Little Joe shivered, he was cold, and he was wet too. Looking up from the depths of the old well where he had fallen, Little Joe watched the lightening as it flashed across the sky. Joe heard the rumble of the thunder as it boomed into the darkness of night and then his stomach rumbled as if trying to keep tempo with the thunder from above. Little Joe was hungry; he remembered he hadn’t eaten much breakfast and he had run off before noon. He had been so mad at both of his brothers that he had not even bothered to return home for his lunch and by now supper was long over.
Joe shivered again; it was pitch dark out now and terribly dark in the bottom of the old well. Joe was scared, he hated the dark and he hated being alone as he was now. He even hated his brothers for allowing this to happen to him.
Joe tried to move to a more comfortable position but the pain in his shoulder caused him to cry out. How he wished Pa would come to his rescue but that hope would be in vain. Pa had left two days ago for Sacramento and was not even aware that he was missing. Joe was wondering if Adam and Hoss had even noticed that he had not returned home. Of course they had he reasoned, and he hoped they were worried sick, it would serve them right for being so mean to him, thought Little Joe.
The thunder rumbled again and Little Joe looked up knowing that the lightening that would follow would brighten the night sky. That one flash of light brought a measure of comfort to the frightened boy. When the lightening flashed Little Joe was watching and could see the dark storm clouds that had continued to gather. Within minutes he could feel the cold raindrops hitting his face as they made their way to the bottom of the well. Instantly the heavens seemed to open and it was as if God on His throne was pouring out His wrath upon the young boy who sat trapped in the forgotten well.
Little Joe was not sure if he had actually been sleeping or had been unconscience, but when he woke he could see the sky was clear, and the storm had past with the coming of dawn. Joe tried to move his body but he was stiff and sore and he wanted to cry. Feeling sorry for himself, he allowed himself to do just that. Tears welled up in his green eyes and ran unchecked down his cheeks. How he longed for the comfort of his father’s arms. Even thinking about how angry he had been with his brothers, he would have welcomed the sight of one or both of them right now.
Thinking back to the morning before, Little Joe thought about the events that had led up to his anger that had been the cause of him running away. It had started three days earlier when his Pa had announced to the family that he had to go to Sacramento on business. Joe had begged to be allowed to go with his father but Ben had refused. He tried to explain to Little Joe that he would be attending several meetings and would not have the time to spend with him. This had angered the young boy and, when his tone of voice became loud and rude, his father had turned him over his knee and gave him a much-deserved spanking, angering the boy even more.
Why had Pa needed to go? He hated it when his father had to be away, he wouldn’t admit it, but it scared him. His mama had gone away and she had never come back. Would his pa do the same to him? The thought was more than he could bare and Joe drew his legs up to his chest and rested his head on his knees and cried again. “Oh Pa,” cried Joe to himself, “please, please, come home!”
And then there had been Adam, his oldest brother, who had been left in charge. Little Joe hated that Adam seemed to thrive on the fact that he could boss everyone around, himself included. Joe thought about the way his brother had so fiercely denied him being allowed to go with him to the logging camp yesterday morning when word arrived that Adam’s help was needed. No amount of pleading would persuade
Adam to change his mind. Adam had told him in no uncertain terms that the logging camp was no place for a ten year old little boy to be, the dangers were too great and Adam said that Pa would have a fit if he allowed such a thing. So again Little Joe had been left behind, feeling dejected and unloved. Everyone he cared about was either gone or too busy to have time for him.
Little Joe then went into the kitchen to help Hop Sing with the day’s baking, but after being there only a short time, he was ordered out of the kitchen by the enraged cook. He had somehow managed to drop the eggs, breaking several and had also spilled the container of milk that had been left sitting on the table. Hop Sing began yelling at him in his native tongue and insisted that Little Joe go out side to play. Feelings hurt once again, the unhappy little boy left the kitchen and the mess for his friend to clean up.
With nothing else to do the sullen little boy had gone in search of his best friend and the brother closest in age to himself, Hoss. Joe had found Hoss down at the corral where the ranch hands were taking turns breaking the new horses. At last, thought Joe, at least I can watch this! Little Joe had then hidden behind the edge of the water trough that was in view of the corral so he could watch the cowboys riding. He had not been there very long at all when he had felt a tapping on his shoulder. Startled, Joe had turned around and found a very angry Hoss glaring at him through blue eyes that were dark with anger and Joe knew instantly that he was in trouble. Hoss, normally the peace maker of the family had ordered his youngest brother back to the house immediately but not before giving Joe’s rear end three swift swats with his opened hand.
