Shared Guilt (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,139


 

 

“AUGHHHHH!!!”

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben.

“PA…MISS CROMWELL…I’m sorry…I’m sorry!” Joe shouted as he stared in horror of what he had just done.

Ben stood in shock, staring down at his best clothes and the mess dripping from Nora Cromwell’s lovely gown.

“I didn’t see you, Pa…honest…I didn’t…” stammered Joe.

The slop bucket dropped from his hand.

Ben’s eyes were dark, angry balls of fire.  His tight jaw twitched angrily.  Miss Cromwell was wiping the mess from the bodice of her evening gown.  Her blue eyes had filled with tears but she fought not to cry.  Delicately manicured fingers picked at the pieces of leftovers that clung to the lace circling her waist.

“Ohhh…” she moaned, “my brand new dress,” she sobbed, glaring at the horrified young man.  “How could you…you…you…ohhh…Ben…”

Ben glared at his son. “Do something…” he barked at the youngster.

Joe’s eyes widened in confusion, what was he to do?  Picking up the bucket, he ran back into the kitchen.  Ben pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and gently wiped at the woman’s face…even going so far as to pick a small piece of…chicken ? from the lady’s hair.  Without realizing it, he snickered.

“What are you laughing at?” shouted Nora, aiming her fury at Ben.  “I find nothing funny about any of this!  Look at my dress, Benjamin…it’s ruined…”

Ben stepped back observing the gown.  There was no doubt; the lovely blue silken fabric was a total loss.

“Here, Pa…this should help!” Joe said and then acted.

“AUGHHHH!”

“JOSEPH!” yelled Ben as he instantly grabbed the now emptied bucket from his startled son’s hands. “Why in the name of Moses did you do that?” Ben stormed, as anger washed over him for the second time in less than a minute. He turned to glance at the woman.  Nora was soaking wet; water had plastered the plume in her bonnet down on her soaked hair.  Limp curls fell about her face.  Mascara dripped from her once neatly applied make-up.  Nora Cromwell looked like a soaked puppy.

“You said do something…I was just trying to help…”

“By drowning me!  You…you…little fool!” wailed Nora.

“Nora…please,” Ben rebuked gently, “Lets not forget, he is my son!  Joseph…” Ben said with clenched teeth, “hmm…go…go to your room right this instance.  I’ll talk to you…later!” ordered Ben as he waved his finger toward the house.  He turned back and to Miss Nora Cromwell focusing his attention on his lady friend.

“Nora…Nora, please darling…don’t cry…the boy didn’t mean anything by it…it was an accident…”

“Oh Ben…for goodness sake…he threw that water on me intentionally!” ranted the woman.

“No…no…Joe wouldn’t do that…he…he must have thought that…that…oh…who knows what that boy was thinking.  Come on, darling…let’s get you inside and out of those wet clothes.  I’ll have Hop Sing find you something nice and warm to put on….”

As Ben was speaking, he was gently guiding Miss Cromwell toward the house.  He glanced up at the window above him and could see his son’s silhouette moving about in the room.

‘You just wait young man…you just wait,’ his mind fumed.

*****

Nora had finally calmed down; she sat on the hearth, before the roaring fire.  Ben’s night jacket was wrapped warmly about her shivering body.  Her curls were flat and lay plastered to the sides of her face and over her forehead.  Tidbits of the dinner that Joe had tossed from the kitchen door, still lingered in the woman’s hair.  She looked a mess and felt as badly as she looked.  Ben sat nearby in a chair, studying Nora’s features.  His anger had subsided somewhat, for after giving it considerable thought, he knew in his heart that Joe had not seen them strolling through the yard when he had so carelessly emptied the slop bucket that he, himself had reminded him to do, just minutes before asking Nora to take a walk with him.

Nora looked so disheveled that Ben found himself smiling.  Her anger was plain to see but he still thought she was beautiful even when sulking.  He stood to move to her side, but the opening of the door caused him to hesitate.  When he turned, Adam and Hoss were just entering the house.  They quickly removed their guns and hats, unaware that behind their father, Nora sat brooding.

Ben glanced casually down at Nora as he moved to greet his sons.  Hoss caught a movement close to the fire and suddenly burst out laughing.  Adam stared at his brother and then glanced in Nora’s direction as the lady stood up.  His hand flew to his mouth to smother the giggles that threatened to betray him.  Adam coughed to cover up his mistake.  Ben’s eyes danced with a mixture of emotions.  He wanted to laugh but his manners told him it would be ungentlemanly to do so.  A part of him knew he should be angry, but it was so comical, he could not allow himself to be mad at his youngest son…who, by the way, was still confined to his room.

*****

“It’s open,” Joe called softly when the gentle rapping had stopped.

By the time the door was pushed wide and Ben entered his son’s room, Joe was standing in front of the window turned to face his father.  He gulped, not sure just how mad his father might still be at him.

“You missed dessert, Joe,” Ben said as he sat down in a chair and motioned for his son to sit.

Joe sat down on the edge of the bed, oblivious to how calm Ben seemed to be. “I wasn’t hungry…sir,” he said in a low voice.

“A growing boy is always hungry, especially for apple pie…but I think I understand why you didn’t want to come down.”

Joe’s head popped up as he eyed his father, somewhat surprised at how unruffled Ben sounded. “You…do?” he stammered.

Ben grinned slightly.  “It hasn’t been a very good day for you, has it son?”

Joe expelled the air from his lungs.  Standing up he walked back to the window and peered out into the night. “No sir…it sure hasn’t,” he remarked with a faulty laugh.

When he turned back to face his father, Ben smiled at him. “Joe…I know you didn’t toss the slop on Nora on purpose…”

“I didn’t Pa…honest, I didn’t even know the two of you were there until…she screamed,” Joe said excitedly. Was it possible…did his father actually understand, that it was an accident?

“Of course you didn’t, it was dark…but…”

Ben heard another gush of air expel from his son’s lungs and laughed softly. “I still think you should apologize to Miss Cromwell…”

“Alright, Pa…if you think I should, I will,” Joe agreed.  “Does this mean…you…aren’t mad at me anymore?”

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and pulled the boy close to him. “That’s exactly what I do mean…I was partly to blame…”

Joe looked up into his father’s face.  His own young expression showed his confusion. “You, Pa?  How are you to blame?”

“I didn’t say I was to blame,” Ben corrected. His brows rose just slightly. “I said I was partly to blame…I was the one who reminded you to empty the scrap bucket, remember?” he smiled.

Joe’s eyes brightened, “Oh…yeah…well…I always try to do what you tell me to do, Pa,” grinned Joe.

Ben rolled his eyes, laughing.  “And instead of taking it to the pigs, you tossed it to the chickens…who I might add, had already returned to their coop for the night.”

“Oops!”

“Next time, try not to dump the scrapes on my lady friend…chicken bones in the hair are not very exciting to a man,” snickered Ben.

Joe giggled. “She looked a sight, didn’t she?”

“I’m afraid so, son…but when you apologize to her, try not to laugh!” he warned.

Joe giggled again. “I promise, I’ll try to keep a straight face…” Joe giggled.

Ben hugged Joe to him and then turned to go. “I had Hop Sing put you a generous slice of pie in the warming oven…go eat before he decides to toss your dessert out the door!  And then, it’s bedtime.”

“Alright, Pa…and Pa?”

“Yes, son?”

“Thanks…for understanding…and everything.  I’ll apologize the minute I see Miss Cromwell again.”

“Thank you, son.  I know Nora will appreciate it.”

*****

The next afternoon, Joe had every intention of making good his promise to his father. When Miss Cromwell arrived, Joe was the first to greet her, stopping her before she had time to get to the door.

“Miss Cromwell,” Joe said a bit hesitantly.

Nora glared at the boy with a distasteful look on her face. “What is it, young man?” she growled at him.

Joe swallowed hard.  “I…I…I mean…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, stop that babbling and say what’s on your mind; you sound like a fool…”

Joe took a deep breath to keep from making a sharp retort.  “All I wanted to say was…I’m sorry…about last night, I mean…”

Nora’s eyes rounded as she placed her hand on her hip. “As you should be…my brand new dress was ruined.  It was a thoughtless act of violence…”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Joe stated firmly.  “It was an accident…”

“I seriously doubt that, young man.  It’s no secret that you don’t like me!” Nora stepped closer.  She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “You just understand this, little boy…your father might think you are something special, but I know you for what you really are.  You’re nothing but a spoiled rotten, immature little weasel…and I can promise you this…once your father and I are married…”

“NORA!”

Nora’s, face flushed red as she spun around to greet Ben. “I didn’t hear you ride up, darling,” smiled Ben as he leaned down and gently kissed Nora’s forehead.

His smile broadened as he glanced at his son. “I see you and Little Joe have been talking.  I hope he apologized about…last night?”

Nora’s demure expression showed nothing of her deep anger that Joe had just experienced.  One would have thought she the kindest and gentlest of ladies. “Yes, darling…the poor boy was so apologetic…I assured him that he was forgiven…didn’t, ILittle Joe?” she said in a tone that warned the young boy he’d best agree with her.

“Yeah…I mean…yes ma’am…ere…sir…everything’s fine now,” Joe said, giving a quick glance at the woman.

