Summary: (My first story ever. I am glad LJ is my inspiration.)
Word Count: 17,834
Sixteen-year old Little Joe Cartwright laid face down on his bed sobbing. The large tears flowed freely from green eyes, red rimmed from crying, down his flushed cheeks and onto the crisp white sheets that lay beneath him. He had been in this position for most of the evening hours. The tears were not so much from the stinging, burning sensation he was feeling in his backside, but from the pain he felt weighing heavy on his shattered heart. Oh, he’d told himself, he deserved the whipping his pa had given him, but the onslaught of words! Those tore at his heart, each condescending word chipping away piece, by small piece.
Remembering the actions that led up to the spanking, Little Joe realized that his pa, Ben Cartwright, had for the first time ever, raised his hand to strike one of his sons while engulfed with anger. The action had both surprised and frightened the young boy. Thinking back, Joe shivered, boy was Pa mad. He could almost see the steam and smoke spewing from Pa’s ears and inflamed nostrils as he shouted in a roaring voice that had seemed to rattle the windows of the massive log ranch house. Joe shivered again and pulled the homemade quilts over his tired aching body.
Thoughts continued to invade Joe’s mind. He hadn’t set out to do so much damage; he reasoned, it just happened, an accident, that’s what it was! NO! His brain screamed at him, if he had not disobeyed his father, there would have been no accident. But he had let himself be led by his over active adventurous urges that had on more than one occasion ended with his Pa mad at him and resulting in either a whipping or restricted activities, usually both.
Joe turned trying to find a comfortable position and moaned softly as his rear end rubbed against the weight of the heavy quilts. This sure was going to be a long might he thought to himself.
Closing his eyes, hoping sleep would claim him, his mind only raced on faster than before. His best friend, Mitch Devlin, had just bragged to him the day before that his pa, Charles Devlin, a long time friend of the older Cartwright, had allowed him to go hunting by himself. Joe could hardly believe his ears.
“You’re fooling?” questioned Joe.
“No, really Joe, he did,” Mitch responded. “When I told him about that big buck over by the Miller place, he told me I could go, said we could use the extra meat if I got lucky,” continued Mitch.
Joe suddenly felt very young. His pa would never have allowed him to use his rifle alone on a hunting trip. Something that irked Joe, he hated being treated like a kid. That night, a plan had formed in his mind. It had been a good plan too, working out just fine, until the last minute. That’s when everything began to fall apart. It was with these thoughts that Joe finally gave in to a troubled and restless sleep.
Joe knew where his Pa had hidden his new rifle. He had watched from behind the partially closed door. Ben had been angry with him for taking the firearm out of the gun case without permission. He had promised Joe then and there that the new Winchester would be put in a safe place, unknown to the misbehaving lad. Pa had then given him one of his lectures on firearm safety, stating how this new model was built for accuracy and how well it could drop its target with one shot. Making it clear that the sights were set in such a way as to prove it’s self over and over. Pa finally ended his little speech with forbidding his youngest son to use the rifle unsupervised again, for which he was now on restriction.
It was during this restricted time that Mitch had paid Joe the visit to the ranch and informed him of the large buck roaming just inside the boundary of the Hiram Miller ranch. Mitch had assured his friend that the massive buck was at least an eight pointer maybe even ten pointer! The news of this along with the knowledge that Mitch had been allowed to hunt alone was too much for the ever thrill seeking, adventurous Joe Cartwright. Thus his plan had formed. He had only to wait for Pa, Adam, and Hoss to be away from the ranch for a period of time long enough for Joe to find the buck shoot it and bring the trophy home for his family to enjoy. He could almost taste the delicious meals that Hop Sing, the family’s cook, would prepare. With this in mind, Joe reasoned that surely his Pa would forgive him for disobeying his orders and view Joe in a new light. Unknown to Joe, disappointment and heartache were waiting just around the corner.
The moment Joe had been waiting and planning for came sooner than he expected. Pa had informed him that Adam, Hoss and himself would be leaving before sun up the next morning for the north pasture to move the herd that was grazing there, down to the lower pasture that laid to the west, a task that would likely take all day. Ben had also informed Hop Sing that they would probably have to have a late supper and to please plan accordingly. Joe’s instructions were spelled out in no uncertain terms as to what would take place upon his return should he fail to comply with the orders. Joe only nodded his reply, all the while his mind racing with excitement at the thrill of the upcoming hunt.
The next morning as soon as Joe was sure that his family was gone, he slipped into his father’s bedroom and retrieved the Winchester that was carefully hidden behind Ben’s dresser. As he ran his fingers lovingly down the length of the rifle barrel, Joe felt a pang of quilt filter into his conscience but just as quickly as the feeling manifested it’s self, it vanished.
“I’d best get going,” Joe told himself.
Carefully and quietly so as not to arouse the suspicion of the family cook he slipped from the room, down the stairs, stopping at the gun case to grab a box of shells for his rifle. Joe made it to the barn and began saddling Cochise, stopping long enough to pet the nose of the little sorrel yearling that he had found three weeks earlier. The yearling had been in a weakened condition standing next to its dead mother in an open field south of the main house. Hoss had told him the mare looked as if she had died fighting off an attack of some sorts while protecting its young. Joe had brought the colt home and with Hoss’ help brought life back into the little sorrel. He was planning on training the colt to bridle and saddle and hoping to be able to earn himself a couple hundred dollars for his work by the time the fall horse sale took place in Carson City.
Joe had ridden most of the early morning. He was thankful that his pa and brothers were going north, and then turning the herd toward the west pasture. The Miller ranch laid in the opposite direction to the east. The morning was crisp and the freshness of the air gave Joe a sense of renewal of spirit. He didn’t often venture out this early, he preferred sleeping as late as he could, allowing only the billowing voice of his father to force him from slumber. But this morning he felt refreshed, felt like a man on a mission. If all went according to plan, he would have his prize, be home and chores completed long before his family even knew he had been gone. Joe, who was known for his propensity for trouble, had no idea how horribly things were fixing to change.
It was near mid-day by the time Joe had found a secluded hiding place to wait for the buck to pass. He had tracked the large deer for more than a mile and had seen the rubs and scraps where the deer had marked its territory. Following the path and tracks the deer had made on a daily trek, Joe had learned enough from his brothers to know that the animal should soon be passing close by.
He waited as if holding his breath. When the noise he was hearing began to grow in volume, he slowly raised the rifle to his eye preparing to take careful aim and waited for just the right moment. He was well hidden from view, lying on the ground under the low hanging branches of a giant Ponderosa pine. Being upwind of the deer, he felt confident he would be able to bag his prey in short order.
At last the enormous buck stepped into the clearing, giving Joe the perfect shot he had hoped for. As his heart beat wildly in anticipation, he sighted the deer through the end of the rifle barrel. The thought ran through his mind at the size of the antlers of the deer. Mitch had not been exaggerating when he had told him of the size, for in his sites stood a perfect ten-pointer.
Slowly Joe pulled the trigger. At that exact second, the largest bull Joe had ever laid his eyes on stepped into view.
“What the…” Joe silently screamed.
The thought was never finished as to Joe’s horror the bull dropped dead in its tracks, having encountered the bullet meant for the deer. Joe rose from his hiding place to look towards the deer just as the deer looked in Joe’s direction and the two made eye contact. Joe swore under his breath and briefly thought the deer had smiled at him just before it bolted from the clearing.
Joe ran toward the bull in a panic. “What have I done now?” “Pa will have my hide for sure!” his brain repeated over and over.
Just as Joe fell to his knees to inspect the dead beast, two horsemen rode into the clearing and began yelling at him, “What the hell happened?”
Recognizing the older man as his neighbor Hiram Miller, Joe, who was close to tears cried, “I’m sorry, sir, I was aiming at a buck and when I fired, your bull stepped into the line of fire!”
“That’s my prize bull you little fool!” ranted the angry man.
“I’m so sorry, it was an accident,” Joe tried to explain to the man who was now pacing back and forth in front of the scared boy. The second horseman dismounted and stepped over to the older man.
“Take it easy Pa,” said Hiram’s son, Zack.
“Take it easy, Hell! That bull just cost me $800! And you tell me to take it easy?” shouted Mr. Miller. “I’ll tell you what I’ll take, I’ll take this young man home to his pa and after Ben Cartwright is finished with him, he’ll wish he’d never heard of Hiram Miller!”
With that said, the enraged man grabbed young Joe roughly by the shoulders, pulling him to a standing position. Jerking the Winchester from Joe’s hands, he screamed at Joe to go get his horse. Fear of the man and of what laid ahead for him when he faced his father forced Joe to comply with the man’s wishes. He dared not disobey, he knew he was in for a very long night and fear of his father’s wrath weighed heavily on his mind.
As the three riders approached the ranch house, Joe was surprised to see his father and brothers’ horses tied to the railing beside the house. A large knot began to form in his belly, making him feel as if he needed to vomit. The large front door opened and Ben Cartwright stepped onto the boards that made a porch on the front of the house. The look of anger he held on his face did not go unnoticed to Little Joe. He realized his pa and brothers had returned early from moving the herd and found not only the youngest member of the family missing but that not one chore of the aforementioned list was completed. If Joe figured this right, pa was only going to get madder and his own self was in for more trouble than he had ever had in all of his short sixteen years!
It didn’t take Mr. Miller long to explain to Ben what had transpired. Ben was enraged to say the least. Joe hung his head not only in fear of meeting the looks his father was sending him but also in shame for what he realized too late was a poor excuse of judgment.
“Why didn’t I listen to pa?” His mind shouted. He raised his head briefly to look at his brothers who were silently taking in the situation. Adam glanced at his youngest brother and felt a touch of pity for the boy.
“Oh little buddy,” he thought, “you’ve really done it this time.” The look of fright and the reflection of tears on Joe’s face told Adam that his baby brother knew it as well.
Joe saw the look of pity on his brother’s face and knew that Adam recognized what he had gotten himself into. He took Adam’s look of pity as a sign that maybe he could capture a smidgen of understanding from his oldest siblings. Taking that to heart, Little Joe turned his eyes in Hoss’ direction. What he saw there made the growing fear double in size. Hoss seemed almost as upset as he did. Was that fear that Little Joe read on his brother’s face? Fear of pa’s anger or fear for what he knew his pa would do to the youngest Cartwright son?
