Word Count: 16,939
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world;
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight;
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
It was the first day of school for the new school term and Little Joe Cartwright watched with all the other children who had gathered, as the dark skinned boy walked with his equally dark skinned father into the little red schoolhouse. Not one of the white children said a word until the boy and his father were inside and out of hearing range.
The girls gathered in small clusters; some looked frightened, some worried, but all were curious, for it was rare that colored folk ventured into Virginia City. It was, however, not unusual to see the Chinese men and women and their children, but even then, they attended their own school over in what was known as Chinatown at the far end of the town’s outskirts.
The younger boys sat in groups, whispering. Joe, who was in his last year of school and determined to make it his best year ever, stood under a large oak tree with several others boys all ranging in age of about fourteen to seventeen, most of whom were a might bigger in stature than the sixteen year old Cartwright youth.
“Wonder what in hell he thinks he’s doin’, comin’ to a white man’s school?” one over-sized youth of seventeen stated as he munched on an apple and watched the front door of the schoolhouse. David Brackett was the oldest, and the largest boy in school. Most of the school term he worked with his father on their struggling farm, raising and selling crops to the locals; thus the lad had dropped behind in his classes.
“I suppose he’s here to learn, just the like the rest of us,” Joe Cartwright said with a frown at the question.
“He ain’t welcomed,” another boy growled.
Joe looked at the boy, noting the strange expression on the kid’s face. “Why not?” he asked the boy, though in his mind, he pretty much already knew the answer.
The boy turned dark, narrow eyes at Joe. Little Joe flinched at the look of hate that had suddenly clouded his schoolmate’s blue eyes.
“What do you mean, why not?” the boy snarled. “You know why not as well as the rest of us do…”
Joe shook his head in disgust. “Surely you don’t mean just because he’s black!”
“What’s wrong with you, Cartwright?” the kid grumbled. “Of course that’s what I mean…he’s a…you know…”
Joe bent down and picked up a twig, toying with it, he glanced at the door of the building.
“So? What’s the color of a man’s skin got to do with where he has to go to school…or live, or work for that matter?” Joe demanded, growing weary of the conversation and not fully understanding why his friends seemed so agitated about the young man who appeared to be registering for school.
“I thought your ma was from the South?” David, the apparent leader of the group questioned.
“Yeah, she was…from New Orleans. So what?”
“Down south, Joe…white folks own…black people…”
Joe tossed the twig to the ground, groaning softly. “Oh good grief, Dave…this isn’t the south…and here in the west…we don’t own people, we own cattle and horses…and land!”
Joe turned to his best friend, Mitch Devlin. “Come on, Mitch, his father’s leaving and Miss Jones’ is gonna ring the bell.”
Joe began to move slowly toward the building, wondering how the new kid would fit in with his obviously prejudiced classmates. In his gut, Joe had the feeling of impending doom. His friends weren’t bad fellas, Joe thought as he stood next to his seat, which was to the right of the new kid.
Joe nodded his head in a friendly gesture at the new boy. “Howdy,” he said, “I’m Joe…Joe Cartwright.”
The boy just looked up at Joe with dark, piercing eyes that to Joe looked sad and somewhat frightened. The youth said nothing in return.
“My family…and my friends…” Joe smiled, trying to put the boy at ease, continued, “call me Little Joe…you can too, if’n you wanna.”
Joe extended his hand toward the boy, who just looked blankly at it. When the boy refused to shake hands with him, Joe shrugged his shoulders and slipped into his seat. Miss Jones had moved to the front of the class.
“My name’s Baz Reeves,” the Negro boy whispered.
Joe turned toward the boy again, and smiled. Baz nodded his head slightly but did not return the smile. He was looking straight ahead. “You can call me Baz.”
Joe was just about to say something more to Baz, when the schoolmarm cleared her throat. Most of the kids who attended the Virginia City school were regulars and nearly everyone knew everyone else. But Abigail Jones, long-time teacher of the school, took a few extra minutes after welcoming back the regulars, to introduce Baz Reeves to the class. There were a few mumbles that Joe heard but as he looked around, he was surprised to see the unhappy expressions on most of his friends’ faces. The dread that had gnawed at his gut earlier seemed to intensify. Somehow Joe knew that Baz Reeves would be made to suffer for the simple fact that his skin was shades darker than his fellow classmates, a thought that caused the youngest Cartwright to shudder with dread for his new friend, if Baz could be called a friend.
“I just don’t understand them,” Joe said as he unsaddled his pinto.
He and his oldest brother, Adam, were alone in the barn finishing the last of the afternoon chores. Joe had been sharing with his brother the facts pertaining to the new student, Baz.
“They treated him like he had…I don’t know…some kind of horrible disease,” Joe explained. “The girls wouldn’t even look at him, at least when they thought he was watching them, but the fellas…golly Adam, it was awful. I sort of felt sorry for the kid…but then…I sure was glad it wasn’t me.”
“What do you mean, Joe, you were glad it wasn’t you?”
Joe tossed his saddle across its resting place next to the others and grabbed the rake. He sighed in frustration and leaned his weight onto the hay rake. “I meant, I’m glad I wasn’t born like that,” he said softly, looking a might embarrassed.
“Born like what?”
Both he and Adam turned suddenly to find their father standing in the doorway of the barn. Ben had his arms folded across his broad chest as he walked slowly into the darkened interior and gazed from one son to the other with his dark chocolate colored eyes. His lips twisted slightly into a grin.
“Born like what?” Ben repeated, stopping to stand in front of his youngest son, who happened to be wearing a somewhat guilty expression on his handsome face. Ben noticed that Little Joe fidgeted slightly and avoided looking directly at him.
“I was just tellin’ big brother about the new kid in school, that’s all,” Joe said meekly.
“Oh…is there something wrong with him…”
“No!” Joe was quick to respond. “It’s just that he’s…” paused Joe. He glanced at his older brother.
“Joseph?” prompted Ben.
Joe took a deep breath. “Nothing…really, Pa…it’s just that the new kid is…a…Negro…he’s black…”
Ben’s eyes widened slightly as he studied Joe’s expression.
“Well, is that bad?” Ben questioned. He wondered why his son was having such a seemingly hard time talking about the new boy. He had never thought of his youngest son…nor Adam or Hoss…as being prejudiced toward another man’s race or the color of his skin. He’d always tried to teach his sons that it wasn’t the color of a man’s skin that made a man, but what was in his heart.
“No…I mean, at least not to me it ain’t…”
“Isn’t,” Adam corrected, glancing at his brother.
“Isn’t,” Joe repeated. “But to some of the fellas, it seems to be.”
Ben moved to sit down on a box that was stacked off to one side. “How so, son?”
Joe propped his hay rake against the wall of a stall and moved to sit down next to his father. He seemed troubled as he tried to find words to express what was on his mind and troubling him. “I’m not sure, Pa. Baz…that’s his name, he seems likeable to me, though he doesn’t talk much…in fact…he’s too quiet. And he watches everyone, especially the fellas…sort of like he’s watching his back,” Joe explained. “I can’t say that I blame him…I mean, the guys, they weren’t very nice to him. They didn’t ask him to join in when we played kick ball at recess…no one bothered to eat their lunch with him…except me, that is. I guess I sort of felt sorry for him, being new and all and not knowing anyone.”
Joe lowered his head for a moment and then looked up at his father with a rather sad expression shining in his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was low and troubled. “I’m glad that I wasn’t born…black…” he muttered.
“Joseph,” Ben said softly when Joe looked away.
Joe turned to look up at his father.
“It isn’t the color of a man’s skin that’s important, but what’s in his heart, how he thinks and acts or reacts…”
“I know that, Pa…I just meant…black folks have it so hard…especially in the south. Baz…he’s from Texas, but it’s the same thing down there. They’re owned…like they were nothing better than the cattle or horses or other livestock that we own…like they are less than we are…being white I mean,” Joe explained.
“Joe…Negroes aren’t the only people who are mistreated, just because of the color of their skin. Look at the Indians…think about all the injustices that they’ve had to endure…and the Chinese…like Hop Sing,” Adam added.
“I know that…but just thinking about a man actually owning another human being…it ain’t…ere…isn’t right, is it Pa?” Joe asked, looking deeply into his father’s eyes.
Ben could clearly see the confusion in his son’s eyes and hurried to explain.
“Now what do you think, son?” Ben asked. He really wanted to know where his son stood on the matter.
“I…I couldn’t own another man…it’s wrong,” Joe stated. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, son…it is wrong, but in a sense, it is a way of life. And until laws are made to outlaw that sort of thing…well…short of going to war over the issue, it will remain as such,” Ben explained to his son. “You can only offer your hand in friendship and by so doing, perhaps some of the other boys will do the same…”
Joe thought back to that morning when he had offered his hand to Baz and the boy had refused to accept it. “I don’t know, Pa…I have a feeling that Baz Reeves’ life is not going to be an easy one. You know the kids at school…especially that Dave Brackett, he’s a trouble maker anyway…and he’s already expressed his dislike about having a Negro kid in school.”
Ben stood to his feet, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder. He smiled down at the boy. “Well, you just be careful not to get caught in the middle of something. Most of these boys have been friends of yours for a long time…and until you know what kind of young man this Baz Reeves is…be nice, but just stay out of his way…and everyone else’s, Joe. Don’t let your friends lead you into something that does not concern you…understand?”
Joe nodded his head. “Yes sir…but Pa…”
Ben’s fingers tightened slightly on Joe’s shoulders. The boy glanced up to see a frown beginning to form on his father’s face and fell silent.
“No buts, Joseph…”
Joe sighed deeply, nodding his head. His lips twisted into a small smile. “Alright, sir,” he muttered.
Joe wasn’t the first to arrive at school the next morning. As he dismounted and led his pinto into the shed where the horses were stabled during school hours, he was well aware of the group of boys who gathered under the oak tree in a circle. Their heads were together and it was plain to Joe that the boys were whispering and snickering. He hurried to unsaddle his horse and then make his way over to the group of youngsters.
What he didn’t see until he elbowed his way through the circle of boys, was the new kid, Baz laying in the center of the ring, his face showing the bruises where he’d been hit or kicked…Joe wasn’t sure which. The boy’s clothes were covered in dirt and dust and over his right eye was a small cut that oozed blood. Joe glanced around at the faces of his friends, noting the sneers and disgusted expressions on each face.