“Good,” Ben grinned as he slipped his arm about Nora’s shoulders and slowly began to walk with her toward the house. “Oh…Joe, if you don’t mind, take care of Nora’s horse for her, please?”

Joe was silent for a moment before answering. “Yes sir,” he muttered softly.

Ben led Nora away.  As Joe stood watching, Nora was looking across her shoulder at him.  Her smile was wicked.  Joe turned away to keep from having to look at the obnoxious woman.  He felt sad…like he’d just lost his best friend…and he felt somewhat ashamed, for disliking the woman whom he knew his father had fallen in love with and who one day would become his mother.  Guilt lingered in his soul, weighing him down and making him sigh heavily.  Brushing aside the feeling, Joe removed the harness from the horse and led him to the barn.

*****

Nora Cromwell’s presence at the Cartwright home was beginning to become a regular occurrence.  The boys had discussed the matter in private and each agreed that it was only a matter of time before their father popped the question.  Hoss was pleased with the thoughts of having a woman in the house.  The fact that Nora was a good cook might have had something to do with his liking the arrangement.  Adam was a bit skeptical about their father marrying Miss Cromwell…there was just something about the woman that troubled him.  Yet, after much thought on the matter, he still had not been able to put a finger on the ‘something’ and that troubled him somewhat.

On the other hand, Joe had made no secret about his feelings.  He was dead set against his father marrying Nora.  When his brothers questioned him as to why, he couldn’t give them any definite answers, he could only reinforce his discontentment over the situation.

*****

Things hadn’t seemed to be getting any better between Joe and Nora.  It appeared as if every time she and he were in the slightest proximity of one another, something always happened.  When it did, it was always Joe who was left looking as if he’d conspired against his father’s soon-to-be-bride and left feeling guiltier and guiltier about not liking the woman.

Joe was seated now in his room, waiting once again for his father to come upstairs.  He dreaded the lecture, or worse, the necessary little talk that his father had promised him the last time if he received one more complaint from Nora about his behavior he’d have no other recourse than to take drastic action. The despairing young man sighed deeply, once again it hadn’t been his fault, he’d tried to tell his father that, but the hysterical Miss Cromwell kept shouting and crying and accusing.  His father had seen only the results of the accident and had assumed the worse, shouting at him and sending him to his room, embarrassed and humiliated in front of the gloating woman.

It had all begun when Nora had taken it upon herself to cook supper.  Obviously trying to impress his father, thought Joe.  Hop Sing had taken the wagon and gone into town, Ben, Adam and Hoss were working down in the south pasture and Ben had sent Joe home in the other wagon to fetch some more wire.  He’d been hungry, as growing boys usually are, even his father had so as much, Joe remembered.  Thinking that no one was around, he’d slipped into the kitchen to snatch some of the cookies he had smelled baking early before Hop Sing had taken his leave and gone into town.  When he’d opened the door, he was startled to find Nora standing on a chair, tiptoeing trying to reach something on the highest shelf.  Joe hadn’t said any thing; he’d only entered the kitchen, slamming the door behind him.  Nora, her arms stretched high over her head, turned at the sound of the closing door and caught off guard, she teetered pre-cautiously on the chair.  Her arms somehow became entangled in the flour sack she’d been trying to reach and when he’d seen her about to tumble backwards, Joe had darted forward, attempting to break her fall.  Instead, he’d knocked her completely out of the chair, but not before the flour sack was emptied of its contents, all in her hair, her dress, down the bodice, in her face, even in her mouth and eyes.

As Nora sputtered and spewed trying to rid herself of the offending flour, Joe, frozen in shock, could only stand and watch.  Once Nora had emptied her mouth of the flour and wiped what she could off her face, she turned, giving Joe a dangerous, dark look that caused him to flinch.

“I’m…sorry,” he muttered.  “I didn’t mean…to scare you,” he apologized.

“Liar!” she spat.  “You did this on purpose!  You knew I wanted to surprise your father with making supper for him…and you deliberately set out to ruin it!”

“No…no ma’am…I didn’t know,” sputtered Joe.

Nora grabbed a wooden spoon from the table and was waving it over her head.  Joe took a step backward, but it wasn’t far enough.  Nora swung out at him, striking him across the upper arm with the spoon.

“Ouch…hey…” Joe shouted.  “That hurt…”

“And so will this,” she screamed at him as she struck him again and again.

Joe tried to back away, but she had him cornered in the kitchen and he had nowhere to go.  He grabbed at Nora’s arms, forcing them upward in an attempt to stop the attack.  It was just as he had managed to wrench the wooden spoon from her hand, causing her cry out as he twisted the object free, that the door burst opened and a deep, resounding voice shouted out his name.

“JOSEPH!”

All activity in the kitchen immediately stopped as both Nora and Little Joe turned to see Ben standing in the doorway.  Relief washed over the boy as he slowly lowered his arms. He stepped from the corner to look up at his father, but the look on Ben’s face caused the boy’s steps to falter.  He gulped.

Nora suddenly took advantage of his inability to speak as she ran crying to his father and flung herself into his arms.  It seemed from that moment on, everything that had happened was told in such a manner that it became all twisted and distorted and by the time his father was able to calm the hysterical woman, Joe suddenly had become the culprit and was sent off to his room.

Now he waited, with dread, for his father had never seemed to be angrier than he had been just a few short moments ago.  The worried young man moved from the window to his bed and lay down, crossing his arms over his head.  Joe closed his eyes, trying to squeeze the picture of the raving woman, covered from head to toe in white flour, from his mind.  But this picture would not go away.

It was an hour later before Joe heard the heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs.  Quickly he jumped from the bed and faced the door, dreading what was to come.  Ben did not bother to knock on the door, but rather he pushed it opened and entered the room.  Immediately, Joe noted that his father’s angry had not diminished.  If anything, Ben seemed madder than he had in the beginning.  Joe could only wonder what Miss Cromwell might have told his father to irritate him further.

“Sit down,” Ben ordered, pointing to the chair.

Joe swallowed hard but quickly took a seat.

“Young man,” Ben started.

“It was an accident, honest…Pa,” gulped Joe interrupting his father.

“Not according to Nora…”

“Well, it was!” stormed Joe, jumping to his feet.

“Don’t take that tone with me, young man,” warned Ben.

Joe took a deep breath to calm himself.  No sense in making matters worse for himself than what they already were. “I’m…sorry, sir, but if she told you I did it on purpose, then she’s….hmm…”

Ben’s eyes darkened. “Are you about to say that Nora is lying?” Ben asked, hardly able to believe what his son was about to say.

Joe glanced with downcast eyes up at his father. “If that’s what she told you…then…I…reckon so,” he muttered.

The wind expelled from Ben’s lungs.  His hands were firmly planted on his hips as he glared at the boy. “She said you’d probably claim that it was an accident…”

“IT WAS!” stormed Joe.

“JOSEPH!”

“I’m sorry, Pa…but it was, honest.  I came into the kitchen…I was gonna get some of those cookies that Hop Sing made this morning…and when I came in…there she was, standing in a chair trying to reach the flour sack.  I guess, when I slammed the door, it startled her.  I saw that she was about to fall so I rushed over to help her…that’s when the flour sack fell on her head and…covered her with flour…honest…that’s the truth, Pa…honest…”

Ben folded his arms across his chest and studied the boy’s face intently.  He knew it wasn’t like the boy to lie…but so much had happened since he’d met Nora and brought her home.  Joe had seemed to change.  Something deep inside of him whispered that he knew the boy and the woman had mixed feelings about one another.  Oh…who was he kidding…Little Joe just plain out and out did not like Nora, though Ben could not figure why on earth not, Adam and Hoss seemed to accept her.  Ben watched how the boy fidgeted.  Was he lying…why?  Was the boy jealous of his love for Nora?  Did Joe feel threatened by her…what was the underlying cause of the boy disliking Nora so much?  Nora seemed to honestly be trying to get along with his youngest son…but Joe certainly wasn’t making it easy for her.

“If that’s the honest truth, Joseph, then explain to me why Nora would lie to me…why would she want to make you out to be the villain?”

Joe slowly raised his head so that he could see his father’s face.  He sighed softly as he noted that Ben’s hard features had softened some. “’Cause…she don’t like me…”

“Probably because you don’t much like her either, wouldn’t you think?”

Joe’s eyes widened.  He hadn’t been aware that his father had known of his dislike of the woman. “I don’t know,” he murmured.

“Why do you think she doesn’t like you, Joe?” Ben asked, moving to the chair that Joe had vacated and sitting down.

Joe shrugged his shoulders.

“Then answer me this…why don’t you like her?  What has she done to make you unhappy with her…”

“Everything!” Joe spouted.  “She lies about me to you…about the things that happen to her.  She blames me for everything…she makes you believe I’m at fault…when it ain’t me…she’s just a dump ole lady that can’t do anything right and she tries to make it look like I’m the cause of her…stupidity…all to make herself look good to you…and your just too blind…to see through her stupid act!”

Ben rose from the chair as anger washed over him.  He grabbed Joe by both arms, gripping hard.  He pulled the boy close to him, causing Joe to rise to his toes.  His voice was deep and thick and Joe, when he looked into the dark eyes, drew back slightly. “That will be enough!  How dare you call Nora names…and me…that is the rudest, most immature thing you have done in…ages!  I’m shocked and disappointed in you, young man!”

