Measuring Up (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   7008


 

Joe twirled around to see who had spoken the insulting words, but everyone who stood or sat behind him seemed to be busy doing something other than making loud comments about his ability to be an equal to his two older brothers.  He glanced at the different faces, not sure, which of the two men had been talking about him.  Joe reasoned that whomever it might have been could not have missed seeing him standing at the bar, and briefly Joe wondered if the comments had been meant for him to hear.  Turning back to face the bar, Joe glanced up into the gilded mirror and watched the crowd through the looking glass.  Only two men stood out; they had caught his attention when he had first turned around by the snickering they were doing while trying to hide their faces.  Alex and Jess were two of his older brother’s friends.

Joe had never cared for either of the young men who where still glancing in his direction, laughing softly behind his back.  Alex and Jess where the same age as Adam and Hoss, or somewhere in-between his own two brothers and they had always seemed to take pleasure in ridiculing him at every opportunity they could find.  But this, this was going too far and when Joe twirled around for the second time, Alex and Jess both stood to their feet and moved to stand behind him.  Joe could feel their hot breath on the back of his neck, though he tried to ignore the pair, for both men where twice his size and Joe knew that this was one of those times that he should be swallowing his pride.

“What’s wrong, Little Joe?  Got a burr under ya saddle?” laughed Jess, elbowing his brother and making him to start laughing as well.

Joe felt himself bristle at the way in which Jess had emphasized his nickname.  Now these two men had the whole crowd laughing at him by their comments.  The crowd had begun to gather in, closing around the three.

Joe swallowed his anger, not wanting to stir up trouble, but when he turned back to face the bar for the second time, Alex placed his massive hands on Joe’s shoulder and spun him around.

“We asked ya a question, kid?  What’s wrong, ain’t ya man enough to stand up for yourself?” laughed Alex with a smirk on his face and his eyes dancing with the excitement of a pending fight.

Joe sensed the implications, the agitation that lay just beneath the surface of the other man’s voice, and he smiled.  “Oh, I’m man enough; I just don’t think it’s worth getting my hands dirtied for.”

The statement seemed to frustrate and ignite the other man’s fuse.  Alex’s face became distorted and he grabbed Joe by the front of his shirt, nearly lifting Joe off his feet.

“Or maybe the little man is afraid of us, big boys!”  The entire saloon full of Saturday night cowboys burst into loud laughter, shattering Joe’s reserve.

Joe placed his hand over the one who had clamped onto his shirt and pushed the man backward.  He had grown weary of the implications that everyone, including his family had been making towards him, that he was nothing more than a mere child.  He’d just had his seventeenth birthday…didn’t that make him a man?

“I’ll show you who’s afraid of who,” muttered Joe to Jess.

Joe swung his left fist out, clipping the bigger man on the chin and causing him to stumble backwards and fall across a nearby table, scattering the men who remained seated.  Jess watched, his eyes growing bigger as his sidekick fell to the floor.  Jess cut his eyes back to Joe, just as Joe swung out again, but Jess was quicker and was able to block the swing.  Bringing his other fist upward, Jess jabbed Joe in the side, cracking the ribs beneath his arm.

Joe doubled up in pain and slowly slipped to the floor.  Alex had jumped to his feet and before Joe could become a crumbled ball, Alex slipped his long arms about Joe’s chest and hauled the stunned boy to his feet.  Alex moved his arms to where he could place his hands behind Joe’s neck, holding Joe’s arms tightly over his own head and leaving Joe’s mid-section open to Jess’ fists that had begun to rein their fury to the out-numbered smaller man.

Time after time, Jess drove his fists into Joe’s stomach and sides.  Alex refused to allow Joe to crumble to the floor; instead he forced Joe to remain on his feet and take each and every hard blow that Jess issued.  Joe’s face began to swell, his cheeks and around his eyes began to blacken as Jess moved upward, splitting the lips that had stopped their out cries of pain.

One man ran from the saloon, and down the street toward the livery, where he had just minutes ago spied Joe’s two brothers.  Adam and Hoss were just coming from the building as the old man stumbled up to them nearly falling into Hoss’ outstretched arms.

“Whoa, old timer, what’s the hurry?” laughed Hoss, steadying the puffing man on his feet.