None of the three Cartwright brothers actually feared their father. Ben was a kind and loving father, loved deeply by each of his sons. They knew he could be a strict taskmaster when need be, they also knew he would not tolerate lying, cheating or insolent behavior from any of his children. Out right defiant behavior was not allowed and anyone who choose to do so would reap the consequences of his actions, as Joe was soon to be reminded.
Lost within his own thoughts, Joe did not realize that Mr. Miller and Zack had taken their leave. “What was that shouting?” Joe’s mind questioned.
“Are you purposely ignoring me?” stormed Ben. “JOSEPH!” yelled Ben, “In the house, “NOW!”
Joe was jostled from his thoughts. “Sorry P—Pa,” Stammered Joe, heading for the house.
“Adam, Hoss, you boys take care of the horses. Your little brother and I have a few things to discuss,” Ben informed his oldest sons.
“Sure Pa,” answered Hoss, glancing at his baby brother sadly.
Ben grabbed Joe by the upper arm and began leading him into the house. Joe barely felt the slight pain, more in dread of what lay ahead. No sooner had the front door closed than Joe began pleading his case.
“Pa, I’m really sorry, it was an accident,” stammered Joe.
“JOSEPH!” How could it be an accident? You were not even supposed to be where you were?” “What it was, was blatant disobedience!” shouted pa.
“But Pa,” cried Joe, his lower lip trembling, barely able to contain the tears that were beginning to form in his emerald eyes.
“No buts, Joseph!” Ben said. “Of all the lame brain, stupid stunts you’ve ever pulled, this is the cream of the crop. I have never been so angry, disappointed or disgusted. Nor have I ever felt as ashamed or humiliated and embarrassed by anyone in my entire life as I am now by you.” Ben continued.
The front door had opened and closed and neither father nor son had heard. Adam and Hoss stood in silence listening to their father berate their youngest brother. Hoss felt the sting of tears in his own eyes as he heard the words his father spoke. Adam stood as in shock, realizing how the impact of such harsh cold words would affect his young sensitive baby brother. His heart went out to Little Joe. It would take Joe a long time to recover from the on slot of their father’s harsh words. And pa was so angry, angrier than he had ever seen him and this worried Adam as never before.
Joe’s head rested on his chest, tears making round stains on the front of his shirt as they tracked down his cheeks. His heart felt as if it were breaking apart. The one person he loved most in his life was telling him what a disappointment he was to him, how much he was ashamed of him and how disgusted he felt toward him. Joe cried. All he had ever wanted was to make his father proud of him. How he longed to be held in those strong arms and to be comforted. When Joe saw his father reach out for him that is exactly what he thought was about to take place.
In a movement so sudden and fast that even the two oldest brothers hardly realized what was happening, Ben had for the second time this night, grabbed Joe by the upper arm and with his free hand had pulled his belt from around his waist. Joe found to his horror his body laid across his father’s lap and his arms penned behind, held tightly while Ben began administering the punishment. Joe tried not to cry out but with the weight of the world coming down on his behind, he gave in to the urge.
“Pa! Pa! Please!” sobbed Joe. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Joe continued.
Ben seemed lost in a world of anger and frustration and was unaware of his sons’ pleas of mercy.
“Pa!” shouted Adam finally snapping out of his own silent world, as he tried to get his father’s attention. Hoss seeing what was happening to his family quickly stepped in. As Ben brought his arm back preparing to repeat the blows, Hoss firmly but gently grasped Ben’s wrist and held his father’s arm in the upright position.
“Pa,” pleaded the gentle giant, “Easy,” spoke Hoss, more with his eyes than with his voice. “I think little brother has gotten the message,” Hoss softly informed the man sitting before him.
Ben’s mind snapped back to reality. “What is Heaven’s name was I thinking?” He chided himself. Hoss gently released his hold on his father’s arm as Ben attempted to raise himself and Little Joe from the chair where he had been sitting with his wayward son across his lap.
“Joseph,” Ben spoke in a near normal voice. “We will discuss this matter again, later, when we have all had time to calm down. For now, go to your room and remain there until I send for you.”
“Yes sir,” whispered Joe, barely raising his eyes to meet his father’s chocolate brown ones. Joe could still see the fury hidden there and quickly dropped his head. As he made his way toward the stairs that would take him to the sanctuary of his room, he chanced a glance at his brothers. Seeing the look of encouragement on both faces he bid each one good night.
“Night, Punkin,” Hoss replied.
“Night, little buddy,” whispered Adam.
Casting one last glance at his father as he reached the landing of the stairs, he spoke in a soft, shaky voice, “Night pa, I really am sorry.” Little Joe ran for his room, not waiting for his father to reply. Ben stood staring after his fleeing son.
Morning came all too soon for the Cartwright household. Ben was already seated at the head of the table when Adam and Hoss began their descent down the stairs.
“Hoss,” Ben called, “Will you please tell Joseph I want him down here for breakfast?”
“Sure thing, pa,” Hoss answered, turning to retrace his steps. Stopping at Joe’s door he gently pushed it opened and stepped inside. Joe was already up and nearly dressed.
“Pa wants you downstairs,” the largest of the Cartwright boys informed the smallest.
“Yeah, I heard,” Joe said as he pulled up his pants. “Ouch!” he cried.
“You okay Punkin?” questioned Hoss.
“Yeah, except for my butt, it hurts like he….” Stopping him self just in time, “heck.” Joe smiled slightly at his brother. He could always count on Hoss to be there for him and he loved his “big” brother almost as much as he loved his father.
“Better hurry. Don’t want to add fuel to the fire,” Hoss said matter-of-factly.
“Hmm, guess that means he’s still mad?” Joe asked, turning troubled eyes on his brother.
“Yeah, you could call it that. He’ll probably stay mad for a long time. I ain’t glad you got yourself into this mess, but I’m just as glad it ain’t me Pa’s so mad at,” stated Hoss firmly.
Joe smiled again at Hoss. Hoss returned the smile and noted the sadness of Joe’s green eyes. The face told the whole story; Joe had spent the night crying. Did his rear end hurt that badly? “No,” thought Hoss as he returned to the table. He knew what was causing Joe’s pain. Why, he could hardly believe himself, the words Pa had spoken to Joe. It hurt him to hear them; he could only guess how Joe must feel knowing the words were meant for his ears. The look on Little Joe’s face yesterday had spoke volumes of what his heart was feeling. Wonder that Pa hadn’t even noticed. Usually Pa was kinder in his verbal rebuke of bad behavior and much less forceful than yesterday when applying the belt. At least he always had been in the past, especially where Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was concerned. He was worried about his pa and made a mental note to speak to Adam about it.
As Joe made his way down the stairs and toward the table, Ben raised his head and watched. Joe’s head was low and he walked stiffly. As Joe approached the table and his father, he raised his head just high enough to meet his father’s eyes.
“Mornin’ Pa,” he spoke softly as he turned his head and greeted Adam.
Ben watched as Joe carefully sat in the chair at his place at the table. Joe was surprised to see the soft red cushion from the settee in the great room that had been placed in his chair for his comfort. He briefly wondered who had done him this favor and glanced up in time to see Hoss wink at him. He returned the wink with a small smile towards his brother who was also his protector during the times when he needed it most, usually when the pair of them found them selves together in some sort of unexpected trouble
The exchange between the two brothers had not gone unnoticed by Ben. He could only wonder at the bond between his sons. He remembered yesterday the iron like grip that Hoss had held his arm in and the plea in his son’s voice when Hoss had informed him that Joseph had gotten the message. Looking in Joe’s direction, he watched as Joe toyed with his food and saw again the red swollen eyes of his youngest. Quilt slowly began to invade Ben’s thoughts. Had he been overly rough on the boy? Surely he must have if Hoss and Adam had seemed inclined to intervene on their brother’s behalf. The look of sorrow in those green eyes confirmed what Ben already knew in his heart. He reasoned that Joe deserved the spanking; he had disobeyed the rules, again for the second time in less than two weeks, and for the same infraction. Yes, Joseph had earned that punishment.
“What had he said to Joseph yesterday?” his mind questioned.
He had been so angry that he could not recall the words. He would have to ask either Adam or Hoss later. Ben thought of his own behavior of the day before and felt shame creeping upon him. He knew he had struck Joe while still very angry. He had always before prided himself in being able to control his temper, especially where his sons were concerned. He wondered what had triggered his actions. Coming home early from moving the herd only to find Joseph gone and not the first chore complete. That was the beginning of his anger. Having next to help Adam and Hoss finish what Joe had not even started added more fuel to his rapidly growing anger. After going upstairs to change into clean clothes for the evening meal, he had found his bedroom door standing open. He always made sure it was completely closed when leaving. He supposed that the open door was the reason he found himself looking behind his dresser. Joe had not only interred his bedroom uninvited but had also taken the Winchester. Ben was enraged. What ever was he going to do? How was he to make Joe realize the error of his ways? As he stormed down the stairs, muttering to him self, horses were heard entering the yard.
“That’s probably Little Joe,” volunteered Hoss.
“It had better be,” Ben nearly shouted as he reached for the door and stepped outside.
Adam and Hoss had followed their father out into the early evening light. What they saw stopped both young men at exactly the same time, a short distance behind their father. There, mounted upon his pinto, was their young brother looking too all the world as if he wished the earth would open and swallow him up. It was obvious to the two brothers that Joe had been crying. The tear tracks down the dirty face were proof enough.
Mr. Hiram Miller jumped from his horse with an ease that surprised both Adam and Hoss. Hoss almost laughed out right but clapped his hand over his mouth just in time to mute the giggle. Old Hiram was a good old sole but his actions nearly always made Hoss want to giggle. Zack, the only son of Hiram was a carbon copy of his father. When he dismounted his horse hanging his boot in the stirrup causing the younger man to make several jumping attempts to free himself, Hoss felt the laughter break loose. Ben turned and gave Hoss an angry glare, signaling silence, which came immediately. Joe was the last to get down from his horse and came silently to stand in front of his father as Hiram Miller ranted on and on about his prize bull. All of these things began adding up for Ben and by the time the Millers were on their way out of the yard Ben had been in a full-blown rage.