“What happened?” he asked as he squatted down to offer Baz a hand.
No one uttered a word until Joe had helped the injured boy to his feet.
“We were just putting this here…you know…in his place,” snapped Dave whom Joe noticed was rubbing his fist with his other hand.
“His place?” Joe said, glancing from one boy to another. “Just what is his ‘place’?”
Dave and the others snickered. “Ya ain’t that stupid, Cartwright; even you know about Negroes…” Dave jeered, leaving the rest of his statement to be filled in with Joe’s own assumptions. “Come on, let’s get inside,” he advised the others.
The boy turned away then, followed by the group of boys. Joe watched briefly and then turned to Baz who bent down and grabbed his hat from the ground.
“Are you alright?” Joe asked him.
“What do you care?” Baz demanded in an angry tone.
Without giving Joe a chance to respond, Baz walked away. Joe started to go after the boy, but the bell rang then and he had no other choice but to follow the other students into the classroom. Baz was the last one inside and without so much as a glance at any of his fellow classmates, slipped silently into his seat.
When it was time for lunch, Miss Jones dismissed the class. Joe had every intentions of speaking with Baz but the newcomer hurried from the room before Joe had time to find his lunch that Hop Sing had packed that morning and by the time he finally made his way through the throng of young ladies that barred the doorway, Baz was nowhere to be found.
Joe stood on the stoop and gazed around the yard.
“Hey, Little Joe,” he heard someone call. Glancing toward a small group of his friends, Joe spied Mitch waving at him. He hurried toward his friend.
“Wanna eat with us?” Mitch asked.
Joe scanned the group, not thrilled with who made up the small ring: Dave, the bully, as Joe had come to think of him; Henry, Dave’s sidekick; Mitch; Billy Morris, an overly large fifteen year old; and Cliff Deaton, another hold-over from the year before who was sixteen going on seventeen. There were a couple more boys, younger than the rest that Joe knew only by name and who seemed to like to follow around after the older boys, probably because they felt it made them look more important to the girls that Joe had seen them trying to impress.
Little Joe wasn’t happy about joining the group of boys, but he willed himself to be polite and sat down, opening his lunch. He’d only taken a few bites of the roast beef sandwich when he saw Dave nudge Henry and then nod his head toward someone across the schoolyard. Joe turned, seeing Baz heading for the outhouse.
Henry snickered. “Wonder if he’s gonna eat his lunch in the privy?”
Dave and Cliff Deaton started giggling. “Probably…say…lets go see what he’s got in that sack.”
“Why don’t you just leave him alone?” Joe said, swallowing the bite that was in his mouth.
Dave, and Cliff and Henry, who had started after their pal, stopped as Dave turned around to stare at Little Joe.
“Why should we?” demanded Dave.
Joe suddenly lost his appetite and shoved his lunch back into his sack and stood up. “Cause, he hasn’t done anything to you…he’s kept to himself…”
“So, leave him alone…”
The three companions moved closer. Dave, who towered over Joe, puffed up his chest. “You gonna make us?” he sneered.
Joe took a deep breath to calm himself. His father’s warning came back to haunt him, whispering quietly in his ear. “No,” he said after a short pause. “Reckon not.”
“Good…” smiled Dave wickedly. “It wouldn’t be in your best interest to interfere…Shorty!” he said to Joe in a condescending tone.
Dave spun around on his heels and stomped across the yard, followed by several other boys. Only Little Joe and Mitch stood under the oak tree, silently watching the proceedings.
“They’re gonna cause trouble,” mumbled Mitch.
“I know…and Baz doesn’t stand a chance alone,” Joe said. “Come on.”
Joe started across the yard to where the older boys had already formed a circle around the colored boy. Mitch, not sure what it was that his best friend was planning, ran behind Joe, stopping him when he grabbed Joe’s arm. “What the hell are you going to do?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” grumbled Joe. “But…”
It was too late; Dave had already shoved Baz, nearly causing the young man to fall. Baz’s back scraped against the bark of the tree behind him. He braced himself, never saying a word to the white boys. Joe watched the boy’s face, saw the burning hate in the dark, expressive eyes. He saw the boy’s jaw tighten and start to twitch.
“Why don’t you go back where you came from?” taunted Dave. “We don’t want your kind around here…”
Baz’ nostrils flared as he stared hard at the boy in front of him.
“What’s the matter…cat got ya tongue?” demanded Henry.
“I ain’t dun nutin’ to ya…why don’t ya leave me be?” Baz asked.
“Yella…he ain’t only black…he’s yella as well!” laughed Cliff, causing the ring of spectators to join in the laughter.
“I told ya…we don’t want ya here…” Dave growled as he shoved Baz again.
Baz surprised Dave by shoving him back into the arms of his friends.
“I ain’t gonna fight ya!” shouted Baz as he turned to walk away.
Angered, Dave sprang forward, crashing into the other boy’s back and nearly knocking Baz to his knees. Somehow, the Negro boy managed to remain on his feet, grabbing his attacker by both arms and flinging Dave to the ground in front of him. Dave landed with a thud on his back at Baz’ feet.
“Why you…low-life bastard…GET HIM!” yelled Dave.
His sudden outburst caused the other two larger boys to react and together they flung themselves on the colored boy’s back. This time, Baz wasn’t so lucky; he was knocked to the ground, where instantly his body was pummeled with blows by the three boy’s fists.
The crowd who had gathered to watch burst into shouts, screaming encouragement at Baz’s assailants. Billy Morris leaped onto the pile and joined his pals in hammering at Baz any place on the boy’s body where he could get in a punch. One of the younger boys managed to get in a couple of good kicks to the newcomer’s ribs.
Joe heard Baz cry out in pain. Disgusted with what he was witnessing and no longer able to just stand there and watch as the boy was being assaulted by several of his classmates, Joe threw himself into the pile of boys, grabbing the smaller ones and literally tossing them from the pile to land on their rumps behind him.
Mitch stepped between the smaller youngsters and silently dared them not to interfere. It took several attempts on Joe’s part to finally separate the smaller, less aggressive boys from the three who continued pounding away at Baz.
Grabbing Henry by the collar of his shirt, Joe hauled the boy to his feet and spun him around so that they stood face to face. Before Henry had enough time to collect his senses, Joe doubled up his fist and slugged the other boy, sending him reeling over backwards.
For a fraction of a second, Henry sat on his butt, rubbing his sore chin. His eyes were dark with anger. When he hesitated to get up, Joe turned his attention back to the ruckus behind him and shoved Billy off to one side. He grabbed Cliff by the arm and attempted to pull him to his feet, but the other boy was bigger and stronger than Joe and as he spun around, seeing whom it was that was getting in his way, he slugged Joe. Dazed, Joe staggered backwards, but the lull in the fight between Dave, Cliff and Baz, was just enough that the Negro boy was able to get to his feet. Surprised by the interval in the brawl, it was as if time had stopped and everyone stood frozen…Baz turned and ran off into the woods and out of sight of the group of boys who watched his retreat.
Dave twirled around and glared at Joe. His teeth were clinched tightly together, his fingers were balled up into tight fists and before Joe could move, Dave lashed out and clipped Joe on the end of the chin. Startled, Joe staggered backwards twisting around and fell face down onto the ground. He jerked his head around and glared up at Dave who stood over him, a sneering expression on his face.
“That’ll teach ya to keep ya nose outta someone else’s business!” growled the angry youth. “Come on…lunch is about over,” he said to the others.
Dave stepped over Joe who had remained on the ground and made his way toward the school. Behind him trailed the line of students who had gathered around to witness the fight. Cliff and Henry snickered at the expression on Joe’s young face and then hurried to catch up with their comrade. Billy Morris managed to get in one good kick to Joe’s ribs as he stepped over him. Joe groaned, giving Billy a chance to move on.
Joe clutched his side with one hand as he accepted Mitch’s offered hand. Mitch pulled his friend to his feet.
“Whew,” sighed Mitch, “for a while there I thought I was gonna have to jump in and save ya.”
Joe, glancing at his friend, rolled his eyes upward and then snickered. “For a minute I thought you really might have too…wonder where Baz ran off to?”
“Probably home,” said Mitch as he snatched Joe’s hat from the ground and handed it to him. “Guess the boy does have a yellow streak in him…”
“Aw…that ain’t fair, Mitch, and ya know it. It was three against one and then when those little kids started kicking and gouging at him…well, I don’t blame him for running off…my pa always said it’s better to be a…”
“Golly damn, Little Joe…don’t go quoting ya pa again…I don’t really blame Baz for scooting…besides, he looked pretty scared…didn’t he?”
Both boys had begun to make their way back toward the schoolhouse. Joe shook his head slightly.
“Maybe…but I got an idea that he wasn’t as scare as he’d like all of us to think he was,” Joe surmised.
“What do you mean, Joe?”
“Well, he said, ‘I don’t wanna fight ya’; he didn’t say he was afraid to fight…and think, Mitch…he was out numbered…”
“’Cepting for you…and…maybe me,” Mitch smiled.
“Thanks…I think…”giggled Joe. “But for sure, Mitch, I couldn’t just stand there and watch the entire class of boys take turns hitting and kicking him…it ain’t right…no matter what color his skin is…”
The bell rang signaling that the lunch break was over. Joe and Mitch hurried so that they would not be counted as tardy and thus end up having to remain after school.
For the rest of the day, Joe was constantly aware of the evil glares given to him by Dave, Cliff, Henry, and Billy Morris and even a couple of the braver, younger boys. But he ignored them. The empty seat next to him kept his thoughts on the missing black boy and Joe spent the remainder of the day wondering about the lad: had Baz gone home, or was he hiding somewhere in the woods, waiting for the proper time to make his presence known at home? Joe wondered about Baz’s home and his parents…what would Mr. Reeves say when his son returned and he saw the dark bruises and the cut over his son’s eye? Would he become angry and pay a visit to Miss Jones…would his attackers be punished?
Joe glanced around the room at the perpetrators and silently wondered if he should tell the teacher about the way that the others had jumped the new student. No, decided Joe…he’d wait until he got home and then have a private talk with his father about the incident. Miss Jones was too high strung to handle a group of irate boys and Joe figured if she realized that the fight was racial, she’d go to the school board. And since his father and older brother were both on the board…well, thought Joe, he’d rather his father hear it from him instead of the overly-excitable schoolmarm who was most likely prone to swooning as well.