That action had both surprised and embarrassed Little Joe as Hoss had thoughtlessly swatted him in front of the workers which brought laughter to the faces of the men and instant tears to the eyes of the startled boy. No matter that Joe knew he was not allowed near the corral while the men were working, what did matter was the way his brother had treated him and in front of an audience as well.
“I hate you Hoss Cartwright, you big bully and I hate you Adam Cartwright, you bossy ole snob!” Little Joe had cried to himself.
Little Joe thought about saying he hated Pa for going away and leaving him again but thought better of it. He did not really hate his father, just hated his father’s leaving. But those brothers, yes, he was sure he hated them!
But that was yesterday, before he found himself trapped, cold, hungry, tired, sore, wet and scared in the bottom of a well.
“The bottom of the well,” thought Joe. He recalled a bible story that his pa had read to him. It was about a man who had disobeyed God and found himself stuck in the belly of a whale. Pa had explained what a whale was and how big they were. Pa had even told him that back when he had been a sea captain, he had been lucky enough to see them and assured him that they were indeed large enough to swallow a grown man.
“What was that man’s name?” Joe asked himself. “Oh yeah, Jonah.”
Joe thought back to the bible story and was surprised to remember how Jonah sounded so much like his own name, Joseph. Joe briefly wondered if Jonah’s friends might have called him Joe as a nickname.
Little Joe felt and heard his tummy rumbling, begging that food be sent down. Joe, trying to ignore the hunger and fighting the urge to cry, began yelling for help instead. When his throat began to ache and his voice began to crack with the effort, Joe gave up the yelling. No one knew where he had gone and no one knew where to look. With nothing but time on his hands and feeling very sorry for himself, Joe wondered what Jonah had done for the three days and three nights that Pa had told him that Jonah had had to remain in the belly of the whale.
Thinking again to when his pa had read him the story, he recalled that Jonah had spent much of his time praying, asking God to forgive him for disobeying Him. Jonah had prayed promising also to do all that God had asked of him should God find mercy on him and deliver him out of the whale’s belly.
Little Joe thought long and hard on this and wondered if he was at the bottom of this well because he had been disobedient to his father and his brothers. Joe knew that when his father was home, he was to obey what Pa told him. He also knew that one of Pa’s rules was to mind his brothers in their father’s absence. Thinking back over the last couple of days, Joe assured himself he had broken nearly every rule his father had made for him.
He had argued with Adam, he had felt anger at his brother only because that brother had rightfully forbid him to go some place his father would have refused to allow him to go.
Joe thought about how he had sneaked down to the corral and hid from view to watch the horses being broken. Joe had known all along that he was not permitted at the corrals during that time. He realized he had broken another of Pa’s rules and had blamed his brother Hoss when he had swatted his rear. It had not really been Hoss’ fault; Hoss had only been trying to keep him safe, not wanting his baby brother to get hurt.
All of these thoughts were running through Little Joe’s mind and began making matters pretty clear to him. Joe realized his running away had been the cause of falling into the old well, not his brothers and certainly not his father’s fault. How many times had his father told him that ‘we are responsible for our own actions’? More times than he cared to remember as usually he was reminded after he had found himself across his father’s lap for disobeying. Joe laughed to himself thinking, “If I ever get out of this well, I’ll welcome a trip across Pa’s lap. At least there, I know I am loved and cared for.”
Thinking again of Jonah, Joe laid his head on his knees, praying this time rather than crying. Joe first asked God to forgive him for not minding his father and then explained to God that he really did not hate his brothers. Calling each by name, he told God that he knew Adam and Hoss were only looking out for this safety while their father was gone. He loved his brothers and said as much to God. Feelings of shame and guilt overcame the sad little boy sitting alone at the bottom of the well till he could no longer contain his tears.
“Oh God,” cried the young heart, “please help me, I promise to be a good boy and I promise to obey my pa and my brothers. I don’t wanna die in this well, I don’t really hate Adam and Hoss and God I miss my pa. God, I’m hungry and I’m sore and God…I’m really scared!” Joe rambled voicing all of his woes to the god whom he had been taught since birth to put his trust in.
Little Joe was so tired he did not realize that as he prayed a peace so great filled his body that it allowed him to fall asleep. From far off he could hear his name being called. He wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or not, he could hardly shake the weariness from his body. Pulling himself to a standing position he listened, barely breathing for fear of missing the sounds.