Breakfast was eaten in silence. Each of the four family members lost in their own thoughts. At last Adam and Hoss excused themselves to begin their morning chores, leaving Joe alone at the table with his father. The silence and tension hung heavy in the air.
Joe thought he would surely die if his pa didn’t speak soon. As for speaking first, Joe wasn’t sure he could trust his voice not to break. His feelings were hurt from yesterday’s verbal attack and his rear was sore from the spanking. He tried to sit still but that didn’t help so he tried moving to the side but that only caused his trousers to rub against the inflamed flesh of the part of the anatomy that he was sitting on. Ben sensing his son’s discomfort spoke at last.
“You may stand up if it helps.”
“Thanks, I think I will,” Joe said in a very quiet voice. Glancing in his father’s direction, he saw Ben watching him. For some reason, that made Joe feel uncomfortable, embarrassed mostly.
“Joseph, I have only a few things to say to you about your actions yesterday,” began Ben. “You will remain on restriction until I say otherwise. That means you are to go no further than the yard and the barn. Is that understood?” Ben questioned.
“Yes sir,” answered Joe meeting his father’s eyes.
“You will do all of your own chores, plus the ones I added last week, plus the ones I know I can come up with now, plus you will do any and all chores for Hop Sing that he can find for you. Is that clear?” his father asked.
“Yes sir,” replied Joe, “very clear.”
“Mr. Miller was very upset about his bull. He had big plans for that animal. Now those plans are going to have to be put on hold. That bull cost him eight hundred dollars. Do you know how long that poor man had to save for that kind of money?” Ben continued without waiting for an answer.
“Quite a long time, Joseph, a long time. And in a minutes time that man’s hard work was destroyed and his dreams shattered. Why? Because a defiant child refused to obey his father! That’s why Joseph, that’s why!” Ben yelled, feeling all the anger from the previous night returning.
Joe knew his father was right and he hung his head in shame.
“The last thing I want you to understand Joseph is that some way, some how, some day you will repay that man his eight hundred dollars for that bull. Think long and hard about how you can accomplish this, because if it is the last thing you ever do, youwill do it! Do you understand me?” stated Ben as he lifted Joe’s chin high enough for him to look his father in the eye.
“Answer me now!” Ben demanded.
“Yes sir, I understand Pa,” squeaked Joe.
“You better! Now get busy, you have plenty to do,” Ben said as he released the pressure on his son’s chin.
Joe walked to the front door, stopping to retrieve his hat on the sideboard. Without a backward glance at his father, Joe stepped into the yard to begin what he referred to in his mind as his prison sentence.
Days passed and Joe’s life began to take on a routine. He worked hard from early morning until after sun down on most evenings. The strain that was felt in the beginning was more relaxed now but Joe still felt unsure of his feelings whenever his father was near. Ben rarely spoke to Joe unless the need arose. They managed the morning’s hellos and the evening good nights but things weren’t the same between father and son as they had been before the shooting accident. Both father and son were beginning to feel the effects of the distance that had come between them.
Joe felt the loss of his father’s attention to the point of tears. It tore at his heart and invaded his sleep. Many nights his dreams were full of the heated words his father had shouted at him and each time the dream played out in his sleep, Joe’s heartache was revived again with the coming of morning.
Ben on the other hand took Joe’s sullen withdrawn moods as a sign that Joe was still angry with him about his punishment and the spanking. It was for certain that Joe had not said so in words, for he had not complained the first time about the added work. Ben had made sure several of them were the worst he could find. It was now Joe’s daily job to muck out the stalls and to clean the chicken coop. Also a twice-weekly job of straightening and cleaning the tack room was added. All of these jobs were the least favorite of any of his sons but was added to Joe’s new list of chores. Ben was surprised when Joe took on the work with no complaints and was more amazed to find that each job was done well and to his satisfaction.
Joe had not forgotten his father’s words instructing him to find a way to repay Mr. Miller for this bull. Joe had figured that his wage was less than a dollar a day and that it would take over two years of hard work just to repay the man. That meant working everyday as if with no pay for that length of time. Joe was at a loss as what to do or how to earn enough money for the pay off.
“If only I had something valuable enough to sale, I could raise some of the money,” Joe thought. “But what do I have that would be worth eight hundred dollars?”
Joe’s young mind was working overtime. “If I could raise enough money, maybe Pa would start talking to me more, maybe even begin to love me again!”
Joe stopped what he was doing and glanced toward the house. Ben was sitting on the side porch working on the account books and enjoying the warm afternoon sun. Joe longed to stop and join his father, he longed to talk freely to him but mostly he longed for his father to take him into his arms, hold him close and tell him that he still loved him. Joe sighed deeply, wiped the tears from his eyes and went back to work.
From his spot on the side porch, Ben had seen Joe stop working and look his way. He had recognized the look of longing on his son’s face and saw him brush away the unshed tears. Ben ached for his son and wondered at his son’s longing. He should speak to Joe. He didn’t like the cold feelings that had grown between them. They had been going on far too long as it was. But what could he say? He knew Joseph well enough to know that if he didn’t want to talk there was nothing that could be said or done to make him open up. Force only succeeded in making Joe retreat further and further into his shell.
Ben’s chance to speak with his youngest and most sensitive son came just a few days later. Ben had entered the barn quietly and found Joe in Cochise’s stall talking to her. He watched the tender scene; the boy and his horse seemed to understand each other. He had done the right thing when he had presented the pinto to his son, as a birthday gift, just a couple of years ago. He had traded for the horse with Chief Winnemaca and had surprised Joseph with the gift. As Ben watched his son, he remembered the joy in his son upon receiving the horse. He had leapt about with unconfined happiness, running from father to each brother, freely giving hugs and kisses until finally Adam had to hold him down and threaten him with returning the pinto to the Indian chief. Joe had only giggled that much more and continued with his amusement. His father and brothers had joined in, his youngest son had a laugher that was hard to ignore and they could do nothing to stop their own merriment.
Ben spoke then, “Why don’t you take her for a run after you finish your chores?”
Joe jumped, he hadn’t been aware of his father’s presence.
“Oh hi, Pa, I didn’t hear you come in. Do you mean it Pa? Can I really take her out?” Joe asked, hope growing in his heart. It had been a long time since he had ridden, not since the day of the accident and he was anxious to get away for a while.
Ben noticed the brightness in Joe’s eyes and was glad he had made the decision to let Joe off for a short time. “Sure, I mean it. You’ve worked hard and done all I’ve asked you to do. You’ve earned a break,” Ben told Joe
“Gosh, thanks Pa,” smiled Joe, “I’ll finish up my mornin’ chores first.”
“Just remember son, you’re still on restriction, so stay on the ranch. And no more than a couple of hours,” Ben instructed Joe.
“Sure thing. That’ll be plenty of time and I’ll start the rest of my chores just as soon as I get back,” said Joe.
“Okay son, take care and enjoy yourself,” Pa smiled at him and his heart softened towards his youngest son.
Ben smiled to himself, glad to see the happiness returning to Joseph. He stopped at the door turning for one last look at the now happy lad.
Ben saw Joe watching him and was surprised when Joe spoke, “Thanks, Pa”, the sound so soft that Ben was barely able to hear him. The green eyes that smiled back at him were the same green eyes of the boy’s mother, Marie, who had died several years earlier. Ben felt his heart skip a beat as he stepped from the barn in to the warm mid-day sun.
Later that afternoon Joe was enjoying his ride. He felt free for the first time in weeks and was making good use of his freedom. He had brought the little sorrel along for some over due exercise. The colt was more than happy to run along side of Cochise. Joe supposed that the young colt felt a kinship with the mare, a surrogate mother of sorts. Whatever it was, Joe was glad that the young horse needed no lead rope and was content to stay close by. Joe had pulled the horses up to give them a breather when he spied a rider approaching in the distance. As the rider drew near, Little Joe recognized the man as Jacob Bates, a rancher who owned a small horse ranch on the other side of Virginia City.
“After noon Mr. Bates,” greeted Joe.
“Well Joe Cartwright, howdy,” answered the man.
Joe had always like Jacob Bates. He was a tall man about the same age as his pa and a lot like Ben in several ways. He had an easy smile about him and gave it readily when ever he encountered his fellow beings.
“How are you, sir?” smiled Joe
“Me? Oh, I’m fine. Say, I haven’t seen ya ‘round in sometime. Where ya been keepin’ ya self?’ the kind man asked.
“Oh, I’ve been keeping pretty close to the ranch, doin’ extra work for my pa,” replied Joe.
It wasn’t a lie, he told himself, he was doing extra work and he was for sure staying close to home. Jacob Bates’ laughter roared through the air and caused the yearling to jump. He began running and kicking his heels, not straying far from Cochise.
“That wouldn’t have anything to do with a hunting accident would it?” laughed Jacob. Joe couldn’t help himself and laughed along with the jovial man.
“Guess you heard about that?” Joe said as he pretended to pout.
“You might say everyone has heard,” grinned the man as he turned his attention towards the little sorrel that had finally tired of its running and had come to stand quietly next to Joe’s horse.
“That’s a mighty fine lookin’ colt ya got there Joe,” Mr. Bates stated. “Ever think about sellin’ him? I’ve been huntin’ somthin’ about that size for my grandson, Jake, ya remember him don’t ya’?” asked Mr. Bates.
Joe turned to admire the colt. “Sure, I remember Jake, and yes sir, I have thought about selling him. He ain’t broke to saddle and bridle yet, but I was gonna have that done by the time of the fall horse sale over at Carson City,” Joe replied.
“Well then, might not be I’ll have to see ya pa after all,” began Jacob turning in the saddle to face Joe. “Maybe we can strike a deal and save ya a trip to Carson City. What ya reckon you’d be wantin’ for ‘em?”
“To be honest Mr. Bates, I was sorta hoping to get about two hundred dollars for him once I finished breaking him,” Joe stated.
“Hmm, seems a little much to me,” Jacob said but continued, “But tell ya what Little Joe, if’n you’ll finish breakin’ him for me, I’ll meet your price. I know you Cartwrights only sell the best stock, so it’ll be worth it to me. Deal?” smiled the man, grinning from ear to ear at the surprised look on the boy’s face.
