Silent Heartache (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,900


 

The day was just beginning and Little Joe dreaded the thoughts of another day at school.  It had been a bad week, he had gotten into two fights already with Matthew Talburt, and luckily for him and his backside, Pa had let the first fight go with just a warning.  But now, after being caught in the second fight with the same boy, the fourteen-year old had been denied his privileges and had been restricted for the next two weeks to the ranch.

The ranch,’ sighed Joe, ‘the yard would be more like it.

He was mad too because both fights had not been his fault, Matthew had said unkind and hurting things about his family, things that Little Joe would not let be said without putting up a defense in his family’s honor.

Joe paused at the top of the step to pull his pants leg from the top of his boot.

“I don’t know Pa, what do you think?” Adam asked his father.

Joe’s brothers were already sitting at the table with their father by the time that Joe had paused at the step and were already deep into a conversation.  Not meaning to eavesdrop, Joe tugged again on the leg of his pants and smoothed down the fabric.

“Well, I know the boy has been into an undue amount of trouble here lately.  His fighting is getting out of hand,” commented Ben as he sipped his coffee.

“Not to mention all the problems he’s been causing at home,” chipped in Hoss as he stuffed a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth.

“I don’t think he’s doing as well as he could be at school either Pa.  I think it’s time that something was done, otherwise the boy is either going to fail his class for the year or get himself into some pretty bad trouble,” said Adam.

Joe pulled himself up straight and froze, listening to the conversation going on between his father and brothers.  He couldn’t believe his ears, it sounded as if his family was picking him to pieces and it bothered him the way in which they were talking about him behind his back.  He started to make his presence known to them, to stop the idle chatter, but his oldest brother’s next comment halted his descent.

“Military school,” Adam said matter-of-factly sat his fork down gently on the red flowered china plate.  “I think that would be the best for him, make a man out of him.”

Hoss raised his head and stared wide-eyed at his brother.  “Military school?  Aw…come on Adam, isn’t that a bit much for the boy?  He’d never want to do that.”

“Hoss,” said Ben, “it isn’t a matter of what the boy wants to do; it’s more a matter of what is best for the boy.  And I think Adam’s right, military school is a good idea.  I like that Adam.”

“So do I.  I think four years in a controlled and regulated program is just what the boy needs.  He will come home a man, no doubt about that.  And,” he smiled, “they will make sure he stays out of trouble, his schooling will be much more advanced, and he will learn discipline.  Which we all agree he needs.  We could all benefit from his absence.”

Ben nodded his head, “Yes, that’s true and he does need all those things you mentioned.  Adam, why don’t you send some letters and see what is available and find out what is required.  In the meantime, I think we should keep this just between the three of us.  No sense in rocking the boat before we have too.”

“Pa,” started Hoss.

Ben gave Hoss a dark look and Hoss dropped his head.  “I mean it son, this is to be just between us.  We will tell the boy when we have made the arrangements, until then, not a word, understand?”

Hoss’ sad expression told his father everything that Ben needed to know in regards to his displeasure of the idea.  “Yes sir, but I can’t imagine any fourteen year old who would want to be sent away from his family like that…and for four years.  Golly Moses Pa, that’s an awful long time.”

Ben reached across the table and rested his hand on his son’s arm.  “I know that Hoss, but it is for the best.  The lad needs some stern discipline, and think of the advantages that will come from the superior schooling he’ll be getting.  Don’t worry son, it’ll all work out, I promise.”

Joe felt the hot sting of tears as his stomach flopped over.  His heart began to beat rapidly and Joe felt as if he were smothering.  His pa was making arrangements to send him away, and he owed Adam all the thanks for thinking of it.  Military schoolgroaned Joe as the tears slipped slowly down his cheeks.  He hated the idea, and he hated his older brother for suggesting it.

Joe fought to control his anger and his heartache.  He yearned to run to them; to scream and beg, plead if need be to be allowed to stay with his family.  He didn’t want to go away and he didn’t want to be sent away.  Didn’t they care?   His heart cried out in agony at the thoughts of being separated from his family for four long years.  He knew Adam had gone away to college and had been gone for a long time, but that was his brother, thought Joe.  Adam had wanted to leave home, to further his education, but me, screamed Joe silently.  All I ever wanted to do was learn ranching and live forever on the Ponderosa with my father and brothers and to raise the best horses in the country.

Oh God, please Pa, please, don’t send me away, whispered Joe softly to himself.

“Adam, would you please call your brother?  He’s going to be late for school if he doesn’t hurry up,” asked Ben as he wiped his mouth with the red checkered napkin.

Joe quickly dried his eyes and composed himself the best he could.  He hurried on down the steps acting as if nothing was amiss.

“Morning Pa,” greeted Joe with a forced smile on his face.  “Howdy Adam, Hoss,” he chirped and slid into his chair purposely avoiding looking at his family.

“Good morning to you,” smiled Ben and glanced at his older sons.  It was seldom that Joseph was in such a cheerful mood this early in the morning and before breakfast too, thought Ben to himself.

“I gotta hurry Pa.  I promised Mitch I would meet him before school so I could help him with his arithmetic.  He’s having problems with his fractions and I said I would help him,” Joe said and hurried to fill his plate, though eating was the last thing on his mind.  As badly as his stomach was hurting, he doubted he could do justice with the food he heaped on his plate.  Joe stopped when he felt all eyes on him.

“What?” he asked and then searched each face.

“Are you sure you got enough?” asked Adam, grinning.

Joe, dish and spoon poised in mid air, glanced at his oldest brother and thought how much he would like to wipe that smirk off his face, but grinned instead and looked down at his plate.

“I guess I got carried away,” he said sheepishly and put the serving spoon back onto the plate and placed both back down on the table.

Quickly Joe turned his attention to his breakfast and gobbled down as fast as he could, what he hoped would satisfy his father. Joe grabbed his glass of milk and gulped it quickly, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt.

“Joseph!” scolded Ben.  “Can’t you please use your napkin, for heaven’s sake?”

“Oh, sorry, Pa.”  Joe cast anxious eyes at his father, worried that he had scored another mark against his name for his bad table manners.  Joe was determined to improve himself in all areas of his life in hopes that by the time that Adam had written and sent the letters and received answers, his behavior would be so improved that his father would think differently about sending him away.

