Word Count: 8859
Adam strummed lightly on his guitar while Ben watched from the red chair where he sat. Hoss was perched on the settee with his head leaned back against the headrest. Little Joe was sitting on the hearth with his elbows propped on his knees and his chin resting in his open hands. He sighed deeply, drawing his father’s attention.
Ben casually glanced at his youngest son and noted the sad expression in the hazel eyes. For several long moments, while the soft music played in the background, Ben kept his dark eyes focused on Joe’s expression.
Adam swept his long slender fingers down the strings one final time and the music stopped.
“How was that?” he asked.
Ben smiled at Adam and nodded his head.
“That was very nice, Adam. Is that a new song?”
“Yes, I heard it while I was down in Mexico and liked the tune. I picked it out from memory,” Adam explained in a tone that was void of any bragging.
“Well, you certainly did a good job,” Ben praised. “Joe, did you like it?” Ben asked while turning his attention to the boy who seemed lost in thought.
Joe raised his head, letting his wind escaped slowly from his lungs. He glanced at his father for a brief moment and then turned to Adam.
“It was sorta sad…but nice,” Joe said without any expression resounding in his tone. “Pa, I think I’m going to turn in; I’m bushed,” Joe said, standing to his feet and stretching. He covered his mouth to stifle a yawn.
Ben seemed surprised for it was the third night in a row that Joe had used the same excuse.
“Son, are you sure you’re feeling well? You’ve been to bed early every night this week…that isn’t like you at all.”
Joe stopped, twisting up his lips in a smirk. “I’m fine…honest Pa…I’m just tired, that’s all. Can I be excused?” His tone was almost pleading.
“Certainly; I’ll be up shortly to say good night,” Ben said.
“Night Pa, night Adam, night Hoss,” Joe called over his shoulder as he slowly began to climb the stairs.
“Night Joe,” Adam called, watching his father watch Joe’s retreating back.
“Sleep well, short shanks,” Hoss called as he finally raised his head.
He noted Ben’s expression and couldn’t help but follow Ben’s gaze. Hoss turned to look up, just as Joe rounded the corner of the hall and disappeared out of sight.
“What’s with him?” Adam said, drawing Ben’s attention from the top of the stairs.
“Yeah, Joe ain’t been him self for better’n a week now,” Hoss added.
Ben sighed deeply and shook his head. He picked up his pipe and prepared it for a smoke.
“I don’t know. He’s been unusually quite and somewhat withdrawn. It makes me think that he’s got something on his mind that’s bothering him. Has he said anything to either of you?” Ben questioned.
“No…in fact, he’s hardly said more than a few words to me,” Adam commented.
“He ain’t said much to me either. Fact is…it’s sorta been nice, not havin’ the kid yappin’ ‘bout somethin’ all the time,” chuckled Hoss.
“I’ll agree with that,” Adam said in a soft voice but then was quick to add, “Still, it’s not like Joe. Pa, do you want me to talk to him…maybe see if he’ll tell me what’s going on?”
Ben took a long drag on his pipe and gently blew the smoke from his lungs. “I’ll have a word with him later. If he doesn’t open up, then I’ll let you have a go at it.”
Ben got to his feet. “Guess I’d better go say good night. If he’s as tired as he claims, he’ll be asleep before his head hits the pillow,” Ben said with a smile as he headed for his youngest son’s room.
Ben was right in his thinking; by the time he’d made it to Joe’s room, Joe was curled into a ball sleeping. The covers had already been kicked to the foot of the bed where over half lay in a pile on the floor. Ben smiled at the sight and gathered the disarrayed blankets from the floor and spread them smoothly atop the boy. Joe turned over and settled himself, stretching out beneath the warmth of the covers.
Ben leaned down and softly placed a kiss atop Joe’s mass of unruly curls and then turned, pausing long enough to lower the wick in the lamp before quietly closing the door behind him.
By the next morning, Joe seemed much like his former self as he slid into his place at the table. He turned to his father and smiled.
“Morning Pa…morning Hoss, hey Adam,” he greeted each one by name.
Adam cast a sideways glance at Hoss and then returned the greeting.
“’Bout time you got up,” he grinned.
“Yeah short shanks, what’s with ya…first to bed last night, last to the table this mornin’,” chuckled Hoss.
“All right boys, leave your brother alone,” smiled Ben the minute he saw Joe’s smile leave his face. “Joseph, you will need to hurry a little, I don’t want you late for school this morning.”
“All right Pa,” Joe smiled weakly as he glanced at his brothers.
Joe turned his attention back to his father who was just finishing his coffee.
“Pa…you did mean what you said…the other day, right? I mean…you won’t go back on your word, will you?” Joe asked hesitantly.
Ben lowered his head slightly as he glanced at Hoss and then Adam. He tried not to smile when he looked up and saw the large hazel eyes watching his face.
“That depends, son; just what did I promise you? I don’t remember making a promise,” Ben said.
“PA!” stammered Joe, causing his brothers to burst out laughing. Joe turned angry eyes their way. “Shut up!” he shouted, his anger apparent on his young face.
“Joseph! That will be enough!” Ben snapped, placing his coffee cup down so that it clanged lightly with the china saucer. “There’s no need for that tone of voice!”
“Make them stop laughing at me!” growled Joe as he shoved back his chair. “They’re just like everyone else…always making fun of me!” he barked as he turned on his heels and headed for the door.