Joe returned the smile. He knew Jacob Bates to be a good, honest man, one that his father respected and Joe knew he’d rather sale the colt to someone like him than to go through the hassle of riding to Carson City in the fall.
“Deal! Two hundred dollars and I’ll come to your place to finish breaking him when he’s ready,” agreed Joe, happy to have run into the man. Joe felt elated; this was the best day he had enjoyed in a long time.
“Wanna shake on it young man?” Mr. Bates asked as he extended his arm in Joe’s direction. Joe accepted the man’s hand and the deal was sealed.
“When do ya want me to pick ‘em up?” asked Jacob as he rearranged himself in the saddle trying to get comfortable. His backside was beginning to grow sore from sitting still for so long.
“How’s tomorrow afternoon after lunch?” offered Joe. “I’ll have you a bill of sale ready by then.”
“Fine by me Little Joe, saves me from having to buy from ya pa. He is a hard man to do business with!” answered Jacob turning his horse back in the direction he had come.
“Hey Joe, Ya wanna sale me that pinto of yours?” Jacob asked, hopefully. “Give ya, hmm Say, five hundred dollars for ‘em.”
“Cochise? No sir, couldn’t sale her for any price, she was a gift from my pa,” answered Little Joe in a shocked voice.
“Me and everyone else knows how you feel toward that horse of yours, well, the offer stands if’n ya change ya mind,” Jacob answered, “See ya tomorrow Joe.” And with that the man laughed in his deep voice and road away.
Joe was beside himself with glee. He had managed to come up with two hundred dollars.
“Boy, do I have plans for that money,” he dreamed but stopped short when he remembered his father’s words instructing him to repay Mr. Miller for his bull. Joe smiled to himself,
“Well at least I’ve earned part of the money. Maybe that will put me back in Pa’s good graces,” Joe thought as he made his way toward home.
“I hate being at odds with Pa, I feel all alone somehow, left out of things that the rest of the family take part in,” Joe’s thinking continued.
“If only I could do something to show Pa that I except responsibility for what happened, maybe then he could be proud of me again, but what? I’m saving all I can in order to pay Mr. Miller but I still have a long way to go.” Joe thought about Mr. Bates offer to buy Cochise.
“Could I really do that?” he asked himself.
“No! No! I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, would I? It would all most pay the full amount owed to Mr. Miller. What with five hundred dollars for Cochise, two hundred dollars from the sale of the colt and the twenty-five I’ve saved from work, I’d only need seventy-five dollars more to pay him in full. Maybe he would let me work the last bit off instead.”
Joe’s mind was racing in high gear. Joe thought it sounded like a great idea but thought of one small problem, could he actually go through with it? Could he really sale the horse he loved so much, a gift from the man he loved most in his life? Tears sprung announced into his eyes, momentarily blinding his vision.
“Well, even if I could go through with it, Pa would never allow it,” he reasoned. “But then, why would Pa have to allow it? Pa had given Cochise to him as a gift. The horse was his to do with as he pleased,” Joe’s mind continued. “I wouldn’t have to ask permission, I wouldn’t even have to tell him until it was done. I could tell Mr. Bates tomorrow when he came for the sorrel and then deliver the pinto to him a day or two later, then go buy to pay Mr. Miller. I can do this while Pa, Adam and Hoss are busy else where on the ranch. Sounds like a sound proof plan to me if I can go through with it,” he thought to himself.
Joe arrived back at the ranch in the allotted time Ben had allowed for him. He took Cochise and the colt straight to the barn and tended to their needs before starting the evening chores as he had promised. He stopped long enough to nuzzle the soft nose of his pinto. Cochise pushed her nose gently into Joe’s chest.
“Looking for a treat, old girl?” Joe asked the horse.
Cochise bobbed her head up and down as if in answer to his question. The action brought tears to his eyes and he swiped them away with the sleeve of his shirt. Joe gave the mare one more pet on the nose telling himself, “NO!” to the plan he had thought me could go through with. Turning, Joe left the barn and set about to complete his evening work. He had decided earlier that he was not going to mention to his father about having run into Jacob Bates. He would wait until after Mr. Bates had picked up the colt before giving his pa the news.
That night Joe had trouble falling asleep. He tossed and turned trying in vain to find a comfortable position. He flung the covers to the foot of the bed; patted and fluffed his pillows and pulled the covers up again. Lying still for only minutes, he began repeating the process over for what seemed like the hundredth time that night. At long last sleep claimed the weary boy and Joe fell into a fitful sleep. His sleep was crowded with nightmares, crazy images that were running wild through the dark woods. He saw his father and the angry look in his eyes; he heard his father’s voice shouting words at him that caused his heart to skip beats. Joe recognized the words as the same ones his father had shouted at him the night Mr. Miller told him about his bull. Pa was screaming in his face of shattered dreams, destroyed works and disappointments. Joe’s nightmares had him running full force from bulls that had gapping bullet wounds and from deer that were actually laughing at him.
Joe woke with a start. His eyelids were heavy with sleep and he wasn’t sure where he was. Turning slightly to get his bearings, he realized he was in the floor. The blankets had been kicked from the bed earlier and he found himself on top of the pile. He shook his head to clear the sleep. Joe grinned in spite of himself; he had fallen out of bed! Well that hadn’t happened in a long time, he laughed as he pulled up from the floor. Gathering the covers in his arms, he placed them as best he could on the bed then lay down on top of them. Looking towards the window and seeing the dawn just beginning to break, Joe knew it wouldn’t be long before his family began moving about the house making preparations for the new day.
At breakfast, his brother greeted Joe, “Mornin’ Short Shanks,” Hoss said between mouthfuls of fried ham and scrambled eggs.
“Morning Hoss,” Joe smiled. “Breakfast looks good. Morning Pa,” greeted Joe as Ben took his place at the head of the table.
“Good morning to you, young man,” Ben smiled warmly at his youngest son. “Where’s Adam?” Ben asked turning to Hoss.
“Oh, he left a little while ago for the mines. Had some kinda problem. Said he’d be back around supper. Hey, Joe, save some of those flap-jacks for me!” Hoss said as he reached for the plate Joe was holding. Joe laughed and handed the plate to his brother, but not until he had taken the larger portion for himself.
“I have to go over to Carson City with Roy Coffee on some business. I should make it back by supper time myself,” Ben told his sons. “What about you, Hoss? What do you have going on today,” he asked.
“Oh, I plan on takin’ the wagon up to the upper pasture; there was a piece of fence needin’ repair. I thought I’d fix that and then head on into town for supplies. Hop Sing has a list the size of China he needs filled,” answered Hoss as he grabbed for the last slice of ham.
Joe saw the movement and made a grab for it at the same time. Joe was just a bit quicker than Hoss and was rewarded the ham for his efforts.
“Ah dadburnit, Short Shanks,” growled Hoss in a good mood.
Ben turned to Joe and waited until his son had swallowed the bite of ham that was in his mouth before speaking.
“Joseph, guess that leaves you here alone today. You know what needs to be done don’t you?” his father asked.
Joe swallowed the mouthful of milk he had just taken to help wash down the ham. “Yes sir, I know.”
“Okay, well I best be on my way. See you boys tonight,” Ben said as he wiped his mouth on his napkin and began pushing back his chair. He swallowed one more drink of hot coffee and headed for the door.
“See ya, Pa,” called out Hoss.
“Bye, Pa,” Little Joe smiled.
Ben turned to say good-bye to his sons and noticed Joe was looking at him. Ben smiled kindly at him just as Joe turned his attention back to the plate in front of him. Joe didn’t want his father to read anything on his face, for he was afraid that his emotions might give him away.
As Ben gathered his gun belt from the sideboard and his hat from the peg beside the door he had a brief notion that Joe seemed different somehow this morning. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought that Joe was up to something. No! He wouldn’t let his mind go down that path. Things had not even gotten totally back to normal from his son’s last round with trouble.
“Please, Lord, be with my baby today. Keep him on the straight and narrow while I’m away,” Ben silently pleaded with his maker. His thoughts turned to Marie, “Oh Marie,” whispered Ben’s heart, “Whatever can I do to help our boy? He is the joy of my life and I long to take him in my arms. It has been so long, but each time I approach him, he seems to draw back as if he was afraid of me. What happened, Marie? Help me please!” cried Ben quietly to himself.
Joe worked steadily all morning. He was just heading out of the barn when he heard a horse coming into the yard.
“Morn’ Lil’ Joe,” greeted Jacob Bates as he dismounted from his horse.
“Hi, Mr. Bates, your sorrel is ready for you,” Joe said as he reached for Mr. Bates offered hand. Jacob grabbed Joe’s hand and pumped it up and down in a hearty handshake.
“Great Joe, Jake is anxious to see him.” “He wants to start getting him used to being around our place before the colt gets much older,” Jacob told Joe.
“I have your bill of sale ready, I’ll get the colt for you,” said Joe as he turned to go into the barn. Mr. Bates followed Joe inside and stopped to pet Cochise’s forehead as Joe attached a lead rope to the sorrel’s halter.
“Change your mind about this pinto, Joe?” asked Jacob, continuing to pet the horse’s head.
Joe stopped what he was doing and swallowed the lump that had suddenly developed in his throat. He tried to speak but could not get any words to come out. He swallowed again and cleared his throat.
“Mr. Bates, I have——–I, well, I think I will take you up on that offer,” cried Little Joe. “I really need the money.” Joe told him in a soft voice.
“Lil’ Joe, ya mean it?” asked Jacob, surprised at the turn of events.
“Yes sir, I mean it. I have…I have to have the money,” replied Joe.
“Joe?” spoke Jacob softly. He walked over to the boy and placed a large hand on Joe’s slumped shoulders. “I know why you’re doin’ what your doin’”
“You do?” asked Joe looking into the man’s eyes.
Joe saw the tenderness there and felt the pressure of the man’s hands on his shoulders as he gently patted them. Tears flooded his eyes and he tried to turn so that Jacob could not see his weakness.
“Joe, it’s okay. I know this can’t be easy for ya,” Jacob spoke softly. He could feel Joe’s sorrow flowing through his body. “I want you to know that Cochise will be at my place when ever you want her back. I won’t hold up the price, you can buy her back for the same as I pay ya,” he told Joe, whose tears were now running unchecked down his unhappy face.