“Ya better come quick like, Mr. Cartwright; it’s ya brother,” gasped the man, trying to steady his voice.

“Our brother?  What’s he done this time?” laughed Adam, knowing Joe’s propensity for trouble.

“Yeah, what’s he doin’, breakin’ up the saloon, again?” asked Hoss, his bright eyes shining with amusement.

“They’s a killin’ him, that’s what!” shouted the old man.

“Killing him?”  Adam glanced at Hoss, whose smile was beginning to fade.  “Who’s killing him?”

“Them Parker boys, Alex and Jess, they’s agangin’ up on the boy, nearly beat’em to death already,” he stammered.

Hoss and Adam exchanged anxious looks and took off running for the saloon.  Just as they burst through the swinging doors, the crowd seemed to part, giving both Cartwrights a full view of the happenings.

Joe had just been released and was slipping, to the floor.  Blood dripped from his mouth, his eyes had blackened and a gash over his left eye seeped bright red blood.  Jess and Alex stood over the still form of their brother, laughing and slapping one another for their triumph.  Neither man saw Joe’s older brothers standing in silence, their expressions unreadable, until Jess turned.

“Oh, hi Adam, Hoss…ere…about your kid brother there…sorry, but he threw the first punch.  Had to protect myself, you know,” said Jess, taking a step back as Hoss moved in.

“Took two of you to protect yourself from a boy?” questioned Adam who had placed his hand on Hoss’ arm to stop his advance.

“I ain’t a boy!”

Adam and Hoss both twisted their heads around, amazed to see Joe staggering to his feet.  Adam noted the dark, angry expression that Joe wore on his battered face.

“Adam, look out!” shouted Joe, too late.

Jess had taken a swing at Joe’s oldest brother, clipping him on the chin and causing Adam to hesitate slightly.  Hoss made a grab to help him but was cut off by Alex who attempted to land a punch on the end of the big man’s chin.

A full-fledged battle broke out in the saloon between the Parker brothers and the Cartwright brothers.  It was only minutes until the four men where out in the street, hammering away at one another, while Joe, groggy from his own battle, stood leaning against the railing, watching his brothers deliver a much deserved beating to their so called friends.  It lasted only minutes, the Parkers both ended up laying face down in the dirt, breathing heavily, while Adam and Hoss dusted off their clothes and hurried to their younger brother’s side.

Joe had propped himself against the railing and when Adam and Hoss reached their brother, Joe glared up at them.

“You just had to interfere, didn’t you?” he growled at them.

Joe stood up as straight as his wounded body would permit, his left arm folded across his middle where the worst of his pain seemed to be localized.

“Heh?” asked Hoss, wrinkling his nose.  “What’ca mean by that?”

“You know darn well what I mean!” said Little Joe, slowly moving toward his horse that was tied to the hitching rail.

Adam reached out his hand and placed it on Joe’s shoulder, stopping the boy from going any further.

“You wait just a minute, Joe.  We were minding our own business when some old man rushes up to us and tells us that two guys are trying to kill you in the saloon.  All we did was rush over and when we got there, you were laying in the floor, blood dripping everywhere, two big ox sized men standing over you, and you blame us for interfering?  What were we suppose to do, stand by and watch them kill you?”

“I could have taken them, if they had fought fair,” moaned Joe, glancing angrily up at Adam.

Adam cast his dark eyes at Hoss and then back at Joe, taking a deep breath before he spoke.  “Sure you could have kid, sure you could have.”

Joe wrenched his body away from his brother, groaning in the process.  “Don’t call me kid!  Damn it, can’t you ever think of me as anything other than that?  I’m a man, and all I ever wanted of you or anyone else is to treat me as one…I’m as good a man as either of you…when will you ever realize that?  Can’t you see….”

“Hey Joe, calm down…” said Hoss, moving to stand next to his younger brother.  “We didn’t mean ta make ya mad…we were just trying….”

“Adam, help me!” shouted Hoss as Joe crumbled to the ground in a heap.  Hoss quickly stooped down next to Joe and gathered the boy into his massive arms.  “We best get’em over ta the doc’s,” said Hoss, looking down into the ashen face.

“Guess he’s hurt worse than we thought, come on,” ordered Adam, leading the way.