Joe slid down from his horse and looped the reins around the hitching post. As he headed toward the house, he wondered about the buggy and the strange horse that was tethered to the other rail.
The instant that Joe entered the house, he spied his father. Ben was talking to two gentlemen, both black. One man was much older; the other black gentleman was about his father’s age or perhaps a few years Ben’s junior. Both were dressed in overalls and had the look of being quite poor. Joe had no reason to ask who the strangers were; it was obvious that the men were Baz’s family members.
Joe heard his father excuse himself from the men as he came forward to greet his son. Ben wasn’t smiling, which troubled Joe and instantly Joe wondered what had brought the two men here…to meet with his father.
“Joseph,” Ben said as he placed his hand firmly on his son’s shoulder. “Come over here, I’d like you to meet my guests.”
Ben gently guided his son to the center of the great room.
“This is Joseph, my youngest son,” Ben said to the two men. “Joe, this is Luther Reeves and Baz’s grandfather, Willard Reeves.”
Joe smiled, extending his welcome by shaking hands with both men. “How do you do, sir?” Joe said to both. “It’s nice to make your acquaintances.”
Willard Reeves shook hands with the boy first, smiling warmly at the lad. Joe liked him instantly. Luther greeted Joe politely, but seemed more reserved than his father.
“Nice to meet ya, too,” Luther said but he wasn’t smiling. “My son’s told me about ya…how ya helped him out today, I mean,” Luther explained.
Joe swallowed and glanced at his father. Ben’s lips formed a small smile, putting Joe at ease.
“It wasn’t nothing,” Joe said, slightly embarrassed.
“Course it was,” the grandfather said quickly. “Ya could have been hurt…”
“Is Baz alright? I mean, he…ran off,” stammered Joe.
“He wasn’t scare’t…he just doesn’t like to fight…especially with white boys…he knows what could happen if’n he does,” Baz’s father was quick to speak up.
“Oh…I knew he wasn’t scared…I didn’t mean that. I just meant…I mean…I…” Joe looked to his father. He wasn’t sure what he was trying to say…and, he wasn’t at all sure that Baz hadn’t been…yellow, as some of the others had tried to claim.
“It’s alright, son. I think Mr. Reeves knows his son better than we do; of course he wasn’t scared,” Ben said.
“Baz knows that if’n he gets into trouble with the other boys at school, he might not be able to stay…and get an education,” Willard tried to explain.
“It wasn’t his fault; he didn’t start anything…honest,” Joe said in the other boy’s defense.
“We know that…my son doesn’t go around lookin’ for trouble…but it always seems to find him,” Luther said.
“I have some feelings as to how that might happen,” Ben said, looking with a smile toward his own son.
Joe grinned at his father and then turned back to the Reeves’. “He ain’t in trouble, is he?”
“No…at least we hope not; that’s why we come over here to speak with your father…we heard he was on the school board so’s we thought we might get this problem settled afor it got too far outta hand,” Willard Reeves explained.
“I think we can take care of it; my son Adam, and I will speak to the fathers of the boys involved and see if we can put a stop to the harassment,” Ben explained.
“Speak to’em if’n ya like, Mr. Cartwright…but it most likely won’t do no good. Them boys is prejudiced against us black folk…most white men are…it ain’t nothin’ new to us,” Luther said with more than a touch of remorse. “We was ahopin’ that by comin’ here…we might find a little peace in our lives, but looks like we ain’t.”
Luther nodded his head at Ben, smiled softly at Little Joe and headed for the door. “We thank ya…just for listenin’,” he said as he went out.
Willard held back, waiting for his son to close the door. He turned to Ben and Joe. “He don’t mean to sound so ungrateful, Mr. Cartwright…it’s just that…well, he’s suffered so many disappointments…”
“There’s no need to explain, Willard…I understand how he feels…” began Ben.
Willard shook his head slowly back and forth. His eyes took on a faraway expression. Joe glanced up at his father, confused by the change in the old man.
“No ya don’t, Mr. Cartwright. Ya think ya does, but lessen ya was born black and lessen ya ever been a slave…ya ain’t got no ideay how’s me and my boy feels. But I thank ya just the same,” muttered Willard.
In the next instance, the weathered old man was gone from the house. Joe watched his father as Ben walked slowly to the door and opened it. When he stepped outside onto the porch, Joe followed, standing silently next to his father.
When Ben sensed his son’s presence, he looked down, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulders. “Why do we go inside and you can tell me all about this?”
Half an hour later, Joe had finished explaining to both his father and brothers about the fight that had taken place that afternoon in the schoolyard. Joe also told his family about the snide remarks, the vile names and of the rude treatment that his classmates had been giving the new boy in school. He explained to his father why he had taken part in the brawl and how he could not stand by any longer and watch the young Negro boy being beaten as he was.
“I’m proud of you, son, for helping your new friend; however, I’m afraid that you’ve probably earned yourself some new enemies,” cautioned Ben.
“Yeah, Shortshanks,” Hoss said gravely, “from now on, you’ll most likely have’ta watch ya own back.”
“I know,” Joe sighed, “but what else could I do?”
“You might have told the teacher,” Adam advised.
Joe let the air blow from his lungs and cast doubtful eyes at his brother. “She couldn’t have done anything, Adam…they were like crazy people, jumping all over Baz and fists flying every which way…even the smaller kids were kicking at him…some of the girls even. No, Miss Jones would have only fainted!”
Adam had to cover his mouth with his hand to keep from laughing out loud. His younger brother was right; Abigail Jones would have swooned for sure.
“I guess you did the only thing you could have, Joe…but you could have been hurt badly. I don’t want to see that happen to you,” smiled Adam as he ruffled Joe’s curls.
“Mitch would have helped me…”
“Oh sure…that makes me feel better,” groaned Ben and then smiled at the look of confusion on his young son’s face. Ben laughed softly. “I suppose,” he said, turning to his oldest son, “we’d best call a meeting of all the parents and see if we can get this bullying stopped before someone actually does get hurt.” He turned to look down at Joe.
“I’m sorry, Pa…”
“Don’t be, son. I’ve already told you, I’m proud of you for taking a stand for what you knew to be right,” smiled Ben proudly. “But please, next time, let an adult handle it…”
“Hopefully there won’t be a next time,” Adam said. “Come on, Pa, we might as well get started.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Sam Brackett said as he stood before the group who had been called to attend the special meeting of the school board. “You have sons, Ben…you know what boys are like, sure they bicker and fuss and fight and sometimes it gets a little out of hand…but I’ve always let my boys settle their problems their way. It ain’t always right for a father to butt in…”
“This isn’t just the normal fussing and fighting between brothers…this is…”
“Nothing more than friends butting heads, Ben. I agree with Sam,” proclaimed Mr. Morris. “Leave them alone and it will die down, in time.”
“Mr. Morris, Sam, if you will excuse me for being so blunt, but from all that my father and I have learned, this is more than just a little bickering between friends. A boy was beaten and all because his skin was a different color. I call that racial…”
“I don’t care what you call it, Cartwright,” growled James Deaton. “My boy told me how it started, how that…that…Negro shoved Sam’s boy and knocked him to the ground. Dave was only protecting himself…”
“That’s not the story we heard,” Adam argued. “Dave, your boy, Cliff and some others have been harassing that boy…”
“That’s bull…my boy don’t go around starting fights, Ben…but he don’t run from them either…why, if he did, I’d take a strap to him and he knows it too!” barked Sam Brackett.
Ben shook his head in disgust. “Look, all we would like is for each of you to have a talk with your sons. Lay the law down to them and insist that the harassment has to stop, before someone gets badly hurt…”
“And what about your boy…”
“I’ve already had a talk with Little Joe; he’s been warned,” Ben stated.
“Well, someone better warn that Negro. My boy won’t back down from a fight!”
“Neither will mine, Ben.”
“Nor mine,” added Deaton.
“Tell me something, Ben…just what do you know about this Reeves family?” questioned James.
“Only what Baz’s father, Luther, and his grandfather, Willard, have told me…”
“And that is? I mean…how can you be so sure they ain’t runaways?” growled James.
“Well they’re not,” Adam hurried to assure the group.
“You know that for sure?”
“Yes…Mr. Reeves…the senior Reeves showed Pa and I his freeman papers. He and his son and grandson had been slaves. But when their owner became ill, he gave all three — Willard, Luther and Baz — their freedom. The paper is legal, signed and witnessed,” Adam explained.
“Adam’s tellin’ ya the truth,” Roy proclaimed. “Just to make certain, so’s there be no doubt, I sent a wire to the Governor back in Texas. All freed slaves have to be registered — it’s for their own protection — all three Reeves are named on the list of freed slaves.”
“Then they were slaves!” one man shouted.
“Were, Mr. Morris…past tense. Today, they are as free as you and I or any man in this room. They can come and go and do as they please…” started Ben.
“They ain’t free to beat up on our sons,” grumbled Deaton.
“No…but our sons are not free to beat up on theirs either…so we need to put a stop to the dissension now, before it’s too late. Please, speak with your sons. The school board will be forced to take more drastic actions if another fight erupts. Is that clear?”
“Alright, Cartwright. The last thing I want is for my boy to be expelled…but remember, the same goes for your boy,” Sam said in a firm voice.
“It will; I give you my word on that,” Ben agreed.
The men filed from the room. Ben could hear the soft murmurs of their voices as they wandered out into the night. He stood at the door and watched them mount up and ride off. When he turned back to Adam and Roy, his face showed his displeasure.
“I honestly don’t think we’ve solved anything tonight,” he muttered.
“Why not, Pa?”
“Because those men are prejudiced…that’s how their sons learn it; you can see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. They aren’t happy about having the Reeves living here, going to our school, worshipping in our church…shopping in our stores. Those men, those so called ‘good’ neighbors would have all three of the Reeves back in chains and shipped down south if they had their way about this,” Ben sighed.
“You just remember what Pa said, little brother; another fight, and you’ll be expelled,” warned Adam.
Adam was leaning on the hitching post watching his little brother mount up. Joe cast a weary glance down at his brother as he mounted his pinto.
