kitchen running smoothly, and to keep us…as a family…fed. When the chickens scatter and become frightened…they are silly creatures, Joe…easily spooked…and when that happens, they stop laying their eggs…they chatter endlessly and all that is quite disrupting for Hop Sing. And to me, I might add…I don’t cotton to chickens leaving their droppings on the heads of my business associates…”
Joe couldn’t smother the giggle that slipped past his lips. The image of the hen on Mr. Bishop’s head was too much.
“You find that funny?” Ben growled.
“Then why are you snickering, young man?” Ben asked giving his son a stern look.
Joe wiped the grin off his face and hung his head low. After a long pause, he looked into his father’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa…but I can’t help picturing it in my mind,” Joe said softly, having to look away again to hide his smile from his father.
Ben was quiet so long that Joe looked up. He was surprised to see the tiny grin that tugged at his father’s lips.
“Pa?” Joe muttered in a whispered voice.
Ben stood to his feet and moved to the window, pushing back the curtains to peer outside.
Now that he had time to think back on the incident, it was rather funny. Ben recalled the look on his associate’s face when the chicken had landed on his head…and then again when the chicken had…left its mark, but Ben could not let his son know that he now considered the incident comical.
“Joseph,” Ben said, turning back around. His smile was gone and his eyes had taken on a serious countenance. “Monday on your way home from school, I want you to stop by Mr. Bishop’s office and apologize for your…oversight…”
Joe jumped to his feet, stunned. “Apologize! Pa…you can’t be serious…Mr. Bishop will think I did it on purpose…and you know I didn’t! Why should I apologize to him anyway…I heard you telling Adam that you didn’t much like the man…oops,” finished Joe in a whisper.
Ben’s eyes widened and Joe noticed how quickly they could turn black.
“JOSEPH! How dare you! Have you been eavesdropping again?” stormed Ben.
“No sir…I couldn’t help but hear…don’t you remember, you were yelling…”
Ben’s hands were placed firmly on his hips. He lowered his upper body until he was practically nose-to-nose with his son.
“That will be enough!” he ordered in an authoritative tone that brought an immediate conclusion to the subject. “Apologize…understand?”
Joe gulped. “Yessir,” he agreed as he watched his father storm from the room.
Joe was on his way downstairs when he stopped suddenly, listening to the conversation between his oldest brother and his father. He recalled his father’s anger from two nights ago when he had mistakenly let it be known that he had inadvertently overheard a previous conversation. Joe started to turn back, but, unable to resist, he waited.
“They already have so many kids, one more shouldn’t make that much difference,” Ben was saying.
“I wouldn’t think so either, Pa…and Joe would be happy there,” Adam said to his father.
Joe’s heart began to beat wildly, making his chest feel tight.
“Since we’re all going to leave at the same time, I think Joe will be fine with the idea, don’t you, son?”
“I think the Devlins will be the perfect home for him.”
‘Home!’ The word echoed in the young boy’s heart. ‘What on earth are they planning?’ his heart cried.
“We’ll tell him that the three of us are going on business trips and that we’re all going in separate directions…which isn’t far from the truth,” Ben said and then laughed softly.
“He knows we do that occasionally…”
Joe felt a well of tears billow into his eyes as his mind recalled the conversation he had with his friend, Bobby. ‘Going on a trip’, those were the same words that Bobby’s mother had said, just before she had given him away, to the Griffins!
Joe felt as if he might be sick. All his fears had climaxed and overwhelmed him to the point that he had to run back into his room to keep from spewing the contents of his stomach all over the floor. He barely made it to his room, and the pitcher that rested on the washstand. Grabbing the vase and setting it aside, Joe lowered his head into the bowl, heaving several times before his stomach settled itself.
Quickly, Joe washed off his face. He could hear someone coming up the stairs and wanted to be on his way down before someone had a chance to see the mess he’d just made. Thinking quickly, he tossed the towel over the bowl and hurried into the hall, where he met his father coming towards him.