*****

It was late evening by the time that Ben Cartwright rode into town.  A message telling him that Joe had been injured, and he was needed at the doctor’s office had been sent by Adam.  There had been nothing more, nothing explaining to him how his youngest son had come to be hurt or why.  Ben reined in his mount in front of the doctor’s office, noticing that all three of his sons’ horses were there as well.

When Ben pushed opened the door and stepped into the office, Adam and Hoss were immediately on their feet.

“Howdy, Pa,” Hoss greeted his father, his voice low.

Hoss wore a worried pout on his face and his eyes held a look of fright as well.  His fingers were shoved halfway into the pockets of his trousers and he rocked back and forth on the heels of his boots.

“Son,” Ben replied, glancing from one to the other.  “How’s Joe?” he asked, turning to Adam for his answer.

Adam wore the same type of worried expression on his young face as well, but Ben noted that in his eyes was something different than what he saw in his middle son’s.  Adam’s eyes were dark and his lips were pressed tightly together and Ben knew that could only mean one thing, Adam was very angry.  Why, Ben wondered.  Had the boy been the cause of some mischief that had gotten him hurt and had caused one brother to worry profusely and the other to be furious?

“We don’t know just yet, he’s hurt pretty badly.”

“How?  What happened?” Ben said, the concern and worry showing in his expression and in his deep dark eyes.

“He was in the saloon, apparently a fight broke out and Joe was caught in the middle, somehow…”

“Why does that not surprise me!” growled Ben.  “What else?”

“Don’t rightly know for sure, Pa.  We was down at the livery when this here fella came runnin’ up to us and said someone was beatin’ up Little Joe.  We took off down the street to the saloon and when we got there, Little Joe was just afallin’ to the floor.  Alex and Jess Parker were dustin’ off their hands…more or less,” explained Hoss.

“Both of them?  Joseph was fighting with both Alex and Jess?” stammered Ben.

“Reckon so,” muttered Hoss.  “Wasn’t much of a fight, two agin one, especially when the two was the size them Parker boys are and Joe being just…well…just a boy and all.”

“We had a round with them ourselves, left them lying in the street and when we turned to Joe to see how he was, he crawled all over us for helping him.  When we tried to explain why…he collapsed and we brought him here,” Adam told his father.

“I see…and you don’t know what started the fight?”

Ben had moved to a chair and had sat down.

“Nosir,” Hoss said, “One of them Parker boys did say that Joe threw the first punch, but he ain’t said why Joe did.”

Ben shook his head in disgust.  “What is wrong with that boy, brawling like a hoodlum, and taking on two men twice his size!” Ben ranted.  “I swear that boy will never grow up and act his age!”

Before Ben could ask anything else, the door to the back room opened and Paul Martin, the town’s doctor entered the main office where the Cartwrights were waiting word on Joe’s condition.

Ben jumped to his feet, his anger at his youngest son’s behavior forgotten for the present time.

“How is he?  Can I see him?”

Paul smiled.  “Take it easy Ben.  He’s going to be fine, sore and bruised I’m afraid, but he’ll be okay in a few days.  I had to bind his ribs, looks as if he suffered most of the damage in that area.  I stitched up the cut over his eye, took a couple in his lip and gave him something for the pain.  He’s sleeping right now, and probably will for the rest of the night.  I suggest that he stays here until tomorrow and then if you’re careful when you move him, you can take him home.”

“That’s good news Paul, can I see him?” Ben asked.

“Sure, come on…and I suppose the two of you want to see him as well, am I right?” smiled Paul as he turned to Adam and Hoss.   He pulled opened the door to the back room and allowed Joe’s family to enter the sick room where they could see Joe laying on a small bed over in the corner.

“Of course,” answered Adam.

Paul smiled; he could see the anxious expressions on the older brothers’ faces and knew that both Adam and Hoss were every bit as worried about their brother as their father was about his youngest son.  It was a rare type of love for one another that this close knit family of men shared, and Paul knew that even though the sons were often at odds with each other, each would without question lay down their own lives for their family members.

Ben’s gasp, when he saw his son’s face, sounded loud in the quiet room.  His two sons and the doctor, who stood off to the side and watched, did not miss his expression of shock.

“Joseph?” Ben whispered taking the chair and pulling it along side of the bed.