“May I go now?” asked the boy softly.

Joe met his father’s eyes and quickly dropped his head.  It hurt to see the man he loved more than anyone else in the whole world look at him and know that this man was sending him hundreds of miles away from his family and his home.

Joe felt his throat constrict and swallowed the fear he felt rising from deep down in his soul.  ‘I love you Pa,’ his heart cried out.  ‘I don’t want to leave you, I want to stay here and make you proud of me.’

“Joseph?  Son, are you all right?” said Ben when he saw the expression change on his son’s face.  Ben placed his hand over Joe’s, catching Joe’s attention at last.

“Is something wrong son?” asked Ben worried that Joe might have taken sick.

Joe glanced around the table and saw his family watching him and it unnerved him somewhat for he saw the concerned looks on their faces.  ‘Probably afraid I’ll get sick and not be able to go to that damn military school Adam is trying to send me to,’ thought Joe sadly.

Joe’s eyes found Adam’s and Joe turned his head, unable to hold his stance.  He was angry with his brother; the hurt that he felt towards the one who wanted to send him packing was hard to hide.  Joe glanced again in Adam’s direction and glared at his brother, taking the older boy by surprise.

“I’m fine, don’t concern yourself,” he snapped and jumped from his seat and before any of them could question his motives he ran out the door.

“What was that all about?” surmised Adam, stunned at his brother’s look of distaste.

“Beats me.  What’d ya say to him?” asked Hoss as he pushed back from the table.

“SAY?  I didn’t say anything to him.  Pa just asked him if he was feeling all right and he bites my head off!”  Adam rose from his chair as well and tossed his napkin on the table.  “That boy will always be a wonder to me.  I doubt if I will ever be able to figure out what makes him tic.”

Ben laughed and joined his sons as they strapped on their gunbelts and reached for their hats.  “That’s the pleasure of having a son like that little scamp.  Life is always a mystery; you never know what to expect from him.  You boys have a good day; I have book work to do.”

Joe rode slowly to school, purposely taking his time and dreading having to face the long day.  As he rode along, his mind became clouded and lost in troubled thoughts.  He was worried about what he had over heard and he was frightened as well.  He still found it hard to accept the fact that his father had gone along with his brother’s suggestion of sending him to military school.  The more that Joe played with the idea, the more depressed that he became the more downhearted and lonely he felt.

Mitch was waiting for his friend when Joe finally pulled his horse to a stop and jumped down from the saddle.  Immediately, Mitch saw the expression on his best friend’s face, the sad look in the eyes that usually danced with mischief and he saw the way in which his friend’s shoulders slumped.

“Hey, you look like you’ve lost your best pal.  But since I’m still here, what’s wrong with you this morning?  Someone die?” asked Mitch in a light voice that he hoped would make Joe smile.

Joe cast troubled eyes at his friend and shook his head sadly.  “No.”  Quickly Joe pulled his saddle from the back of his horse and tossed it over the railing with the blanket.

“Well?  Ya gonna tell me what’s eatin’ at ya or not?” questioned Mitch as he fell into step next to Joe walking with him on their way toward the schoolhouse.

“No.”

“Aw…come on Little Joe,” Mitch stopped and grabbed Joe by the arm, spinning Joe around to face him.  Instantly Mitch spied the tears that had gathered in his friend’s eyes and softened his voice.

“Hey Joe, buddy.  It can’t be that bad, can it?  Ya ain’t in trouble again already are ya?” quizzed Mitch as he watched Joe struggle to keep the tears from wetting his face.

Joe swiped the sleeves of his shirt across the front of this face to wipe away the dampness from the tears before they escaped.  “No, I ain’t in no trouble, least ways, not the kind you’re referring to.”

Joe began walking again, slowly to give Mitch time to catch up.  “What then?”

Joe stopped and turned to face the other boy. “I don’t wanna talk about it.  You’ll find out soon enough if Adam has his way about things.  Now leave me alone, we’re already late for class.”

Joe hurried inside and took his place as Mitch followed, somewhat hurt by Joe’s candid statement.

Miss Jones scowled at the two boys as she watched them taking their seats and noted the dejected expressions on both faces and briefly wondered what had put them there.

“Mitch, Joseph, you boys are late again.  You will remain inside today at recess, is that understood?”

Miss Jones had moved to stand in front of Joe’s desk, making him squirm from the unwanted attention the teacher had drawn to him.

“Yes ma’am,” Joe said softly.  He could care less about going outside.  He’d just have to face the others and in the mood he was in right now, he wanted no part in the prying questions he knew the others would ask of him.

“Good, now please class, let’s get to work.”

The morning dragged on but Joe was only vaguely aware of what was going on around him.  His mind was miles from the classroom; his thoughts lost in the breeze that he watched sweeping through the tall pines just outside the classroom as he stared blankly out the window.  His fears had taken root in his heart; his stomach churned non-stop as the thoughts of being separated from those he loved ate away at his reserve.  Several times throughout the long morning, Joe had felt the tears bubble up in his eyes and had to wipe them away in a constant effort to keep them from spilling over.

Over and over in his mind Joe played again the scene he had witnessed before breakfast. He relived the past couple of weeks, searching for the one mistake that he had made that had been so terrible as to warrant being removed from his home.  He knew his father had been angry with him about the fights, but he reasoned that his father had punished him so as always Joe had considered it over and done with.  That’s what Pa had always said at least.

He had mouthed off a few times to his older brother, but even then Pa had reprimanded him for it and he had even apologized to Adam for having been so rude.  Adam had shaken his hand and told him to forget it, so he had.  Surely Adam didn’t still hold it against him?  Joe knew there were times, probably too many times that he and his oldest brother did not see eye to eye on matters.  But surely Adam wouldn’t expect their father to send him away for four years just because he spoke his mind when he felt he had the right to do so?

Joe closed his eyes.  His father’s face flashed before his mind’s eye and Joe had to swallow the lump that had suddenly threatened to choke off his airway.  Joe felt as if he was smothering and he grasped his throat with his hand and opened his mouth to suck in much needed air.  His head began to loll from side to side and when he jumped to his feet, thinking to race outside into the fresh air, he dropped to his knees.  His hands fought to hold on to his desk as he slipped into the floor; the worries of his present world momentarily lost to the blackness that claimed him.