“Joe! Joe! Where are you?” the voice from above yelled. Joe recognized the voice as his brother Adam’s.
“Punkin! Answer me, where are you?” his brother Hoss shouted.
Joe was elated, his brothers had been searching for him and he could not wait to tell them how sorry he was for not minding and for running away, causing them to worry and how very much he loved them.
“Here! Down here, in this well! Adam, Hoss, help me!” screamed Joe, at last finding his voice.
Adam and Hoss ran toward the sound of the pleading voice and soon located the place where the rotted boards had broken under the weight of their younger brother when he had unknowingly stepped onto them.
“Joe, are you okay?” asked Adam as he knelt down and tried to peer into the dark hole.
“Yes,” called Joe, “I’m cold and wet. My shoulder hurts some but other than that, I’m fine,” Joe called up to Adam.
“Hang on little buddy, we’ll have you out in no time,” Adam said, hoping to reassure his baby brother who he knew must have been frightened from having been in the dark all alone for so long.
“Adam, Hoss,” Joe called to the brothers as they prepared to drop a rope into the well to hoist out the youngest Cartwright brother.
“Yeah Joe, what?” Hoss asked as he began securing the rope around his waist so that he could use his large body as an anchor.
“Could ya hurry? I’m hungry and…” Joe paused, trying to swallow the lump that had suddenly jumped into his throat. “I’m scared,” he confessed, confirming Adam’s suspicions.
Adam looked at Hoss and saw the tears that had suddenly come into the larger boy’s blue eyes. He himself felt like crying, so relieved was he to have found the missing brother. They had both been so worried when they had been unable to locate the little boy. Adam had been so mad at first, swearing to tan his little brother’s backside when the lad decided to show himself home again. Those feelings had been replaced with fear and concern by the time that nightfall had arrived bringing with it the fury of the storm that had raged the whole night through.
Adam and Hoss had ridden out as soon as daylight arrived and had spent the whole day searching for the boy to no avail when suddenly they had heard the distance voice of their youngest sibling calling out for help. It was then that they had turned in the direction of the cries until at last they found where the shouts were coming from. Spotting the broken boards where Little Joe had fallen through, Hoss shouted down to his brother.
“Hang on short shanks, we’ll have you out in a few minutes,” Hoss called down to the scared boy.
“Joe,” called Adam, “listen, I’m sending the rope down, tie it around your chest. When you’re ready, call up to me and we will pull you up,” Adam instructed as he started dropping the looped end of the rope down to Joe.
Joe looked up and watched as the rope began inching its way down toward him. As soon as he could reach the end of the rope, he hurried to secure it around his chest, he was anxious to leave the dark well behind.
“Okay Adam, I’m ready, haul me up,” Little Joe called out. Joe began “walking” up the wall of the well bouncing from side to side as his brothers pulled carefully on the rope while keeping the slack held tight. Joe’s shoulder was causing him some discomfort but so glad was the lad to be free from his entrapment that he barely felt the pain. Just before reaching the top of the well, Joe said a silent prayer of thanks to God.
Within minutes Joe felt strong hands reach around him and lift him from the well and over the broken boards. Joe shut his eyes to the bright sunlight but was able to lock his arms around the neck of his oldest brother. The experience now over and knowing he was safe was so overwhelming to the small lad that all he could do was cling to his brother and sob. Adam held on to the weeping boy and allowed him to cry until the tears were spent.
“I’m sorry Adam, I’m so sorry that I’ve been a bad boy,” cried Little Joe.
“Sh, you’re okay now little buddy,” Adam comforted the boy.
Hoss reached out and laid his hand on the shoulder of the sobbing boy. Wiping the tears from his own eyes, Hoss carefully removed the boy from Adam’s embrace and carried him in his own arms to the waiting horses. Hoss felt the need to hold his little brother close, giving him the assurance himself that indeed the boy was all right.
“Let’s go home short shanks,” Hoss told him as he lifted Little Joe up to Adam who had already mounted his horse so that Joe could ride back double in front of him.
Adam covered the shivering boy with his coat in an effort to keep him warm and by the time the brothers had reached home, Joe had fallen asleep in the saddle. Adam gently handed Joe down to Hoss who carried him into the house and laid him tenderly on the settee in the great room. The movement caused Little Joe to wake up and he looked into the concerned faces of his brothers. Smiling at his brothers Little Joe reached up and gave each a hug, which caught both older brothers off guard.