Ben leaned forward and with loving hands, brushed back the curls that had fallen onto the boy’s battered face.

“Sweetheart?” Ben murmured in a low voice.  “Pa’s here son.”  Ben lowered his head and gently kissed Joe’s brow, not caring that the three grown men standing around the bed had seen or heard his reaction to his son’s condition.

Ben glanced up at Paul, “Are you sure he’s going to be alright?  He’s so pale and…dear God…so young!”

Paul nodded his head and moved forward, placing his hand on Joe’s brow.  “Ben, I know he looks bad, and he is in some pain because of the cracked ribs, but the bruises will fade and the cuts and scratches will heal, even his ribs will mend, over time.  What bothers me, is why, all of a sudden has Joe taken to fighting.  You do know, don’t you, that this is the third time this week that he’s been here, because of a fight with some one?”

Ben’s eyes flashed dark and when he turned to look up at Adam and Hoss, both turned to look away.  Ben stood to his feet, glaring at his two oldest sons.

“Do either of you know anything about what Paul is referring too?” he demanded in a thick voice.

“Sorta,” stammered Hoss, glancing sideways at his brother.

“Sorta?  What kind of an answer is that?” Ben questioned.  He turned to Adam.  “Well?  What haven’t you been telling me?”

“Nothing…I mean, I knew about the fights, but honest…Joe didn’t tell me why he was fighting,” answered Adam.

“Hoss?”

Hoss was watching Joe’s face and the painful expressions that the sleeping boy was making and was caught off guard when his father called his name.

“Hoss…I’m speaking to you,” Ben whispered and then motioned for his son to follow him to the opposite side of the room where they could talk without disturbing Little Joe.  Adam might not be so willing to tell him what had been going on, but Hoss, when face to face with his father, could never withhold the truth from him.  Ben knew if he were to get an answer for his question, it would have to come from his middle and most tenderhearted son.

“Out with it!”

“Well, Joe’s been afeelin’ like he ain’t good enough,” stammered Hoss, hanging his head.

Ben looked puzzled.  “Good enough…good enough for what?  I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I, Pa.  All I know is that yesterday, when he was workin’ at fixin’ that wheel on the wagon, I told’em he was goin’ about it all wrong.  Well, dang Pa, Little Joe got so mad, he took a swing at me…”

“He what?”

“Yessir, he took a swing at me and said if’n I didn’t like the way he was adoin’ it, I could do it myself.  Then he jist walked off and left it.  I heard’em muttering to himself about how he could never do nuthin’ right and how everyone was always comparin’ him to Adam and me.  And that ain’t all, Pa…” Hoss paused and lowered his head.

Ben placed his hand over Hoss’ arm and when the big man looked up, Ben smiled.

“What else, son?” Ben said with all the compassion he was feeling.

“Later, when I went to the barn for somethin’, Little Joe was talkin’ to his horse.  He didn’t know I was there, but he was atellin’ Cooch how he felt like the rest of us looked down on him cause he wasn’t smart like Adam or big and strong like me…and that…”

“That what, son?”

Ben saw the pool of tears that suddenly filled Hoss’ blue eyes and his heart went out to the boy.

“He said that he didn’t think ya loved him as much as ya do me and Adam, ‘cause he’d never measure up to ya expectations.”

Hoss ran the back of his hand under his nose and when he turned his head, Ben heard his son sniff.

“Pa…” Hoss said softly as Ben sighed deeply.

“Yes, son?”

“It ain’t true; none of it…is it?”

“Of course not…why…that little scamp has no idea how much I really do love him!”

Ben felt his own eyes sting with tears and he had to walk away to hide them from his troubled son.  Ben returned to the bed, Joe hadn’t moved.

“Why don’t you and Hoss go on back to the ranch, Adam?  I’ll stay the night with Joe and then rent a buggy in the morning once Paul says it’s okay to take him home, and then I’ll bring him,” suggested Ben as he lowered himself into the chair.

“Alright, Pa.  If that’s what you want.”

“Yes, please…and son, would you mind stopping by Roy’s office and telling him what happened?  I doubt that there is anything he can do, if Joe hit first. I suppose that the Parkers, even though there were two of them, had every right to defend themselves,” Ben surmised.