Joe awoke to the sound of his name being whispered in his ear.  His eyelids felt heavy, as if someone had placed coins over his eyes like he had once seen on a dead man.  He struggled to come back from his realm of darkness, back to the light where he belonged.  His eyes scanned the room confused as to where he was.  The last thing he remembered was sitting in the stuffy classroom and trying to make it to the door for fresh air.

“Pa?” Joe cried weakly and searched the worried faces that hovered above him.

“Hey buddy,” said Adam taking his brother’s hand in his.  “Can you hear me Pal?”

Joe closed his eyes tightly, the moisture that had collected in their depths seeping from beneath the long dark lashes.

“Joe don’t cry, it’s okay,” whispered Adam giving Paul Martin, the town’s physician a worried look.

Adam had ridden into town to mail the letters his father had asked him to write in regards to finding the military school.  Adam had just left the sheriff’s office where he had stopped in to say hello to Roy Coffee and was on his way to the saloon for a quick beer before starting home.  Just as he had placed his hands on the double half doors of the entrance to the establishment, someone had called out his name.  It was his brother’s friend Mitch and it appeared that the boy was overly distressed about something.

“Adam! Adam, ya better come quick,” shouted Mitch from across the street where he stood waving his hand wildly in the air at him.

Adam hurried over to the boy and placed both hands on the lad’s shoulders to keep him from bouncing around. “Why aren’t you in school, young man?” smiled Adam, his curiosity showing plainly on his face.

Mitch ignored the question and rushed on, “Adam, come on, it’s Joe,” Mitch tried to explain.

“Whoa, now what’s this about my kid brother?  Is he in trouble again?  What is it this time, another fight?” laughed Adam, hoping that a fight was not the case.  Joe had been warned by their irate father, just two days ago that he had better not hear of Joe taking part in another brawl, or else.

“No, he’s sick.  He passed out, Miss Jones says someone needs to come get him and take him over to the doc’s.  I was on my way to get Doc Martin when I saw ya just about to go into the saloon.  Come on.”  Mitch pulled free from Adam’s grasp and started back toward the school, running as fast as he could.

Adam’s jovial mood quickly became serious and he ran behind Mitch to the schoolhouse.  Inside he found Joe lying unconscious in the floor where he had fallen.  Miss Jones knelt at his brother’s side and had placed a dampened cloth on his brother’s brow but even the coolness of the water had not brought Joe around.

“Joe…Joe,” Adam gently slapped his brother’s cheeks in an effort to get the boy to respond to the stimuli.

Joe made no movement and no sound other than the raspy breathing that could be heard throughout the silent room where the entire class had become motionless and frightened by Joe’s act of fainting.  Adam easily scooped his brother up into his arms and hurried out of the building and down the street to the physician’s office.

Paul was just coming out the entranceway when Adam arrived and quickly reopened the door he had just locked and held it opened to allow Adam to enter.

“Put him on the cot.  What happened Adam?” asked Paul as he quickly attended his young patient.

“I don’t know.  Miss Jones said he’s been unusually quite and inattentive all day.  She said she was in the middle of a history lesson when for no apparent reason; Joe stood up and then suddenly passed out and fell into the floor.

“What did he have for breakfast?”  Paul was checking Joe’s vital signs, which seemed to be normal.

“The usual, eggs, ham, flapjacks, fried potatoes, cornmeal mush, milk,” Adam stopped when Paul’s laughter reached his ears.

“What?” he asked confused by the doctor’s amusement.

“Adam, are you telling me Little Joe ate all of that?” snickered Paul knowing of his patient’s usual lack of appetite.

Adam pulled the chair up next to his brother’s cot and smiled knowingly.  “Come to think of it, he only ate a few bites, some eggs, maybe a bite or two of the ham and then he drank his milk.  Why?”

“I was just wondering.  Has he complained of feeling ill?  Not that he would if he was sick.  This boy hates me, you know that don’t you?” smiled Paul but the twinkle in his eyes told Adam the physician was teasing.

Adam laughed.  It was no secret, Joe refused to admit when he was feeling unwell; he knew it would mean a sure visit with the doctor, which as Paul had stated, Joe hated.  Oh, he didn’t really hate Paul, just Paul’s choice of professions.  Joe was scared of going to the doctor’s, he hated the shots, the confinements to his bed, the bitter tasting medicines that was always forced on him thus he refused to let anyone know when he was feeling ill.

“Adam, I can’t find anything at all wrong with him.  Until he wakes up and can tell me he’s hurting somewhere, I can only assume that he must have gotten over heated and passed out from lack of fresh air.”  Paul stood to his feet and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “He’ll come around in a few minutes.  Why don’t you just sit with him until then?  I’ll get you some coffee.”

Adam nodded his head and scooted closer to his brother, taking Joe’s hand in his.  Paul was true to his word and as the kind doctor placed Adam’s coffee on the table near the bed, Joe began to stir about and finally opened his eyes.

“Joe, how do you feel?” Paul stepped up and placed his hand on Joe’s brow to assure him self that his patient had no temperature.  “Can you tell me what happened?”

Joe forced his eyes opened and pulled his hand free of his brother’s grasp but refused to look at Adam.  “I just…I mean…I was sitting there…and…” Joe swallowed.  His fears of being tossed aside had resurfaced along with his anger at his brother and he glanced at Adam.

Trying to keep his voice smooth and not let his fear make it to quiver, he wiped at his eyes and then his nose with the backs of his hands.  “I want Pa.”

Joe turned his head away from the doctor and away from his brother in an attempt to bury his face into the soft pillow to hide his embarrassment from the two onlookers at his bedside.

Surprised, Adam placed his hand gently on his brother’s arm that covered his face.  “Joe?”

Joe pushed away his brother’s hand and glared at Adam, his tears shining on his pale skin.  “Go away Adam, I don’t want you here.  I want Pa,” shouted Joe and turned his face into the pillow again.

Stunned, Adam stood to his feet and backed away from the cot.  Paul stepped over to Adam and nodded his head toward the door.  “Why don’t you go get your father?  I’ll stay here with the boy.”