“That’s the last thing I need, Adam,” Joe said, wearing a worried look. “I wanted to make my last year my best…I…” Joe paused. “I wanted to make Pa proud of me,” he said softly.
Adam smiled and moved closer to his kid brother. He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You don’t have to worry about that, kid; Pa is proud of you…in fact…we all are.”
Joe’s expression brightened, happiness shone in the depths of his hazel eyes. “Really?”
“Yes, really!” laughed Adam. “Now you best get going before you’re late…and remember, Joe…no fighting!”
Joe had swung onto his horse and was seated in the saddle. Cochise, anxious for his morning run, nothing of which his rider’s father knew anything about, pranced around in a circle.
“I’ll remember…but if that Dave Brackett and his bully friends start anything with me…I ain’t turnin’ the other cheek!” squealed Joe as he nudged Cochise in the sides, giving the pinto the go ahead as the horse broke into a run, kicking up dust with his hind hooves.
Adam turned his head slightly to keep the dust out of his eyes. The sounds of his brother’s laughter rang in his ears long after the boy and his horse had disappeared from his sight.
Little Joe had every intention of keeping his promise. He was secretly pleased to know that his family was proud of him; he’d always strived to make them so. He knew there were times that he had done things that had angered and disappointed his father, though those certain things hadn’t been done intentionally, the youngster had reaped the results of his actions on more occasions than the boy cared to remember.
Joe smiled to himself, determined not to let this present situation get him into more trouble than he’d ever seen. Getting expelled from school was something that Joe considered about the worst thing that could ever happen to a young man; it labeled him as a troublemaker…and Joe was having a hard enough time trying to live down the troublesome reputation that already dogged him.
‘No sirree,’ he said, nodding his head, ‘I won’t let those prejudice sons of…well…I just won’t let them goad me into their little mess they’ve made for themselves.’
The thought had just passed through his mind when out of the bushes appeared the subjects of his reflections. Dave, Billy, Cliff and Henry quickly blocked the road, forcing Joe to pull back on his reins and bring Cochise to a sudden and abrupt halt.
“Well, what do we have here?” snarled Dave.
Billy and Henry grabbed Cochise’s halter, preventing Joe from being able to turn his mount around.
“Get down!” ordered Dave who stood to Joe’s right.
“Why should I?” snapped Joe, trying to keep a close eye on all four boys.
“Because he told you to,” Cliff snarled as he grabbed for Joe’s arm and pulled him to the ground.
Joe landed with a thud at the boy’s feet. Billy and Henry released Cochise and Henry shouted and waved his hands in front of the pinto, startling the horse and causing him to bolt and run.
The four bullies circled Joe, who had jumped to his feet. Joe glanced around at the boys, trying to watch each one for any sudden moves.
“You ratted on us, Cartwright…”
“I did not.”
Joe spun around looking at the one who had called him a liar. From behind, he was shoved into the arms of the two facing him. The two roughly shoved him back. Joe staggered into the arms of Dave and Cliff who shoved him again. Billy and Henry stepped aside, letting Joe fall to the ground. Before Joe could get up, the four pounced on him, bombing him with their fists. Joe had no chance of fighting back; he was too busy trying to protect his face and body from the bombardment of fists.
Just as quickly as it had started, his attackers backed off. Joe lay on the ground, his arms folded across his mid-section. He glanced up at the foursome.
“That’s just a sample of what’s gonna happen if’n ya don’t start mindin’ ya own business, Cartwright. Now ya can go tattle to ya Pa…but if ya know what’s good for ya, ya won’t!” issued Dave. “The school board can’t expel us…this didn’t happen on school property…just remember that!”
“I ain’t a tattle tale, Dave…you’ve known me long enough to know better,” sputtered Joe as he pulled himself up from the ground and turned to look at each of his aggressors.
“Somebody told…and if’n it weren’t you, it had to be that slave boy!” Dave practically shouted as he turned to his comrades. “Come on, we’re gonna be late for school …”
Dave started toward his horse that was hidden in the brush. The others followed without so much as a backwards glance at Joe. Once the group had mounted up, Dave turned his horse around so that he towered over Joe.
“Just remember, Cartwright, keep your mouth shut…and stay out of our way…we won’t be so easy on ya the next time.”
Dave jerked his horse around, causing Joe to have to step back as he watched his former friends hightail it toward the school.
“Great,” muttered Joe aloud, “now I’m gonna be late…which means, I’ll most likely have to stay after school…which means trouble and either Pa or Adam will have to come looking for me.”
Joe dusted himself off, grabbed his hat that lay on the ground and grinned. “I hope it’s Adam…” He giggled softly. “I know how much my older brother enjoys visiting with Miss Abigail!”
Joe wasn’t smiling as he sat alone in the classroom with no one else other than his teacher. He looked toward the window, hoping that one of his family members might show up soon and rescue him from the ever-probing eye of his teacher. Joe wasn’t sure what was worse, the waiting or having to endure being alone with Miss Jones.
“I do declare, Joseph, I would have thought your father or…your brother Adam, would have been here by now to fetch you home,” rattled Miss Jones.
Joe looked up; his face bore a bored expression. “Don’t worry, I’m sure one of them will be here before much longer…it’s getting pretty late…and you know how my pa starts worrying,” Joe said.
He was beginning to get a bit worried himself. As he glanced out the window for the hundredth time, his thoughts began to run rampart as to what his father would say once he got there. Joe gulped and signed deeply. “Miss Jones…couldn’t we do this…say…tomorrow?”
Abigail stood to her feet and moved around her desk. As she stooped to look out the window, Joe saw her suddenly smile and begin to smooth back her hair. Adam was coming; he knew the signs. But was that good, being that his father wasn’t the one to have to make the long trip into town to fetch him home, or was it bad? Was it bad because, knowing how Adam hated to have to face the schoolmarm, it could spell even worse disaster for him?
“Why hello, Adam,” Miss Jones smiled, beaming at his brother as Adam entered the schoolhouse.
Miss Jones stood in the doorway. Adam stopped just short of the entrance. Joe could clearly see that his brother’s smile was forced.
“Good afternoon, Miss Jones,” Adam said rather stiffly, thought Joe.
Joe gulped again and hurried to meet his brother as Adam inched his way inside.
“I’ve come for Little Joe,” Adam announced, glaring at the younger boy. “What kind of trouble has he managed to get into this time?”
“I wasn’t fighting!” Joe stammered quickly.
“Well, that’s something…”
“He was tardy this morning, Adam. Joseph had some lame excuse about his horse getting away from him…but he was covered in dirt and dust…”
“I explained that I fell off my horse…”
Adam’s dark eyes looked suspiciously at his brother. “You…fell off?” Adam watched as Joe lowered his head, not meeting his eyes.
“I suppose it could have happened, Adam,” Miss Jones stated.
“I’d say Little Joe was telling you the truth, ma’am; his horse came home soon after Joe had left. Pa was on his way into town and rode by the school to check on Joe; he happened to see him just as he went inside…so we weren’t worried until he didn’t come home…Pa was going to let him walk, but then it started getting late and…well…you know how our father worries so over his youngest cub…”
Adam was babbling and all the while trying to inch further and further away from the teacher, who was blushing deeply.
“I wasn’t sure…you know how Joe tends to stretch the truth at times, Adam…I kept him here with me because I wanted to be sure that you…or your father…became aware that he might be dawdling…and I knew you’d come…ere…you or your father that is…”
Joe snickered softly, drawing a look of warning from his brother. Quickly he changed his expression to one of pure innocence.
“I wasn’t dawdling, honest, ma’am…” Joe said.
“Well, alright, Joseph, I believe you,” Miss Jones smiled, but not at Little Joe. Her blue eyes were too busy devouring her pupil’s brother’s handsome face to pay much attention to Joe.
Adam clamped his hand down on Joe’s shoulder and turned his brother toward the door, forcing Joe to walk – quickly, thought Joe — to the door.
“Thank you Miss Jones…I’ll have a serious little talk with the boy and make sure that he learns to hold on tighter and not fall off his horse anymore. Move!” he whispered to Joe.
Before the teacher could say another word, Joe was marched from the building and across the yard to where Adam had tied both his horse and Cochise.
“Mount up…now…you little scamp!” muttered Adam as he swung into the saddle. Out of politeness, he tipped his hat at Abigail who stood out front and waved goodbye.
“Good bye…Adam!” Miss Jones cooed.
Adam and Joe had ridden in silence for about a mile before bringing his horse to a stop. Joe nudged Cochise up along side his brother and then brought his own horse to a halt.
Adam turned to his brother. Joe noted that Adam was not smiling, not that he had expected him to be. It was obvious to the younger of the two that Adam was mad, and it showed in his eyes and the way his jaw was set and how the older Cartwright clinched and unclenched it.
“I’m sorry, Adam…I didn’t mean to be late this morning…” Joe said quickly, hoping to soothe his brother’s anger before Adam exploded and started yelling at him.
Adam twisted his long, lean body around in the saddle so that he could face his brother. He had a disgusted smirk on his face, but the anger was not as pronounced in his eyes. “You didn’t think I actually believed that story about you falling off your horse, did you?” he asked Joe.
Joe puckered up his lips, looking doubtful. “Ya didn’t?” he stammered.
Shaking his head, Adam’s lips almost formed a smile. “What really happened?”
Joe swallowed, trying not to look guilty. “Just like I told Miss Jones…I…”
The air rushed from his lungs as Joe chanced a quick glance at his brother. “Promise ya won’t tell Pa?”
“No…I won’t make such a promise. Tell me what really happened and then I’ll decide how to handle it…if it’s something that I think Pa should be made aware of…then you know I’ll have to tell him…he isn’t exactly pleased that you’re so late, you know.”
“He’s pretty mad then, heh?” Joe asked meekly.
“He’s mad…yes…you left chores undone. And you were suppose to stop by the hardware and pick up that special order for Pa that was suppose to come in today…and now the store’s closed,” Adam reminded his brother.
Joe slapped his hand to his forehead and groaned. “Oh dadburnitall,” he grumbled. “I forgot all about that, Adam. Pa will have my hide for sure now…” whined Joe. His expression was so pitiful that his brother laughed.