“Joseph…you stop right there, young man, and get back here!” ordered Ben, giving Hoss and Adam a dark, warning look.
They had stopped their laughing and were staring in wonder at their younger brother. Joe paused in his tracks but refused to turn around and face his father who by this time had rounded the corner of the table and stood slightly behind the younger boy.
“Joseph, turn around…please,” Ben issued in a milder tone.
Joe gulped and slowly did as his father had asked. He stood before Ben with his head low, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill forth.
Ben gently guided Joe’s chin upward. He was surprised to see the anger had vanished and had been replaced with a sad, downcast expression. His heart softened at the sight of his son’s unhappy countenance.
“Would you please explain this sudden outburst of anger?” Ben said calmly.
Joe’s eyes sought his father’s face. Seeing that the anger was no longer present, Joe swallowed.
“Them…they’re always making fun of me…I hate it,” Joe said barely above a whisper. He swallowed again, hoping to remove the thickness in his throat. “They treat me like I was a little boy…and I’m not.”
Ben smiled slightly at Joe. “No…you are not a little boy, but sometimes, such as now, you act like a little boy…”
Joe’s face twisted into a frown and he pulled away from the hand that so gently cupped his chin. He took a step or two backward, swallowing away the sudden hurt that had washed over him. He had expected his father to take up for him, but Ben’s words had only added to his growing disappointment in his family.
“Joseph,” Ben said quickly, knowing that he had caused the sudden change in his son’s expression. “Joe…why don’t you tell me what is going on? I know something has been bothering you?”
Adam and Hoss had quietly gotten up from the table and were standing slightly behind their father.
Joe glanced over his father’s shoulders at his brothers and frowned. “I dun told ya,” he said, pointing at Adam and Hoss. “Them…”
Adam moved to his father’s side and glanced at Ben and then again at Joe. “We didn’t mean anything, Joe…for heaven’s sake, we were just teasing you and…”
Joe’s chin began to quiver and he feared he might cry. His anger rose again as he glared at his oldest brother.
“That’s just it…I’m sick of your teasing, I’m sick of always being the butt of your jokes…and I’m sick of…you!” he practically shouted as he turned and ran from the house.
Ben stood in shocked silence at the outburst until the sound of the slamming door woke him from his stupor.
“Why that little…” he bellowed but stopped when Adam placed his hand on his arm.
“Pa…Joe’s right, I suppose Hoss and I have been ragging the boy more than usual. I’m sorry, I’ll talk to him and apologize,” Adam promised.
“Yeah, me too, Pa. We didn’t mean nuthin’ by it, heck…we was just funnin’ with’em…it never seemed to bother him before,” Hoss said humbly.
Ben let out a long sigh. “No, most times he just takes it in stride.” Ben turned to face both boys. “Something else is eating at him, your teasing him has nothing to do with the real problem.”
“Maybe he’ll open up to me…I think I’ll meet him after school and ride home with him,” Adam suggested. “Right now I have work to do.” Adam started to put on his gun and holster. Hoss did the same.
“Pa…about that promise you made to Joe…are you still going to let him quit school after this term?”
Ben pinched his lips tightly and shook his head. “I was going too…but when he acts like this, I’m not sure if I should or not…”
“Aw Pa, ya cain’t go back on your word…” began Hoss.
“I have no intention of breaking my promise, Hoss. Joe is more than ready to take on the responsibilities of working full time on this ranch. It’s just that at times, I’m not sure of his maturity in handling his temper.” Ben chuckled softly. “He’s so much like his mother…she had a temper too, you know,” smiled Ben, remembering.
Adam glanced at Hoss and smiled. “I remember Pa.”
“So do I…barely,” Hoss grinned.
“Well, you boys get to work…Adam, I think it’s a good idea you meeting your brother after school; thank you…and good luck. I have to ride over to Carson City and I won’t be home until about time for school to let out.”
“Sure thing, Pa…we’ll see you tonight, come on Hoss,” Adam said as he headed out the door.
Joe pulled his mount to a halt in front of the schoolhouse. He was earlier than on most mornings and the yard was empty of any other children. Joe led Cochise to the small stable where they kept their horses during the school hours and began to remove his saddle.
“Well, what’ll know…there’s the little twerp,” laughed a voice from the dark corner of the stable.
Joe spun around, startled, thinking that he was alone in the dark little barn. He instantly recognized the familiar voice and inside, his stomach started churning. There was no doubt in his mind that he was facing a showdown, for he had been warned.
“I thought we told ya not to come back…we don’t want ya kind here,” growled the other boy as he emerged from the shadows. He was joined, on either side, by two more boys who were both larger built than Joe was.
“My kind,” snapped Joe, spacing himself from the trio. “Just what is my kind?”
Joe knew he was bargaining for a fight, but he didn’t really care. For weeks now, these same three boys had deemed it their right to make his life miserable and Joe was to the point of wanting the matter settled, one way or the other.
His father had promised him that if he finished the year with good grades, he could quit school and work full time on the ranch with his brothers. Joe had been more than pleased with the idea, for it was no secret that he hated school, unlike his brother Adam, who had always loved going, so much so that he had left home for three years to go back east to college. Joe had missed his brother, almost to the point of becoming angry with Adam for going away. Joe could not fully understand his brother’s longing for knowledge, for Joe’s only desire was to live his life peacefully, on the Ponderosa and become one of the best horsemen around.