Adam studied his brother’s still form, his face hidden from view and shook his head at the doctor.  “I’ll be back later.”

Adam rode hard, his thoughts jumbled as he considered his brother’s attitude towards him.  Adam searched his mind, trying to figure out just what he had done to make the younger boy so irritated at him but could not come up with any reason whatsoever.  By the time that Adam reached home, his head was throbbing and as he hurried inside he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“PA!” shouted Adam as he tossed opened the door and slammed it shut as soon as he was inside.

Ben cringed at the loud noise.  “Over here son,” said Ben rising from his desk and meeting Adam half way.  “Why are you shouting, is something wrong?” questioned Ben when he saw the haggard look on his oldest son’s face.

“It’s Joe, Pa.  He’s over at the doc’s office,” started Adam.

Adam saw the color drain from his father’s face and hurried to reassure Ben that Joe was going to be all right.

“Pa, he’s okay.  He just got too hot at school and passed out, that’s all,” Adam explained.

Ben sighed in relief, “Then why didn’t you bring him home with you?”

Adam moved to the desk and sat down on the corner, one long leg dangling and faced his father.  “He wouldn’t let me.”

Ben studied his son’s face, not making any sense out of Adam’s statement.  “Who wouldn’t let you, the doctor?  I thought you said Joe was fine.”

Adam glanced at his father; he was as confused by the situation as his father was.  “No Pa, not Paul, Joe…he wouldn’t let me bring him home.  He was in tears, said for me leave him alone and said he wanted you.  I don’t know what’s got into him the last day or so, it’s like he’s mad at me and I have no clue as to why.”

Ben shook his head slowly, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that too.  Something’s bothering the boy that’s for sure, but I’m like you, I have no idea what it could be.  And he hasn’t said anything to you?”

“Only ‘get away from me,’ and ‘leave me alone,’ that’s about it, unless you want to count the angry looks.”  Adam stood to his feet and took a deep breath.  “I think I’m going to get some coffee, might just help this headache.  You going to get Joe?”

Ben began strapping on his gunbelt and grabbed his hat.  “Yes, I’ll be back in a little while.  Did you get those letters in the mail, son?”

“Yes sir, we should hear something soon,” answered Adam.

“I hope so.  Something needs to be done about that boy before he gets into too much more trouble.  You try to relax Adam, I won’t be long.”  Ben closed the door and hurried to the barn where he saddled his horse and headed into town.

Joe was sitting in a chair by the time that Ben burst through the door.  Joe quickly stood to his feet, not sure if the expression on his father’s face was one of anger or fear, but Joe had no doubt that the look was for him.

“Joseph,” Ben said softly and stepped up to his son where he placed both of his gloved hands onto his son’s shoulders.  “Are you all right son?” Ben asked, looking Joe over from head to foot and then back to his face where his dark worried eyes met the hazel eyes of his son.

Joe suddenly felt weak again, his father’s closeness unnerving him somewhat as he felt his father’s arms slip around him and pull him to his father’s breast.  Joe fought the tears that stung his eyes, how could this man who held him so tenderly and whose face showed such concern and worry for his well being, want to send him away?  Joe’s heart screamed out his grief as Joe’s arms embraced his father tightly.

“Son, hey it’s okay.”  Ben could feel the tremors that coursed through the boy’s body and he glanced up at the doctor.

Paul shook his head. “I can’t find anything wrong with him Ben.  He’s fine health wise, why don’t you take him on home and make him stay in the bed for a day or two.  He looks awfully worn out to me; perhaps he just needs to catch up on some rest.  I’ll ride out tomorrow and check on him.”

Ben moved his hand upward and cupped the back of Joe’s neck.  He could still feel the tension that seemed to have gathered in the muscles at the top of Joe’s shoulders and he rubbed his hand gently around the taunt area before pulling Joe back to look into his face.

“You ready to go home now, son?” Ben could see the sad countenance that Joe wore on his face and the expression troubled Ben.  “Joseph, why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

Instantly Joe reacted to his father’s statement by pulling free of the comforting hands that had held him so tenderly just moments ago.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.  Didn’t ya hear what the doctor said?  I just got too warm that’s all.  Can’t we just go home now?” snapped Joe as he grabbed his hat and rushed out the door in hopes of avoiding his father’s sharp observing eyes.

Joe knew his father could read him like a book, though he tried to mask the inner turmoil that ripped at his heart and soul, the boy was quite aware of the fact that his father suspected something.  Joe vowed then and there not to let the mask down, not to give his father any reason to question his behavior and Joe promised himself to do all that his father or brother demanded of him.  Joe prayed that his reserve would last until Adam received answers to his letters and that by that time, his father would have no reason to want to send him to the dreaded military school.  And if that didn’t work, Joe decided that the minute Ben chose to inform him of the plans that he and Adam had made for him, he would run away.

‘I ain’t gonna go to no military school and that’s that,’ Joe said as he swung his leg over the saddle and waited for his father to join him.

Joe was quiet on the ride back to the ranch.  His father had made several attempts at starting a conversation but after his efforts fell on deaf ears, Ben gave it up as a lost cause.

Ben racked his brain, digging deeply into the furthermost corners his memory for a clue that might tell him why Joe was so out of sorts with everyone in the family.  It dawned on him in that instant that the one person who seemed to have been granted immunity from Joe’s unpleasant attitude had been Hoss.  That lone thought set Ben’s mind to racing as to why, what had he and Adam said or done that Joe would suddenly distant himself from them as he had?  It was a matter he intended to speak with Adam about, and perhaps Hoss.

“Hi ya Short Shanks,” greeted Hoss who was on his way to the barn when his father and brother rode up.

“Hi Hoss,” Joe returned the greeting with a weak smile as he dismounted.

“Ya feelin’ all right now, Punkin?  Adam told me ya got to feelin’ puny and had to see the doc.” Hoss took Cochise’s reins from Joe as soon as he saw Joe start to toss them over the hitching rail.  “I’ll tend to your horse for ya,” offered Hoss giving his father a glance.  “Ya want me to take yours too Pa?”