Joe eyed his brother seriously. “It ain’t…ere…isn’t funny! You know how Pa is when he starts yelling…he rattles the windows in the entire house…”
Leaning back, Adam reached into his saddlebag and pulled a brown sack out and held it up for Joe to see.
“Don’t fret so, little brother…once again, I’ve managed to save your hide,” Adam said as a twisted smile spread across his face.
Joe’s sigh was so deep that his brother started laughing. “Thanks, Adam…really, I mean it!”
“Forget it…I know you’ve had your mind on other things for the last several days,” Adam said as he stuffed the sack back down into his saddlebag.
“Yeah…those bullies make everyone’s lives miserable. I never knew they were like that…prejudiced I mean. Adam, ya oughta seen them; they’ve changed since Baz and his family moved here. It’s like I don’t even know them…and all this time, I thought of them as my friends…”
“And now?” questioned Adam.
The smile was gone; Joe was worried about the situation, it was plain to see how bothered the youngster was about how his friends had been treating the colored boy. “I don’t need friends like them, Adam…”
“By some chance, were they the reason why you were late this morning?”
Joe’s lips were pursed tightly together. He nodded his head up and down. “They stopped me at the forks this morning…shoved me off my horse and proceeded to push me around some,” admitted Joe.
“They didn’t hurt you, did they?”
“Naw, Dave said it was just to help me remember to stay out of his way. It was a warning, Adam…I think they may be planning something…he was mad because his pa jumped on him about picking on Baz…”
“What do you think they’re planning on doing?”
“That’s just it…I don’t know. But he said the school board couldn’t do nothin’ to him cause I wasn’t on school property, so it wouldn’t do me any good to tattle…which I wasn’t gonna do anyway. Say, Adam…you won’t tell Pa, will ya? I don’t want more trouble…and if he thinks Dave and his bunch of thugs are gonna start pestering me…well, you know how Pa can be…he still treats me like a little kid at times.”
Adam had looked away, considering what he should do; he fell silent for several long moments.
Adam turned to look Joe’s way. The boy looked even more worried. “Joe, when Pa asks me, I can’t lie to him…and neither can you,” Adam said gently.
“We don’t gotta lie, Adam. I’ll just tell him I fell off my horse and before I could get up, Cooch ran off…”
“Joe!” Adam said, rolling his eyes slightly.
“Well…I…did fall off…sort of,” Joe said, watching his brother’s expression and seeing the consideration that was beginning to show on Adam’s face.
“I don’t know,” Adam muttered. He couldn’t believe that he was actually considering Joe’s suggestion.
“You won’t have to say a word…I’ll tell him…that way, you won’t be lying…please, Adam…please?” begged Joe. He lowered his head slightly and watched his brother from under lower lashes. When he saw Adam take a deep breath and look his way, Joe moved his head up ever so slightly and forced his expression to look pitiful. As always, it worked.
“Alright, Joe…but on one condition…”
“What?” Joe asked quickly.
“You come straight to me if Dave or any one of his bully friends so much as look as if they’re going to start trouble.”
“I promise…and thanks, Adam…”
“Joe…I mean it. This trouble is getting way out of hand and it has to stop. Pa and I have been talking, and he’s worried…someone is liable to get hurt badly…or worse…”
“I understand…honest I do and I’ll come to you…I promise…now come on, let’s get home before Pa gets too mad…”
Joe slapped Cochise on the rump and took of at a run before Adam had barely finished giving the final instructions to his kid brother.
It was Adam’s time to sigh deeply. “I don’t know how you do it, Pa,” he muttered into the wind.
He kicked gently at his mount’s side and raced after his brother, catching up to Joe in a matter of a few seconds. They raced side by side down the open road, slowing only minutes before coming into view of the ranch house.
“We better cool these horses before we ride in,” Adam warned with a grin at Joe.
“That was fun…” snickered Joe. He leaned forward and petted Cochise’s neck. “He sure is something, ain’t he, Adam,” Joe asked with pride.
Adam watched the happy expression on his younger brother’s face and smiled to himself.
“Yeah, kid…he sure is…and so are you!”
Joe was just about to make a comment when he spied his father coming from the house. Ben had his hands firmly on his hips. His expression was dark.
“Ut-oh,” Joe muttered.
“Well,” said Ben gruffly, “it’s about time you got home!”
Joe glanced meekly at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said quickly, “but I can explain…you see…”
“Joseph…” Ben interrupted, “I’m sure you can…Adam, would you take the horses, please?”
Adam quickly did as asked and reached for Cochise’s reins. Ben pivoted on his heels and started toward the house. Adam grabbed the sack from his saddlebag and managed to toss it to Joe without their father seeing the exchange.
As if on cue, Ben stopped and turned. “Joseph, did you remember to stop at the hardware…”
Joe held the sack up for Ben to see. The frazzled looking expression on Ben’s face changed and he smiled down at his son, taking the sack from Joe’s hand.
“Ha,” said Ben, “I was betting you’d forget!” He laughed, placing his arm across the back of Joe’s shoulder as he walked with his son toward the house.
Joe cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Adam who had paused on his way to the barn. He saw his younger brother wink and returned the silent thanks with a quick smile.
“Joseph, you’re going to have to be more careful,” groaned Ben as he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. He stopped to look at the boy. “I don’t understand how on earth you managed to ‘fall’ off your horse!”
“Maybe ya oughta tie yaself to the saddle horn,” snickered Hoss who had been listening to his brother’s explanation as to why he had been late for school that morning and why he’d been held over.
Joe gave Hoss a disgusted glare. “It ain’t funny,” he snapped.
“Of course it’s not funny,” Ben said as he too glared at Hoss. “Your brother could have been hurt, Hoss…” Ben’s eyes took on a faraway look.
Somehow, both Hoss and Joe knew exactly what their father was thinking, or remembering.
Joe moved closer, placing his hand on his father’s arm. “Don’t worry, Pa…I’ll be more careful, honest,” he said softly.
Ben glanced down, smiling. “Alright, son…please do. Now, you’ve missed supper. Are you hungry?”
Thinking it best that he not give his father any more time to question him, Joe shook his head. “No, sir…I have some homework I need to do, so I’ll just do that and then I think I’ll turn in…if that’s okay with you?”
“That’s fine, son…don’t stay up too late…”
“I won’t,” called Joe already racing up the stairs.
The door opened and Adam entered just in time to see his youngest brother disappear around the corner of the upstairs wall. Ben turned to Adam.
“Something wrong, Pa?” quizzed Adam, wondering why his father was looking at him so strangely.
“That boy must take me for a fool,” Ben said in a low tone.
Adam’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh?” he managed to say as he turned away. Obviously his father had not been fooled by his brother’s story.
“Fall off his horse…really! You’d have to be blind not to have seen that bruise on the end of his chin…someone’s taken a punch at that boy!”
Adam’s back was to his father so that Ben could not see the surprised look on his face. But Hoss saw it, though he never let on. Their eyes met briefly. Adam’s thoughts were racing; how had he managed to miss something so obvious, he wondered. Ah…he remembered; he had been so intend on trying to escape from Miss Abigail Jones that he had paid little to no attention to his brother’s physical appearance.
“Whatever he’s hiding…I can only wonder…Adam do you…”
“I’m bushed,” Adam said unexpectedly. He yawned and then stretched. “I think I’ll turn in. Night Pa, night Hoss,” he said as he practically ran up the stairs.
Both Hoss and Ben stared blankly at the staircase. At last Ben turned to Hoss.
“Don’t ask me…this time I really don’t know nuthin’!” Hoss said quickly as he too made a hasty retreat to his room.
“Just be careful, Joe,” Adam cautioned his brother. The pair was saddling their horses and was alone in the barn. “I don’t mind riding in with you, or at least part way,” Adam offered.
Joe was frowning as he looked up at his brother. “I ain’t a kid no more, Adam…I can take care of myself,” Joe said matter-of-factly.
“I know…but you have to admit, Joe…you were sort of out numbered.”
“Yeah…but…well, I appreciate the offer big brother, but if the fellas see you riding in with me…it’ll only make things worse…” Joe swung himself into the saddle.
“I guess it would at that, but just the same, buddy, watch yourself,” Adam said as he mounted up and headed his horse in the opposite direction.
“I will…and thanks, Adam…for understanding…and for not ratting on me with Pa last night,” Joe smiled.
“I don’t think he believed you, Joe…that bruise on your chin told another story…then he tried to question me…but I hurried off to bed.” Adam glanced toward the house. “Better get going; here he comes now…see you tonight, pal,” Adam said as he nudged his horse and rounded the corner of the barn before his father had a chance to speak to him.
When Joe looked around and saw his father heading in his direction, he spun his horse around and kicked sharply at the horse’s side, causing Cochise to break into a run. Seconds later, Joe was gone as well and on his way to school.
As he rode along, Joe kept a sharp eye on his surroundings. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of the day before and a chance encounter with the gang of thugs that had suddenly turned his last year of school into a living nightmare, not only for him but also for almost everyone in school.
He had nearly reached the outskirts of Virginia City where the school was located when he suddenly brought his horse to stop. From behind a small grove of trees, Joe could hear what he thought to be laughing, and talking and then shouts and angry cries. Slipping quickly down from the saddle, Joe crept along until he was standing at the edge of the grove and peered through the branches of the trees. What he saw turned his heart cold with fear. On the ground lay Baz Reeves. Standing over the Negro boy was Dave, Cliff, Henry and Billy. The boy on the ground was moaning; his arms were folded across his mid-section. Dirt covered the boy’s tattered clothing.
“Get up!” Dave snarled.
“No!” cried Baz.
“I said, GET UP!” Dave shouted as he and his friends grabbed at the boy and hauled him roughly to his feet where they began hammering at the defenseless youth once more.
Joe had seen enough. With a loud cry, he dove into the circle of young men and began fighting. Fists flew every which way. Joe was hit and sent reeling over the black youth who had been knocked to the ground. Undaunted by the fall, Joe sprang to his feet and charged at the boy nearest him. Arms and legs tangled together as the pair fought until Joe was once more sent tumbling to the ground. Slightly dazed by the blow to the side of his head, he lay where he had fallen, but watched the group of four former friends who stood over both Baz and himself.