The only things standing in his way were the three young men who stood before him. The three were brothers, full brothers, not half-brothers such as he and Hoss and Adam were. The three had recently moved into the area and had started school, mid-way of the term. They had singled Joe out the first day. Once they learned who he was, who his family was and learned the known facts about their lives, the three had since that day, tried to make Joe’s life a living hell.
Dan, Bobby, and Cody were seventeen, sixteen, and fifteen, respectfully. They were bigger built, more muscular, and all three had bad attitudes, which warranted them the respect of the other boys in the class. The trio was a force to reckon with, and everyone else gave them their space, avoiding them at all cost, except Joe, who refused to be bullied by either one or all of them.
“Ya know what you’re kind is, Cartwright,” smirked Dan, the oldest of the brothers. “Ya nothin’ more than a half-breed…ya pa’s a dirty blue-bellied Yankee and your ma was nothin’ but a French-Creole whore…everyone in town knows…”
Dan’s words were cut short by the left hook that shattered his nose. Blood spurted outward and covered the front of the boy’s shirt. Dan fell backwards, screaming out in pain at his brothers.
“Get’em,” he screeched.
Bobby and Cody jumped Joe, knocking him to the ground by the weight of their bodies. Joe groaned when he hit the ground, feeling the wind knocked from his lungs as he did so. Fists began pounding him, striking him on all parts of his body. He turned trying to protect himself, unable to fight back as the onslaught of bombarding fists hammered away at his flesh.
Dan had managed to stagger to his feet and had joined his brothers. The toe of his boot connected with Joe’s ribs and Joe cried out, feeling the bones snap in his ribcage. His stomach took the next kick forcing Joe to curl into a ball as his arms folded tightly around his middle and leaving his sides open for more abuse.
Joe heard the brothers’ laughter and felt the solid punch to his kidneys as Cody stood to his feet. Bobby still straddled Joe, leaning his head low to Joe’s ear so that his words could not be mistaken.
“Go home half-breed, go back to that half-family ya half of!” laughed Bobby. “Half Yankee, half whore, half-brothers…hell, ya ain’t more than half of nuthin, and ya’ll never be more than half a man!”
Bobby stood to his feet and grinned at his older brother, Dan.
“Ya heard us, Cartwright…go home and if’n ya smart, ya’ll not show ya face around here again. Stay away from this here school, ya place is back on that ranch of your pa’s, working like a hired hand. Ya got no need for education, ya too dumb to learn…just like that half-wit brother…what’s his name…Horse?” snickered Dan.
Joe, who still lay in a heap on the ground, turned his head sideways, glaring at the trio. “Someday, I’ll make you eat those words,” he groaned.
The three burst out laughing. “Sure Cartwright, when ya think ya man enough, look me up, I won’t be hard to find.”
Dan turned to his brothers, “Come on, we don’t wanna be late for class,” he snickered as he wiped the drying blood from his face with the handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket.
The three turned and left Joe to himself. Joe waited until he was alone in the stable and slowly staggered to his feet. He leaned heavily onto the post nearest him and moaning softly turned to his horse. Joe guided Cochise from the stall where he had just stabled the horse and led his mount out into the bright morning sun. Painfully, Joe mounted up, noting that the schoolyard had begun to fill with children. He turned his mount toward home and kicked gently at Cochise’s sides. The school bell rang, but Joe did not look back. He had to get away, not only did his aching body need rest, so did his weary mind. Halfway home, Joe turned toward the lake, seeking solitude in the only place he knew that would bring peace to his troubled soul, his mother’s resting-place.
Joe tied Cochise’s reins to a nearby tree and clutching his stomach, slowly made his way over to Marie’s grave. Carefully, Joe squatted down, running his hand lovingly over the large headstone. His fingers gently traced the lettering that spelled out Marie’s name. Tears blinded his vision as Joe lowered his head. Slowly, a lone tear made its way down the front of Joe’s dirt smeared face and dropped onto his knee, leaving a tiny circle of dampness of his trouser leg.
Joe settled himself on the ground, his back resting against the side of the massive rock. He sighed, wiped the tears from his face and leaned his head back, closing his eyes as he sucked in a gulp of air.
“Why Mama…why do they hate you so? They didn’t even know you…yet they judge you…it ain’t right,” whispered Joe softly.
Joe opened his eyes, looking out at the grandeur of the lake and noting how blue the water was. “It’s beautiful up here…no wonder this was always your favorite place,” sighed Joe. “It’s mine, too.”
Joe turned to look at the headstone, his eyes beading with water again.
“You were no whore…you were a warm, wonderful, beautiful person…Pa told me all about you. I have trouble sometimes, remembering you…I look at your picture at times, when I want to remember your face. And Adam and Hoss, they tell me things about you…things you’ve said to make them laugh, and things you’ve said and done for me, for them and Pa. They always tell me how much they loved ya, and how much ya loved them, as if they had been born to ya, like I was. And Pa always reminds me how much ya loved me.”
A sob caught in Joe’s throat and he swallowed it away, sniffing his nose. “I wouldn’t have cared what ya were before ya met Pa and married him. I’d of love ya, no matter what…just like Pa and Adam and Hoss loved ya.”
Joe stood to his feet and walked off a few paces, turning to face the headstone.
“I ain’t never been ashamed of ya, Mama…honest…and I ain’t never been ashamed of who or what I was. But Dan and his brothers have a way of making me wish that I was…was…”
“Was what Joe?”