“If you don’t mind, Hoss.  I need to get your brother upstairs and in the bed.  Paul wants him to spend the weekend resting.”  Ben fell into step beside of Joe and walked the remainder of the way to the house with him.

Ben stopped just long enough to lay his gunbelt on the credenza and place his hat on the peg behind the door before he followed Joe who was already half way up the stairs.  Joe stopped when he heard his father’s footsteps behind him and turned to face Ben.

“I don’t need any help.  I think I know how to get undressed by myself,” snapped Joe angrily and then suddenly wished he had used a different tone of voice when he saw the look in his father’s eyes turn dark.  Joe noted the deep scowl that creased his father’s brow and turned away from the intense glare.

“Joseph, look at me,” demanded Ben in a deep voice.

Joe turned back around, his head low to avoid seeing the anger on his father’s face.

“I said look at me,” instructed Ben.  Joe raised his head and met his father’s stance.  “I do not like the tone of your voice young man, and you will not use it again.  Do I make myself clear?”  Ben had stepped up on the next step putting him one step up from Joe and forcing himself to look down to see his son’s face.

“I’m sorry Pa.  I didn’t mean to snap at you…it’s just…” faltered Joe, the tears trying to flood his eyes.  Joe dropped his head.

Ben saw the way in which Joe’s chin had begun to quiver and the tears that blinded the boy’s sight and his heart softened as he reached out and placed his hand on the trembling shoulder.  He ached to take the boy into his arms and hold him close, to soothe away his son’s misery and he longed for the words that would set things right in Joe’s world, for it seemed that something had sent his youngest boy’s world crashing.

Joe felt as if a hot iron had been placed against his flesh as the sizzling touch of his father’s hand left him feeling as if he had just been branded.  Joe wanted nothing more than to throw himself into his father’s loving arms and beg for mercy.  But instead, he fought to control the urge and struggled to keep the mask that hid his true fears from slipping away and allow those fears to show through.  Joe eased himself to the next step, distancing himself from his father’s touch.

Puzzled, Ben watched as Joe moved upward a step at a time until he was out of reach then turn, running the rest of the way to the top step and then down the hall to his room.  Slowly, giving Joe time to regain control of his emotions, Ben made his way to Joe’s room and tapped lightly on the door.  After a long moment of silence, Ben pushed opened the thick oak door and stepped inside.  Joe had just finished pulling his nightshirt over his head and turned at the sound of his father’s voice behind him.

“Joe?” began Ben but stopped, moving aside as Joe yanked the blankets back from the head of the bed and crawled in.  Ben gathered the mused covers and pulled them up to Joe’s chin tucking them securely around his son and then sat down on the edge of the bed.

Joe watched his father’s face.  Ben was troubled and Joe could tell that his father was worried about him and it bothered Joe knowing that he was the cause of his father’s anxiety.

An idea suddenly struck Joe that he now believed he knew the reason why his father and Adam were planning to send him away.  ‘It must be because Pa is always worried about me.  I know I do some pretty stupid things most of the time, so that must be it…or…Oh God, no…Pa must be sick and they aren’t telling me and they don’t want me around because he worries too much about me and it’s endangering his health,’ thought Joe.

Joe’s eyes darted to his father’s and he was surprised to see Ben observing him.  Suddenly feeling shy in front of this man whom he adored, Joe resisted the urge to slip his arms about his father’s neck and tell him how much he loved him.

“Can I rest now?  Please Pa,” Joe asked softly and listened as Ben sighed deeply.

“Yes of course you can son.  If you need anything…”

“No, I’ll just try to get a little sleep,” Joe said in a soft voice and watched as Ben stood to his feet and ambled slowly to the door.

“Pa!” Joe called out, “I…I love you,” he said on impulse.

The anxiety suddenly washed away as Ben’s face broke into a wide smile, changing the way in which he had been feeling inside.

“I love you too son.  I always have,” whispered Ben and stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind him baffled by his son’s peculiar lilts in behavior.

*****

By Sunday afternoon, Joe was tired of having to stay in the bed.  He had enjoyed the attention his family had been giving to him, but now he yearned for his liberation.  He and Hoss had played checkers until he had grown weary of the game and in a moment of exasperation had sent the board and all its small pieces sailing across the floor.  Hoss had snapped at him, leaving him alone to stew and pick up the game by himself.

Later, Adam had stopped in and had kindly offered to read to him, but Joe, still angry with his brother for making the suggestion to their father of sending him to military school, refused the offer.  Now, sitting alone in the dimly lit room, Joe had grown bored and lonesome and now wished he had not been so quick to decline his brother’s offer.

Ben had brought him a tray of milk and fresh baked cookies from Hop Sing’s kitchen and sat with him for awhile.  His father’s visit had made him nervous, he felt condemnable and it bothered him because he wasn’t sure why he should be feeling that way.  He yearned to ask his father about the school, and about why he and Adam had decided that Joe should go. Joe glanced at his father and saw that Ben was watching him and it caused Joe to begin to fidget with the edge of the blanket.

“Joseph,” said Ben softly, his eyes never leaving his son’s face.

Joe moved only his eyes and glanced at his father.  “What?” he asked in a whispered voice that trembled with uneasiness.

“I know that something has been eating away at you, no, don’t try to deny it son,” said Ben, stopping Joe’s comment before he could voice it.

“I won’t ask you what it is. I don’t think you would tell me anyway, but I do want you to know that when you are ready to talk about whatever it is that is bothering you, I’m willing to listen to whatever you have to say.”  Ben saw the water fill his son’s eyes and he took Joe’s hand in his own.  With his thumb, he gently caressed the backside of the smaller fist.

Joe could not speak, his throat had grown thick with emotion, his heart jam-packed with foreboding and misgivings and he feared that the tears he knew welled in his eyes might spill forth.  For several minutes Joe sat silently, enjoying the tender feel of his father’s thumb as it brushed back and forth across his flesh.  At last Joe found his voice and giving his father a quick glance spoke in a voice he prayed exhibited none of his inner torment.

“Thanks Pa, but there’s nothing to tell,” fibbed Joe, his voice raspy and uneven.  ‘Yes there is’, his heart screamed, ‘I love ya Pa, please, please, don’t make me go away!’