Ben smiled warmly at his son.
“I was just coming up to see if you were up,” Ben said cheerfully.
Joe nodded his head, secretly wondering how his father could be plotting to give him away and still wear a look in his eyes that resembled love.
“I was just washing…my face,” Joe said as he hurried by his father.
He had no desire to let his father see how flushed he was or how his hands trembled. Before Ben reached the bottom step, Joe was already sitting at the table, serving himself. Ben gave the boy a curious look and then glanced at his oldest two sons, raising his brows in a puzzled manner.
“I’ve got to hurry,” Joe said, avoiding looking up from his plate. “I’m going to go by Mr. Bishop’s office this morning, instead of after school.” Joe glanced over at his father. “Is that alright with you, Pa?” he questioned.
“Yes…that will be fine,” Ben replied. “Joseph, before you go…I’d like to talk to you about something…”
“Now, Pa?” Joe asked, suddenly pushing back his chair, “I have to do my morning chores before I leave, can it wait until later…please?”
The boy dreaded to hear what he knew his father was fixing to say, hoping that if he could postpone the inevitable for a few hours more.
“Joseph,” Ben said in a stern voice, “sit back down…we have to talk now!” ordered Ben, glancing around at all three young men.
Joe did as instructed and lowered his body back down onto his chair.
“What is it, Pa?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Your brothers and I are going away for a spell…”
Joe quickly raised his head and looked at his father. He turned to study the faces of both his brothers, but they refused to look at him.
“Where are you going?” Joe asked in a low voice.
His stomach began to churn again and once more Joe felt as if he might be sick. He swallowed repeatedly to keep the sick feeling from surfacing.
“On a trip…”
“Why can’t I go?” he asked suddenly.
He saw his father hesitate and then glance at Adam and Hoss.
“Because you have school…”
“I could make up the work.”
“No…I’m not sure how long we’ll be gone…”
Joe glanced at his brothers and then turned to his father. “Are they going, too?” he wanted to know.
“Yes…but not with me…they each have other business that will take them in opposite directions,” answered Ben.
“Then why can’t I stay here with Hop Sing?”
“Because, Joseph, Hop Sing is going to San Francisco to visit one of his numerous cousins, that’s why I have made arrangements with Charlie Devlin for you to say with them until I come home…”
“If you come home,” Joe whispered under his breath.
“I’m sorry, son, did you say something?” Ben asked, watching how Joe seemed to be fighting back tears.
Joe raised his head to look at his father. Ben inwardly cringed at the downtrodden expression on his young son’s face.
“I asked when would you be home?” Joe fibbed.
“I’m not sure, son how long I, or your brothers, will be away.”
Joe swallowed several times to wash down the lump that had sprung into his throat.
“When are you leaving?”
“In the morning…”
Joe pushed back his chair, standing to his feet. His head was low so that his father could not see the hidden hurt that shined in his eyes.
“I’ll come straight home after school then, and pack my things,” muttered Joe as he turned and ran from the house, leaving his family to wonder at his sudden display of emotion.
For several moments, no one said a word. And then Hoss spoke up. “He wasn’t very pleased with the ideay. Reckon I could stay here, Pa…I’d keep an eye on the boy…honest.”
Ben turned and smiled at his middle son. “I know you would, Hoss, and I appreciate your willingness, but I need you to make that trip to Ogden for me. Adam has no other choice but to go to Salt Lake City and I’m desperately needed elsewhere…”
“He’s gonna think we all deserted ‘im,” Hoss said with a frown.
“Perhaps, but you and I know that isn’t so,” smiled Ben as he rose from his seat. “I’d best be getting ready to go, Adam, are those horses ready?”
Adam wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin into his plate. “Yes sir, I’ll have a couple of the men put them in the corral.”
“Thank you, son.”