Ben released his grip on Joe’s arms.  Joe took a step backward. “If you were five years younger, I’d wash your mouth out with a bar of lye soap.  As it is, I’ve a good mind to take a strap to you…but I won’t…not as angry as I am at this moment…but you are confined to this room until further notice!  Now get ready for bed…”

Ben stomped to the door where he paused and looked back.  Joe had lowered his head and Ben could see that the boy was fighting not to cry.

“And good night to you!” he growled as he walked from the room, leaving Joe alone to ponder the errors of his way.

*****

It was three days before his father had finally relented and allowed Joe to leave the room.  Over those long lonely days, Joe had time to reflect on all that had happened.  He knew in his heart that had not done anything on purpose to hurt or embarrass Miss Cromwell, but he was filled to brim with guilt.  His father loved her…he should too, for his father’s sake.  Or, he should at least try harder to like the lady, but he just couldn’t.  It was hard to like someone who didn’t like you back and harder yet to like someone whom you knew in your heart was planning on hurting the one person whom you truly did love.  That was what Joe saw in the future for his father…hurt and disappointment.  Nora was after something, though Joe had no clue what it could be.  He assumed it was his father’s money…or his land holdings.  It grieved him to think how happy his father appeared to be…only to know that it was a matter of time before his heart would be broken.  It would be different than when his mother died.  At least his mother had died loving his father…Ben had that to sustain himself throughout the years.  But how would he deal with the fact that he’d been made to look like a fool?  Joe shuddered just thinking about it.

From behind the tree, the boy watched as the woman disembarked from her carriage.  There was no denying the fact she was a beautiful woman, considering her age.  Joe quickly allowed his hazel eyes to take in each fine detail of the woman’s persona, from her delicately feathered bonnet to her neatly laced shoes.  It was no wonder that his father was so taken with the lady, she was, as Adam had stated, a fine example of the feminine sexes…whatever that meant, he thought.  But Joe knew that the lovely lady wasn’t everything she presented herself to be, she had a nasty streak that his father wasn’t aware of.  But Joe knew.  Without realizing it, his hand moved to the right side of his face, where she had slapped him the night before.  He could still feel the burning sensation that had stung his cheek when, without warning, her anger had overwhelmed her and she had become as vicious as any angry grizzly bear he could have imagined.

And it had been for what? Joe thought as he watched the woman from behind his hiding place.  He had been working in the barn when she had come in, interrupting him and insisting that he saddle a horse for her.  When he tried to explain that there wasn’t a saddle that she could use, she had shouted at him, using words that he had never heard before, except once when he had been allowed to go with Adam into the saloon.  And as soon as his brother had heard him listening to the conversation among some of the men, he had hauled the younger brother’s butt out of there so fast, Joe’s feet barely touched the ground.

Nora had grabbed a saddle from the rack and flung it across the mare’s back and set about trying to saddle the horse on her own.  Joe warned her that the cinch needed repairing, but she accused him of lying just so that she couldn’t go riding.

“Honest, Miss Cromwell…it needs fixing…”

“Nonsense!”

“You could fall…and get hurt…” cautioned Joe.

“Not likely…being as how this thing works just fine,” growled the woman as she finished saddling the mare.

Nora led the horse to the door but Joe grabbed the horse’s bridle and stopped the lady from leaving the barn. “Please ma’am…I ain’t lying to you…”

“Get out of my way,” she ordered, her eyes daring him to defy her.

Joe refused to move his hand from the bridle.  His jaw tightened. “No ma’am…I won’t.  If you use this saddle, you’ll get hurt…and I can’t let that happen.”

“Oh…you can’t?”

“No…my mama was killed by a fall from a horse…”

“Perhaps she was a novice…I am not. Now let go of that horse before I…”

“My mother was an excellent rider…much better than you are…I’ve seen how you ride and in my opinion, you need a teacher…”

“Why you little…I order you…let go now…”

Joe gulped.  His father would be furious with him if he had heard the way he had spoken to the woman, but Joe knew his father would be angrier with him if he allowed Miss Cromwell to ride out of here knowing that the saddle cinch needed fixing.  If the woman did get hurt…well…Joe didn’t want to think about what his father might be tempted to do to him then.  He hadn’t been in his father’s favor for several days though he’d tried, but if he let anything happen to this woman whom his father had fallen in love with, Joe feared that his father would never forgiven him…ever! “No,” he said firmly.

“Aweeee,” screened Joe as his hand flew to his cheek.

Nora took advantage of the fact that Joe had released his grip on the bridle and quickly led the horse from the barn.  As she swung into the saddle, she turned back to the boy who was leaning against the wooden door. “Let that be a lesson to you, Joseph…you will not defy me…ever.  And once your father and I are married…well…you just wait, I have plans for you!” shouted Nora as she whirled the mare around and galloped from the yard.

Joe watched for a moment longer, until the lady and horse disappeared from sight.  When he turned back to his work, he made a tiny screech.

“Sorry, buddy…didn’t mean to scare you…say…what happened to your face?” Adam, who had entered the barn unannounced through the rear door, took Joe’s chin in his hands and turned the boy’s face toward the light.

“That’s a hand print, Joe…who hit you?” Adam said, his voice deep with emotion as he inspected the blazing red print on his brother’s face.

Joe jerked his chin away and tried to move passed Adam. “It’s nothing…”

“Nothing…it’s a hand print…now I want to know who hit you…I know it wasn’t Pa…and Hoss isn’t here…not that he’d hit you if he were, I know better.  Now who was it, Joe?” Adam demanded.

“It doesn’t matter, Adam…really,” Joe stated.  “I got chores need finishing…” he said as he moved deeper into the barn.

For a long moment, Adam stood still, thinking. “Where’s the mare?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Miss Cromwell took her out for a ride…”

Adam spun around, searching the barn with his dark eyes. “And what saddle did she use?”

Joe’s eyes sought his brother’s face.  He nodded toward the empty rack where the saddle had been kept.

“That saddle has a bad cinch…why on earth didn’t you tell her, Joe!”

“I tried…but she accused me of…lying to her…”

“Lying…why would she do that?”

“She doesn’t like me…”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous…”

“I’m not…she doesn’t like me…don’t matter…I don’t like her either.”

“Well why on earth not…she’s a nice lady…and she makes our father quite happy, in case you haven’t noticed,” Adam said as he stepped over to Joe.

Joe was silent as Adam studied the boy’s expression.  His brother looked unhappy…and worried.  Gently, Adam placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and turned the boy around so that he could look his brother in the eyes.  The bright red handprint looked like a fresh brand.

“Did she do this to you?” Adam asked softly.

Joe had lowered his head so that he would not have to look Adam eye to eye.  Slowly he nodded his head.

“Why?”

“I done told you, Adam…she doesn’t like me.”

“Okay, so she doesn’t like you…that’s no reason to hit you.”

“I told her she couldn’t take the mare…I tried to explain about the cinch…but she didn’t believe me.  She called me names and then…she slapped me.  Before I could stop her…she was gone…”

“Oh brother…” Adam had no sooner made his declaration than the two of them noticed Nora walking slowly across the yard.  They watched her progress but when they saw the woman drop to the ground, both ran from the barn to the woman’s side.

Nora’s bonnet was lopsided on her head.  The pins holding her hair had come loose and several wayward strands hung about her face.  Her clothing was covered in a fine layer of dirt and dust and her face was smudged with mud.  It was obvious by the sweat that beaded on her brow, that the woman had walked a good ways before finally collapsing in the center of the yard.

Adam dropped to his knees and gently raised the battered woman’s head. “Miss Cromwell…are you alright?” he insisted.

“Oh…my…” she moaned, looking sadly up at Adam.

“Joe, get some water.”

Immediately Joe did as his brother had asked and soon returned with the dipper filled with cool water.  He knelt down, handing the dipper to Adam.

Carefully, Adam held the ladle to the lady’s lips and allowed her to drink a small amount.

“Feeling better?”

Nora nodded her head and turned to look up at Joe.  Her eyes danced with anger. “This is your fault!” she growled at the boy.  “You just wait until your father comes home…I’ll see to it that he takes a strap to your backside this time for sure!”

Joe, too stunned to utter a word, backed up as Nora Cromwell got to her feet.  Adam’s arm was about the woman’s arm, trying to help her get her balance back.  He was shocked at her words.

“Miss Cromwell…surely, you don’t blame the boy?  He tried to tell you about the cinch, but you insisted…”

Nora yanked her arm from Adam’s gentle grasp and turned her wrath on him instead. “You just mind your own business, Mr. High and Mighty!” she stormed as she turned and marched toward the house.

Joe glanced up at Adam; his brother’s expression was dark. “What are we gonna do, Adam…surely Pa ain’t going to marry that…that…”

“Careful, Little Joe,” Adam warned with a twisted smile as he slipped his arm about his brother’s shoulder.  “Let it alone…for now.  Come on…let’s go find that mare…I’ll have a talk with Pa…later.”

“Alright, Adam…but I sure hope Pa comes to his senses in time.”

Adam glanced down at his younger brother and smile.  He didn’t say anything…mainly because he didn’t want to worry his brother, but in fact, he was hoping the same thing.