Joe spun around, startled to see his oldest brother standing just yards from him. He watched in silence as Adam tethered his horse and moved closer, coming to stand side by side with him. Adam gazed down at the headstone and then glanced at Joe.
“I went by school, but they said you didn’t show up today…”
“I went…I just didn’t stay,” said Joe softly as he moved slightly away from Adam and turned his back to his brother. “How’d ya know I’d be here?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“I guessed. Mitch said he saw you riding away this morning, and said you looked as if you’d been in a fight, so I just figured you’d come here,” Adam said, gently placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder.
Joe flinched as if he’d been struck and stepped away from the tender touch. He turned so that he could see Adam’s face.
“I didn’t start anything, if that’s what you’re thinking,” muttered Joe.
“I wasn’t thinking anything of the sorts,” Adam assured his brother.
“Oh…well, I just thought…”
“Joe,” smiled Adam as he turned to retrieve his canteen from his saddle. “Why don’t you come over here and let me clean up you’re face. Looks as if you’ve been wallowing in the dirt.”
Adam untied his neckerchief and waited for Joe. He motioned toward a large boulder and when Joe had settled himself, Adam dampened the cloth and carefully began wiping away the dried blood and dirt from his brother’s face.
For several moments neither said a word.
“They said I was half of nothing,” Joe said in a whispered voice. He wrinkled up his face as Adam wiped carefully at the cut above his left eye.
“The Dawson brothers, Dan, Bobby and Cody…they said I was half of nothing. For whatever reason, they hate me…they said that Pa was a…a…” Joe paused and looked up at Adam with sad eyes that begged for understanding.
“That Pa was what, Joe?”
“A dirty, blue-bellied Yankee,” Joe murmured.
Anger momentarily flickered across Adam’s expression, but he was quick to mask it. “Well…truth is, Pa is a Yankee Joe, for that matter, so am I,” Adam smiled.
“I know that…but it’s the way they said it, as if it were something to be ashamed of…and…that ain’t all they said,” Joe stammered, looking away. “They said things…about…her.” He nodded his head toward the grave.
“Your mother? What could they know about Marie?” Adam asked, somewhat surprised that the new boys, in town, would know anything negative to say about his father’s third wife, and Joe’s mother.
Joe looked away, not trusting himself, for he felt the tears burn his eyes. Quickly he wiped them away with the sleeve of his shirt and turned back to Adam, though he could not meet the dark eyes.
“They called her a whore…a French Creole whore,” he sputtered, lowering his head as the tiny beads of water rolled gently and silently down his face.
Adam felt as if the wind had been knocked from him. He hurried to Joe’s side and slipping his arms about the trembling shoulders, pulled the boy into his embrace. Adam swallowed hard, his anger rising at the ones who had caused such misery and hurt in his brother.
“You know better than that, Joe…Marie was a…”
“I know what she was, Adam…but knowing that other people think she was…was a…well, it hurts…even if it ain’t so,” stammered Joe, allowing himself the comfort of his brother’s embrace.
“Yes, it does hurt. And if that’s what this fight was about…then I can’t say I blame you for taking a swing at those three,” Adam whispered.
He gently forced Joe back enough that he could see his brother’s face. He smiled slightly.
“You did get in at least one good punch, I hope?”
Joe found it impossible not to smile. “One…only one, but it was good. I think I broke Dan’s nose.”
Adam’s brows rose slightly and he fought to control his amusement. “Pa’s not going to like it, you know; your fighting, I mean.”
Joe lowered his head. “I know…he’ll probably thrash me,” Joe muttered in a low voice. He glanced again at Adam. “I couldn’t help it…there was no way I was going to stand there and let them call my mother names. I could care less what they say about me, but…”
“What did they say about you, Joe?”
Joe puckered up his lips, fighting to control his quivering chin.
“They said I was a half-breed, half of nothing. They even called Hoss a half-wit…how can they be so mean, Adam, they don’t even know us?” Joe said as he turned and knelt down in front of Marie’s grave.
Adam watched the sadness wash over his younger brother and he knelt down next to Joe, placing his hand on his brother’s back.
“Ignorance, Joe. When people don’t try to understand others, they’re ignorant. They are short sighted, they become handicapped in their way of thinking and in the way they treat others. Joe,” Adam said, turning his brother so that Joe would have to look at him.
“Your mother was a beautiful woman, not just in looks, but inside, in her heart. She was from a part of the country that few people understand; she lived a different type of life than most any woman around here. They were jealous of her, they envied her and those that chose not to get to know her, allowed their ignorance to rule their views of her. Marie had only a handful of friends, mostly men, which only added to the women’s dislike of her. But she was happy Joe, happy and very much in love with our father. She worshipped the ground Pa walked on, and she was good to Hoss and I, she loved us very much. And when you were born, why…I’ve never, to this day, seen a woman happier than what Marie was. She loved you Joe; please, never doubt that. Regardless of what the world thought of Marie Cartwright, she never let those thoughts or unkindness’ damper what she felt in her heart for her family. And we were a family Joe. We still are, thanks to your mother.”
“Pa, Hoss and I were like three sailors lost at sea until your mother happened along. Oh sure, I resented her in the beginning; unlike Hoss who to took to her kindness and love practically from the moment she stepped into the house. But I learned to love her Joe; she was as much my mother, and Hoss’ mother, as she was yours. She made our lives complete, and she never gave in to the harsh words of others, that I know must have hurt her deeply.”