“Sure, we’ll stop and give Roy the news.”

Adam rested his hand on his father’s shoulder and gave it a small squeeze.  “Send for us if you need us?”

“I will son, I promise,” smiled Ben.

*****

It was mid morning before Joe finally woke up.  He had begun to toss and turn, crying out some from the discomfort he felt in his battered body.  Ben had remained by his son’s bedside the entire night and the weariness and lack of sleep showed on his face.

“Pa?” moaned Joe softly.

“I’m here son,” Ben answered, a smile on his face.  “How do you feel?”

“I’m fine,” whispered Joe.

“Sure you are,” Ben said lightly as he gave Joe a warm smile.

Joe started to giggle, but stopped suddenly as the pain in his ribs caused him to frown.  “Oh…I guess I hurt more than I thought I did,” he said and tried to return his father’s smile.

“Then you just lay still, son.  Paul will be back in a few minutes and if he says you can, then we’ll go home.  Think you can drink some coffee?” Ben asked.

Joe nodded his head, his jaw hurt, and the crack in his lip felt as if it would split again if he tried to talk.

Ben quickly poured a cup for his son and then helped Joe into a sitting position so that he could hold the cup in his own hands.

“Easy now,” Ben instructed.  He reached behind Joe’s head and straightened the pillows so that Joe would be more comfortable.  “There now, careful, it’s hot,” he warned as he placed the cup into Joe’s hands.

“Thanks, Pa,” said Joe.  He carefully tipped the cup to his lips and tried to sip the hot brew.  “Ouch,” he muttered and then tried again.  “Good,” he said after swallowing the hot liquid.  Looking over at his father, he saw that Ben had been watching him.

“Paul’s wife made it.  Joseph, do you feel like talking?” asked Ben.

Joe looked quickly at his father and studied Ben’s face.  He wasn’t sure what his father had in mind to talk to him about, but Joe supposed that it had something to do with the fight he was in yesterday over at the saloon.  Instantly, his mind began thinking of ways to avoid the conversation, because it wasn’t one that he wanted to have.  How could he explain to this father that he had been angry enough to lose his temper and actually throw the first punch?  It was hard enough for him to understand why he’d been feeling as such, for as long as he had, let alone try to explain to his father, his feeling of inadequacies and failure.  Joe turned away from his father and took a deep breath.

“Do we have to?” he asked in a low voice.

Joe chanced another quick look at his father’s face and noted how tired Ben looked.

“You look like you need some sleep.  Have you been here all night?” Joe asked, concerned for his father.  He unexpectedly felt guilty, knowing that his father had lost an entire night of sleep on his account.

“Yes, I came as soon as I received word,” Ben explained.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  I should have just walked away.  I didn’t mean for you to have to come sit and hold my hand all night.  I’m not a little boy anymore,” he groaned.

Ben seemed surprised by his son’s statement.  “No Joseph, you are not.  And since you are no longer a little boy, would you mind explaining to me, why you didn’t walk away…but first tell me what the fight was about.”

“Nothing,” he whispered and then looked up, into Ben’s face, eyeing the doubt within the chocolate eyes.  “Really, it was nothing…I just lost my temper, that’s all.  As usual, I made a fool of myself and had everyone in the saloon laughing at me.”  Joe felt the old resentment return.  “I’ll never learn, I guess I’m just too stupid to…”

“STOP THAT!  Right this minute, young man!” snapped Ben.  “You are not stupid, and I’d better never hear you say that again, do you understand?”

“Yessir…but it’s true…I can’t do anything right…Hoss said as much yesterday morning…and Adam…oh Adam, he’s always saying things like ‘when will you ever grow up’…or…’why don’t you act your age’…’hey, boy…kid do this…kid do that’…”

Joe stopped suddenly realizing what he was saying and knowing that now it was too late.  His father would know how he felt about things.  When Ben said nothing, Joe began to fidget with the edge of the blanket.

“Well, its true…none of you treat me like I have any sense…or…or feelings.  Adam thinks its funny to call me names, Hoss pokes fun at me ’cause I can’t even carry a hundred pound sack of taters, and you…” Joe stopped and swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in the back of his throat.

“I what, Joseph?”

“Nothing, just forget it,” Joe grumbled.