“I know I’m in trouble big time, but I am sorry, really, I’m sorry,” he told Adam as Hoss went into the kitchen in order to get Joe something to eat. Shortly he returned with a bowl of hot stew, biscuits and a glass of cold milk for the hungry boy. Joe ate as if he had been starving, which considering how long he had gone without nourishment, Hoss suspected that Joe felt as if he had starved.
Adam smiled at the little dirty face that was watching him. He knew that Joe had been frightened; he knew of his brother’s fear of the dark and how badly Joe hated being alone, especially in the feared darkness. Adam was happy that the little scamp was safely home again. He had been so frightened of what he thought he might find that he found it hard to stay mad at the boy.
Sitting on the large wooden table so that he could face the child, Adam lifted the boy’s chin so that he could look him in the eye.
“I need to ask you something Little Joe,” he started. “Why did you run away? The truth now.”
“Yeah Punkin, why did ya? Didn’t ya know we’d be worried sick about ya?” added Hoss.
Little Joe watched his brother’s faces to see if there was any anger present and when he was sure there was none, he relaxed and tried to explain to them what he had been feeling.
“I thought no body wanted me any more. Pa went away and wouldn’t take me,” began Little Joe but thinking about his father leaving caused Joe’s chin to begin to quiver and it wasn’t long before the tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks and dripped from his chin. Adam, sensing the boy’s need for comfort, gathered Joe into his arms and held him.
“Go on,” encouraged Adam.
“You know I hate it when Pa goes away and leaves me,” cried Joe, snuggling deeply into the chest of his brother finding the security that he needed.
Adam kissed the top of the soft curls. “But he always come back Joe, you know that.”
Looking up and swiping at the tears, Joe cried, “But it still scares me. I’m afraid, Adam; what if he does like my mama did and not come back?”
“Joe, he will always do his best to come back to us,” encouraged Hoss who now sat on the settee facing his two siblings.
“Hoss is right Joe, Pa would never on purpose leave us, barring an accident or such. Now, why did you run away?” Adam asked for the second time.
“I dun told ya, I thought no one wanted me around any more. You wouldn’t let me go to the logging camp with ya. Pa didn’t want me to go along with him on his trip, and Hoss,” he paused as he looked pitifully at Hoss who was waiting patiently for his baby brother to explain, “wouldn’t let me watch the hands break the new horses. And then he swatted my butt and made all the fellas laugh at me. That hurted my feelings Hoss,” Joe explained looking at Hoss.
“I’m sorry I embarrassed ya Joe,” Hoss apologized forgetting that he had indeed swatted his little brother in the presence of the cowboys. “I shouldn’t have done that in front of the fellas, Joe,” admitted Hoss now feeling guilty for having done so.
Adam smiled at Hoss from behind Joe’s head so that Joe could not see the looks that he passed to his middle brother. Both Adam and Hoss were having a hard time maintaining a straight face and their own feelings about the situation. Joe, when honest was so open to his feelings and both brothers were finding it difficult to contain their amusement at his choice of words and his expressions.
“You know why you are not allowed to do those things don’t you little buddy?” asked Adam as he rearranged Joe on his lap so that he could see his face.
Joe lifted his green eyes to meet the dark eyes of his brother and watched for Adam’s reactions.
“Yes sir,” spoke Joe in a tiny voice. “So’s I won’t get hurt, cause if’n I did, ya’d feel really bad,” Joe told Adam softly.
“That’s right Joe, we would, we love you buddy and just want you to be safe, that’s all,” explained Adam as he hugged the boy to him, glad to have Joe close to him once again.
“You’re gonna havta tell Pa, ain’t ya, Adam?” Little Joe asked even though he already knew the answer to his question. “He’s gonna be mad and he’s gonna wallop my butt good, ain’t he?”
Adam raised his eyes to meet the blue eyes across from him. Trying to cover the smile that was beginning to play on his lips, Adam explained to Joe.
“I’m afraid so Joe; Pa has to know. I can not keep something like this from him.”
Reaching up and placing a kiss on his brother’s cheek, Joe whispered in Adam’s ear.
“It’s okay Adam; I ain’t afraid this time. Now, can I go to bed? I’m awful tired.” Joe said as he laid his head on his brother’s shoulder and wrapped his arms tightly around Adam’s neck and encircled his waist with his legs in an order to hang on as Adam rose from the table.