*****

Once again, Joe was confined to his room, this time for a whole week.  If his father had thought for one minute that punishing him in such a way would change how he felt toward the obnoxious woman, Ben was wrong, determined the boy.  The days spent in his room, only caused him to brood and his dislike of Nora Cromwell only deepened.  He hated her…and he resented her.  Why couldn’t his father see what she was?  Was it true, that love was blind?  Surely it must be…his father certainly seemed to be!

To add to his present misery, Adam had gone out of town and wasn’t expected back until next week.  Joe had thought for sure that his brother might have had time to speak with their father…about Nora slapping him…but if he had, his father had not appeared to care, for nothing had been said to him about it.  He’d figured that Ben would have come to him, boldly declaring that he’d never marry a woman who would be as daring as to strike a son of his!  Joe had been disappointed once again and as he brooded over his fate, the guilt ate away at him.  It gnawed at his insides, causing his stomach to become upset.  It pried its way into his sleep, causing him nightmares and twice in one week, he was awakened by the sounds of his own screaming.  Joe had lain in bed, sweat dotting his brow as he waited for his father to come to him, but Ben never appeared…causing the resentment to fester and grow and eat away at him.

By the time that Joe was released from his punishment, he was sullen and withdrawn.  His behavior did not go unnoticed by his father.  Ben worried and fretted about the boy.  Joe’s unhappiness troubled him.  It saddened him to know that the boy was so obvious miserable and that it stemmed from his relationship with Nora.  Joe wasn’t the only one who had sleepless nights or on the nights when he did sleep, strange, distorted nightmares haunted his dreams.  Unbeknown to his son, Ben was beginning to feel guilty.  The reasons were different, yet somewhat akin to his son’s.  Was it worth his boy’s unhappiness and peace of mind…marrying Nora, thought Ben.  He’d been in hopes that by marrying her, he’d be able to give his sons what had always been lacking in their lives, and that was a mother.  But at certain times, things just didn’t look as if they were working out.  Everything had gone wrong.  Joe had found himself in more trouble than he had in most of his earlier years.  He was argumentative and quarrelsome…he’d even become defiant and bad-tempered.  Adam had found excuses to stay away…sometimes for days and Ben knew by watching his youngest son, that Joe had been missing his brother.  Hoss…well…Hoss was just Hoss, kind and considerate regardless of his own feelings toward someone, even Nora.

As Ben thought about his sons, he questioned himself as to whether or not he was doing the right thing, by marrying Nora.  And then, when he’d just about reach a decision, she’d walk into the room, and he’d take one look and his resolve would melt, and he’d know in his heart that he loved her.

*****

At the sound of the door opening and closing, Joe moved around the trunk of the tree and watched as his father hurried across the yard to greet his guest in time to help her from the buggy.  Joe’s lips twisted into a smirk as he watched how the woman smiled and slipped her slender arms about his father’s neck in a warm embrace.  He shut his eyes in order to escape the passionate kiss that Nora rendered to his father’s lips as her hungry lips welded with Ben’s.  Inside, silently, Joe groaned.

When he peered at the couple again, they had begun moving toward the house.  It was then that he stepped from around the tree and raced for the barn, but not quickly enough.

“JOSEPH!” his father called.

Instantly, Joe stopped and turned around, forcing himself to smile politely at the couple.  Ben laughed in a strange sort of way and waved his son toward him.

“Joe…come over here and say hello to Nora,” Ben issued; his arm lingered about the woman’s shoulders.

Nora Cromwell smiled at the boy. “Hello, Joseph,” she said kindly.

Joe walked reluctantly toward his father and the woman. “Afternoon, ma’am,” Joe said, greeting his father’s guest as requested.

Nora laughed lightly.  “My, aren’t you the gentleman…today!  Your father has certainly managed to drill something into you lately!” she smiled.

Joe said nothing regarding the compliment, but rather looked up at his father, half expecting his father to make a comment about Nora’s statement.  But if Ben had picked up on the sarcasm, he wasn’t speaking up about it.

“Is it alright if I go fishing, Pa?  I won’t be gone long,” Joe questioned.

“Have you finished your chores?”

“Yes sir…well, everything but the tack room, and it’s almost finished,” explained Joe.

“Well, when that is finished, you may go…but don’t be late, son; Nora is having supper with us tonight,” Ben smiled down at the lady.

Joe noticed that Nora reached for his father’s hand and held it, their fingers entwined together.

“And I told you…we have something to talk to you boys tonight,” Ben said in a strange tone.

Ben glanced down at Nora and then looked at Joe. “I have an announcement to make that might surprise you,” he said, directing his statement to his son.

Joe had his suspicions as to what the announcement was going to be and he hated the idea…just has he hated the woman.  But he loved his father dearly and thus he had kept his dislike of his father’s lady friend to himself, up until the other night, when he had blurted out to his father how he really felt about Nora.  Ben had been angry at first and then a look of regret had formed in his eyes.  Joe felt bad for being the cause of his father’s unhappiness, but he couldn’t help the way he felt…could he?

“I haven’t forgotten,” Joe said as he turned to go. He was hard pressed to hide the disgust in his voice. “Oh,” he said, pausing, “thanks, Pa.”

Ben watched as Joe disappeared into the barn and then turned, looking down at Nora and noting the frown that had replaced the smile. “Is something wrong, Nora?” he asked.

The frown suddenly disappeared as the smile took its place. “No…I suppose not…”

Ben gently tilted Nora’s chin up so that he could look directly into the woman’s eyes.

“You have something on your mind…what is it?” he asked gently.

“Oh Ben,” Nora smiled, “You know me so well…”

“Then tell me what is bothering you,” he said in a thick voice.

“It is…well…it’s the boy…”

“The boy?  You mean Little Joe?  What about him?” Ben asked.

“Well, Ben…it’s probably nothing…maybe it’s just me…but…I don’t think the boy likes me very well…” Nora said softly, looking at Ben with large, sad eyes. “I was so hoping that he would…that all your sons would like me…after all…in a matter of few weeks…I will be their mother…”

Ben glanced toward the barn.  Inside, moving about, he could see Little Joe tending to his chores.  He had feared almost the same thing, in the beginning, that Joe would resent the fact that he might have a new mother.  The concerned father had hoped that his youngest son would take joy in the fact that he was going to have a complete family…with both a father and a mother.  Now he realized that he had acted in haste, having not taken the time to feel the boy out about how Joe felt toward Nora and the fact that she would be joining the family.  He sighed deeply.  They did have their differences; the last few weeks had proven that. And the truth had come out…Joe disliked Nora…with a passion that he’d never seen in his son before.  He’d have to tell her soon…that Joe wasn’t happy…that he didn’t know what it would take to make him happy, short of not marrying her that is.  And Ben had considered even that.

“Ben,” Nora cooed, “please, don’t worry…I’m sure it’s just me…Little Joe is a fine young man…a bit rough around the edges yet, but I’m sure after we’re married…I can change that.  Come on, let’s go inside,” she said softly. “Oh…by the way, Ben…there’s something wrong with the buggy…”

“There is…well don’t worry, darling; I’ll have Hoss take a look at it for you, before you leave tonight,” Ben smiled as he walked slowly toward the house with Nora.

Nora pulled gently away from Ben, glancing at the boy inside the barn as she turned to go.  She’d already forgotten the buggy; the boy was ever present in her thoughts.

‘Oh yes…I will certainly take charge of that Little Problem!’ her thoughts buzzed.

*****

That night the family gathered around the table, anxiously waiting for the special meal that Hop Sing had prepared.  Ben sat in his usual place, while to his right Nora Cromwell sat erect and graceful.  To the elder Cartwright’s left, sat his middle son, Hoss, dressed in his finest and to the big man’s left sat the youngest Cartwright, squirming uncomfortably in his seat.  At the far end of the table, Adam, eldest son sat upright, neatly dressed in his dark suit.

Adam glanced at his youngest brother, making a scowl across his forehead. “Sit still,” he murmured lowly.

Joe puckered up his lips and tried to stop wiggling.  He glanced down the length of the table just in time to see his father smile warmly to the woman.  Nora returned the smile, batting her long, thick lashes at his father.  A low groan escaped unnoticed passed his lips.

“Joseph!” whispered Adam.

Joe gave his brother a mean look. Before he could say anything, Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen carrying in the dishes. Carefully he placed the items on the table, quickly returning to the kitchen to carry more.

Before long, everyone was enjoying the meal and the cheerful and light conversation.  All that is, but one.

Joe poked carelessly at the food on his plate.  From lowered lashes, he kept close watch on the woman and his father.  The boy’s eyes constantly observed his father’s face and noted the varying expressions that changed regularly.  He noted the soft, light tint that appeared on the lady’s cheeks.  Both looked happy, thought Joe, wondering briefly if he had only been imagining that the woman seemed superficial in her affections toward his father.

Considering the fact, Joe also began doubting himself and his attitude about his father’s interest in bringing the woman into their home as a part of their family.  Joe bristled at the thought.  He didn’t like her, thinking back to the last few days when everything concerning her had seemed to point the finger of guilt at him, he decided right then and there that his dislike of her was justified.

Perhaps he was being childish and immature, as his father had suggested.  Or maybe he was jealous of his father’s attention or lack of, since Nora had become a near regular around the place, coming and going at will, demanding all the attention from not only his father, but his brothers as well.  Another heavy sigh escaped.