“What’s wrong, Little Joe?” Bobby asked.
The two boys sat alone together under the large elm tree off to the side of the schoolhouse.
Joe had been quiet all morning, lost in his own private torment, but he turned to his friend.
“When’s your mother arriving?” he asked, quick to change the subject.
“She got here yesterday,” Bobby informed his pal. “And guess what, Joe…guess what she came here just to tell me?”
Bobby looked away, but not before Joe saw the sparkle of tears fill the other boy’s eyes. “What?” he asked.
“She just came here to tell me that she was going to have another baby!”
Bobby jumped up and walked several paces away from Joe, who remained seated, his back pressed up against the trunk of the tree.
“Soon…” Bobby turned back to face Joe. “I asked her if she was planning on giving this baby away too…wanna know what she told me?” Bobby asked with a sob. He went on without giving Joe a chance to respond. “She told me that she was going to keep this baby. When I asked her why, she said because she wanted this baby…that she loved it, even though it wasn’t born yet.”
Joe saw a lone tear roll from Bobby’s eye and travel down his friend’s cheek. He didn’t know what to say, so he waited.
“I asked her how come she didn’t love me when I was a baby…”
“What did she say?” asked Joe, still watching his friend’s face.
Bobby’s face puckered up in disgust. He moved to sit down on the ground, facing Joe.
“She started to cry a bit and said she did love me…but when I was born, she wasn’t able to care for me, like she is now. She’s married, Joe, she has a new husband that she says takes good care of her and will their baby, too. But when I was born she was all alone; she didn’t have a husband, Joe, I was born out of wedlock, I think is what she called it. She was afraid something would happen to me, so she chose to give me to my parents…they wanted a baby really bad and couldn’t have one of their own, so she gave me to them. They promised to love me and care for me…”
“They have…haven’t they, Bobby?” Joe asked.
“Sure, Little Joe…I love my ma and pa…but Lacy…she’s my real mother…and no matter what she’s done, I love her too…I just don’t understand why she didn’t love me back,” Bobby said quietly.
Both boys were silent for several minutes, before Joe spoke.
“My pa and brothers are going away, Bobby. Pa’s sending me to the Devlins to live,” Joe said in a quiet voice, almost a whisper.
Bobby jerked his head up; his eyes were wide. “The Devlins? For how long, Joe?”
Joe pinched his lips tightly together and shook his head. “I don’t know…but, I’m scared, Bobby…”
“Of what, Joe?”
“I’m scared that they won’t come back…just like your ma didn’t come back when she gave you away. I’m afraid that Pa’s gonna give me…to the Devlins.”
“Aw, Joe, your pa wouldn’t do that…would he?”
“I don’t know…he was awfully mad at me yesterday…and then this morning, I heard him tell Adam that the Devlins had so many kids, one more wouldn’t matter. And Adam said that the Devlins would be a good home for me…he said he didn’t know when he’d be back…but I don’t think any of them will ever come back…”
Joe’s voice trailed off into a whisper and when Bobby looked into the hazel eyes, he noted the tears that had welled up.
“That’s what Ma told me about Lacy…that’s when my parents decided to adopt me…I think they knew that my mother would never really come back…or want me,” Bobby said in a hurtful voice.
“I gotta be going, Bobby…I promised Pa that I would come straight home, and I’m already late,” Joe said, jumping to his feet. “I gotta pack my things,” he added in a whisper.
Bobby stood up and followed Joe to their horses. He watched his friend mount up, knowing deep inside how badly Joe was hurting and how frightened he was. “Little Joe?” he called.
“Yeah?” Joe answered in a trembling voice.
“The Devlins…they’re good people you know…”
“I know,” muttered Joe, “but…I don’t want to…belong to them.”
A sob caught in the back of his throat and made his voice squeak. “I’m a Cartwright…I’ll never be a Devlin!”