“Thanks, Mr. Bates, but once I do this, I doubt I could ever come up with that kind of money a second time. But I appreciate the offer,” Joe thanked the man and turned then to lead the sorrel from his stall.
Joe’s heart was beginning to race and he could feel his stomach begin to churn. He knew he had to do this quickly before he changed his mind, or worse, before he totally broke down in front of this man whose eyes held such sympathy.
“I brought the cash with me Lil’ Joe, just on the chance you might have a change of heart,” Jacob informed Joe. “Thought if you did, it might make things easier for the both of us.”
“You did. Guess that’s probably right. I’ll go get her ready for you, then write you another bill of sale.” Joe told Jacob, trying to get control of his racing heart.
“Fine, think I’ll wait outside in the sun. Take your time boy, saying ya good-byes an’ all.” Jacob accepted the sorrel’s lead rope from Joe’s hand and noticed that the hand trembled. Not wanting to embarrass the lad any more than necessary, he led the yearling into the warm afternoon sun.
Joe slowly walked to Cochise’s stall and reached up to pet her neck. Speaking softly, he bid her farewell. He told her that he was sorry that things had happened in such a way as to lead to their parting. Tears ran rivers down young Joe’s face.
“Oh God,” he begged, “help me do this!” sobbed his heart.
Carefully Joe wrapped his arms around his beloved horse’s neck and continued to cry tears of sorrow and regret. After what seemed a lifetime to Joe, he wiped the tears from his eyes, blew his nose, and attached the lead rope to the bridle. That completed he led Cochise for the last time, from her stall. Joe stopped just long enough to write a bill of sale for Mr. Bates before leading Cochise from the barn.
Jacob looked up from where he was sitting on the top rail of the corral fence. Seeing the boy’s face he quickly counted out the seven hundred dollars to pay Joe for the two horses. He did not want to take any longer than necessary, at least for the boy’s sake. It looked to him as if Little Joe would break down completely any minute now.
“Here she is sir,” said Joe handling the lead rope to Mr. Bates. “Here’s the bill of sale too.”
Jacob accepted the lead and the papers from Joe and placed the money in Little Joe’s free hand.
“Please take care of her,” Joe cried in a whispered voice, choked with emotion. He turned to flee for the comfort of the old barn.
“I will son, I will,” Jacob called to Joe’s retreating back.
Jacob mounted his horse and turning led the yearling sorrel and Cochise from the Cartwright yard for the last time. As they turned the corner by the barn, Cochise whinnied loudly; it was then that Jacob Bates, father of five, grandfather of four, realized that he was crying.
Joe climbed down the ladder from the hayloft. He had spent the last hour in his favorite hiding place crying over his loss. He knew he had to hurry now to finish his afternoon chores and then deliver the money to Hiram Miller. He hoped Mr. Miller would except his offer of working for him to finish up the money he was short. Joe hurried, he wanted to be back before his brothers and father realized he had left the yard. He was still on restriction and knew he would have to break Pa’s rule regarding leaving the ranch if he intended to get Mr. Miller paid before their return.
At last Joe finished all he could before preparing to leave. The rest would just have to wait until he returned. Hopefully he would have time to finish most of them before Pa got back. He didn’t think he was in any mood to encounter his father’s wrath tonight. He prayed that Mr. Miller would be home. He hadn’t stop to think what he would do if he had to wait for the man to return from doing some sort of errand or work.
Joe stepped into the corral and roped a black gelding. He was a pretty horse, about the same size as Cochise. On the horse’s forehead was a white star and he wore four white stockings on his legs. Other than those markings, the horse was as black as coal. Yes, he would do nicely, at least for now, until he could have time to choose a new horse. Adam had broken this horse a few months back and had seemed pleased with the way the horse handled.
Joe quickly saddled the black horse he silently named Blackie. Springing into the saddle as he had always done when mounting Cochise, he walked the horse from the yard trying to get the “feel” of the horse beneath him. It felt good to be riding again. He urged the horse on and before long had forced the black into a full gallop. At that speed it didn’t take long for Joe to come into full view of the Miller ranch house. He slowed his horse to walk, cooling the sweating animal. Joe reminded himself to make sure Blackie got an extra good rubdown when they returned home.
As Joe rode into the Miller yard Mrs. Miller greeted him. “Well, Little Joe Cartwright! What a nice surprise, what brings you out this way?” Joe returned the smile and greeting as he got down from his mount.
“Howdy Ma’am, I was hoping to talk to Mr. Miller. Is he around?” asked Joe.
“Sure, he’s over at the barn,” the thin petite lady answered. She sat the basket of flowers she had been holding on the step behind her and dusted off her hands. With her apron, she made a swipe at the sweat that had bubbled up on her forehead and only succeeded in smearing dirt across her brow.
“You want me to get ‘em for ya?” she asked Joe.
“No ma’am. I’ll just go over there and talk to him. Thanks, you have a good evening,” Little Joe told her as he led his horse to the barn where he could see Hiram Miller in the doorway mucking out a stall.
“You’re welcomed to stay for supper, we’re havin’ beefsteaks,” she called out to Joe.
Joe stifled a giggle. “Beefsteaks, how appropriated,” he laughed.
“No thank you. Can’t stay but a few minutes,” he called over his shoulder.
Hiram looked up from his work as he heard Joe calling out to his wife. The look of surprise at seeing Joe in his yard must have shown on his face because Joe smiled broadly and offered his hand to the man in front of him.
“Joe Cartwright!” laughed Hiram, dusting his dirty hand his equally dirty pants leg before offering it to Little Joe.
“You ain’t been huntin’ agin have ya?” he asked, laughing at his own joke.
Joe joined in the laughter, thinking, at least Mr. Miller could now make jokes about the accident. It lightened his spirit.
“Well, no sir, I gave that up a month or two ago!” Joe grinned.
Hiram laughed again; “well that’s a relief! What brings you out this way?”
“Well Mr. Miller, sir, I, ere, hmm, Well I” stammered Joe.
“Spit it out, boy, I ain’t gonna bite ya, ya know,” smiled the dirty little man.
Joe looked into the man’s weathered face and saw kindness in his brown eyes. “Well, I never did get a chance to tell you how sorry I was for shooting your bull. It was an accident, I swear,” he continued, wanting to finish before Mr. Miller had time to speak.
“But Pa said there wouldn’t have been an accident if I had been doing what he told me to do, I wasn’t so, well, ere, anyway sir, I’m sorry. I just wanted to come by and make things right. Pa said if it was the last thing I ever did, I was to repay you for the cost of your bull, so–
“Wait a minute Little Joe, you mean to tell me that your pa expects you to pay me eight hundred dollars?” asked the near speechless Mr. Miller.
“Hmm, Yes sir.”
“And how is blazes does he expect a kid your age to do that?” inquired Hiram scratching his head as if in thought.
Joe bristled a little at the comment. He hated being called a kid.
“He didn’t really say how to do it, just that I had to do it,” stated Joe. “Mr. Miller, I have seven hundred and twenty-five dollars right now and…”
“What?” yelled the excited man as he placed his hands on his hips and squinted his eyes while looking directly at Joe.
“Yes sir, and I was sorta hoping you’d take it as payment for your bull. Then I kinda thought you might let me work for you until the rest was paid in full. It might take me awhile, but I’m sure Pa will agree. What do you say Mr. Miller? Please,” Joe pleaded.
Hiram took the money from Joe’s hand and let out a low whistle. “Joseph Cartwright, where did you get this money?”
“I ere…ere…sold a couple of horses,” Joe told him.
“Your horses, Joseph?” asked Hiram, wondering if the boy’s father knew about what his son had been up too.
“Yes of course my horses, a yearling sorrel and my pinto,” he confessed, the events of the day beginning to take a toll on him.
“Pinto? Joe, you sold her?” Hiram was surprised. Everyone within fifty miles of the Ponderosa that had known the Cartwrights knew about Joe and his pinto.
“Yes sir,” Joe wanted this over, he needed to get home before someone arrived early and missed him. “Do we have a deal, please?” begged Joe again.
“Well, I reckon so; I need that money to buy another bull. I found one last week over Placerville way,” Mr. Miller informed him. “You come back when your pa will let ya and ya can work off the difference. Seventy-five dollars, ain’t it?”
“Yes sir, and thank you,” Joe said shaking Mr. Miller’s hand again.
“Let me write you a receipt for this,” Hiram said as he fingered the bills Joe had given to him.
Joe got his receipt and thanked Mr. Miller. As he mounted Blackie, he told Mr. Miller he would return to work for him just as soon as his father would allow him to do so.
Joe urged Blackie into a full run and the distance between the Miller ranch and the Ponderosa was covered in record time. Joe felt better than he had in weeks. The shear look of surprise on Mr. Miller’s face when Joe gave him the money had said it all. In spite of his own sorrow at having to give up Cochise, he felt good knowing that now Mr. Miller could realize some of his dreams. The tears in Hiram’s eyes and the emotion in his voice as he said his thanks had proved this point to Joe.
Joe unsaddled Blackie and gave him a good rub down as soon as he reached home. His luck was holding out, he had made it home before any of the others had. At last he felt as if things were finally going his way. He turned Blackie into the corral and began his evening chores. He worked hard and fast and had just finished the last one when Pa, Adam and Hoss rode into the yard. He hurried out of the barn and greeted them.
“Hi Pa, Adam, hey Hoss. See you made it back,” he said as he walked over to them.
“Hi ya, little brother,” answered Hoss, taking his hat off and rubbing his head. Adam smiled his greeting with a nod and started leading Sport toward the barn to stable his horse.
“Hey, Adam, I’ll tend your horse for you, you too Pa if you like,” Joe volunteered, hoping to prolong having to tell Pa what he had done today.
“Thanks Joe, I’m bushed,” replied Adam handing this horse’s reins to his little brother.
“Pa?” asked Joe.
Ben looked at Joe and thought, “some things not right here, Joe asking to help instead of being told too?” Ben was too tired to give it much thought.