“Ouch!” Joe said, turning toward his oldest brother and giving Adam an angry glare. “Why’d ya kick me?” he muttered, checking to see if his father had heard his outburst.  But Ben was saying something to Nora, who hung on every word his father spoke.

“Be quiet,” Adam warned.

“Why? They don’t even know we’re here…they might as well be alone for all they’ve said to one of us,” snapped Joe.

“Did you say something, Joseph?”

Ben’s deep voice brought a halt to another retort.  Joe looked down the table, seeing Ben’s expectant expression.  He forced himself to smile, crammed his mouthful and shook his head. “No sir,” he muttered.

Nora said something then to his father, drawing Ben’s attention back to himself.  Joe glanced at Adam, noting the slight frown on his brother’s handsome face.

“Adam,” Joe said softly.

Adam glanced at his brother.  “What?”

“Did you tell him?”

“Tell who what?” Adam asked, confused by the question.

“Pa…you know…” Joe hinted, rubbing his hand against the cheek where Nora had slapped him.

Adam’s lips tightened as he shook his head. “I’m sorry Joe…I haven’t had time…besides…I can never catch him alone anymore…”

“Yeah…I know what you mean,” the boy stated as he looked down the length of the table at his father and the woman.

Nora happened to look up and saw both Adam and Joe watching her.  She suddenly felt uncomfortable, but she smiled.  Ben was saying something.

“If you boys have finished with your supper,” Ben began.

Joe noted that his father wasn’t smiling and only assumed that it was because of him, knowing how he hated the woman and having to stand before them and announce that he would soon be marrying Miss Nora Cromwell.

Ben pushed back his chair and stood up.  Joe swallowed the lump that suddenly appeared in the back of his throat.

‘Here it comes,’ he thought sadly.

“As you know, Nora and I have been seeing a lot of each other over the last several weeks.”  Ben smiled, but the smile seemed strained.  He glanced at Joe.  “And I’m sure you boys are aware how much Miss Cromwell has come to mean to me…” he looked down at Nora.  “And I to her…I’ve asked Nora here tonight…to have supper with the four of us…because I have…something to say…first to her…and then to you,” Ben said as he glanced from one face to the other.

“It might not be…what you boys were expecting…but I assure you, I’ve given great thought to my decision…and I’ve spent several hours praying about it…I was so much in hopes that each of you…would accept Nora…not only as my wife…but as…your mother as well…and that she could come to care for…each of you…”

Ben’s eyes rested on Little Joe’s face.  He noted the glistening of tears in the hazel depths and the sight caused his heart to skip a beat.

“But…” Ben paused and took a deep breath.  “I have decided that the time is …”

Before Ben could finish his statement, a loud pounding on the door interrupted him.  Everyone at the table exchanged startled looks.

“I get door…stay in seats,” Hop Sing muttered as he quickly padded to the front door.

When he pulled it opened, a man, covered in dirt, dust and ashes stumbled into the room.

Adam quickly jumped to his feet and moved to the doorway.

“Fire!” the man blurted.  “Mr. Cartwright…there’s fire on the mountain!”

“What!” stammered Ben as Hoss joined Adam.

Joe and Nora moved more slowly and stood behind the three elder Cartwrights as they waited for the stranger to explain to them where the fire was burning.

Breathlessly the man tried to explain. “Back that way…halfway up the ridge, near the new lumber camp…”

“The new camp…” stammered Ben as he quickly grabbed his gun belt and hat from the credenza behind the door.

“Who are you?” Adam asked as he too strapped on his gun belt.

“Jim…Jim Holder…I’m one of the new men, Mr. Griffin, your foreman hired.  He sent me down here…to fetch you.  He said to bring shovels, axes…buckets and all the men you can spare…”

“Alright…Hoss…”

“Yes sir…I’ll wake the men in the bunkhouse and load the needed items…

“Good, Adam you and I will ride up to the camp…” Ben said as he started out the door.

“What about me, Pa…what’cha want me to do to help?” Joe called as he stood in the doorway watching his father and brothers about to leave.

Ben paused, momentarily thinking…  “Joe…please, I need you to take Miss Cromwell home…see that she gets there safely!  Nora…we’ll talk later…I hope you understand…but this is very important.”

Nora, a deep frown showing in her expression, tried to hide her disappointment. “I understand perfectly, Ben…you…hurry on…put that fire out and we’ll…try again tomorrow,” she said, forcing a sweet smile to show her approval.

“Thank you,” Ben said. He moved to his youngest son and placed a hand on the boy’s slender shoulder. “Please take Nora home, son…I don’t know how long I’ll be or how bad the fire is…”

“PA…COME ON!” shouted Adam as he tossed his father Buck’s reins.

Ben hurried to mount up.  Seconds later, Joe found himself alone in the yard with Nora.  He wasn’t sure about the look on her face, but knew he was more than willing to take her home.  He regretted that the mountain was on fire, but he was thankful for the fact that his father had not been able to complete his announcement…though it was for certain that Nora wasn’t please.

“I’ll hitch your buggy, Miss Cromwell…why don’t you get your wrap…and then I’ll be happy to take you home?” Joe said meekly.

Nora turned angry, dark eyes on the boy. “Ohhh….I just bet you will!” she stormed as she marched angrily toward the house.

Joe stifled a giggle.  Despite the fire, he was happy with the way the evening had turned out.  ‘And I don’t even feel guilty about it!’ he snickered.

Joe was waiting next to the buggy when Nora appeared.  She walked or rather stomped over to the passenger side and waited for Joe to give her a hand into the buggy.  But Joe, feeling somewhat on the mischievous side tonight, acted as though he didn’t see her and climbed instead, into his side of the buggy.

Disgusted with the boy, Nora climbed into the buggy and settled herself, but not before hanging the hem of her dress on the side of the buggy and ripping the fabric. “Damn!” she cursed and then suddenly glanced at Little Joe.  “I suppose you find that shocking?”

“What?” Joe said as he slapped the reins down on the horse’s rump.

“My language…”

“No…I’ve heard worse,” Joe admitted.  “But not from a lady…it’s usually one of the saloon girls that talks trashy like that…but then, you wouldn’t consider them a lady, would you?” Joe said arrogantly.

Joe heard Nora make a growling sound deep in the back of her throat.

“You don’t consider me much of a lady…do you?” she snapped.

Joe looked into her face and smiled.  He looked so young when he wanted too. “Honestly…I don’t consider you much of anything…”

“Why you vile, inconsiderate little bastard!” she shouted as she flung her arms and hands at him in a failing attempt to strike him.

Joe was forced to cover his face with his arms.  Nora continued to assault him with blows, using her handbag to hit him.  She ranted and raved, screaming obscenities at him.

The horse, frightened by the loud ruckus that seemed to be following him and feeling the reins go slack, bolted into a run.  The buggy was tossed from side to side.  The woman stopped fighting Joe as she struggled to keep from being tossed from her seat.  Little Joe tried to regain control of the runaway horse, but he was unable to reach the reins.  There was nothing left to do but hold on and hope that the frightened mare would soon tire out and come to a stop.

The buggy continued to be tossed to and fro.  The wheels hit the ruts in the road and the rocks jarred them both.  They were thrown from one side to the other, banging their heads together as the horse galloped faster and faster.  Joe was suddenly flung to the floor, hitting his head hard.  He heard himself cry out and felt the warmth of his own blood as it seeped down his forehead and into his eyes.  Nora screamed and then suddenly Joe heard a loud cracking sound.  He caught a glimpse of the horse…but it was heading off in another direction.  The buggy veered off to the left, hit a rock and suddenly became airborne.  Nora screamed again, louder this time as the buggy plummeted down an embankment.

Joe felt his body flying though the air and then a sharp stabbing pain in his left shoulder.  He hit the ground hard, forcing the wind from his lungs.  Instant blackness surrounded him…his world swirled before his eyes and then suddenly…there was nothing…

*****

“Whew…I don’t know about you two…but I’m plum tuckered out,” Hoss announced as he swung his long legs across Chubb’s broad back.

“I’m tired…very tired,” Ben agreed. He paused, looking around the yard.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Oh…nothing…I was just wondering if your brother’s gotten back…from taking Nora home,” Ben explained.

Hoss snickered softly, causing his father to stare at him. “Sorry, Pa…”

“What was so funny?”

“Aw…I was just imagining Little Joe…being made to ride that far in a buggy…with that…ere…I mean Miss Cromwell…”

“Well…I’m sure your little brother was…polite…”

“I’m sure that little scamp took Nora home so fast, it made her head swim…” laughed Adam.

“I certainly hope not…I’d hate to think that Joe frightened her with his driving,” Ben said, wondering if Joe would be so daring.

“Naw…don’t worry about Little Joe…it ain’t no secret he don’t like Miss Nora…he ain’t mean enough to actually be rude to her on purpose…let alone scare her to death!”

“I suppose you’re right, Hoss…but I have been worried about him…he seems…so…troubled…”

“MR. CARTWRIGHT!”

Ben, Adam and Hoss had just opened the door to go inside.  Now they all stopped and turned around to see who had called for them.

“What now,” muttered Ben. His weariness was plain to see.  His dirty face was streaked with ashes and soot.

“Doc Martin sent me to get ya…there’s been an accident…sir,” the caller announced.

“Accident?” repeated Adam.