Adam gently took hold of Joe’s shoulders and eased him to his feet. He smiled down at the tear-dampened face.
“Don’t you give in either. Marie wouldn’t want you too. She’d say to you, ‘son, it takes a bigger man to turn and walk away’.”
“But they called her a whore, Adam…”
“They called her many things, Joe…to her face and behind her back. Yet she rose above them all, and she’d want you to do the same.”
Joe looked Adam squarely in the eyes. “But it’s so hard.”
“Yes…I know, buddy. I’ve had to swallow my anger many times myself…for the same reasons that caused you to fight, today. I’ve been called coward by a few, chicken and been told I was yellow by others. But, as Pa says, you can’t settle everything with just your fists…or with a gun.”
“Then how…and don’t tell me to ignore them…I’ve tried that, and believe me…it doesn’t work with those three,” grumbled Joe, moving to sit back down on the rock. He lowered his head, lost in thought.
After several minutes of silence, he turned again to Adam. “They told me not to come back to school. They said that they didn’t want me there.”
Joe rose and went to stand before Adam. “What am I going to do? If I don’t finish this year with good grades, then Pa won’t let me quit school…and I want too, I want to work with you and Hoss and Pa.”
Adam placed both hands on Joe’s shoulders and tightened his lips, silently praying that he was doing the right thing.
“What do you think, you should do?” he asked softly. He saw his brother gulp.
“Go back?” Joe practically whispered.
“That’s what I would do…but then, you aren’t me,” Adam answered just as softly.
“No, I ain’t you…but I am your brother…and I am a Cartwright,” smiled Joe. He hesitated slightly before continuing. “Will ya go with me?” he asked.
“Do you really want me too…I mean, do you want them seeing you riding in with your…Yankee…brother?”
Joe lowered his head, shaking it from side to side. “Not really,” he said and then smiled up at Adam. I’ll go back…and I’ll stay, no matter what,” he promised in a determined voice.
Joe giggled softly as he turned to his horse. “How about if ya ride into town a little after I do, and have Doc Martin ready? I have a feeling I’m going to need him by the end of the day,” he smiled.
“Alright Joe, I’ll be about ten minutes behind you. And no matter what happens, I’ll be around, but this is something you’ll have to settle for yourself. Just take them one at a time…if possible,” offered Adam.
“I’ll try, but I can’t promise,” smiled Joe as he mounted up and turned his horse back toward the school. “Adam…about this morning…I’m sorry I lost my temper.”
Adam laughed as he placed his hand on his brother’s knee. “Forget it, Little Joe; I’m sorry for always teasing you. I only do it cause…I…I…”
“I know Adam, ya don’t gotta say it,” giggled Joe. “Cause…I…I…love ya too.”
Joe spurred his mount into a run and disappeared before Adam had a chance to respond.
Joe entered the schoolyard at a slow pace. The last of the children were just entering the building by the time that Joe dismounted and started slowly for the door. He paused just before entering and let the wind free from his lungs.
When he entered the room, the entire class stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at him. Joe gulped; Miss Jones turned as well, and eyed him from head to toe.
“Joseph, I hope you have good reason to have missed the first part of class,” she said in an agitated tone.
Joe slipped quietly into his seat, noting the daring looks from his attackers. He ignored them and focused his attention back to the teacher.
“Yes ma’am, I was caught up in a fight, and I had to stop long enough to clean up before coming in,” he explained honestly.
“A fight?” stammered Miss Jones.
Her eyes moved swiftly to Dan’s nose and then returned to the youngest Cartwright. “
Very well…but I shall be sending a note home to your father, explaining your tardiness,” she said sternly.
“Yes, ma’am…I figured ya would.”
Joe was right too, by the end of the day, Miss Jones had the note ready and she did not hesitate to place it on the desk in front of him just before dismissing class for the day. He looked up at the teacher, surprised to see the slight smile on her face.
“I sent a note home with Dan too…just so you’d know,” she whispered and then surprised Joe further by placing a hand on his shoulder as she turned to the class.
“Class dismissed,” she said in a clear voice.
Joe rose slowly from his seat, taking the note and shoving it into his shirt pocket. He glanced at Miss Jones.
“Be careful going home, Joseph…the way I see it, it’s three to one,” she cautioned.
Joe smiled, amazed that his teacher would be so concerned; for he had it in his head that Miss Jones didn’t like him much.
“Yes ma’am…I promise to watch my back.”
Joe thought about telling her not to worry, Adam had promised to meet him but thought better of it. Any mention of his brother’s name would spike too much interest from the teacher, and Joe had no heart to cause Adam any embarrassment. He smiled again and took his leave.
Once outside, Joe paused to look around for Adam. He was nowhere to be seen. Joe gulped and swallowed his disappointment as he slowly made his way to his horse. Cochise snorted softly at his approach. Joe smiled at the horse and gently rubbed the velvety nose.
“Guess it just you and me, Pal,” he muttered, untying the reins from where he had looped them around the branch.
Joe turned to swing up into the saddle but as he did so, he felt his body being spun around and slung to the ground. He groaned as his body made contact with the hard packed earth. Pain from his aching ribs surged through his body, limiting his reaction time.
Dan reached down and grabbed Joe’s arm, roughly yanking the boy to his feet. Joe turned just in time to see the fist aimed at his face. He managed to duck clear but in so doing, lost his balance and stumbled forward, straight into the waiting arms of Dan’s two brothers.