“Okay, thanks son,” said Ben, as he passed the reins to Joe. Ben thought that Joe’s face looked flushed as if he had been in a hurry, but brushed that thought away as he headed for the house followed by Hoss and Adam.
“Boy’s we’ll unload the wagon after supper. I’m tired, hungry and dirty. I want to bathe, eat and go to bed,” Ben stated. Both of the older Cartwright brothers agreed with their father.
Joe was glad to have the time alone. He tended to Buck and Sport, occasionally looking at the empty stall that had once been home to his beloved pinto. Joe shook his head trying to ward off the misery that was beginning to over take him. He didn’t want to have his father asking him any questions, tonight of all nights.
When Joe finished with Adam and Ben’s horses he unhitched the team that Hoss had used to pull the wagon. He led them to the stable, tended their needs and then released them into the corral. Chores finished, Joe headed toward the house. Just as he reached the porch, the door opened and Ben stepped out.
“Oh, I was just coming to get you. Suppers about ready,” he told Joe.
“Good, I’m hungry. I’ll go wash up,” Joe said as he attempted to step around his father.
Ben reached out and laid his hand on his son’s shoulder, stopping Joe. It was the first physical contact he had made with Joseph since the night he had spanked his son. It felt good and he was just as pleased that Joe had not pulled away as he had in the past.
“Joe?” Ben spoke softly, “Is anything wrong son? You seem distracted.”
“No Pa, every thing’s fine,” Joe answered, avoiding his father’s probing eyes.
Joe was afraid that if he looked his father in the face he would give in to the urge to cry that he had been fighting since leaving the Miller ranch. Ben turned and laid his arm across Joe’s shoulders and together father and son entered the house.
Joe’s thoughts and emotions were in a jumbled mess.
“Oh Pa” he silently cried. “How I want so badly just to have your arms around me, to feel your strength and to hear you say ‘I love you, son’”.
Ben felt his son’s body trembling slightly and heard the air expelled from his lungs as if he had been holding his breath. Glancing at his son’s face he saw Joe’s chin begin to quiver.
“He’s about to cry!” thought Ben. Thinking quickly as not to make matters worse, he patted Joe’s back gently and told him to go get washed up for supper. Joe did as he was told, not daring to look up but instead made his way to the washroom to wash the dirt and grime from his face and hands.
Hop Sing was putting supper on the table as he sat down at his place. He felt better having cleaned up. The short break from his father’s presence was all it took to pull himself back together. He had almost cried in front of his father, something he had not wanted to do. He realized that soon he would have to share with his father the news that he had sold not only the yearling but Cochise as well plus hired himself out to Mr. Miller to complete his debt. Joe was not sure how pa would receive this news. He hoped his father would understand and not react as he had when he had taken the gun from his father’s room and ended up killing his neighbor’s eight hundred dollar prize bull!
Joe remained quiet throughout the supper meal, nodding his head yes when needed and shaking it back and forth for a no answer if one was called for. He was afraid to trust his voice; afraid it would give away the turbulent feelings growing in the pit of his stomach. He felt that dooms day was fast approaching.
After supper the Cartwrights retired to the great room to relax leaving the unloading of the wagon to Hop Sing and the hands to do. Adam picked up his book he had been reading on as Ben settled into his chair with a newspaper he had brought back home from his trip to Carson City. Hoss had finally succeeded in getting Joe to play checkers with him. Ben watched his youngest son from over the top of his paper. More than once he had seen Joseph check the time on the grandfather clock that stood by the front door. Watching the boy repeat his actions yet again, Ben became aware that Adam was watching him. Adam raised one eyebrow when he caught his father’s eye as if asking, “What?” Ben gently nodded in Joe’s direction and Adam turned to observe his youngest brother. Since Joe sat with his back toward them the silent messages between his father and older brother, went unnoticed. Finally Adam turned to his father, raised one shoulder in a slight upward movement and mouthed, “Who knows?” to his father. Ben only shook his head in the negative.
“Dadburnit Joe, ain’t you payin’ attention? I might as well be playin’ by myself,” fussed Hoss.
“Well, why don’t you then!” Joe snapped.
“JOSEPH!” called Ben from his chair by the fire.
“I’m sorry. Guess I’m just tired. I think I’ll call it a day. Night Hoss,” finished Joe getting up from the table where he had been sitting.
“Night Short Shanks,” replied Hoss patting Joe on the back as he turned toward the stairs.
“Night Adam, Night Pa,” he told them but his eyes lingered a moment longer on his father’s face, hoping to read his thoughts, but found no hints in the brown eyes that watched him.
“Good night little brother,” Adam said as he smiled up at Joe.
“Good night son, sleep tight,” Ben told him smiling while watching the emotions that were playing across his son’s face. Joe was his one son that he could read like a book. Something was bothering him he knew that much, but what? As Joe climbed the stairs, he felt that the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and his father knew it also, of that he was certain. The old grandfather clock chimed the hour and Joe turned to look. Time was running out.
“Think I’ll turn in too,” Hoss said as he rose and began putting the checkers back in their box. Heading for the stairs he tossed his large beefy hand in the air in a wave. “Night Pa, Adam”
“Night Hoss,” both Adam and Ben said in unison.
Ben waited until he heard the door to Hoss’ room close. Looking at Adam he stated “There is definitely something going on with Joseph, I can’t put my finger on it, not yet anyway.”
“I agree, but I am a little surprised. He has done a complete turn around since the bull shooting incident, hasn’t he?” Adam questioned.
“Yes, so much so that I often find myself missing the former Joseph,” laughed his father, adding, “I never thought I would hear myself saying that.”
Adam smiled one of his rare beautiful smiles, showing his dimples.
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve thought the same thing once or twice.” Father and son laughed. “Do you want me to talk to him Pa? He may open up to me,” asked Adam as he laid his book on the table beside of his chair.
“Thanks son, but I guess I’ll do it. We are long over due for a father-son talk. I should have done it sooner, back when the last incident happened. Things haven’t been right between us since then. There is still such a strain in the air when we are together.”
“Pa, I’m glad you brought that up. That night could be the root of the problem with Joe,” Adam told his father.
Ben thought about this, “how so?” he questioned his son. “If you are referring to the spanking I gave your brother, I admit I did get a little carried away. But he deserved one.”
“It wasn’t so much that Pa, it was what you said to him and how you said it,” Adam had begun he did not want to stop now. “You said some rather harsh and I’d say almost cruel things to Joe. Hoss and I both heard and well,” paused Adam, “Pa, to be honest, we were shocked ourselves.” I thought Hoss was going to burst out crying right along with Joe.” “There,” he thought, “I finally got it off my chest.”
Ben was thoughtful. He remembered yelling loudly and remembered saying something to Joseph but for the life of him he could not remember what that something was.
“Well Adam, I honestly do not remember all I did say. Would you mind refreshing my memory?”
Adam looked at his father but took his time before he spoke. Ben waited patiently for his son to collect his thoughts.
At last Adam spoke. “Pa, I feel like Joe thinks you don’t love him anymore.”
Ben had not been expecting this line of thinking.
“Why would he think that? I’ve been angry with him in the past but he always knew I loved him,” Ben explained in a worried voice to his son.
“I know Pa, but all those times before, you have always made sure he knew it by reminding him every night. When was the last time you told him you loved him? I can tell you, it was the night before he accidentally shot old man Millers bull!”
Ben sat in silence. He was stunned. “Was Adam right?” he quizzed himself. He had stopped going to Joseph’s room at night when he went to bed. He had always before checked in on all three of his sons before retiring for the evening. He stopped visiting his youngest son each night because he felt Joseph had not wanted him too. Had he been mistaken?
He met his eldest son’s eyes, “Adam, you’re right. But that still doesn’t tell me what I said to him that evening.” “Go on, please.”
Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “What you said probably didn’t help him much, you know how sensitive he is, takes everything to heart.”
“Adam,” interrupted Ben, “I know all of that; please son, get to the point.”
“I’m sorry Pa, but you told Joe how disappointed you were in him, not only that but how ashamed you were and how disgusted you were with him. Then you proceeded to tell him how embarrassed and humiliated by him you were. You all but called him stupid, Pa,” finished Adam.
Adam looked at his father and saw the tears pool in his brown eyes. Ben dropped his head and a tear fell into his lap. Adam thought that all once his father had aged ten years right before his eyes.
“Pa,” spoke Adam softly.
Ben raised his head and looked at Adam.
“It will be all right; just talk to the kid. He needs to hear from you.”
Ben laid his head in his hands, “Oh Adam, why didn’t you tell me all of this sooner? I would have done something about it then, but I honestly did not remember,” cried Ben. “My poor baby!”
Adam hated to see his father like this. His father had always been a strong man, both physically and emotionally, a tower of strength to him, a man he trusted with his life. His father was his hero. Adam got out of his chair and went to kneel in front of his father.
“Pa? Pa? Please,” placing both of his hands on Ben’s shoulders, he gently forced his father to a standing position. “Come on Pa, let’s get some rest, we can deal with it in the morning.”
Ben straightened his back and took a deep breath. “You’re right, son. I’ll talk to Joseph right after breakfast; I have a lot of apologizing to do.”
Adam put his arm around Ben’s shoulders and they walked together to the stairs.
“Go ahead son, I’m behind you.” Adam led the way.
When Ben got to Joe’s bedroom door they both stopped. “Good night Adam, I think I’ll just take a peek.”
“Good night Pa.” Adam walked to his room with a whisper of a smile on his lips. His father had finally understood.
Ben waited for Adam’s door to close before opening the door to Joe’s room. Ben found his son fast asleep. The covers had been kicked halfway to the floor so Ben reached for the blankets and pulled them over the sleeping boy. Bending over, Ben placed a kiss on his son’s head; gently he brushed a soft curl back into place and softly whispered. “I love you Joseph.” Joe stirred and opened his eyes but just as quickly the eyes, heavy and dull with sleep, closed. Ben quietly slipped from his son’s room, closing the door gently behind him.
Joe stirred again and opened his eyes. He was more awake this time and he touched the top of his head in the spot where his father had kissed him. Glancing at the door and seeing it closed, he convinced himself he must have been dreaming. He had thought that he felt his father touch his head whispering that he loved him. It had to be a dream, but it had seemed so real. Turning over on his side, Joe wondered when he had pulled those blasted blankets back up. Using both feet and one swift kick, the covers were returned to the foot of the bed.