*****

By suppertime Ben allowed Joe to join the family at the dining room table.  Free from his bedroom prison and happy to be among the living, Joe ate heartily even filling his plate a second time before finally feeling full.

“That was a great supper Hop Sing,” smiled Little Joe when the family cook began clearing away the plates.  “Thanks.”

“Little boy eat lots supper, grow big and strong like brothers someday,” beamed Hop Sing as he walked slowly back into his kitchen.

Joe glanced around at his family who were deep into a conversation and watched them one at a time.  Hoss was laughing, his smile spreading across his broad face and lighting up his sky blue eyes.

‘That’s how I’ll remember him,’ thought Joe, ‘he’s always in a good mood, always happy and always ready for whatever comes his way and he can make me laugh, even when I don’t feel like it.’

Joe’s eyes drifted to Adam who was speaking to Hoss and who had a look of seriousness on his face.  Whatever Hoss was laughing about seconds ago apparently had not struck Adam as funny.

‘Always so serious, always uptight about something and seldom laughs, I mean really laugh, like Hoss does.  Poor Adam, you just don’t know how to turn loose and enjoy yourself, do you big brother?’ Joe asked himself and thought how sad his older brother had always seemed to him.

Ben had gotten up and moved to his favorite chair where he had started to light up his pipe.  Joe watched as his father inhaled on the end of the pipe; the rich aroma of Ben’s sweet-smelling Virginia tobacco filled the room and Joe closed his eyes to sear the memory in his mind.  Unaware that Ben had moved and now stood over him, Joe inhaled deeply through his nose and opened his eyes.

“Boo,” laughed Ben as he tossled Joe’s dark curls, making him laugh.  “What in the world were you doing sitting there with you eyes shut like that son?”

His father’s question had caught the attention of both of his brothers and Joe felt himself blushing.  “I was just making a memory, that’s all,” he explained softly and glanced around the table at his brothers who were smiling at him.

“What’s wrong with that?” he nearly shouted as he jumped to his feet, suddenly irritated at Hoss and Adam for the would-be smirks they wore on their faces.

Ben quickly placed his hand on Joe’s arm to halt his escape.  “There’s nothing wrong with that son.  My mother used to tell me that when you do just as you did, a memory would forever and ever be imbedded in your mind.  Like the smell of this rich pipe tobacco.  Every time you smell it from now on, you will recall this exact moment in your life.  I think that what you just did was very nice, now perhaps when you encounter this scent some where down the road of your life, you will think of me.”

“Pa’s right, Joe.  Like the time I got sick on Bessie Sue’s mulberry pie cause I ate so much of it…well, every time I so much as see a mulberry pie, I wanna puke,” said Hoss as he scrunched up his nose.

Ben’s laugher boomed throughout the room and when Adam’s seldom heard, deep rich laughter entwined with his father’s, Joe could not stop his own high pitched giggles from adding to the others.

“If you hadn’t of been trying to impress the lady you never would have gotten sick in the first place,” teased Adam.

“Well, I certainly hope that where ever Joe is when he gets a whiff of this tobacco, he thinks of me kindly instead of puking!” roared Ben and surprised Joe with a tight hug.

Joe pressed his head against Ben’s chest suddenly wrapping his arms around his father’s waist.

‘This is how I want to remember you, Pa.  Laughing and holding me tightly against your chest, your heart beating rapidly as if you truly loved me,’ sighed Joe.

Ben heard the deep sigh and gently cupped Joe’s chin, raising his son’s head slightly so that he might look into Joe’s eyes.  Smiling, Ben brushed back a stray lock of hair, his hand resting at the back of Joe’s head as he studied his son’s face.  Ben longed to question Joe but knew that if he continued to push his son for information, Joe would only retreat further into him self, and tell nothing to any one.  Patience, his heart warned and Ben heeded the inaudible advice.

“I think it’s time for you to get to bed young man, you have school tomorrow,” smiled Ben.

Joe tightened his hold on his father and allowed his head to press against his father’s heart.  Joe could feel the steady beat beneath his ear and wished that he could remain where he was forever.

“Do I gotta Pa?” whispered Joe and tilted his head up to study his father’s expression, waiting for a response.

Ben, sensing his son’s need to be held, permitted his own arms to tighten as well, “Yes, you gotta.  Now go on, I’ll be up in a few minutes to say goodnight.”

Joe swallowed his disappointment, but choose to obey his father’s request; after all, he was on a mission to please.  “Yes sir,” he smiled and reluctantly released his father from his hold.

“Night Hoss,” said Joe as he walked passed his middle brother who had made himself comfortable on the settee, one leg crossed over the other.  His head rested against the back of the couch as he bid his little brother goodnight.

“Night Punkin, sleep tight,” replied Hoss looking up at Little Joe.

Joe stopped beside of Adam’s chair that sat near the bottom on the steps.  Adam’s eyes met his and for just a brief moment Joe wanted to throw him self at his brother’s feet to beg Adam to join forces with him and beg their father not to send him away.  Joe felt that if anyone could sway the senior Cartwright’s decision it would be Adam.

“Good night Joe…Joe?” Adam placed his hand on Joe’s arm startling the boy from his thoughts.  “Night little buddy,” smiled Adam as he watched his brother’s return from the far distant place where his thoughts had taken him.

“Night Adam,” said Joe and then took a step before stopping.  “Adam…” Joe said almost shyly.

Adam twisted his head around the side of the chair so that he could get a better look at his brother.  “Yeah?”

“I…I’m…never mind, it wasn’t important,” muttered Joe and ran up the steps, taking them two at a time.

Adam seemed frozen to his position and when his father stepped nearer he glanced up.  “Wonder what that was about?” he sighed and picked up his book.

Ben stood at the bottom of the stairs, his head tilted up as if he were staring at the very top step, “Who knows?  With that boy, only God could give you an answer.”

*****

The day droned on, but Joe was determined that he would make good his promise he had made to himself about getting his life back into prospective, as Adam often called it.  And part of getting back on track was the way in which he viewed his schoolwork.  If Ben were to actually send him to a military school as planned, his grades would be an embarrassment to not only himself but his family as well.  With that in mind, Joe had worked hard all day to finish each assignment that Miss Jones had given out and to do it all neatly.  By the time that class was dismissed for the day, Joe, relieved felt pleased with his accomplishment and wondered why he had always before thought it was such a hard feat to attain.  He smiled to himself, he would never admit it to a soul, especially Adam, but he had actually enjoyed his day at school.