Joe kicked his horse’s side, spurring Paint into a gallop as horse and rider disappeared around the bend and out of sight. Joe had no intention of letting his friend see the tears that he could no longer keep from rolling down his face. All he could think about was his father going away and leaving him…for good this time. He knew it, in his heart, and no amount of reasoning with himself could change the fact that his family no longer wanted him.
Wasn’t that what had happened to Bobby? His mother didn’t love him enough to keep him, so she had given him away, claiming that she couldn’t care for him, but Joe knew better…what kind of a mother would give away her child…for that matter, what kind of a father would give away his son? Fear gripped at Joe’s heart; he had tried for days now to right his wrongs, but it seemed the harder he tried, the more trouble he caused.
Joe pulled Paint to a stop and quickly dismounted. He laced the reins over a low hanging branch and moved into the little clearing where the headstone that bore his mother’s name stood out against the bright skyline. Joe knelt down and placed his hand on the carving. A deep sob caught in his throat as he tried to reason aloud, his misery. “Ma…I know why you left me…but I don’t understand about Pa. Did ya know he’s gonna do the same, ‘cepting he ain’t dying…he’s giving me to the Devlins.”
Joe wiped his sleeve across the front of his face. “He and my brothers claim that they’re going on a business trip…did you know that when Bobby’s ma left him…she claimed she was going on a trip too, but she never came back. What am I going to do? I know Pa ain’t coming back…I just know it…but why? What have I done that was so bad that he wouldn’t love me anymore? I don’t understand about parents…how can they bring a baby into the world and then just…give them away? I thought mothers and fathers were suppose to love their children…I always knew you loved me, and I thought Pa loved me…but I ain’t so sure now…Bobby asked me why his mother didn’t love him…I didn’t know what to say. I thought a lot about it…her giving him away and all…and I felt really sorry for him. But then when Pa told me he was going away too, I started to feel sorry for myself, and I ain’t even a baby, I’m almost grown…fourteen now…”
Joe sat back on his haunches, propping his elbows on his knees and lowered his head into his hands. For several minutes he remained as such, until he raised his head and sucked in a chest full of air and stood to his feet. “I gotta go, Ma…I promised Pa I’d come straight home from school…and I’m already late, see ya,” Joe said, wiping his eyes dry as he made his way to his horse and mounted up.
Ben was waiting in the yard when Joe arrived. One look at his father’s face told the boy all he needed to know that his father was not happy. Joe quickly dismounted and walked the short distance to the front porch where Ben stood, hands on hips and a deep scowl across his brow.
“Where have you been?” Ben asked.
“I’m sorry, Pa…I…stopped up at the lake…you know, for a visit,” stammered Joe.
Ben’s expression softened at the explanation. Years of experience had taught him that when his youngest son was the most upset, or had a problem or just wanted to be alone, the lake and his mother’s grave was where the boy always headed. One look at the long, sad face the youngster wore told the observant father that today had been one of those days.
“I was getting worried, it is sort of late, son,” Ben said, his voice softening.
Ben reached out to place a hand on Joe’s shoulder, stunned when Joe moved away from his touch by backing up. Joe raised his head just slightly to peer into his father’s face and Ben was taken back a second time by the acute sadness that he read in the expressive eyes of his youngest son.
“Joseph, what’s wrong, son?” Ben inquired, moving a step nearer.
Joe’s chin began to quiver and he backed up. “Nothing!” he stammered.
Puzzled, Ben halted his steps, sensing that if he continued to move closer, the boy would bolt and run from him. The anxious father tried to still his rapidly beating heart and forced his voice not to tremble when he spoke, for he was certain now that something was very much eating away at his son. The boy was on the verge of tears! “Something must be bothering you…why don’t we go over there and talk about it, Joe?”
Joe was desperately trying to keep from throwing himself into his father’s arms and begging him not to go away, not to leave…and certainly not to give him to their neighbors.
“There’s nothing wrong,” Joe practically shouted.