Bobby and Cody each made a grab for Joe, taking him by the arms and holding him so that he could not break free. Dan laughed as he swung out his fist, punching Joe in the abdomen. Joe’s body lurched forward but instantly the two on either side of him hauled him upright. Dan punched Joe again in the stomach and when Joe’s head fell forward, Dan punched Joe in the face, causing Joe’s head to snap back.
Dan swung back to punch Joe a third time but was caught off guard when he felt a hand tighten about his arm. Dan jerked around startled to find Adam clutching tightly to his arm, instantly he relaxed his fist. Bobby and Cody dropped their hands, letting Joe slump to the ground.
“If you want to fight my brother, then do it fairly…one at a time,” warned Adam, “or else deal with me.”
Adam almost laughed when he saw Dan’s eyes widen and then heard him gulp.
“Ya mean…ya goin’ to let him fight us?” stammered Dan.
“That’s what you’re wanting isn’t it, or did you think you needed your brothers in order to take Joe?” smirked Adam.
“I can take the little twerp, any day…I don’t need my brothers,” Dan said, grinning and rubbing his opened hand over the fist he had made with his other hand.
He walked over to where Joe was slowly getting to his feet. “Come on Cartwright…I can take ya any day…I don’t need…”
Dan never got to finish his sentence. Joe, half bent over, charged the bigger boy, driving his head into the other boy’s stomach. Adam heard Dan’s loud groan as he and Joe hit the ground and began rolling around.
He watched as Dan managed to gain the advantage and deliver several hard blows to Joe’s face and stomach. Adam almost stepped in as the blood spewed from his brother’s nose but stopped just as Joe flipped the larger boy onto the ground. Joe swapped several punches with Dan and then suddenly found himself being flipped through the air. Quickly, Joe staggered to his feet and when Dan charged him, Joe stepped aside, allowing Dan to tumble over his own feet and into the dirt.
Dan spun around, jumping to his feet and ran at Joe. Joe met the oncoming fury with a solid punch to the boy’s chin. Dazed, Dan froze and then staggered backward and then falling into the arms of his brothers. They gently lowered the older boy to the ground, where Dan slipped into unconsciousness.
Bobby glanced worriedly at Cody and then down at his brother.
“Come on, Bobby…I ain’t finished yet…now is the time if ya want some of me, come get it!” challenged Joe, with a crooked grin.
Bobby hesitated, not sure of what he wanted to do.
“Either fight me now, or leave me alone…for good,” urged Joe, who was still aching to fight all three.
Bobby lowered his head in submission. He glanced sideways at Joe. “Ain’t nobody ever bested Dan…I reckon ya proved ya point Cartwright. Ya won’t hear from me again.”
“Or me either…Joe,” Cody added in a soft voice.
Adam walked to his horse and grabbed his canteen, returning to pour the cool water into Dan’s face. Dan sputtered as he regained his senses. Bobby and Cody helped their brother to his feet. Dan wiped the water from his face and glared at Joe.
“I could’ve taken ya…” he spouted and then turned, shaking himself free of his brothers’ hands, which were trying to help him. He slowly made his way to his horse and mounted up, turning toward town. “There’ll be another day, kid…another day.”
Joe and Adam stood together and watched the three brothers ride away. When they were gone, Joe looked up at Adam.
“Where were you?” he demanded.
“I’m sorry Joe, but I got tied up in town. I got here right as Dan jerked you from your horse. I was going to stop him, but then thought I’d let you take him first…”
“Gee thanks, his brothers didn’t quite make it a fair match you know,” grumbled Joe, wiping the oozing blood from under his nose.
“I’m sorry Joe…”
Joe snickered, “Forget it, big brother. It was worth the punches just to see the look on that kid’s face when you grabbed his arm. For a minute he thought you were going to hit him!”
“I almost did…I sure wanted too, but then it suddenly dawned on me, he’s just a kid…If I had hit him, I’d most likely be in jail right now,” smiled Adam.
“Ha, that wouldn’t have gone over very well with Pa,” giggled Joe.
“No…but neither is your face…you should see it,” laughed Adam.
“I don’t have to see it, Adam…I can feel it…and it hurts like blazes. So does my stomach…I think I cracked a couple of ribs,” Joe said as the pain unexpectedly washed over him.
He stood at his horse’s side, his hands in place to mount, but his movements were slow.
“I don’t feel so good, Adam,” moaned Joe and lowered his head, resting against the stirrup.
Adam quickly rounded Joe’s horse and placed both hands on Joe’s shoulder, turning the boy slowly.
“Let’s get you over to the doc’s; he can patch you up before we go home. Think you can walk?”
“Yeah, if ya let me lean against ya,” Joe said.
Adam smiled as he gently pulled Joe close to him and slipped his arm about Joe, letting Joe lean heavily on him. Slowly Adam led Joe the short distance from the school to the doctor’s office.
“Adam,” called out Paul Martin when he saw Adam, leading Joe inside. “What in the world?” he proclaimed as he motioned to the small table where he examined most of his patients.
The kind doctor leaned over as Joe stretched out on the table.
“Let me guess,” he grinned at Adam. “Another fight? Joseph, when are you ever going to stop trying to settle matters with your fists?” teased Paul lightly.