“What kind of accident…who’s been hurt?” Ben demanded as he stood beside the man’s horse.

“The buggy…something broke and it crashed over the cliff…that woman ya been seeing…what’s her name…”

“Nora Cromwell…”

“Yeah…that’s her…she’s dead, Mr. Cartwright…”

“WHAT!” Ben practically shouted.  “Dear God…” he stammered, looking with frightened eyes at both his sons.

“Joe….” He muttered.  He spun around, grabbing the man’s pant’s leg.  “What about my son…Joseph…he was driving the buggy….”

“That’s why the doc sent me, Mr. Cartwright…ya boy’s been hurt…something bad…Doc said ya should hurry…”

“Dear Lord…no…please…not Little Joe!” Ben cried.  “Mount up,” he ordered Adam and Hoss as he did the same.

All the weariness he’d been feeling moments before, had vanished.  Ben Cartwright had only one thing on his mind now…and that was getting to his youngest son, Little Joe.

*****

Ben burst through the door into the doctor’s office.  Just as quickly, Mrs. Martin appeared from another room. She saw the frightened expression that Ben wore and quickly rushed to him.  Ben tried to push his way passed her, attempting to get to his son whom he knew lay just beyond, in the other room.

“Mr. Cartwright, please,” Mrs. Martin pleaded as she grabbed both arms of the distraught father, “you can’t go in there…not yet…”

“I want to see my boy!” Ben said in a thick, troubled tone.

“Pa, wait,” cautioned Adam as he and Hoss both stepped between their father and the door that separated them from the wounded boy.

“Let the doc finish with his work…then,” Adam said softly, “He’ll let us see Joe.”

Ben’s worried eyes sought his son’s face.  It took a moment for Adam’s words to sink in, but when they did, Ben sighed heavily, his shoulders slumped in defeat.  He looked about ready to cry as he lowered his head. “This is all my fault,” he muttered.

Hoss cast Adam a grim look. “That ain’t so and ya know it, Pa.  It t’was an accident…”

Ben looked up, his expression showed his disheartened emotions. “You don’t understand…the buggy…”

Just as Ben was about to explain, the door to the other room opened and Doctor Paul Martin appeared.  His expression was haggard.

“Doctor…my son…how is he?” Ben instantly demanded.

Paul shook his head sadly. “I won’t lie to you, Ben…we’ve been friends too long for that…”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” Adam vented.

“It means…your brother, Adam…Ben…your son…is…in a serious way.  He’s unconscious…he has a broken shoulder and several cracked ribs.  It looks as if his shoulder was slammed into something solid…probably a sharp rock or perhaps a fallen tree.  One finger on his right hand is broken…”

“Is all that life threatening?” Ben asked.

“Not necessarily…but that’s only part of it, Ben…Joe has a…serious head injury.  I can’t tell exactly how badly his head is hurt…other than I’m certain he has a concussion.  It appears that he has hit his head more than once.  He has a deep gash, here,” Doc Martin pointed to his right temple, “and here,” he explained, pointing then to the left side at the back of his skull. “His skull is fractured, here,” he added, pointing to the spot at the back of his head.

“Has he said anything?  Does he know about…Nora?” Ben questioned.

Paul shook his head back and forth. “No…he’s been unconscious ever since they brought him in…in fact, when Burke and Isaac found them…Nora was already…dead, Ben…she probably died on impact and Joe was unresponsive…nothing’s changed.  I’m sorry…Ben…about Joe…and about Nora.  I know how you must feel…”

“No…you have no idea what I’m feeling right at this moment,” stated Ben.  “I want to see my son…please.”

“All right, but don’t stay too long…and Ben,” Paul said as he reached out and placed his hand on his friend’s arm, stopping Ben before he entered the room.  “Don’t fret about the way Joe looks, he’s been battered about pretty badly…but the bruises will fade…in time and the cuts and scratches will heal.”

Ben, his lips pinched tightly, only nodded his head.

The room, when Ben and his sons entered, was dimly lit.  He moved silently to the bed, seeing his son covered with warm blankets lying deathly still.  Ben gasped when he viewed the boy’s face.  It was chalky white except for the dark bruises that stood out in a stark contrast to the boy’s paleness.

Joe’s head was wrapped in a clean, white bandage.  The spot over his eye where he’d hit cut and sustained a gash in his head, had already seeped blood through the bandages.

Ben leaned down, gently caressing Joe’s battered face.  His emotions were on the verge of overflowing as he gazed down at his son.

“Oh Joe…I’m so, so sorry…” whispered Ben in a thick voice. He swallowed the rush of emotion that threatened to spill forth.  Tenderly, he picked up his son’s right hand.  The left hand was neatly tucked under the blanket, his left arm bound against his chest to prevent sudden movement that might cause more undo pain or injury to the boy.

Hoss pulled a chair up close to the bed, and offered it for his father.  Ben nodded his appreciation as he sank down onto the seat.

“He looks…so…young,” muttered Ben.

Adam gently squeezed his father’s shoulder, unable to voice his own turmoil that ate away at his insides.

Ben held Joe’s hand in both of his.  His anxious eyes watched intently, his son’s face, but the boy showed no movement or signs that he knew his father or brothers were at his bedside, keeping vigil.

*****

The physician relented, allowing Ben to stay with the boy.  The hours ticked by slowly, as Ben kept watch, always close by.  Slowly, ever so slowly, Ben’s loss and guilt began to tell on him.  His unshaven face and sad, almost desperate eyes told more than he himself said about the situation at hand.  Still, no amount of begging or pleading or even praying brought the results that Ben longed for.  His youngest son lay deathly still, unresponsive in his near coma state of existence.

“Pa…why don’t you go get something to eat…I’ll stay with Joe…”

“No…I won’t leave him,” Ben said in a hoarse voice.

“Pa, please…ya ain’t doing the boy no good…like ya are…” Hoss tried to convince his father.

“I said, no.  I can’t leave him…he might wake up and…ask for me…I have to be here, for him,” Ben explained as he stared down into the ashen face.

Adam took a deep breath and stepped forward, placing a reassuring hand on his bigger brother’s shoulder.  He raised his dark brows in doubt but moved to his father’s side and squatted down. “Pa…you’re making yourself sick.  No…wait, please, let me finish,” he said before Ben could deny the charge.  “You haven’t slept in three days…and you’ve barely eaten enough to keep a bird alive.  What’s going to happen if Joe wakes up and…

“When…Adam…when Joe wakes up…”

“Alright…when Joe wakes up…he’s going to need you…but if you’re down sick…how can you take care of him?  I know you’re worried…God, we all are…and I know you’re grieving over Nora…but…”

“You don’t understand, Adam…no one does,” Ben said sadly.  “This was my fault…do you hear me…my fault…”

Adam glanced up at Hoss, noting the anxious look in the blue eyes. “Pa…you can’t blame yourself for what happened, it was an accident…”

Ben’s despondent eyes stared into Adam’s face.  He looked miserable and burdened down by his loss.  Adam was worried, not only for his youngest brother, but for their father as well.  He dared not think about what would become of this man who had always been his strength and his hero, should Joe not pull through.  Ben would give up on life and wither slowly away.  The thought made Adam shudder.

“It was preventable…and I did nothing.  I caused Nora’s death…I am the cause of my baby lying in the bed, fighting for his life…I’m the reason your brother was so very unhappy…I’ve destroyed not one, but most likely two lives…”

“Pa…that’s ridiculous,” Adam said as he stood up.  “Please, for Joe’s sake, get some rest…Paul said you could use the other examining room, look,” he said as he moved to another door and opened it.  “It’s right here, I promise to call you, the minute Joe starts to wake up…I’ll even leave the door opened if you like.”

Ben looked at the boy lying in the bed.  Nothing had changed in the three days that he’d been there.  The only movement Joe had made was when the doctor and his wife had come in to reposition him, to prevent bedsores and an onset of pneumonia.  Slowly Ben rose from the chair he’d been sitting in for hours.  He leaned down and placed a kiss on Joe’s brow.

“I’ll be close by, son…just in the other room.  Please try, Joseph…please, I need you to wake up,” whispered Ben as he gave his son a second kiss.  “I love you, Little Joe…”

Ben, turned away, but not before Adam and Hoss saw the well of tears that had collected in the deep brown eyes.  The tired older man walked passed his two sons, stopping at the door. “Wake me, Adam…”

“I will, Pa…I promise.  You just get some rest and when you wake up, I’ll have your supper brought in…”

“Thank you, son…thank you, Hoss…I…I love both of you…I…hope you know that,” Ben said unassumingly.

“Aw…shucks, Pa…me and Adam knowed that since we was little fellas,” Hoss stammered, slightly embarrassed.

“Well…I just wanted to remind you.  Good night…”

*****

Ben had no idea that when he woke, refreshed, that he had been asleep for nearly fourteen hours.  As soon as his eyes opened, he jumped from the bed and started toward the door that had, at some time, been closed.  Catching his reflection in the mirror, he paused, startled by his unkempt appearance.  More worried about his son than his appearance, Ben settled for running his fingers through his hair.  It didn’t appear to improve his looks, but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered at this point but his son.

When he entered Joe’s room, Adam and Hoss smiled, seeing the difference several hours of undisturbed sleep had made in their father.  Ben returned their smiles as he went straight to the bed where Joe lay. “How’s he doing?”