“Hey Cartwright,” came the dreaded sound.  Joe knew who had been calling his name.  Matthew Talburt had been trying all day to get his attention and Joe had purposely ignored the boy.

Joe headed toward the small stable where the horses were kept in hopes of avoiding another argument, but was stopped when Matthew’s large frame stepped in front of him and blocked his path.

“What’s the hurry kid?” Matthew mouthed and stepped closer placing his chest nearly against the smaller boy’s.

“You’ve been so quick to defend your stupid family, especially that French Creole mother of yours.  How about that big jackass know-it-all brother, Adam, that’s his name ain’t it?”

Joe bristled at the comment made toward his mother and clenched his hands into tight fists and tried to step back but he had turned to avoid being so close to his tormentor and now his back was pressed against a tree.

Matthew poked his finger into Joe’s chest, “I think your brother is a smart ass.”

“So do I,” muttered Joe thinking of how his brother had convinced his pa to send him away and decided right then not to get into a fight on Adam’s account.

“What?” shouted Matthew surprised that his victim was agreeing with him.  He grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt and jerked him within inches of his face.  Joe could feel Matthew’s hot breath on his face as the bigger boy spat out his verbal assault, “What did ya just say, peek squeak?”

Matthew’s iron like grip on his shirt was making it hard to breathe, let alone talk.  “I said so do I, he is a smart ass,” squeaked Little Joe.

Joe was not going to let his bully provoke him into fighting; his pa would not be so understanding this time, of that he was sure and Joe had no intentions of adding to his long list of offenses.

“Why you’re a regular little wise guy yourself, ain’t ya?” sneered Matthew and drove his fist into Joe’s stomach.

Joe doubled up from the pain but Matthew who retained his hold on Joe’s shirt, yanked him upright and punched him on the chin.  Joe staggered backward and fell to the ground.  Matthew grabbed Joe by his arms and hauled him to his feet, reared back his fist and swung again.  This time his aim missed Joe’s face and landed on the side of his prey’s shoulder.  Joe swayed backward attempting to stay on his feet as he did so.

“What’s wrong with you Cartwright?  Hit me! Ya ain’t yella are ya?” screamed Matthew as he advanced on Joe.

Joe’s temper suddenly flared.  He could take a lot of things, but being called yellow was not one of them; still he struggled with his inner self to keep his promise.  Joe took a second too long to consider his options as another blow connected with his face sending him sprawling into the dirt.  His head reeling, Joe managed to get to his feet, ready at last to protect him self.

With his fist drawn back and ready to strike, Joe suddenly felt hands grab him from behind and wrap themselves about his middle, pinning his arms to his sides.  Joe struggled, jerked and tried to pry his arms free from the restraining hands that held him tightly.

“Stop it Little Joe, you hear me?  I said stop!”

Adam’s voice had finally reached his befuddled mind and Joe ceased his struggle and permitted his body to lean back against his brother’s body.  Hoss had Matthew by the arms and was pushing him away from his brother’s reach and sending him on his way.  Adam spun Joe around to face him.

“You just had to do it didn’t you?  Can’t you go just one day without getting yourself into a pack of trouble?  What the hell were you fighting about this time?” demanded Adam, his dark eyes flashing with anger.

Joe tried to step back, but Adam grabbed his arm again.  “Stand still!” he snapped, “Don’t you dare move until you answer me!”

Joe gulped, “I…I wasn’t fighting…”

Adam’s mouth dropped opened and he ran his long slender fingers through his dark hair.  “Oh, then what would you call it?” he asked with sarcasm.

Joe’s anger was now being directed to his brother, “I mean…I…was…but I wasn’t…Oh what’s the use?  You wouldn’t understand anyway,” shouted Joe and wrenched his arm free from Adam’s grasp.

“Try me little brother, just once, try me.  For God’s sake Joe, give me an honest answer!  Why were you fighting with Matthew Talburt again?  Don’t you know just how much trouble you’re going to be in when Pa finds out?  Give me something to help you with; tell me something that I can use to keep you from getting your butt warmed up.  Or would you rather take a whipping?” demanded Adam who stood glaring at Joe, his hands on either side of his hips and wondering why on earth he wanted to protect this insolent boy from his father’s wrath.  Was it because he knew Joe was mad at him for what he might have done and now he was trying to make it up to the boy in some small way?  He wasn’t at all sure of his motives.

Joe’s eyes filled with tears.  Was Adam saying that he would help him out of this mess?  Joe suddenly lost his anger at his brother and using his dirty shirtsleeves, wiped the tears from his eyes.

“He was fighting me, I never even hit him, I didn’t try too,” explained Joe and watched for Adam’s reaction.

Adam scratched his head and eyed Joe.  “Why not?” he asked simply.

Joe lowered his head, ashamed now for not standing up for his brother.  Joe felt Adam’s hand cup his chin and tip his head up.  “Why not?” he asked a second time, his deep voice toned with authority.

“I was trying not too, honest Adam, I knew Pa would be mad if’n I got into another fight.  So I didn’t hit him,” explained Joe hoping that his answer would satisfy his older brother so he wouldn’t have to explain the real reason he didn’t want to hit the other boy.

“Okay, I’ll buy that.  But you’re still holding something back.  Out with it!”

Joe recognized the fact that his older brother would not relent until he knew the entire story behind the fight, so decided in that instant to confess the truth.

“He called you a bad name, and since I’ve been sorta mad at you myself, I didn’t want…” Joe paused and looked up at Adam, losing the battle with his tears as they slipped slowly down his dirty face.

Adam pursed his lips tightly together.  So, he had been right in thinking that Joe was put out with him, still, he didn’t know why.  But for now, that matter would have to wait.

“So you didn’t want to defend my honor, is that it?” he questioned and hid the smile that threatened to break through when he saw his brother gulp.