“You’ll regret this, Cartwright,” Dave shouted, waving a fist at the younger boy. “I warned you about buttin’ in…now ya better start watchin’ ya back!”
“Come on, Dave, let’s get outta here before someone else happens by,” Cliff said as he pushed the angered Dave Brackett toward their horses.
Dave pushed Cliff’s hands from his arms and turned to Baz; all the hate he felt for the dark skinned boy, showed in his eyes and in the expression on his dirt smudged face. He pointed a finger at the lad. “And you, stay away from our school…better yet…get the hell outta Virginia City…your kind ain’t wanted around here…or needed. All the hell you’re good for is pickin’ cotton…!”
Dave swung onto the back of his horse and jerked the animal around, still glaring at the two boys who remained on the ground. For a moment more, he stared at them and then kicked his horse riding off after his cohorts.
Joe wiped the dirt from his face and looked at Baz, who was still sitting on his backside. Getting to his feet, he offered the other boy his hand. Baz grabbed it, allowing Joe to pull him to his feet. Once upright, he refused to let go of Joe’s hand. Momentarily puzzled, Joe looked into the boy’s dark eyes, surprised to the anger that reflected back at him.
To Joe’s surprise, Baz doubled up his free hand and slugged Joe on the jaw. When Baz released Joe’s hand, the boy went tumbling over backwards, falling for the third time that morning into the dirt. His anger swelling, Joe clamored to his feet and spun around, facing the black boy.
“What the hell was that for?” he demanded.
“That’s for stickin’ ya damn nose in my business…again!” growled Baz, obviously ready to do battle. “I’m sick of ya always tryin’ to do my fightin’ for me…don’t ya think I can fight my own battles?”
With that, Baz charged at Joe and the battle between the races was on once again. For several long moments, the boys fought against one another, arms and legs became entangled as the pair rolled over the ground, slugging and hitting at one another’s body, not really caring where their punches landed just as long as contact was made.
Joe was amazed at the strength in the other boy’s arms and the power behind each punch. It was only minutes into the fight that the youngest Cartwright was aware of how out-matched he was. Baz’s hard blows soon did their job as Joe’s waning strength began to dwindle and the punches took their toll. Joe lay face down in the dirt; his breathing was rapid and strained. Every muscle in his body throbbed and ached.
Baz, winded, backed up from his opponent. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees as he gulped in air to fill his straining lunges. Glancing at Joe who was just beginning to get up, he straightened to his full height. “That’s just so’s ya’ll know; I might be black…but I ain’t yella,” the Negro youth stated as he turned and left Joe to his own misery.
By the time that Joe was able to stand, Baz was gone and nowhere to be seen. Disgusted by the turn of events, Joe dusted himself off and made his way to his horse. Groaning, he climbed into the saddle and headed on toward the school. Naturally he was late again. Miss Jones was busy writing numbers on the blackboard when Joe finally made his way inside and to his seat. She turned, surprised to see the bruises and smudges of dirt on the boy’s face, but she said nothing as she turned back to the board.
Joe glanced across the room at Dave and his band of bullies. They were snickering and laughing at him, but he didn’t care. He was mad…mad at Baz for making him feel like a fool for trying to help him and mad at himself for not taking his father’s advise and staying out of something that did not concern him. But mostly, Joe was mad at himself for getting into a situation where he’d now have no other choice but to admit to his father his involvement in the ongoing feud between the two races. Why, he asked himself…why was he always sticking his nose in other people’s business…..he’d learn the truth soon enough…though right then, he didn’t know that.
For the remainder of the day, Joe kept pretty much to himself, even going so far as to avoid the bullies during the lunch break. He and Mitch sat alone under a tree. Mitch ate his lunch hungrily, but Joe only nibbled at the chicken leg Hop Sing had sent along.
“You gonna tell me what happened to you this morning?” Mitch said after he swallowed what was in his mouth.
“You can see for yourself, can’t you?” Joe answered. He glanced around at Dave and the others. The boys were mounting their horses, leaving the yard. Joe only briefly wondered where they might be going…though he really didn’t care. He was just glad to see them leave.
“They do that to your face?”
Joe sighed and crammed the chicken back into his sack, shaking his head from side to side. “Naw…at least, not all of it…”
“Then who, Joe…ya gonna tell me or not?” Mitch said impatiently.
“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” answered Joe unhappily.
“Try me,” Mitch dared.
Joe looked up at his friend with a look of disappointment in his hazel eyes. “Baz Reeves…”
“Shh…keep your voice down; I don’t want everybody in school to know!” fussed Joe.
“Why on earth did he do that?”
“’Cause,” exclaimed Joe, “I suppose he didn’t like me trying to help him out.” Joe tossed his sack lunch into the garbage.
Mitch trailed along behind his buddy.
“Oh,” Joe said, pausing and turning around so that he could face Mitch. “Just so’s you’ll know, he ain’t yella either…and he ain’t afraid to fight!”
By the end of the day, when his tardiness had not been mentioned, Joe felt pretty confident that when class was dismissed for the day, Miss Jones had forgotten all about it. As Joe hurried to gather his things and make his way to the door, sure that he had escaped punishment, he heard the dreaded voice call out to him in her somewhat whining tone.
“Oh Joseph, could you wait just a minute, please…I’d like a word with you…”
Joe paused in the doorway, rolling his eyes upward and causing Mitch to giggle.
“Want me to wait for ya?” Mitch whispered.
“Naw…I’ll probably have to wait until Pa or Adam comes lookin’ for me…again,” groaned Joe.
Mitch nodded his agreement and started on his way, stopping to call after Joe. “You won’t have to wait long, Little Joe…here comes ya Pa now…and look who he has with’em!” Mitch called.
Joe looked in the direction that Mitch had pointed and then made a moaning sound. Headed toward the school were his father and Mr. Reeves. Both looked put out about something; Joe could only wonder in dread.
“Joseph!” Miss Jones called again.
“Coming, ma’am,” Joe answered. “So’s my pa…and Mr. Reeves,” Joe explained as he smiled, a bit sickly, up at his father as Ben stepped up to his son.
“Joseph,” greeted Ben.
“Howdy, Pa…ere…why are you…here?” he asked, swallowing hard.
“Mr. Reeves and I would like a word with the teacher,” Ben explained. “Come inside, son; I think you should hear this as well…considering the looks of your face…”
Ben and Mr. Reeves moved into the class, greeting the teacher.
“Why, Mr. Cartwright…I was expecting you…but certainly not this soon…” Abigail said, glancing from one man to the other and then over at Joe. “Hello, Mr. Reeves…I missed your son in class today…is he ill?”
“No ma’am…he ain’t ill,” Mr. Reeves said politely.
“Oh,” stammered the teacher. “Surely he didn’t play hooky?”
“No, Miss Jones,” Ben said, speaking up in defense of Baz. “It seems that on the way to school this morning,” Ben started to explain, taking a breath and glancing at his own son, “Baz met with…lets say, an unfortunate accident…he was assaulted!”
Abigail’s hand flew to her mouth; her blue eyes widened in horror. “Oh dear me,” she cried. “Not again! Was he hurt badly?”
“No, but…well, this time he swears that he isn’t coming back to school…which is ridiculous,” Ben declared. “He has every bit as much right to an education as any other young person.”
“Oh course he does,” Miss Jones agreed. “Who was it that attacked him?”
“He wouldn’t say, ma’am,” Luther Reeves answered, though he cast a wary eye in Little Joe’s direction.
“You looks to’hva been in a fight, son…who ya been fightin’ with?” Luther surprised Joe by asking.
Joe’s heart suddenly started to pound; tiny beads of perspiration beaded instantly on his brow. He looked down, afraid to answer, afraid to speak for fear of what his father would think. After a long moment, he causally looked up at Ben. He wasn’t surprised to see that he was being watched.
“Joseph, Mr. Reeves asked you a question; please answer the man.”
There was no getting around the truth, not this time. “Baz,” Joe said in a wee voice.
He looked up to see the horror in his father’s eyes. In his throat, a lump the size of a piece of coal had suddenly sprouted. Joe heard Miss Jones gasp in surprise and Mr. Reeves sighed deeply.
“But it ain’t for the reason you think, Pa…honest…” Joe exclaimed.
“What’cha got agin my boy?” Luther asked.
Joe turned to see the hurt and disappointment in the man’s face. Luther Reeves looked like a defeated man. “I thought…of all the boys my son had met…ya would be…cause of the type of man ya pa is boy, a friend to my Baz…but I reckon I figured wrong,” Luther sighed.
“I am his friend!” proclaimed Joe loudly. He looked to his father, silently pleading with Ben to believe him. “Honest, Pa…”
“What happened, Joe…why on earth were you fighting with him? I would never have thought of you as being prejudiced toward another person…no matter what color his skin!”
“I ain’t, Pa…I ain’t! Really, I ain’t! He didn’t want me to help him…he wouldn’t fight…and when I saw what they were doing to him…I tried to help him! Honest, Pa…honest, Mr. Reeves!” Joe spun around to face the teacher. “You gotta believe me, Miss Jones…I didn’t attack him…he jumped me…”
“Joseph, calm down son,” Ben said as he placed both hands on his son’s shoulders. “What are you talking about? Who was doing what to Baz…”
Mr. Reeves moved to Joe’s side and rested his hand on Joe’s arm. “And what do you mean, ‘he jumped’ you? Are you saying my boy started a fight with you? I find that hard to believe…considerin’ what it cost the boy the last time he got caught fightin’ with a white boy…”
“Just start at the beginning, Joe, and tell us what happened,” Ben encouraged.
“I was ridin’ in this morning, on my way to school; I didn’t want to be late…” Joe glanced at his teacher. “Sorry, Miss Jones,” he added and then continued on. “I was almost here when I heard something in that little grove of trees down the road. So I stopped to see what was going on…that’s when I saw…some fellows beating up on Baz…”
“Who were they, son?”
Joe lowered his head to avoid looking directly at his father. He knew that once he named names, all hell would break loose. Ben placed his hand gently under Joe’s chin and tilted his head upward. “Joe…we have to know the truth, son…you see, Baz wasn’t the only one hurt today.”
“Why…did something else happen?” Joe wanted to know.