Feeling the discomfort growing, Joe closed his eyes and refused to answer the question. His thoughts were more prone to what his father would say once he got home and Ben saw the bruises and scraps on his face.
“He had no choice this time, Doc,” Adam was quick to come to Joe’s defense. “It was rather poor odds, three against one,” he explained. “So I had to even it up some, and let Joe fight them one at a time.”
“I did too,” moaned Joe.
Paul finished his exam, glancing over at Adam who stood nearby. “I’m going to have to bind these ribs, Adam. There’s a couple cracked,” he explained.
“I figured as much,” Adam said, looking down to see the tears swell in his brother’s eyes. “Sorry Joe…”
Joe pinched his lips tightly, willing away the tears from his eyes. “Well, at least Pa won’t take a strap to me…for a few weeks, anyway,” he said with a forced smile.
“Joe, you know as well as I, Pa don’t punish you like that any more,” laughed Adam.
“No, it’s worse, he just locks me in my room and feeds me bread and water,” groaned Joe.
Paul couldn’t help but laugh. “Joseph, you do have a vivid imagination…Ben Cartwright would never starve one of his sons, for any reason!”
The ribs bound, Paul handed some powders to Adam with instructions on how to give them.
“Wait until you get Joe home Adam, otherwise, he’ll be asleep in the saddle. And I sure don’t want him falling from his horse. Tell your father Joe will be fine in a few days; just keep him in bed until I come out one day next week to check on him.”
“Sure Doc, and thanks,” smiled Adam as he joined Joe outside. He helped Joe to mount up and reached for Sport’s reins.
“Say Adam…who won?” Paul questioned, grinning at Joe.
“I’m not sure…I think it was a draw…but Little Joe proved his point.”
The minute that Ben saw his youngest son’s face, Joe was ushered off to bed and given one of the pain powders. He tucked the blanket around Joe’s form and leaned down, brushing back a fallen lock of chestnut hair.
“You try to rest Joseph, I’ll be back to check in on you later. I want to have a word with your brother,” smiled Ben assuredly.
“Pa…wait,” Joe called before Ben could leave. “I have to explain something…”
“Not now son, you rest and we’ll talk later…”
“But Pa…” Joe felt the quivering of his chin. “I had to fight…they…said things,” his voice faltered, remembering the cruel things that Dan and his brothers had said about his mother and father.
Ben returned to the bed and sat down next to Joe. He took one look at the quivering chin and knew that whatever Joe had to say he had to hear.
“What things, son?”
Ben watched as Joe struggled with his emotions. “Whatever they were, they must have hurt you deeply. Did they?”
Joe nodded his head. He looked into his father’s face and noted the love that reflected back at him through eyes that had always met his with a depth of warmth and love that had always astonished him.
“They called me names…Dan said I was nothing but a…half-breed…part Yankee, part French Creole…”
“Well, son…part of that is true…”
“I know Pa…Adam already explained it to me…you are a Yankee, and my mother was French Creole…”
“Then why the fight? Why not laugh it off and just walk away?” Ben questioned gently, unaware that behind him, Adam and Hoss stood, silently listening in the doorway.
“Because…they called her, a…a…” Joe gulped, looking away from the probing eyes that scrutinized his face.
“Whore,” he whispered.
There was a long silence that filled the room. Joe chanced a look into his father’s face, surprised to see both the hurt and anger mixed into one.
“I’m sorry…Pa…I didn’t mean to…hurt you,” he whispered, tears filling his eyes.
Ben swallowed the anger and smiled at Joe. “You didn’t hurt me, son…I’ve heard it all before. It’s just that it surprises me that it’s still being said. Your mother’s been gone nearly ten years; I would have thought that by now, everyone would have forgotten the gossip. I suppose I was wrong to think that,” Ben said, his voice filled with emotion.
He smiled again at Joe and tenderly caressed his son’s cheek. “I hope you know Joe, that it’s all lies…your mother was nothing of the sorts,” Ben informed his son.
“Don’t you think I know that, Pa?” Joe said. “I wouldn’t have care if she had been, she was my mother, regardless of what anyone says…I owe her my life…and I…I…”
Joe’s reserve broke as his father pulled him into his arms and held him close.
“Why do they have to be so mean, Pa…they didn’t even know her? They said I was half of nothing, which made me the same as nothing. They said all of us were…”
Ben cradled Joe’s head against his heart and gently ran his fingers through the thick curls.
“Joe…forget what they said…it doesn’t matter in the least. I know it hurts…but we are what we are and we are who we are. We are a family…we’re all of one blood, bound together through mutual love and respect. You and Adam and Hoss may have different mothers, but that doesn’t make you half of nothing. It makes you a whole…it makes us a family, and isn’t that what counts…not whose mother’s who’s, but that I am your father and Adam and Hoss are your brothers, and we love one another. That’s everything son, it’s something that a lot of people cannot claim.”
“I never even thought about any of us being anything except family. I knew my mother was different than most of the ladies around here, but that never bothered me, until Dan and his brothers started making something out of it,” Joe said quietly. “Pa…my mother was everything to you, and to Hoss and Adam, wasn’t she?”
Ben squeezed Joe a little tighter, reassuring the boy of his love. “Yes son, she was everything I could have ever wanted in a wife, and everything Adam and Hoss could have longed for in a mother, why?”
Joe eased back from his father and smiled a bit. “Then that means that I’m not half of nothing, doesn’t it?”
Ben laughed lightly, pulling Joe to his breast once more.