“You might as well say it and get it off your chest,” Ben ordered.  He’d had no idea that his youngest son was feeling as he claimed.

Joe took a deep breath and dared himself to finish what he was saying.

“You never let me do anything on my own…I can’t go on the cattle drives yet but you make me go on the round-ups, you think I’m incapable of branding the calves…’cause you think I can’t stomach it, but you’ve let me help with the birthing, you barely let me go to town by myself, and when I do get to, you always tell me to stay out of the saloon unless one of my brothers are with me…you won’t let me break the mustangs until after someone else, usually Adam, has practically gotten them eating out of his hand.  Pa…you expect me to do the work of a man…but you still treat me like I was a boy.”

Suddenly Joe’s throat grew tight once again and he felt tears burning his eyes.  That was the last thing that he needed his father to see, him crying.  How could he ever expect his father or brothers to treat him like a man, if he cried every time that things didn’t go his way?

The door opened and both Adam and Hoss paused in the doorway.

“Oh great, just what I need, an audience,” Joe groaned and turned his head away from the threesome, so they could not see the tears that threatened to spill over.  When he thought they weren’t looking, he wiped the dampness from his face.

Hoss smiled broadly at his brother.  “Hi ya, short shanks, how ya afeelin’?”

“Fine,” Joe said gloomily.

He handed his father the coffee cup and moving cautiously, scooted down into the bed until his head was resting against the pillows.  He turned toward Ben, ignoring Adam and Hoss.

“When can I go home?”

“Depends on how you’re feeling this morning, young man,” called the doctor from the doorway.  “How’s those ribs?”

“Sore,” Joe answered honestly.

No sense in saying he was fine, not with his father sitting so close by.  Because he wasn’t fine, he hurt like blazes from the top of his head to the end of his toes.  But he wanted to go home, so he’d say everything right, agree with anything that the doctor said and would promise to stand on his head for an hour every day, if they would only let him go home.

“Well, young man, they should be sore, you took quite a beating yesterday.  I’m surprised that you can even talk, I had to take a couple of stitches in that lip of yours.”  The doctor sat down on the edge of the narrow bed and placed his hand to Joe’s forehead.

“Good, no fever.  I was afraid you might develop one.”

Paul turned to Ben and smiled.  “He should, in all honesty, stay here another night, but knowing Little Joe like I do, I think I’ll just let you take your baby home, Ben.”

Neither the doctor nor his father saw the dark scowl that stretched across Joe’s face at the term the physician had referred to him as.  When Joe glanced up, he saw that Adam was watching him, and he quickly turned his head away.

Adam held his tongue, for he was just about to comment on the angry glare that his younger brother wore on his face.  Instead, he turned to his father.

“We brought the buggy, Pa. It’s out front when you and Joe are ready.  Come on Hoss, we’ll wait outside…better yet, we’ll meet you back at the house.”

Adam took Hoss by the arm and turned him around, leading him from the room and back outside.

Hoss followed along willingly until he was outside before he wrenched his arm free of Adam’s grasp and scowled at him.  “What in blazes was that all about?” he all but shouted.

“Can’t you tell?  That boy didn’t want either of us in there, he’s angry Hoss, at us and I’ve yet to figure out why!” stormed Adam as he mounted up.

“Mad at us?  Aw…Adam…the kid’s just hurtin’ and all, and he’s probably still a might put out about yesterday and…”

“Get on your horse, Hoss and let’s go.  Pa can take him home, we’re not needed here…or wanted,” added Adam as he turned his horse toward home.

Adam wasn’t really mad at his brother, just troubled by the way that the boy had been acting.  For some unknown reason or reasons, Joe was mad at him and everyone else around him and the why in the matter puzzled his older brother.

Hoss shrugged his shoulders and mounted up.  Giving Chubb a gentle nudge with his knees, Hoss soon caught up with his brother.  The pair rode along together in silence; each lost in their own thoughts.

By the time that Ben arrived home with Joe, both Hoss and Adam were waiting in the yard.  Hoss undaunted by his youngest brother’s strange behavior and ill-reputed attitude immediately stepped forward to welcome his brother home.  Adam, on the other hand, held back, remaining instead leaning against the hitching rail.

“Whoa,” Ben called out to the team, which stopped just inches from the porch.