“Yes, son, when he went home, his grandfather found him in the barn. He made Baz tell him who it was that he’d been having the trouble with…and Willard, went to pay a visit to certain men…instead, he encountered their sons or so we believe…and they…beat the old man up pretty badly, Joe…he isn’t expected to live…”
“What?” cried Joe, stunned at the news.
“That’s right, Joe. We have a pretty good idea that it was the boys, not their fathers, but we have to know for sure…”
“Didn’t Mr. Reeves tell you?” Joe asked quietly.
“He was in shock, son…He couldn’t say. And Baz is blaming himself for what happened to his grandfather and he’s vowed to get revenge…so he won’t say, he’s keeping it to himself…”
Upon hearing that his friend could cause real trouble for himself and his family…and knowing now that the elder Reeves might possibly die, Joe didn’t hesitate any longer, he blurted out the names.
“It was Dave Brackett…and his bully friends, Cliff, Billy Morris and Henry…they had Baz down on the ground, beating him. I jumped in to help…and then they ran off, swearing to get even with both of us…Baz ’cause he’s a…” Joe stopped himself before he said the wrong word. “Because he’s a Negro, and me…because I helped him. Baz got mad at me…for trying to help him. He accused me of fighting his battles for him…he thinks I thought he was…yell…I mean, afraid to fight…that’s when he turned on me…”
Joe glanced from one to the other. “I was only trying to help him out, Pa…honest, honest, Mr. Reeves. I didn’t think of him as being yellow like the fellas claimed he was…but I wasn’t sure why he wouldn’t fight them…he’s sure strong enough, bigger too, and he can throw a pretty good right punch!”
“My son don’t like to fight, Joe…about three years ago…when we was still slaves, Baz got into a fight one night…with the son of our owner…the owner’s son accused him of cheatin’ at cards…Baz and he…well Baz got the best of him too. But the master…well…he liked my Baz and all…but being as how his son was hurt …the master, he had to do what he’d always swore to do to one of us if’n we got outta line. He had to punish Baz…so…he tied my boy to the whippin’ post…and…since it was the overseer’s job to discipline us blackies, well…the master he had to let the overseer…whip my boy.”
Luther hung his head as tears filled his eyes at the memory. “I thought for sure that man were gonna rip the hide plum off’a my son’s back…and he nearly did too. Bass will bare those scars for the rest of his life…”
Luther Reeves took a deep breath and let it blow from his lungs. He looked with sad eyes at Ben and Joe. “That’s why Bass won’t fight…unlessen he’s pushed too far. I’s ‘afeared for my boy, Mr. Cartwright…he’s liable to do more’n just fight this time…I’s afeared he’s gonna kill somebody…if’n his granddaddy should die…”
Abigail stood with her hand over her mouth, stunned to hear the story behind this man’s sad, unhappy life and that of his young son. Joe looked at his father; tears glistened in his own eyes as he moved closer. Ben’s arms encircled his son’s quivering body. The boy was visibly upset.
“I’ll do my best to see that doesn’t happen, Luther. I’m going to the sheriff’s office right now and have a word with Roy. Why don’t you go see your father; he’s over at Doc Martin’s,” Ben suggested.
“Alright, Mr. Cartwright…I’ll trust ya to see about those responsible…”
“Joe, you come with me, son. Roy may want you to tell him exactly what happened this morning…and… Am I to assume that the same thing happened yesterday…was that the real cause for you being late then, as well?”
Joe nodded his head. “Yes sir…Dave and the others stopped me…to, as they said, to warn me to keep my nose of their business.”
“What are we gonna do, Dave?” Henry asked.
The band of thugs was hiding out in a barn. They were keenly aware of what they had done, though at the time, they had paid little attention to the consequences of their actions. Now, with the law after them, the boys were suddenly worried about their futures.
“We didn’t mean to hurt that old man…” continued Henry.
“What if he dies?” worried Billy Morris. “My old man will whip the hide off by backside…”
“That ain’t likely,” Dave, who looked more than a little worried himself, announced.
“What do you mean?” Cliff asked.
“They ain’t gonna know it was us…” smiled Dave suddenly. He spun around and faced the others. “The only one who knows…or suspects it was us…is the black kid…and we know he ain’t talkin’.”
“Maybe…but that Cartwright kid knows we’ve been giving the Reeves brat some trouble. What if he tells his old man about what’s been going on…they’ll start nosing around asking questions…”
“So…who’s gonna tell them anything? I’m certainly not…” Dave smiled at last. “And…we could fix it so Joe Cartwright knows better’n to open his mouth…”
“How…what’cha planning on doing?” Henry questioned.
“I say we shut Cartwright up once and for all. We can make it look as if the Reeves kid had something to do with it…you saw that black son-of-a-gun charge after Little Joe this morning didn’t ya?”
“Sure…but our pas know we’ve been fighting Reeves…remember…the school board threatened to expel anyone caught fighting again…”
“Then we make them believe it was Ben Cartwright’s son causing all the ruckus…we were only trying to protect ourselves…we can swear we ain’t fought no one since we got the warning…and then…” Dave laughed. “Ben Cartwright will have to expel his own son!”
“How we gonna keep Cartwright quiet?”
“Just like I said…we’ll drag him off into the woods, do away with him…and then have Reeves find the boy. Once Reeves finds Little Joe, we can say we saw him kill the boy. Who’s gonna believe an ex-slave? ’Specially when someone as important as Ben Cartwright’s son is found dead…with a Negro standing over the body…”
“That might solve one problem, but what about the old man…what if he lives and tells the sheriff who really beat him up?” Billy Morris wanted to know.
“Simple…we make sure he don’t tell a soul…”
“You mean…kill him too? Ain’t that takin’ things a bit too far, Dave…I mean…I understand why ya hate Little Joe…you always have…but to actually kill him and an old man…I don’t know…”
“You wanna hang? ‘Cause that’s what’s gonna happen if they find out it was us that beat that old man to death. If you don’t want no part in taking care of Cartwright, I’ll do it…and enjoy it too…you and the others can take care of Baz Reeves…”
“Long as we don’t gotta kill him,” Cliff said.
“No…just make sure he finds Little Joe when I’m finished with the kid…”
Dave motioned for the others to move closer. He lowered his voice. “Now listen up…here’s what we’re gonna do…………..”
“Ben, I’ll ride out right now and have a talk with that Dave Brackett’s father. He ain’t a bad sort, but he is…” Roy cast an anxious eye at Joe who had just finished explaining to the sheriff the events of the day and of the previous day when he was confronted by the group of boys. “Well, he ain’t never made no secret about how he feels toward different sorts of folks here abouts.”
“No, he sure hasn’t. I’ve seen how he’s treated some of the Chinese…but I still don’t think he’d hold still for his son beating up an old man,” Ben said.
“I don’t know, Ben…I figure he’ll try to make excuses for the boy…just like the other night when he met with the school board…”
“Pa,” Joe said, butting in during the lull in the conversation.
“What is it Joe?”
“I need to run back to the school and get something…I have a report due on Monday and I need my book.”
“Alright, you run along. I’m meeting Adam and Hoss down at the International House for supper. I think we’ll stay in town for a while tonight until we hear from Doc Martin about how Mr. Reeves is. Don’t you dillydally…get your things and meet us there in fifteen minutes,” Ben ordered.
Joe smiled and nodded his goodbyes to the sheriff. “I will, Pa…I won’t be long, I promise.”
Joe raced down the street toward the schoolhouse, hoping that Miss Jones was still there and had not locked the door. He had forgotten all about the report that was due on Monday. The assignment had been made last week and…well, thought Joe, with so much going on around him and in his head, the required essay had completely slipped his mind.
He was almost to the clearing where the little red building sat when he heard his name being called. Joe stopped and turned around, recognizing a young boy who attended school but was a grade or two behind him.
“Little Joe…wait…Little Joe,” cried the breathless lad as he ran toward Joe.
“Timmy…what’s wrong?” Joe asked the minute the boy reached his side.
Timmy was doubled over trying to catch his breath. “Ya gotta help him…they’s killing him,” cried the boy.
Joe glanced in the direction that he had seen the boy coming from but could not see a thing. “Help who, Timmy…who’s killing who?” Joe said as he squatted down and grabbed the boy by the shoulders to hold him still.
Timmy pointed off toward the grove of trees where he had been that morning.
“What’s going on…tell me?” Joe ordered more forcibly.
“There…in those trees…those boys…they’re beating up on that darkie…that new boy…” explained Timmy frantically.
“Baz?” muttered Joe, looking again toward the grove of trees.
“Yeah…please ya gotta help him…his grandfather died and he’s swore to kill them…but they’re killing him instead…hurry, hurry……..”
Joe hesitated only slightly before breaking into a run. “Here I go again,” raced Joe’s thoughts.
Never thinking to look behind him, Joe missed the little boy who stood grinning and tossing a coin up in the air and then catching it in his hand. Timmy stuffed the coin into his pocket and whistling, skipped back toward town.
Joe entered the clearing ready to do battle, but was stunned to find that he was alone. Angered that he had been tricked, he muttered to himself. “Dadburn that little weasel! Just wait until I get my hands on him….”
Two steps from the edge of the clearing and Joe suddenly found himself knocked to the ground. The breath gushed from his lungs as he struggled to get up but too many hands pinned him to the ground. Fists pounded his face; sharp-toed boots kicked his sides, cracking his ribs. Someone had a club and used it to hammer at his body, striking wherever it landed. A sharp pain zigzagged through his head. He tasted blood in his mouth; the dirt that billowed up into his face blinded his eyes. Someone cursed; another blow to his stomach, two to his ribs. Joe heard his own voice cry out in agony and then as quickly as it had started, it stopped.
First one and then the other and then two more bodies were pulled from his. Joe felt the weight on his back decrease. Too numb to move, he lay in the dirt and gravel, moaning as the intense pain shot up and outward to all points in his body. He could hear voices, more cursing, someone screamed. A deeper voice shouted a threat, but all Joe could manage to do was turn his head. Blood dripped into his eyes, causing more blindness. The wounded lad tried to wipe it away, smearing it instead across his face and down his chin. More voices, but they seemed further away, as if he were drifting off into the distance.