“The same…he hasn’t moved,” answered Adam.  “You look rested,” he smiled at his father.

Ben chuckled softly.  “You were right, Adam; I do feel better…but I need a shave.”

“We noticed,” Hoss said with a grin.  “How’s about if’n I go over to the International House and get ya a bite to eat?” he offered.

“I’d like that, Hoss, thank you,” Ben responded.

He sat down in the chair next to the bed and watched Joe’s face.  How he longed for the boy to wake up…there was so much he wanted to tell his son, that he had left unsaid.

Hoss excused himself to fetch his father something to eat.

“I won’t be gone long,” Hoss said as he started to close the door.

“Don’t hurry, Hoss, I’m fine…stay and have something to eat…I’m sure you’re hungry,” Ben said.

“How about a cup of coffee, Pa?” Adam offered.

“Oh…coffee…that will be fine, thank you,” Ben said as he stood up to rearrange the covers about Joe’s chest. He stopped suddenly.  He could have sworn that Joe’s eyelids were fluttering. “Joseph?”

Adam, hearing his father whispering to the boy, sat the coffee down and moved to the opposite side of the bed.  He watched Joe’s face for several moments.

“See that!” Ben said, smiling across at Adam.  “He’s trying to wake up!  Joseph…that’s it son…open your eyes.  Come on…almost…that’s it…open them up!” Ben encouraged.

After several attempts, Joe’s eyes opened.  He gazed about at the faces looming over him, but he looked as if he weren’t really seeing them.  Suddenly he bolted upright in the bed and began swinging his right fist at his father, Adam and the doctor.  Joe shouted at them, but his words were slurred and made no sense to the adults.  He became combative, fighting against the gentle hands that tried to subdue him.  Doctor Martin quickly grabbed a syringe and while Adam held his brother’s arm, the physician administered the injection. “I was afraid this might happen, Ben…sometimes it does when a person suffers a head injury.”

“There…there, son…calm down,” cooed Ben.  “You’re going to be fine…settle down.”

It took only a few short minutes before the drug began to take affect and Joe was resting more peaceful.

The physician checked the boy’s vital signs and the then turned to the anxious father. “He will sleep for a while, Ben…”

“I wanted to talk to him.”

“I know…but it will just have to wait for just a while longer.  I know you’re anxious, but for now, hopefully the worst is behind us,” the doctor assured the worried father.

*****

The doctor was correct in his assumption; when Little Joe woke several hours later, it was to find his father bending over him.  Joe’s eyelids fluttered and then opened.

“Well hello,” Ben said, smiling for real for the first time in many days.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe muttered weakly.

“Welcome back.”

“Have I been gone a long time?”

“Too long, son…too long.”

Joe gave his father a tiny smile as he closed his eyes.  Seconds later, he re-opened them. “Could I have a drink…my mouth is horribly dry…”

“Of course,” Ben said, already reaching for the pitcher and glass. He helped Joe tilt the glass to his lips and allowed the boy to drink his fill.

“Thanks,” muttered Joe.

Ben turned to set the glass back on the table and then sat down in the chair, pulling it close to the bed.  Joe watched, noticing how tired and worried his father looked.  Ben’s untidy appearance was noted as well as the fact that it had been days since his father had shaved.  Ben seemed almost preoccupied.

“Pa…what’s wrong?” Joe questioned.

Ben forced a smile, though it was stressed. “Wrong…why, nothing son…why would you ask?”

“’Cause…you look so…so…I don’t know, Pa…sad or maybe just…different.”

Ben allowed a rush of air to gush from his lungs.  Still smiling, he moved from the chair to the edge of the bed and picked up Joe’s right hand, holding it tightly in his own.

“Maybe because I’ve been so worried about you, young man.  You did give us quite a scare,” Ben explained as his smiled died.

“Pa…what happened to me?”

Surprised, Ben studied his son’s face. “You don’t remember?”

“Not all of it…I remember…we were having supper…and then there was a fire…somewhere.  I was in a buggy taking…Miss Cromwell…someplace…” Joe paused, looking as if he were trying to remember.  “There was a wreck…I…I hit my head,” he stammered, suddenly looking bewildered.

“Miss Cromwell…I heard her…scream…and then…” Joe paused again, noting the sad, despondent look in his father’s eyes.  Joe suddenly felt sick to his stomach. “Pa…something terrible happened…didn’t it?  Where’s Nora…is she alright?”

Ben was forced to turn his head, unable to meet the haunting look in the emerald depths. “Nora is…dead, son…”

“WHAT!” Joe shouted.  “How…please, Pa…ya gotta tell me…what happened?”

“Joe…calm down, son…please.  There was a wreck, as you said…Nora…Miss Cromwell was thrown from the buggy…she must have hit her head…they said she died instantly…”

Joe’s eyes filled instantaneously with tears as he turned his head to the side.  He swallowed hard.

“Joe…it was an accident, son…”

Joe ignored the words, he knew now in his heart why his father looked so haggard, he was grieving over the loss of the woman he had fallen in love with and planned to marry.

The boy turned to look into his father’s eyes, noting the tears that lingered there.  He blamed him; his own father blamed him for the death of his future wife.  Joe swallowed again, but the lump didn’t go away.  Tiny, minuet tears rolled silently from his eyes.  He could not stand to see the hurt and sorrow in the eyes of the man whom he loved more than any other person alive.  Silently, Joe wished it had been he and not Nora Cromwell who had died in the horrible accident.

“Joe…”

“Go away, Pa…I…want to be alone…”

“Son…”

“NO…get out…please,” sobbed Joe, “I don’t want to talk about it…I don’t even want to think about it…”

Reluctantly, Ben turned to go.  The boy needed time to come to terms with what had happened, assumed Ben.  Later…they would talk and he’d tell the boy how it was his fault and not his son’s, that Nora had been killed and he, Joe, who had been injured almost to the point of costing him his life.  Ben choked on the thoughts of what would have happened, had his young son been killed.  It was bad enough that Nora’s life had been snubbed out because of his own carelessness.

“We’ll talk later, son…you try to rest now,” Ben said as he closed the door behind him.

*****

As it were, Joe refused to talk to his father about what had happened.  Each time that Ben entered the room, Joe felt his own guilt wash over him in such a way that it put him in such a strain, just being in the same room with his father.

Ben, on the other hand, was blaming himself for the accident, having not remembered to inspect the buggy when Nora had insisted that something was not quite right with the rigging.  Both father and son blamed themselves, unbeknown to the other.  Neither father nor son recognized the shared guilt; thus each believed in their hearts that one held the other responsible for the accident and the death of the lady.

*****

Ben entered the room without knocking.  Joe was talking with Adam and Hoss but the moment he became aware of his father’s presence, he clammed up, lowering his head in order that he not look at his father.  Ben’s heart was in his throat.  His son was so sad, so miserable that just looking at the boy made him shudder with worry.  Joe, on the other hand, could not bear to see the unspoken accusations in his father’s eyes.  He felt, for the first time in his life, uncomfortable being near his father.

Ben forced himself to smile and ignore the tenseness in the room when he entered.  Slowly he made his way to the bed. “Well, today is the day, Joe…Doc says you’re well enough to go home!” Ben announced.

Joe’s sullen expression changed and he smiled. “Really…when?” he asked Ben, finally looking up at his father.

“Just as soon as you can get dressed,” Ben laughed softly at his son’s eagerness.  “Would you like me to help you…it might be a bit hard, with just one good arm…”

“No…I mean, no thank you,” Joe stammered, again trying to avoid looking at his father.  “Hoss can help me…that is, if you don’t mind, Hoss?”

Hoss was a bit hesitant, glancing first at Ben and then Joe.  He swallowed hard, for he was keenly aware of the unsettled tension in the room and the rift that had developed between his brother and his father since the accident.

“Sure…I’ll help ya,” Hoss agreed. He glanced up at his father in time to see the smile fade from Ben’s face.  He felt guilty, for he knew that his father had hoped to be the one whom Joe would call upon for help.

“I’ll have a talk with the doctor and then help Adam get the rig ready,” Ben said quietly.  “You get ready, Joe…and Adam and I’ll be back soon, and then we’ll all go home.”

“Sure, Pa…that’ll be great…I can’t wait to get home…” muttered Joe as he managed to swing his bare legs over the side of the bed.

*****

Three days later, Joe was alone in the house.  Adam and Hoss had gone to the north pasture to round up cattle while Ben and Hop Sing had taken the wagon into town for supplies.  Joe had made the excuse that he was tired, much too tired for the ride back into town.  But the truth was, he was afraid that if he agreed to ride in with his father, Hop Sing might choose to stay home, thus leaving him alone with his father.  In his heart, he longed to talk to his father, to apologize for his part in the accident and for Nora’s death; yet, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  He agonized over his guilt, he reasoned that had he not provoked the lady to such a degree of anger, she would not have had an excuse to lash out at him, thus frightening the horse and losing control, all of which led to the unfortunate mishap.

“Damn!” he cursed, remembering the hurt and pain he saw constantly in his father’s eyes, Ben’s expression and even in his tone of voice.  For when Ben spoke directly to him, Joe sensed the strain and noted how his father could barely look him in the eye.  Little did the boy understand the guilt that ate away at his father, or how it was Ben, himself that he blamed for the woman’s untimely death and the near fatal injuries that might have cost him his own son’s life.