Ben was the first one to the table the next morning. He sat sipping his coffee, deep in thought when Adam came down the stairs. He paused on the landing just long enough to look in his father’s direction. Pa looked weary this morning he thought.
The movement on the stairs brought Ben from his thoughts.
“Morning Pa,” greeted Adam as he sat down and reached for the coffee cup that Hop Sing had just filled for him. “Did you sleep well?” he asked hopefully.
“What do you think?” Ben snapped at his son. Just as quickly Ben apologized, “I’m sorry son, but no, I did not sleep very well at all. Too many emotions beating around in my old head.”
“Like I said last night, everything will be fine after you talk to Joe. You know he loves you and you know how quick he is to forgive,” encouraged Adam.
Hoss came into the house. He had gotten up earlier than the other family members to begin his morning chores. Little Joe had made his way to the dining room and was just about to say good morning to his father and Adam when Hoss spoke up.
“Hey Pa,” Hoss began then spotting Little Joe turned to him instead, “Oh, hey little brother, did you know that Cochise and your colt are gone?”
Joe felt all eyes on him and swallowed hard. Glancing at Hoss then Adam, he hesitated before turning to look in this father’s direction. Everyone was watching him and waiting for his response.
Ben watched Joe; his son’s face a mixture of emotions. Ben wondered what was going through the boy’s mind.
Joe gulped. Dooms day had arrived! “G—-Gone?” he asked Hoss as if he really didn’t think the horses were missing.
“Yeah, gone – as in – not in the barn?” answered Hoss impatiently.
Ben rose from his place at the table and headed for the door. Hoss followed his father. Adam remained seated and turned to his young brother who had not bothered to get up. Adam spoke gently to Joe seeing that the boy was close to tears.
“I don’t have the foggiest notion what you’ve gotten yourself into this time little buddy, but it would be a wise thing to come clean now, before it’s too late.”
Joe looked at Adam and took a deep breath and said nothing as he rose from his chair. When he did get up Adam joined him. As Joe came around the corner of the table past his brother, Adam laid an encouraging hand on Joe’s shoulder. When the youngest son and the oldest son stepped through the front door, Ben and Hoss were almost at the barn door.
“Pa,” yelled Joe. “Wait, please,” he said.
Both men stopped in their tracks and turned to face Joe. Joe walked ahead of Adam until he was standing in front of his father. Adam stood silently behind Joe. All three men waited for the youngest Cartwright to speak each not sure what to expect and all dreading to find out.
Ben watched Joe as he rubbed his hands together and shifted from one foot to the other. Chewing on his lower lip, Joe glanced at his father but was unable to read what he saw there. Ben thought, “this is going to be something! I know that look!”
“Joseph, we’re all waiting. What is this all about?” he asked as he crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Joe’s chin quivered and tears formed in his green eyes, “Oh please God, don’t let me cry, not now, at least,” his heart begged.
“I sold them,” Joe told his family softly.
Each member stood with mouths opened, gapping at the young boy who stood before them. Silence hung heavy in the air around them. In the distance Joe could hear the cry of a whip-o-will as it called out for its mate. A soft breeze stirred the scent of pine to Joe’s nostrils and Joe thought he had gotten a faint whiff of the manure pile behind the barn. Joe reckoned that was the smell that matched closest to how he was feeling at this exact moment.
Ben was the first one to find his voice. Looking at Joe, he asked, “Son, I’m not sure I heard you right, did you say you sold them?”
Joe hung his head, he was afraid to meet his father’s eyes, not sure what he would have found there. Had he chanced the look, he would have been surprised to see great compassion and love in his father’s brown eyes.
“Yes sir, yesterday,” Joe answered.
Ben looked at his older sons and could see that they were in as much shock by the news as he was.
“Adam, Hoss, if you will excuse your brother and I, I think the two of us have a few things to talk about.”
“Sure Pa. Come on Adam, let’s see if Hop Sing still has any breakfast left.”
And with that the two older Cartwright sons returned to the house. Hoss cast one last glance at his baby brother and when Joe looked up at him, Hoss smiled. Joe dropped his head, unable to return the gesture, so heavy was his heart. Turning to close the front door behind himself Hoss asked, “Wonder what in thunderation made him go do a fool hearty thing like that?” he said, more to himself than to his older brother. Shaking his head and sitting back down at the table, Adam told Hoss, “Guess we’ll just have to wait ‘til Pa tells us.”
In the mean time, Ben had led Joseph into the barn where they could talk in private. Guiding Joe to the bundles of hay that were stacked in the back corner of the barn, Ben sat down and patted the space beside him, an indication that Joe was to sit next to his father. Joe sat where his father had indicated but being this close to Pa was unnerving to him. Chancing a glance at this father’s face, he was surprised that the dark eyes looking back at him held no anger or contempt. What he did see went straight to his broken heart, for in the eyes and face of the man he loved dearly, he saw unbridled love and compassion. That was all that the unhappy boy needed and before his father realized what was happening, Joe had flung himself into his father’s arms crying. Ben’s own arms automatically wrapped around his sobbing child and held him in a tight embrace. Ben did not speak but held his son for several minutes until his crying subsided. Handing his clean handkerchief to Joe he waited for him to wipe his eyes and blow his nose.
That finished, he finally asked, “Do you want to tell me about it?”
Joe leaned into his father’s broad chest and Ben wrapped his arm back around the boy. Joe’s ear was pressed in such a spot as to be able to hear the beat of his father’s heart. Always in the past, as a child, his father had held him in such a way that the steady beat of the heart had become a calming factor for the boy. The same was such now and Joe began to pour out his whole story.
He began by telling his father of Mitch’s visit to the ranch bragging about being allowed to hunt alone and how that knowledge had make him feel more like a little kid. Joe went on to explain his plan in tracking the deer and killing it, all in the hopes of doing this before his family realized he had done so. Ben interrupted long enough to ask Joe about how he knew where to find the hidden rifle. Joe explained to Ben how he had watched while hiding behind the partly closed door. Joe heard his father sigh deeply.
“Go on,” encouraged Ben.
Joe stopped long enough to blow his nose again and returned his head to his father’s chest. He liked hearing the thump, thump of the beating heart.
When Joe came to the part of the story where he had pulled the trigger and had shot the bull instead of the deer he thought he felt the heart skip a beat. Joe looked up at his father’s face then and caught a glimpse of amusement there. Resting his head against Ben’s shoulder and finding comfort in the closeness of his father’s presence, he felt his father’s arm tighten slightly.
Ben was having a hard time taking all of this in. His poor son! Joe told Ben how sickened he had felt when Mr. Miller arrived on the scene to find his bull dead and how scared he was when he stood in front of his father. The hardest part for Joe to tell his pa was about how he felt when Ben was shouting at him and how he had wanted to run from the house as he had stood and listened to his father’s word.
When Joe told Ben that he was sure that he was no longer loved, Ben’s breath caught in his throat. “Joseph, I’m sorry about all of that. I never meant to make you think I had stopped loving you. No matter what son, I could never do that, you are very special to me.” Ben hugged his son while placing a kiss atop Joe’s brown curls.
“I know that now, but then I was so scared and ashamed of myself,” replied Joe, meeting his father’s loving eyes.
Cradling Joe tightly in his arms, Ben instructed Joe to continue. Joe explained how he had met Jacob Bates while out riding the afternoon pa had let him off and about how Mr. Bates had offered to buy the sorrel yearling and Cochise.
“Well Pa, at that point all I could think about was what you had said about Mr. Miller’s hard work being destroyed and all of his dreams being shattered all because of me. I felt so ashamed, I knew it was my fault and it scared me, I felt so bad Pa, a man’s life was ruined and it was my fault!” Joe cried then, the burden of guilt, that had been almost more than he could bear, was beginning to be lifted from the shoulders of the unhappy boy.
“Then when you said I had to pay Mr. Miller for the bull I was terrified. I didn’t know where I’d ever get that kind of money. I was mad at you at first for making me do it, but then later I saw how lucky I was to have all that I do have. I remembered the stories you used to tell me about when you and Adam and then later, Hoss, had traveled west. I thought about the times you said you were just about ready to give up on your dreams but that something kept encouraging you to go on. Then I thought about what my life might have been like if you had given up and realized that if you had, I might not even be here to have a life.
“Well Pa, I couldn’t let Mr. Miller give up on his dreams, least ways, not because of me! I didn’t want that weighing on my conscience, so when Mr. Bates offered to buy my horses, I made the decision to sell them. But Pa, it was the hardest thing I have ever done.” Joe stopped then and enjoyed the feel of his father’s arms around him.
Ben was surprised by all he had heard. Respect and pride swelled within his chest for the boy who had given his best to see that a man realized his dream. The unselfishness of his son’s acts amazed him. Ben knew what it had cost the boy to give up his horse. Cochise had been his prize possession and yet he had used it as a sacrifice so another man could make his own dreams come true.
“Joseph,” Ben said.
“Yeah Pa,” replied Joe raising his head finally and stretching his back, which had gotten stiff while sitting for so long.
“Would you mind telling me how much Mr. Bates paid you for the horses and what did you do about getting the money to Mr. Miller?” Ben asked as he watched Joe twist and turn, working the stiffness from his body.
Joe surprised his father even more when he told him that Mr. Bates had paid him two hundred dollars for the colt on the condition that Joe would break the colt to saddle and bridle when the young horse was ready. Pa agreed that he had made a fair deal. Ben had known that the little horse had come from one of his best brood mares and was sure to make an excellent horse. Joe was taking his time in telling Ben about Cochise, the weight of what he had done, weighing heavy on his soul. He got up from his place beside his father where he had sat back down after stretching and walked over to the now empty stall. Running his hand gently along the top board of the half wall that divided the stalls Joe’s only statement to his father was
“Five hundred dollars.”
Ben’s eyebrows arched. “Whew, that was a goodly sum for sure,” he told himself. “More than fair,” he reasoned.
He would have to make sure he thanked the generous man the next time he ran into him. He might even take a ride over to the Bates’ homestead to pay a visit. It was then that a plan began forming in the back of Ben Cartwright’s mind. Ben smiled inwardly to himself.