Ben was quick to jump down and tied the team.  Hoss hurried around to his brother’s side of the buggy as Joe was just beginning to climb down.

“Howdy little brother,” Hoss smiled broadly, welcoming Joe.

Joe ignored his brother’s greeting and continued to try to stand up from the seat where he’d been sitting.  Once up on his feet, his arm clutching his ribcage, he started to place his foot on the tiny step at the side of the buggy.

“Here, let me help ya,” offered Hoss, extending his hand to Joe who stopped and glared down at his brother.

“I don’t need your help!” Joe snapped and shoved away Hoss’ arm.  “I think I’m old enough to get down by myself.”

Hoss paused, his eyes opened wide in disbelief as he stared at his brother.  He glanced at his father and then, stepping back from the carriage, gave Joe his space.

“Fine with me…suit ya self,” he muttered and turned away, the hurt he felt showing in his eyes as he walked back to where Adam stood.

Adam clamped his hand down on Hoss’ shoulder in encouragement.

“Don’t let it get to you, Hoss,” Adam said in a low voice.  “He’s just in one of his moods.”

“What’s wrong with that boy, Adam?  He acts like he’s mad at the whole world,” mumbled Hoss as he and Adam watched Joe lumber slowly across the yard toward the door.

Ben offered his arm to his son but Joe refused his father’s help and without so much as a word, made his way to the door.  His ribs throbbed and he felt sick to his stomach, but he’d already decided not to let on to his family, they’d only think him weak, Joe thought.

He managed to open the door and once inside, stopped at the credenza to remove his hat.  The pain in his middle caused him to lean heavily on the solid piece of furniture, but when he heard his father come in behind him, Joe straightened himself up as best he could.

“I’m going to bed,” he said flatly to his father and then started toward the stairs.

“Would you like for me to help you?” Ben said in a compassionate voice, unsure of his son’s offhanded attitude.

Joe was halfway across the room but stopped and turned back to face his father.  His eyes glowed with the shine of unshed tears.

“Why, don’t you think I’m old enough to put myself in the bed?” he snapped.

He twisted back around, continuing to the stairs.  At the foot of the staircase, Joe paused and looked up, not sure whether or not he really was able to manage on his own, but just as determined not to ask for help.  Swallowing, Joe began the climb.  On the landing, he paused and glanced back, his father and two brothers were watching him, and it unnerved him, making him more determined than ever to do it on his own.

Joe took a deep breath and clinging tightly to the handrail, made it up two more steps before faltering.  When he nearly stumbled, Hoss started forward to help but was stopped when Ben grabbed his arm.

“Leave him be, son,” Ben said softly.

Hoss looked perplexed, but did as his father instructed.  Once Joe made it to the top and around the corner, Ben released his hold on Hoss’ arm and walked to the bottom of the steps.

“You two find something to do, I’m going to have a little talk with your brother,” Ben said and then went upstairs.

Joe managed to make it to his room where he staggered to his bed and sat down.  His face showed the agony that he felt, his eyes were pinched tightly closed and it was all the boy could do to keep from crying out.  He wanted nothing more than to just lie back and will the pain away, but he had to remove his boots, somehow.

Bending over was near impossible to do, but nonetheless, Joe did.  The first stab of pain sent him sprawling into the floor where he gasped for air.  Ben appeared in the doorway just as Joe was struggling to get up and hurried across the room, kneeling down in front of his son.

“Won’t you let me help you, please Joseph?” Ben asked as he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe’s head slowly rose to look up into his father’s eyes.  Ben noted the tears that had finally been released and were slowly dripping down the sides of his son’s battered and bruised face.

Joe nodded his head and held his hand out to his father.  Ben swallowed the lump that had mysteriously thickened his throat and took the offered hand and slowly guided Joe to his feet and helped him to sit on the side of the bed.

Quickly, the concerned father knelt in front of his son and pulled off Joe’s boots.  Once the boots were off, Ben helped Joe to his feet just long enough to be able to pull back the covers then helped Joe into the bed.

Ben carefully tucked the blanket around Joe, who had somehow managed to wipe away the traces of tears, and sat down on the edge of the bed.  Ben smiled and gently brushed his hand along Joe’s arm.