Adam carried Joe to his room and placed him gently on his bed. Joe was nearly asleep so he and Hoss undressed the boy and bathed him as quickly as they could. Slipping a clean nightshirt over the sleepy boy, Adam was amazed and thankful that no bones had been broken in the fall down the well. Joe’s shoulder had been badly bruised along with other parts of his body but the boy seemed no worse for wear considering his ordeal.
Adam gently covered Little Joe with the blankets, making sure he was tucked in. Leaning over he brushed back a soft curl that had fallen to his forehead and kissed his brother’s brow.
Joe opened his eyes and surprised Adam with another hug. Throwing his arms around Adam’s neck he told his brother again that he loved him, and asked a series of questions that took the young man by surprise.
“Did ya know that God punishes his children when they’re bad? Did ya know that He made the whale swallow Jonah cause he didn’t do what God told ‘em too? And God made old Jonah stay in the old whale’s belly for three days and three nights before He let Jonah be spit out. Did ya know that Adam?” Joe asked, waiting for an answer from his brother.
Wondering why his little brother had brought up the familiar bible story at his particular time, he knew he had to find out, his curiosity had been sparked.
“Yes, I knew that, but why are you asking now?”
“Cause, I wanted to know. Did ya know that Jonah promised to be good if’n God would save him from dying in that ole smelly whale?” continued Joe wrinkling up his nose as if he could actually smell the large fish.
“Yes, I knew that too, but Joe, why now?” asked Adam as he sat on the side of the bed watching the facial features of the boy.
“Cause Adam, when I was in the well, I was real scared and I got bored so I tried to think of something, anything to make me forget about being scared and that’s what I thought of. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how much me and Jonah were alike,” explained Joe, rising up to sit beside of Adam on the edge of the bed. Adam wrapped his arm around Joe’s slender body and pulled him close. Whatever had sparked these ideas into his brother’s head, he found himself totally enjoying the conversation.
“Go on, how are you and Jonah alike?” questioned Adam; suddenly interested in finding out how his ten- year-old brother had come to this conclusion.
“Jonah disobeyed God and God made him go into the whale until Jonah realized he’d been a bad boy. I disobeyed you and Hoss and Pa too, so God let me fall into the well ’cause He didn’t have no whales around here to swallow me. Then He made me stay down there ‘til I realized I had been a bad boy too. It didn’t take me as long as it did ole Jonah though Adam. Reckon I must have been smarter than him, heh?” smiled the boy as he innocently looked into the eyes of his brother.
Unable to contain his laugher any longer, Adam’s voice filled the room as he agreed with Joe. “Reckon so little boy!”
“Well, when I founded out I was the one who’d been naughty, I did what Jonah dun. I told God I was sorry for hatin’ ya and Hoss. I don’t hate ya now Adam,” Joe quickly reassured his brother who was looking at him with what Joe took as hurt feelings.
“I’m glad, little buddy; that would make me sad if you did. Then what did you do, after you told God you didn’t hate me and Hoss anymore?” Adam prompted smiling to himself.
“Then I told God I was sorry for disobeying ya and Hoss and promised to do better from now on if’n he’d get me outta that well and then He dun it Adam!” smiled Joe, happy to have told his story. With the innocence of youth, Joe seemed not to have doubted that God would do for him what He had done for Jonah.
“I sure was glad too, cause I sure was getting’ lonesome down there by myself. I love ya, Adam,” Joe surprised his brother by saying it again. Adam realized Joe’s need for reassurance and gave the boy a big bear hug and held him close for several minutes. He himself had been touched by Joe’s story and was finding it hard to contain the tears that were beginning to pool in his dark eyes. Seeing that Joe’s eyelids were getting heavy with sleep, Adam gently eased the boy down into the bed and recovered him with the blankets.
Adam watched as sleep claimed the exhausted boy. Joe turned over on his side and reached for his little bear, Bo, a gift made by his mama before his birth. The bear had always been a source of comfort for the little boy and Adam knew that even now the old bear was on the job. Joe sighed softly in his sleep and put his thumb into his mouth, something that Joe rarely did now except when seeking comfort. This small action only served to remind the oldest Cartwright son that Little Joe was still the much-loved baby of the family. Turning the lamp down he paused at the door before closing it.
“Good night, ‘Little Jonah’, I love you too,” Adam spoke softly as he shut the door.
Walking to his room, weary from the day’s events, but happy to have his brother home safe, he could only imagine how he would explain this one to his father. Adam could only laugh at Pa’s anticipated reaction!