Joe caught a glimpse of feet running past him, and then another. Someone called out for them to stop, but they kept running. It seemed to the addled one that another person or people were trying to escape…fleeing from something. Joe’s heart beat rapidly; he struggled to breathe and raise himself up, propping his body on one elbow, he managed to turn, only to see two bodies, one black the other white, both locked in mortal combat and appearing as if one were trying to kill the other.
“Baz!” murmured Joe.
Baz and Dave Brackett were fighting like two mountain lions over a recent kill. Baz suffered a solid left to his chin and stumbled backwards, landing with a loud thud on his back. When Dave pounced through the air at him, Baz was ready, and managed to use his feet to toss Dave through the air and over his head. The black boy jumped to his feet, undaunted by the beating that was obvious on his battered face. Dave charged again, this time locking hands and arms with his opponent. For several long seconds, the two boys managed to stay on their feet, pushing and shoving their bodies against one another, each trying to force the other to the ground. Dave was the first to start slipping as his body sank lower and lower until he found himself on his knees.
Baz, the hatred he felt showing on his face, moved his hands and quick as lightening, grabbed Dave Brackett around the neck. Dave’s hands flew to the dark fingers that threatened to choke him, but Dave was no match for the undefined outrage that glowed in the eyes of the Negro boy.
Joe realized that Baz was set on killing the other boy…and for good reason, thought Joe. But he couldn’t let it happen. Baz would hang if he killed Dave…it would be called murder and, though every inch of his body throbbed with acute pain, Joe struggled to stop his friend from doing what he feared would haunt him the rest of his days.
Staggering to his feet and then swaying, Joe moved in close enough that he grabbed Baz by the shoulders and forcibly tried to pull the dark skinned boy away from the white boy. It was useless, Joe was too weak and no match for the intense hatred that he smelled emitting from every pore on the Negro boy’s dirt covered body.
“No Baz…no…you can’t kill him,” shouted Joe, grabbing Baz’s strong black hands.
Dave’s face was turning blue, his eyes were wild with fright; his breath was no longer coming from either his nose or his mouth. His struggles were less frantic.
“BAZ…NO…PLEASE…YOU CAN’T KILL HIM!” pleaded Joe as he once again strained to pull Baz from the other boy.
Joe’s arm was locked around the colored boy’s neck. He yanked backwards with all his waning strength. Frightened at what was transpiring, Joe’s tears filled his already clouded eyes as he sobbed for his friend to let go of the other boy.
And just when he thought it was too late, hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him from Baz. Joe was gently pushed out of the way. Another set of hands grabbed him and pulled him close, encircling his frail body. Joe suddenly felt safe, felt his strength dissipate as he gave in to his weariness. He abused body slipped quietly to the ground. Just in time, Adam’s strong arms gathered his unconscious brother into his and carried the boy away.
Ben and Luther Reeves were left to pry Baz from the fading Dave Brackett, seconds before the white assailant was to draw his last breath. Luther grabbed his son and pulled him into his arms. The boy was weeping profusely. Dave sank to the ground gasping for air. His hands clasped his throat as he struggled to talk. Ben leaned down and pulled the boy to his feet.
“He…was…trying…to…kill…me…” Dave spat in broken words.” He’s…gonna…hang…the black…son…of a……”
“Aw shut up,” growled Hoss as he grabbed Dave’s other arm and jerked him along with him, back to the jail.
“If anyone’s gonna hang…it’s gonna be you!” Hoss taunted.
The next afternoon, when Joe finally woke up, his father’s face was the first one he saw.
Ben smiled down at his son. “Well hello.”
With his face hurting like it was, Joe refused to smile. “Hi,” he muttered and then looked as if he had suddenly remembered something. “Baz…”
“He’s fine son…a little worse for wear, but Doc said he’d be alright in a day or so. How about you…how do you feel?” Ben asked.
“I hurt…everywhere…but Pa…Baz’s grandfather…”
Ben sat down on the side of the bed and leaned down, brushing back the one lock of hair that never seemed capable of staying where it belonged. “He’s going to be fine too, son…don’t you worry about anyone…”
“But I heard someone say he died…”
“No…it was all a big mistake…or a well-devised plan,” Ben explained.
Joe closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them, looking up at his father.
“Baz saved my life, Pa…but he tried to kill Dave…”
“We know all about that son, but he didn’t. Baz believed his grandfather had died, but that’s what Dave and the others wanted him to believe. You were lured to the grove with the thoughts that Baz was being beaten…he was lured there because of the same reason,” Ben explained.
“I don’t understand…”
“Joe…Dave and the others really did think that Willard Reeves had died…so they were trying to cover their tracks. They thought if they killed you…and lured Baz to the clearing to be the one that found your body…they could suddenly appear and claim it was he who killed you,” Ben continued to explain.
“But why kill me? I mean…all I did was try to help out a friend…did Dave hate me enough to want to see me dead?” Joe said in a strained voice that quivered. “He used to be my friend…sort of…they all did…and how were they gonna use killing me as a cover for killing Mr. Reeves?”
“I don’t know, son…no one knows…I don’t think even Dave or the others knew. They were so consumed with hate directed at the Reeves that they wouldn’t have stopped at anything to try to get them to leave town…”
“All because of the color of a man’s skin?” Joe muttered softly.
“Joe, for some folks, it’s easier to hate a man than it is to try to understand him. Men hate for many reasons…some reasons may even be justified…but not because one man is black or yellow…or even red. What some don’t seem to understand is that God made all men in His image…just different colors, like a rainbow. All of God’s children are part of that rainbow…you know the song, son: red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. That’s how God feels…each person, young or old, black or white…even poke-a-dot if there are any people like that…are precious to God. He gave man the inner heart to chose whether to love, like, dislike, or hate. His plan in the beginning was for all men to love one another…”
“He made a mistake, didn’t He, Pa?”
“No…God does not make mistakes, Little Joe…man makes the mistakes, always remember that, son…”
“I will, Pa…Dave, Cliff, Henry and Billy all made big mistakes, didn’t they?”
“Yes, son, they sure did…and they will have to pay for those mistakes…”
A soft rapping on the door brought their conversation to a halt. Adam stuck his head into the room. “Can we come in?” he smiled.
“Of course,” laughed Ben, rising.
Adam and Hoss entered the room, followed by Baz, his father, and the elder Mr. Reeves.
“Someone wants to see you, little brother,” Hoss grinned and then moved so that his brother could see who his company was.
Joe smiled at his new friends. Luther moved close to the bed. “We just wanted to see for ourselves that ya be alright, Little Joe…”
“And we wanted to thank ya for what ya did…for Baz, here,” Willard Reeves said as he patted Joe’s hand. “We’re grateful…”
“I didn’t do anything,” Joe said in a near whispered voice.
“Sure ya did, son…you stood up for what ya knew to be right. Ya fought with Baz…to save his hide…and ya fought agin ’em to keep his hide…” explained the grandfather. “He’d a killed them boys sure ‘nough, if’n I’d up and died…we just wanted to say our thanks…”
Luther and his father tipped their heads at the Cartwrights and slipped out of the room. Ben walked out with them, leaving the younger men to themselves. Adam nudged Hoss and they slipped away unnoticed as well.
Baz came closer to the bed. He seemed embarrassed. “How ya feelin’?” he asked Joe as he sat down in the chair that Ben had pulled close to the bed earlier.
“Like I’ve tangled with a wildcat,” Joe said, smiling at last.
“I wanna thank ya for what ya did…all of it, I mean…”
“I didn’t do anything, not really, except get my butt whipped a couple of times,” Joe snickered.
Baz laughed. It was the first time that Joe had even see the boy smile, let alone laugh.
“Yeah…well…I’m sorry about that,” Baz apologized. “I was mad…thinkin’ ya thought I was yella and all…everytime somethin’ happened, I looked up and there ya be…stickin’ ya nose in my business…”
“I suppose I should apologize for that…” Joe said meekly.
“Why…if ya hadn’t, I’d probably be the one lyin’ in that there bed, ‘stead of you,” Baz said and then grinned.
Joe looked intently at the boy and then shook his head. “Somehow I doubt that, Baz…”
“Ya can call me Bass…” the boy grinned. “My friends…what few I gots…does.”
“Little Joe…I do wanna thank ya…for keepin’ me from killin’ that boy…” breathed Bass. “I just knew he dun gone and kilt my granddaddy…I was aimin’ of killin’ him for it. I hated him, ya know…”
“I can’t say that I blame you,” Joe agreed.
“It ain’t right…hatin’ a man, I mean. I was wrong for doin’ so. My granddaddy said so…he said I was just as guilty as that white boy was, ‘cause I hated him for bein’ white, all the whiles he was hatin’ me for being’ black…”
Bass was nodding his head up and down. “And my pappy told me that the good book says that hatin’s a sin…that two wrongs don’t make a right…”
“I know, my Pa tells me things like that all the time,” Joe said, grinning.
“Ya reckon we’ll ever be like ’em…our pappies I mean?”
“I don’t know, Bass…but I sure hope so…I mean, I’ve got the best Pa around…”
“No, I do…” Bass said, laughing in a daring way.
“Okay…you’ve got the best…black father around…”
Bass giggled, sounding much like his new found friend. “And you’ve got the best…white father around…”
“Yep…guess we can say they’re part of the rainbow too,” Joe said smugly.
Bass looked confused. “The rainbow…what rainbow?” he questioned.
“You mean, your pa ain’t never told you about God’s rainbow?” Joe asked in mock surprise.
“No…I don’t reckon he has.”
Joe settled himself against the pillows that were behind his back and motioned for Bass to sit back down. “Take a seat…I’ll explain it to you…” he offered in a know-all manner.
Bass did as requested and sat down, pulling the chair closer to the bed, if that were possible. He turned ready ears toward Joe, anxious to learn of God’s strange rainbow.
“Now you see,” began Joe, “it’s like this…God designed man to……………..”
Several months later, Bass Reeves and his family moved to Okalahoma Indian Territory. Little did either Joe Cartwright or Bass Reeves know that years later they’d meet again, when Bass had been appointed one of several black United States Marshals working under the orders of Judge Isaac C. Parker to track down criminals in western Arkansas and Indian Territory. By that time, Bass Reeves’ name would be widely known throughout the western portion of the country as one of the bravest men this country had ever known and whose devotion to duty was beyond reproach.
Portions of Bass Reeves’ life have been slightly altered in order to blend with fiction.