“I guess I can’t even put myself to bed,” whispered Joe, all the while his emotions were raw and showing on his face. His eyes quickly began to pool with water once again.  Ben watched as his son struggled to maintain his composure.

“Joseph,” began Ben in a loving voice, “there’s nothing wrong with a man asking for help, especially from his family.”

“I suppose…if I were a man.”

Ben’s eyes widened.  “What is that suppose to mean?  Aren’t you always telling us that you are a man?”  His voice was calm, but his insides had begun to churn.

“Yeah, but none of you treat me like I am,” answered Joe, avoiding having to meet his father’s intense eyes.

“Joseph, let me explain something to you.  First and foremost, I am your father, Adam and Hoss are your brothers, that’s a fact of life…no, don’t say anything until I’m finished,” Ben said as Joe opened his mouth to protest.

“Son, Adam is a man of mystery, oft as not I don’t fully understand him, but he’s a devoted son, a loyal and trusted man, a good brother to Hoss and you and for those reasons, I love him with all of my heart.  On the other hand, Hoss is a giant of a man with a heart to match.  He’s kind and caring and one of the most gentle men I have ever known, and he has a love for his family and this land that is incomparable to any, and for those reasons, I also love him with all of my heart.  And then…there’s Joseph…a young man struggling between the transition of boyhood and manhood, a free spirit with a zest for life, with a heart filled with love and compassion like none I have ever seen.  He’s the heart of this family, the soul of the Ponderosa, he’s my pride and my joy, and for those reasons, I love him deeply and with every fiber of my being.”

“Joe, about those things that you claim I won’t let you do.  You are barely seventeen; to me, you are still a boy…oh, I know you don’t like to hear me say that, but I can’t help how I feel any more than you can help how you feel.  I suppose that one day very soon, I will have to come to terms with the fact that you are becoming a man.”

Ben paused and took a breath, giving Joe a moment to let his words seep in.

“Now, about the expectations that I have for you, I have the highest ones possible, do you know what they are?”

Joe shook his head.

“I expect you to be the very best man that you can possibly be. I don’t expect you to be a carbon copy of your brother Adam or your brother Hoss…and I certainly don’t expect you to be a carbon copy of me. I expect you to be…you…nothing more, nothing less and I expect you to be happy with who and what you become.  You are who you are son.   And I want you to believe me when I say that your brothers and I love you just as you are.  So there’s nothing Joseph that you have to prove to us about how much of a man you really are; we already know those things, so please son, stop trying so hard to measure up!”

Ben leaned down and looking deeply into the tear filled eyes that had at last overflowed, he placed a kiss on his son’s forehead.  Joe reached for his father’s hand, which had been resting on his arm, and pulled Ben’s palm up to his lips where he held it momentarily and then planted several kisses.  Ben gulped away the thickness in his throat.

“I love you, Joseph,” he whispered.

Joe’s eyes, brimming with tears, smiled up at his father.  “I love you too, Pa…and I’m sorry…about everything.”

“I’m sorry Hoss, for snapping at you, and Adam, I’m sorry for acting the way I did towards you,” said Joe to his brothers who had quietly slipped into the room and who had joined their father at Joe’s bedside.

“Aw…shucks, short shanks, every man’s entitled to have a bad day, now and then.  Ain’t that right Adam?” laughed Hoss.

“Thanks right little buddy,” Adam grinned at Joe.  “Just not so many,” he said, causing Joe to start giggling.  “Look Joe, Hoss and I don’t mean to be so bossy or to come down on you so hard, but…well, shucks kid, you’re the only little brother we have and who else do we have to pick on?  We love ya, kid…don’t ever doubt that.”

Joe smiled broadly as he wiped away the last of his tears.  “Well, I reckon since you’re being so honest, I will too.  I love you both, and…I suppose I can still be your little brother, for a while anyway,” laughed Joe.

“For a while?” laughed Ben, “son, if you live to be one hundred you will always be their little brother…and I might add…my little boy!”

Joe groaned softly and pushed his head back against the soft pillows.

“That’s right little brother, you’re stuck with the title and you’re stuck with us!” laughed Hoss who was joined by Adam and his father.

Joe jerked the cover over his head to hide from his family, the smile that transformed his unhappy expression into a happy one.  “Why me, Lord?  Why me!!”

***End***

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