He wanted to go inside, but his father was standing between him and door. Joe, his emotions suddenly boiling over the top and out of control, turned his back to his father and ran for the barn.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben, startled into action.
Ben broke into a run and made it into the barn, just in time to see Joe disappear into the loft and duck out of sight. Willing himself to remain calm, Ben pulled the door closed and stepped up to the ladder.
“Joe,” he said in a tender voice. “Please son, I know you’re up there…I want you to come down so that we can talk. I don’t know what’s bothering you, but I’m sure we can work it out…”
The entire time that he talked, Ben was slowly climbing the ladder. When he reached the top, he eased himself over into the loft and straightened to his full height.
“Go away…just leave me alone…”
“Son, I can’t leave you like this…you have to tell me what’s wrong…let me help you…”
“You can’t help me…why would you want too?” cried Joe from behind the stack of hay where he hid from his father.
“I don’t understand, son…I’ve always tried to help you before with your problems…why would think I wouldn’t want to now?” questioned Ben.
“Oh…don’t play the caring father…I happen to know better,” Joe said in a hateful tone.
Ben’s mouth flew opened; he had never heard his son speak to him like that…and he had no clue as to why the boy would be doing so now. “I don’t understand, Joe…”
“Of course you don’t understand me…you never have…”
More befuddled than ever, Ben moved closer to the stack of hay. “Joseph, you’re not making any sense at all, son…and for certain I don’t understand you now. I have no clue what you are even talking about, son. Please, come out from behind that haystack and explain yourself to me…”
“No…I just want you to go away…”
“But why, Joe…why?”
Ben could hear the tremors in Joe’s voice and knew that his son was crying. The soft whimpering sounds were breaking his heart.
“Joe,” said Ben, “just give me one good reason why I should go away…and then, I’ll go, if the reason is sufficient. Tell me what I’ve done to…hurt you…you are hurting, aren’t you…and I’m to blame, am I not?”
There was a long break in the conversation and Ben could only wonder what horrors were playing tricks with his son’s thoughts. Ben started to move, but froze when he saw Joe step from behind the tall stack of hay. The boy’s head was bent low, but Ben could still see the tears that dripped from the end of Joe’s chin. Taking a deep breath, Ben willed himself not to approach the distraught boy.
Joe felt trapped. His father stood between him and the ladder and all Joe could think about was getting as far away from his father as possible. Keeping his eye on Ben, Joe moved along the slanted wall until he felt sure that he could slide passed his father without Ben grabbing him.
Ben watched the way in which Joe inched further and further away, knowing that at any second, the boy would make a break for the ladder. If that happened, Joe would run away and Ben knew that he would be left standing there still wondering what on earth was going through his son’s mind.
Just at that moment, Joe did exactly as his father had predicted and made a scramble for the ladder. Ben was ready, throwing himself at his son, Ben’s arms tightened about the slender body, causing both himself and his son to topple to the hay-covered floor.
“LET ME GO!” screamed Joe, struggling against the arms that held him tightly.
Joe kicked and bucked, trying to break free, but Ben held on, determined to tame the wild lad.
“LET GO OF ME!” cried Joe, very near hysterical.
“Joe, calm down, son…please,” pleaded Ben, clinging tightly to the squirming boy.
“NO…NO!” sobbed Joe.
Ben could sense an end to the struggle as Joe’s body began to relax. Sobbing, the fight was gone from the boy and exhausted, Joe leaned against his father’s chest, weeping softly.
“Oh…Pa…why…why?” sobbed Joe.
Ben, his heart racing wildly, pulled Joe into his arms, pressing the mass of thick curls to his breast. “Why…what, Joseph…tell me…what is wrong?”
“Oh, Pa…don’t act like you don’t know…I know what you were planning…just tell me why…why don’t you love me any more?” cried Joe, clinging to the arms that encircled his body. “Why are you giving me to the Devlins?” he continued to babble. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to let the chickens out…I didn’t do it on purpose…how can you stop loving me so easily…why, why? Pa…tell me why?”