Joe moved slowly to his father’s red chair and sat down.  His heavy heart caused him to sigh loudly as he leaned back his head and closed his weary eyes.  Memories flashed in his head, twisted and distorted images of Nora and the buggy, of himself lying in his own blood, painfully pleading with his father to help him.  A hazy likeness of his father’s face loomed over his battered and bruised body.  In the dark depths of Ben’s brown eyes, Joe could read the disappointment and the condemnation that his father felt towards him.

On the ground, he saw himself draw back, as if afraid that in his fury, Ben might strike out at him.  Without realizing it, Joe pressed his eyelids tighter together. “No…Pa…please…I didn’t mean to do it,” he murmured softly, surprised to hear his own voice crying out.

When he opened his eyes, tears streamed down the front of his face.  Quickly, Joe swiped his hand across the front of his cheeks, wiping away the moisture.  He stood slowly and walked to the door, his left arm still held in the sling about his neck.

The late afternoon sun had already disappeared behind the ridges, beginning its westward descent.  Joe held his face against the breeze, letting the coolness thereof finish drying the remains of wetness on his face.  Once again his eyes were closed tightly. “I’m sorry, Pa…I’m so sorry,” he breathed.

“You’re sorry for what, Little Joe?”

The voice startled the boy.  Instantly Joe’s eyes popped opened.  He was taken totally off guard to find his father standing before him.  His face must have shown his surprise, for his father smiled softly down at him.

“I asked you a question, son. What is it that you have to be sorry for?”

Joe’s words were garbled as he struggled to think of something to say. “Hmm…I…I was…just…I don’t know, Pa…hmm…thinking out loud I guess,” Joe swallowed hard and turned to go back to the house, but Ben placed his hand gently on the slender shoulders, halting Joe’s retreat.

“What kind of an answer is that?” Ben asked.

“I…don’t know…I didn’t hear you ride up…Pa…I’m tired, I’d like to go lie down…” Again the boy turned his back to his father.

“Joseph.”

The lad stopped in his tracks.  Ben took a step forward, closing the distance between himself and his son.

“You haven’t done anything to be sorry for…unless you think that because of the accident, you might be responsible for Nora’s death…which you were not…I was…and I am responsible for your getting hurt…I’m the one who should be apologizing to you…”

Joe spun around, stunned at his father’s words.  His expression was one of disbelief.  What did his father mean when he said he was responsible for the woman’s death and him getting injured?  It didn’t make any sense, thought Joe. “You?  That’s crazy, Pa…I was driving the buggy, I was the one arguing with Miss Cromwell…it was my fault, I should have died…not her…you loved her more…”

“JOSEPH!  That is preposterous, how could you ever think that I could love anyone more than you!”

Joe, his eyes filled with tears, pulled free of the hand resting on his shoulder.  He backed up. “But you did…you were…going to marry her…you…you…you’re grieving so…I can see it in your eyes…hear it…in your voice…Pa…you loved her…” sobbed Joe who began to cry in earnest.

“Joe…son…you don’t understand…” exclaimed Ben as he moved forward.

“No…you don’t understand…I killed her…Pa…I killed the woman you loved…I’m responsible!” sobbed Joe as he turned to run away.

Ben moved quickly and grabbed Joe’s right arm, spinning him around.  As he did so, Joe’s body entwined itself against his father’s.  The boy sobbed as he began to cling to his father.  Ben’s long ample arms embraced his son.  He was on the verge of tears as well.

“Joseph, Joseph…no, listen to me son…listen…I wasn’t going to marry Nora…do you hear me?” Ben said in a near pleading tone.  “That was what I was going to tell you that night, at supper, that I had decided it was not right for me…or for you…I was trying to tell you that I’d had a change of heart…”

Joe’s sobbing began to subside.  It was apparent to his father that he now had his son’s attention.

“Joseph, the buggy…it had a defect in it…Nora told me and I promised to tell Hoss and have him take a look at it…”

“What?” whispered Joe, pushing back a little so that he could see his father’s face.

“Yes…Nora told me earlier in the evening that something wasn’t right with the rigging.  I plum forgot all about it…what with deciding to tell her that I didn’t think it was right for us to get married…and then the messenger came about the fire…I…just forgot.  It was my fault…that the buggy wrecked…and it was my lack of concern, my preoccupied thoughts on how to let her down gently that…well…I failed to see that the buggy was in proper working order…”

“But, I thought…”

“No…you thought wrong, son.  I did love her, in a way…but not enough to make her my wife…and certainly not enough to let her come between my sons…especially you…and I.  I couldn’t do it, Joe…”

Joe moved away, turning his back to his father.  “I was mean to her…”

“How were you mean to her, son?”

Joe turned back around.  Ben could see the glistening of fresh tears. “I didn’t like her…I…didn’t want her to…be my mother.  So on the way to take her home…I…said things to make her…mad.  She started hitting me…”

“Hitting you?” Ben repeated. His face wore a puzzled expression.

Joe nodded his head. “It wasn’t the first time she hit me.”

“When did she hit you, before that last night?”

“One afternoon, out in the barn…Adam knew…he was suppose to tell you…but I guess he forgot too,” Joe said.

A look of anger quickly presented itself and then disappeared. “What happened, Joe…the night of the accident?”

“Like I said, she started hitting me…it spooked the horse and the mare bolted.  Nora…ere…Miss Cromwell wouldn’t stop hitting me and she was screaming.  I was trying to protect myself…that’s when I lost the reins…I tried to get them back, but before I could, I got knocked to the floor.  I think that’s when I hit my head the first time.  Something on the buggy snapped…I caught a glimpse of the horse going one way and knew the buggy was going to crash.”

Joe swallowed hard.  When he looked up at his father, Ben noted the sad, forlorn look in the boy’s eyes. “Go on.”

“I saw the lady flying through the air…I heard her scream…then I was tossed out of the buggy.  The last thing I remembered was a sharp stabbing pain in my shoulder.  After that, everything went black.  I’m sorry, Pa…I’m so, so sorry…honest,” Joe said meekly as he lowered his head.

Ben stepped forward, placing his fingers under Joe’s quivering chin and tilting it upward. “I’m sorry too, son, for having ever brought Nora into our lives.  I’m sorry for all your unhappiness and for all the pain and suffering I’ve brought to you.  I’m sorry that Nora is dead…I will have to learn to live with that…I will always have to share in the guilt that led to such an unfortunate accident,” Ben explained.

“Then you don’t hate me?”

“Hate you? Of course not, Joseph…I don’t hate you, nor do I blame you.  I thought you blamed me…”

“Blamed you, Pa…for what?”

“I don’t know…I suppose I thought…because…

Joe laughed softly.  “I guess we both were thinking wrong, heh, Pa?”

Ben smiled.  “It appears so.”

“Why’d you change your mind?  I mean, about marrying her?  Was it because of me?” Joe asked.

Ben nodded his head.  “Partly…but not for the reasons you think.  I decided not to marry her…because I had begun to see changes in her…in the way she looked at you and how she spoke to you…especially when all those mishaps were happening…and…”

“I didn’t do them on purpose…honest, Pa…”

“I know that, Joe…for heaven’s sake…they could have happened to anyone of us…”

Ben laughed and gently led Joe over to the side porch where he offered the boy a chair.

“I sensed your unhappiness, you were beginning to withdraw from me and I thought, if he’s doing that now…while Nora and I were just seeing one another…what was going to happen to my son if I actually married her and brought her into our home…as your mother.  I said that night to all of you, that I had given it great thought and prayer.  Somewhere along the way, I got the message that she just wasn’t what I needed, or what my sons needed in the way of a mother…especially you, Little Joe.  It broke my heart to see you so miserable…so I decided to tell her.  Unfortunately, I never got the chance.”

“Well, perhaps it worked out for the better,” said Adam who had appeared and joined them.  “I mean…it was too bad that she was killed, but at least she died believing that you loved her.  Don’t you think that was a better way to go than to feel the rejection, the heartache and humiliation that she was sure to feel if you’d told her?”

Ben looked as if he were pondering the thought.  He smiled gently at Joe and then turned to Adam. “Yes, I suppose it would be for the best.  I hadn’t thought of it like that.  She was an odd person, but I don’t doubt her feelings for me…I did begin to doubt her feelings for Joe, though.  Yes, Adam…I’m glad she didn’t know.”

Ben turned to all three sons, for by now, Hoss had joined them as well. “I want the three of you to know something…I will never hold anything, or anybody above the welfare and love I hold for each of you.  That does not mean that I will never marry again, but it does mean that the next time I fall in love…and decide to marry…it will be with the right lady.  And she will be a woman that all three of my sons,” he paused, smiling down at Joe, “will be loved by and will be proud to have as a mother.  On that, I give my promise.”

Hoss was grinning from ear to ear and nodding his head up and down.  Adam cast Little Joe a lopsided grin.  Joe beamed up at his father. “Pa…if that’s the case…and we shared the guilt in what happened…I guess when that perfect woman comes along…we’ll just all share in the joy too…ya reckon?”

All three Cartwright men laughed.  Ben patted Joe on top his curly head.

“Yeah, Little Joe…I reckon!”

***End***

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