“It means Joseph, that to your brothers and I, you are everything and you have all of everything…that’s important. You are all your brothers could wish for in a youngest brother and everything a father could ask for in a son. You are not half of anything, but rather the source that binds our family as a whole. Does that answer your question, young man?” smiled Ben.
“Yessir…but Pa…what if Dan and his brothers don’t leave me alone…what if I have to fight them again?” Joe looked up at his father.
“Let’s not bargain for trouble son. Besides, from the looks of your face, I’d sure hate to see the other young man’s face,” Ben chuckled. “I don’t condone fighting, though, young man…I only let this pass this time because I feel the boy deserved what he got.
Joe drew back from his father’s embrace and leaned against the pillows. He wiped dry his tears and forced a smile.
“Ya should’ve seen him hightailing it outta there,” laughed Joe. “He said I was only half a man…well, I guess I showed him, didn’t I Adam?”
“You sure did, sport,” replied Adam.
Ben looked up at his oldest son who had joined them. Ben forced himself to frown at his oldest son.
“You stood by and watched the whole thing and didn’t make any attempt to stop your brother from brawling like a common hoodlum?” Ben said in as stern a voice as he could muster.
Adam’s eyes grew wide and he glanced at his youngest brother.
“Pa…Adam couldn’t have stopped me…it was my doings. I had to stand up to Dan; otherwise he never would have stopped saying nasty things about my mother…and you. Adam did make them fight fair…and…”
Ben laughed out loud as he took in the expression on both Adam and Joe’s faces. He glanced up at Hoss and noted the worried look on his face as well.
“Boys, I was only teasing. Joe, I’ve lived long enough to know that there are times that a man has to stand up and fight. He has to do what a man has to do…and though I don’t approve of using one’s fists to solve one’s problems, I do know that there will always be times that arise when there is no other way to settle a dispute but to fight.”
Ben smiled at Joe, “I’m proud of you for defending your mother’s honor…and mine…but please promise me Joe, you’ll not make a habit out of it,” laughed Ben. “I’m getting too old for such shenanigans!”
“I promise Pa…and that’s a whole promise, not just half a promise!”
Joe finished the school term with honors, surprising both himself and his family. Pride shown in Ben’s eyes when Joe stepped up to the podium and accepted his diploma. Ben stood with the other parents, clapping loudly as Joe’s brothers cheered him on.
Joe looked out into the crowd and saw his father’s smiling face. He grinned back, winking at his father as he moved down the isle to join his family.
“I did it!” He beamed happily.
“You sure did, son…it’s an answer to prayer!” rejoiced Ben.
“Congratulations little brother,” smiled Adam, shaking Joe’s hand.
“Hey…good job, short shanks!”
“Hey…I’ve got an idea, why don’t we go over to the Silver Dollar and celebrate?” Joe suggested, giving his father a cheeky grin.
Joe started for the door, but was stopped by the pressure of hands on his shoulders.
“Oh no you don’t,” ordered Ben, guiding Joe toward their waiting horses. “Just because you’re out of school, doesn’t mean you’re old enough to start drinking,” laughed Ben with a serious look.
“Yeah, Hoss and I’ll go celebrate for you; you go home and get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow is a work day…and you’re gonna wish you was back in school when we get finished with you!” teased Adam.
Hoss slung his arm about Adam’s shoulder and grinned down at his little brother.
“Adam’s right, Joe…can’t give a whole day’s pay lessen ya do a whole day’s work…ain’t that right, Pa?”
“That right Hoss, but I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Joe doing anything half way…do I, son?” Ben asked as he turned to Joe with a knowing smile.
“Nope, it’s half of nothing and all of everything…I’ll earn my pay, just don’t the two of you stay out so late or drink so much, you can’t do your own jobs…come morning!” laughed Joe as he swung his horse around and started home.
Ben turned to Adam and Hoss with a stern look. “Joe’s right boys, don’t you stay out too late!” Ben took a couple of steps and started to mount his horse.
“By the way Adam…I didn’t see the Dawson brothers at the ceremony tonight…wonder where they were?” Ben asked.
Adam glanced at Hoss and then laughed.
“I think they’re half way to Kansas by now…Roy found out that their father was wanted for larceny and when he went out to arrest them, they must have gotten wind of it and they took off; they left half of what they owned,” laughed Adam.
“Larceny…what did the man steal?” Ben asked as he mounted Buck.
Hoss hew-hawed loudly, “Half a bottle of whiskey!”
“Roy was half out of his mind with anger when he got there and found out that Dawson’s own half-brother was the one pressing charges,” Adam chuckled.
Ben frowned at his laughing sons. “I get the picture…half of nothing is nothing. Now if you will excuse me, I’m sure that by now, Little Joe is half way home! Good bye!”
Ben kicked at Buck’s sides and as Buck broke into a run, Ben was half way tossed from his saddle. As he righted himself, his sons’ laughter rang in his ears.
He caught up with Joe, half way home, just as he had suspected. He reined Buck into a walk beside Joe and smiled at his son, happy to see the pleased expression on the boy’s face.
“I’m proud of you Joe,” Ben said after awhile.
“Thanks Pa, I half expected ya would be…”
Ben spurred Buck into a gallop, startling Joe. Joe urged his horse forward, yelling out in the process of catching up with his father.
“PA…WAIT UP…WAS IT SOMETHING I SAID?” shouted Joe, halfheartedly.