Baffled, Ben raised Joe’s trembling chin so that he could look into the tear filled eyes. What he saw in the depths of the hazel coloring broke his heart and caused his own eyes to mist. “Give you away? Stop loving you? Never, Joe…never could I do either. Where on earth did you ever get such an idea as that?” Ben asked. He was astonished by what he was hearing.
“I heard you,” sobbed Joe. “I didn’t mean too, but I heard you and Adam…you said that the Devlins had so many children, one more wouldn’t matter to them, and Adam…he said that the Devlins place would be a good home for me…and Bobby’s mother, came back…after nearly fifteen years…after she gave him away…” Joe rattled on, further confusing his father. “He asked me why I thought his ma didn’t love him…Pa…” cried Joe, “I didn’t know what to tell him…and then you said I could go live with the Devlins and then…Lacy told Bobby that she was having a baby and that she planned on keeping it…and…”
“Lacy?” Ben whispered.
“Bobby’s mother…his real mother…”
“Joe, please, slow down, son…I’m so confused by all of this. Let’s start from the beginning…but first, I want to say something…and I want you to listen to me, alright?” Ben said. He studied the boy’s face, using his own thumbs to wipe away the lingering tears from Joe’s cheeks. “Now…I’ve no idea where on earth you got the idea that I no longer love you. That is about as far from the truth as it can get. Joseph, you are everything to me…and to your brothers. I cannot even begin to imagine my life without you…I wouldn’t want too. I love you, son, more than my own life, more than this ranch and certainly more than any earthly object that I possess…and far more than any monies I might have accumulated during the course of my life. You, young man…are my life, you, Adam and Hoss…without the three of you I am nothing. I cease to exist, I cease to breathe, feel, love…do you understand the depth of my love for you? Do you understand, Joe, that I could not, nor would I ever ‘give’ you away? Why would you even think that I would?”
Joe, his chin quivering, looked into his father’s eyes, suddenly seeing the love that sparked from deep within. “I…dunno,” he stammered. “I thought that…I mean…”
Joe swallowed hard and lowered his head, suddenly ashamed of himself for allowing his fears to dictate his heart. When he looked up again at his father, Joe could plainly see that he had been horribly mistaken; his father still loved him. It was there, the love he thought he’d lost, in the chocolate hue of his father’s eyes. The tiny tears billowed into his own eyes and he turned his face into his father’s vest and wept. “I’m sorry, Pa…I’m such a fool…I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Joe…you didn’t do anything, son…to be sorry about. For some reason, you just got it into your head that I’d stopped loving you…and that I was going to send you away…but why, Joe…what made you think that?”
“I dunno, I guess because of Bobby…”
“Bobby…that’s Bobby Griffin, isn’t it?”
“Tell me…from the beginning, please…how does your friend fit into all of this?”
Ben pulled Joe upright and made his son look at him.
“Bobby is adopted,” began Joe.
“Yes, I remember when he first came to Paul and Sally Griffin. He was just a couple of months old and they were so happy to finally have a child they could call their own,” Ben recalled.
“I didn’t know you knew,” Joe said.
“Yes, I remember the day well. The Griffins brought him over for us to see. He’s just a few days younger than you are, son,” Ben smiled. “Sally and your mother went on for hours talking about their new sons…” Ben’s eyes took on a faraway look, but he continued to smile. “To be honest, so did Paul and I,” laughed Ben. “But go on, Joe…tell me the rest.”