To his son he asked, “So you have seven hundred dollars to pay Mr. Miller?”
Joe walked back to his father and sat down on the bale of hay. “No, seven hundred and twenty-five and I’ve already paid him. We made a deal that I could work for him to pay the rest. With your permission, that is. The last twenty-five dollars was what I’ve been saving from my wages you pay me.”
“Oh, I see?” was all Ben said. Then as if in after thought, “You said you have already paid him?”
“Yes sir, yesterday after Mr. Bates came to pick up the horses. I rode one of the new horses from the corral. I know I wasn’t suppose to leave the ranch, so you can punish me again if you want. But honest Pa, I really felt bad for Mr. Miller and I wanted to make sure he got his money. He cried Pa when I put it in his hand. He told me he had already found another bull over in Placerville that he wants to buy.”
“Joseph, taking into consideration all of what you have just told me, I am not going to add to your punishment, I think you have been punished enough. I have no doubt you are sincere in your remorse, both to me and to Mr. Miller,” Ben told his son as he stood from his seat on the hay.
Walking around to face the boy who remained seated, Ben spoke again, “I want you to know that I am very proud of you son. It took courage to do what you did for Mr. Miller. Not many grown men would have been as gracious as you have.”
Laughing slightly, Ben pulled his son from his seating position into his arms hugging him tightly and patting him on the back. Placing his hand on the back of Joe’s neck and forcing the boy’s head upward he spoke in a loving voice, “Son, you never cease to amaze me. We have work to do; what say we get started?” suggested Ben.
“Pa, one more thing.”
“What’s that Joseph?” Ben asked looking down at his son and seeing how much the lad had relaxed while they had been in the barn.
“I don’t have a horse.” Joe stated. “I can’t work on a ranch without a horse you know,” smiling as his father seemed to ponder this new development.
“Hmm, You said you rode the black gelding yesterday?”
“Yes sir, he did really well too,” Joe told his pa.
“Well, since Adam broke him, Adam should have the final say. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s yours until you find another you’d prefer to have,” Ben informed his now happy son.
“Thanks Pa, I’ll go ask him,” and with that Joe ran to the house. As he came to the boarded porch, he turned and called out to his father, “Love ya, Pa,” and then went into the house to find Adam.
That evening after Little Joe turned in for the night, Ben related Joe’s story to Adam and Hoss. Both young men sat in silence listening until their father had finished.
“Doggonit,” said Hoss, “our little brother sure has been carryin’ a heavy load, ain’t he Pa?’
“He sure has,” replied Ben.
“I always knew that kid had the makings of a fine man growing in there somewhere,” Adam stated and then added, “Guess we haven’t done such a bad job with him after all!”
“What is this ‘we’ stuff? I can’t count the times you two have insisted that Joseph was my son and that he was only your brother,” laughed Ben, Adam and Hoss joining in.
Ben thought it was great having his family back to normal. He was thankful that the rift between himself and his youngest had been restored. He sent up a silent prayer of thanks.
Two weeks later found the Cartwright men busy with all the different chores and work that it took to manage a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. No more mention had been made regarding the sale of Joe’s horses or the events that had led up to that particular transaction. Joe worked hard, making sure that he did his fair share of work and had even kept some of the ‘extra’ chores that his father had added as punishment. Joe hadn’t really minded; it kept him busy and by bedtime he had little time to miss Cochise. The black horse that Adam had agreed to let him have had been working out just fine and Joe had to admit he was becoming attached to the gelding. Blackie wasn’t Cochise to say the least. There would never be another horse as fine as his pinto, but Joe was satisfied with things as they were. Every chance that Joe had any free time he worked with Mr. Miller, doing odd jobs that the man asked of him. The debt that he owed was slowly beginning to shrink much to Joe’s relief.
It was on one of these days that Little Joe had gone to work for Mr. Miller that Ben was to put the final touches on his plan to surprise his youngest son for his seventeenth birthday which was coming up next week. Adam and Hoss were just finishing mucking out the barn when they heard their father in the corral. When they stepped from the dim light of the barn into the bright sun both boys squinted and shaded their eyes with their hands. Ben had just led the third horse from the corral and tied it to the fence with the two horses that were already waiting there.
“Where ya goin’ with them horses Pa?” asked Hoss, stepping over to pet the little chestnut mare Ben had just tied to the fence.
“Hmm, I sold these three and am going to deliver them,” Ben told his son, not looking at him.
“I didn’t know you had sold any horses Pa,” Adam said, somewhat surprised at his father.
Usually the two of them discussed the business ends of running the ranch. He wondered that Ben had not mentioned this to him, not that it really mattered; after all, his father was the boss.
“I’ll be back later boys,” Ben called to his sons as he mounted his big buckskin horse. Gathering the lead ropes of the three spare horses, Ben rode from the yard without a backwards glance at his sons.
The night of Joe’s birthday party was one of the finest for that time of year. The air felt cool and crisp, just right for an evening stroll in the moonlight. Joe’s hopes were up, maybe, he would get a chance to slip from the house with a pretty girl on his arm. The decorations had been hung, Hop Sing had the food prepared, the furniture had been moved to make room for the dancing and Hoss had just finished putting the candles on Joe’s cake. Everything was ready. Ben was pleased with the way things had been going.
Unfortunately, Joe never got his chance to stroll in the moonlight. He was kept busy dancing dance after dance with all of the pretty girls. He even danced with all of the not-so-pretty girls. Ben smiled at his youngest as he came twirling up to him with the current gal on his arm. As Joe and his partner made a complete circle in front of Ben, Joe flashed him a most provocative smile before being swept away. Ben was glad his son was having fun and was more content to see Joseph truly happy again. Ben had kept his birthday gift to his youngest a secret. He had not even shared his secret with his two older sons. He was the only one who knew what his present was, that is, he and his coconspirator! Smiling, Ben felt pleased with himself; he knew Joseph’s night was only going to get better.
At last the large grandfather clock chimed the mid-night hour. Joe’s guest began leaving, each wishing Joe happy birthday again as they went out the door. Several of the young ladies kissed his cheek as they left which caused the young Cartwright to blush. Joe’s brothers were watching from where they were standing in front of the fireplace, amusement on their faces.
“A real Casanova,” said Adam, a smile playing at the corner of his lips, making his face dimple.
“Yeah, a real Caser—Casin—a real whatever you just said,” Hoss said frowning, causing Adam to laugh out loud.
Mr. Jacob Bates and his family were the last quests to say goodnight. Taking Joe’s hand in his, he gave it a tight squeeze and laughed making the deep rumbling sound echo from the walls of the house.
“Little Joe, Happy Birthday, son. I wish ya many more and may they all be as grand as this one,” Jacob said.
“Night sir, Mrs. Bates, thanks for coming,” Joe said as the couple and their children moved out the door.
Jacob turned and winked at Ben who had come to stand behind Joe. Ben smiled in return as Joe closed the door. As Joe turned, he almost tripped over his father for he had not noticed that Ben had been standing so near.
“It was a great party, thanks Pa.” Joe reached up and gave his father a hug.
Ben returned the affection by hugging Joe in return. Breaking loose from Joe’s hug, he suggested that the boys start moving the furniture back into place from where it had been pushed to the side earlier in the evening. All three brothers began doing as their father bid them to and none noticed when Ben slipped into the kitchen and out into the yard through the kitchen door. He had one more surprise for Joseph. Ben’s heart raced with anticipation as he hurried to set up Joe’s final gift and when he finished he slipped back into the house using the same way as he had exited. As he came into the dining room where his sons had been working, they were already making their way toward the stairs. All three where laughing and joking slapping each other’s back in brotherly fashion. When Ben opened the front door all three sons stopped to watch, as their father appeared to be looking at something.
As he stepped through the doorway he called over his shoulder, “Well, I’ll be, Joseph, will you come look at this?”
“What is it Pa? What’s wrong?” replied Joe as he dashed to catch up with his father who had already moved into the yard.
His older brothers were close on his heels. Joe stopped short, standing behind his father. Ben turned to watch the emotions playing across his son’s face. The expression told Ben all he needed to know. Feeling his father’s eyes upon him, Joe turned to meet his father’s gaze.
“Happy birthday, Son!” spoke Ben softly so that the wish was heard by Joe only.
Joe’s happiness overflowed and he jumped into his father’s arms taking the older man by surprise. Laughing and crying at the same time, he planted kisses all over the senior Cartwright’s face.
“HOSS, ADAM,” yelled Joe to his brothers who had joined their father.
“You see her? You see her? Hoss look, look,” the overjoyed boy cried. “Adam?”
“I see little buddy,” Adam answered, laughing at the antics of his baby brother.
“Golly, Short Shanks,” began Hoss but was interrupted when Joe flung his arms around his brother’s waist and began jumping up and down causing Hoss to clamp his large hands down on Joe’s slender shoulders in an attempt to restrain the happy boy.
All the while Ben had been watching a repeat performance of Joe’s happiness flow from person to person and he knew he had done the right thing when he offered Jacob Bates a trade of three for one.
Cochise, realizing she was home, sensed the excitement in the air and whinnied loudly while pawing the ground with her hoof. Joe stopped laughing with his brothers and turned to look at his horse. Glancing briefly at his father then back to the horse, Joe heard his pa softly tell him, “go ahead son.” Needing no further encouragement, Joe ran and threw his arms around the horse’s neck.
“Welcome home girl,” whispered the boy to the horse.
Ben, Adam and Hoss moved to enter the house thus leaving boy and horse to savor the moment of their reunion. Ben stopped and turned for one last look at his baby boy and smiled, his heart full of love for the son who brought so much joy and happiness to his heart and to his home.
Disobedience, obedience, sacrifice, humility, restitution, hard work, love, joy, forgiveness, graciousness, and respect are all lessons of the heart and that each one has its reward. Because Joe Cartwright had learned his lessons well, Ben had decided that Cochise should be returned to his son, not because he felt as though Joseph had sacrificed more than was necessary but because he had made these sacrifices from a humbled heart. He had accepted his responsibility freely without thought to his own needs to meet the needs of another. Joseph Cartwright had taken a giant step toward manhood.