“Well, Bobby knew he was adopted, he said his parents…the Griffins…had always told him so, they didn’t try to hide it. But Bobby started wondering about his real mother, Lacy. He didn’t understand how a mother could have a baby, and just up and give it away. He’s hurt…he feels as if he wasn’t good enough for his ma to want to keep…especially now, now since she came back to see him…and told him she was having another baby. He’s gonna be a big brother…and he feels…cheated and hurt by it. Pa, he doesn’t understand why his mother didn’t love him enough to keep him. And he says that with her living far away, he’ll never get to see his little brother or sister…whichever it might be. And that bothers him. He loves his folks…but regardless of what she’s done, Lacy is still his mother, and he loves her in spite of everything…”
“I’m sure he would, son. Lacy was a very young, frightened girl when she had Bobby. She wasn’t much older than you are now, son…and it was true…she couldn’t take care of her baby. She had no husband, no parents, no one to help her, so she did the next best thing. She gave her son to the Griffins. Lacy knew that they would love her baby and take very good care of him. It was a very hard, but brave thing for a young mother to do…giving up her son. Bobby should never feel as though his birth mother did not love him; on the contrary, she loved him very much. See, son, it was because Lacy loved her baby, that she willingly placed him in a safe, loving home, where he could have all the things that she was never able to have herself, and was unable to give to him. She made the ultimate sacrifice…because she loved him. For a person, whether it man or woman, to make that kind of sacrifice, takes great courage and strength and a heart overflowing with love.”
Joe was quiet for a moment and then looked up at his father. “I didn’t look at it like that…neither has Bobby. I didn’t know what to say, when he asked me what I thought. I suppose I thought what he thinks, that she just didn’t care…that she didn’t love him,” Joe surmised.
“But you see it differently now?” Ben asked as he studied his son’s expression.
Joe gave his father a weak smile. “Yeah…and I feel sorta silly, too.”
“For thinking that you were about to…Pa…why were you sending me to the Devlins?” Joe asked, suddenly realizing that he had no real clue, other than what he thought he had overheard.
Ben chuckled. “Joseph, why do I always send you to the Devlins? Because I was going out of town on business…”
Joe’s eyes brightened. “Was?”
Ben pulled Joe back into an embrace and held his son close to his heart. “Was…I’ve changed my mind…I think I’ll let one of your brothers handle it, I think I’d rather stay at home…with you,” laughed Ben. His arms tightened around the boy. “I love you, Joe…please don’t ever think I could stop, because I couldn’t, even if I wanted too. And I don’t.”
Joe nestled against his father’s broad chest, feeling relieved at long last. “I love you, too, Pa…and I’m…”
“Don’t say it, Little Joe…you had a right to feel afraid. You just had the wrong reasons for feeling as such. But do you understand now, about Lacy and Bobby?” Ben asked, glancing down at Joe.
“Yessir…and the next time Bobby asks me, I’ll know what to tell him,” smiled Joe.
“And what will that be?” inquired Ben.
“That his mother loved him, more than anything else in the world…and I’ll tell him something else, too, Pa.”
Ben looked puzzled for a moment. “And what might that be?” he asked.
“I’m gonna tell him, that it’s okay for him to love her back…and that he shouldn’t hold it against her for making sure he had a happy life. And I’m gonna make sure that he understands that a mother’s love is something that neither time nor distance can destroy, it lasts a lifetime…and beyond, like my ma’s love. Sometimes, Pa…when I’m up at the lake and it’s just her and me…I can feel her love, its like her arms wrapped all about me, keeping me warm and safe.”
Joe raised his head and smiled at his father. “Bobby’s lucky, you know that, Pa…luckier than most, even me?”
“How so, son?” Ben asked, his voice thick with emotion.
“He has two mothers that love him, in different ways, but for all the right reasons,” Joe whispered.
Ben’s throat grew thick and he was unable to speak for several minutes. He and Joe sat amid the hay, unconcerned of the world around them. The boy leaned against his father, secure in his father’s arms, basking in the memory of a mother’s love.
“I wish this day would never end, Pa,” Joe whispered, snuggling, if possible, deeper into his father’s embrace.
“Me either, son…me either.”