“I’m sorry Adam, honest.  I know I should have, but if I had, Pa would wallop me good for getting into another fight, so I didn’t do anything.  I’m sorry…I mean, I’m not sorry…I mean…” Joe’s nerves could take no more and he turned toward the stable to get his horse but stopped at the door and turned to face his brother.

“Tell Pa whatever you want.  I don’t care anymore.  I can’t do anything to please anyone no how, so if I get my butt whipped, I…just don’t care.”  Joe disappeared into the stable where he leaned his head against the wooden boards and cried out his anguish.

*****

Two hours later, Joe found himself standing face to face with his father.  Ben’s angry glare left no doubt to the young boy that he was head over heels in trouble again and just minutes away from not being able to sit comfortably.  Ben stood just inches from where Joe stood, head dropped low and hands folded behind his back.  Joe was positive that his father could hear the loud thumping of his heart as it raced wildly, beating against the inside of his chest.

“Well young man?  Adam tells me you’ve been fighting.  Would you like to explain yourself, again?” questioned Ben watching the inner struggle his youngest was putting himself through.

Joe had given up hope of ever getting his father to change his mind about sending him away.  He no longer cared what happened to him, if he got a whipping for fighting, so be it.  Throwing caution to the wind, he stared into his father’s face and without thinking, answered his father’s question.

“No sir.”

Ben’s eyes popped wide open at Joe’s refusal and for a brief moment, he was speechless.  Adam’s sudden coughing spell caught his attention and he glared at his oldest son.  Behind Adam’s chair stood Hoss, mouth hanging opened and a look of total disbelief on his round face.

“NO?” shouted Ben as he took Joe by the arm and led him to the chair on the front side of his desk facing the great room.

“Just what kind of answer is that, young man?  Never mind, you can just sit right there until you can come up with a better explanation than that!  Don’t you dare get up from that chair until I tell you, you may.”  Ben turned his back and stomped away from Joe, leaving Joe alone and heartbroken with his fears and doubts.

An hour had passed and Joe still remained glued to the chair determined to keep his silent heartache to himself.  Every so often he would glance at his family who gathered around the great room. Ben was enjoying his paper; Hoss was braiding a new bridle and would look over at him on occasion.  Joe could see the misery in Hoss’ expression when his middle brother would chance a glance in his direction and Joe felt nearly as bad for his brother as he did for himself.  Adam seemed absorbed in his book, and paid him no mind, which did not surprise Joe; he hadn’t really expected much sympathy from his oldest sibling anyway.

“Supper ready, come to table now,” called Hop Sing as he placed the last serving plate onto the table.

Joe let out a long sigh, his stomach hurt from all the worry and he was hungry.  He started to rise but his father’s booming voice stopped him cold.

“Not you young man, sit!” Ben ordered, pointing to the chair that Joe had just vacated.

Joe’s eyes misted but he refused to let his father see and quickly did as he was told, turning his head to avoid his father’s angry stance.

“Pa?” whispered Hoss shocked after eyeing Joe and the unhappy expression on his face.

“Never mind Hoss, just go eat your supper,” Ben instructed in a calm quiet voice as he glanced over his shoulder at his youngest son who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

Hoss gave Joe one last look and took his place at the dining table though his appetite had suddenly been lost; he had no desire to eat seeing that his little brother was watching them and knowing that Joe must have been hungry, for lunch had been hours ago.

Joe squirmed in his seat, his butt itched from the prolonged sitting but he was determined not to give in to his father’s demands, if he had to sit there the rest of the night.  The minutes soon turned into hours and Joe’s stomach had begun to send messages to his brain demanding that food be sent down.  Joe hesitantly glanced at his father and brothers who were now enjoying a brandy.  He felt his reserve beginning to melt away, he was tired, his bottom was getting sore and he was hungry.  He looked longingly at his father, but Ben’s back was to him; Joe sighed deeply and hung his head knowing that he could not hold out against his father for much longer.

‘I’ll not give in, not just yet,’ his mind shouted.

“I’m turning in, I’m beat,” said Adam, rising from his favorite chair. “Night Pa, Hoss,” he called and then stole a glance in Joe’s direction.

Joe glared at his older brother, ‘this is all your fault,’ he reasoned angrily, though his anger was unjust.  Before Adam could bid him good night, Joe turned his head avoiding his brother.

“Me too.  I gotta ride over to Carson City in the morning and check on that new bull old man Watkins has for sale.  Night Pa, Joe,” said Hoss, his lips pinched tightly together as he watched his younger brother fidgeting in the chair.  Hoss cast wary eyes back at his father but Ben nodded his head back and forth as he turned from the hearth and slowly made his way over to his youngest son.

“Joseph, are you ready to explain yourself now?” asked Ben in a calm voice.  He hated seeing his son as he looked now, sad, forlorn and very near tears.  The sight broke his heart.

Joe refused to look at his father and turned his head to the side.  Ben gently took his son’s face in his hand and turned it upward.  He could feel the quivering chin, and see the unshed tears that threatened to overflow and his anger at this unhappy child vanished.

“Joseph…” began Ben but stopped short when Joe’s tone of voice suddenly turned nasty.

“What difference does it make?  You don’t really care why I was fighting, none of you do.  All you care about is getting rid of me, so why should I bother to explain anything to you?  I’m not going to be here much longer anyway, so what does it matter if you whip my butt?” cried Little Joe in a loud squeaky voice, his chin quivering, the tears that had filled his eyes began trickling down his cheeks.

Adam and Hoss who had been in the upstairs hallway quickly returned to the main room to hear what the ruckus was when the voice of their brother edged on hysteria.

“Joseph,” said Ben calmly.  “What in thunder are you talking about?”

Joe had pushed back the chair from where Ben stood and looked away but at his father’s words, quickly jerked back to face his father.  His hopes were shattered his fears alive and living in his heart, his soul burdened with sadness and he felt as if he were alone, fighting against an unknown enemy that threatened to change his life forever.

 “Oh come on Pa,” he ranted, “Don’t treat me like I was a half-wit.  You know darn well what I mean; you and Adam have had it planned for days now.  You didn’t think I knew, but I over heard the two of you talking, but guess what?  I don’t give a damn.  I want to go; in fact, I can’t wait to get away from here.  Anywhere would be better than staying here with you and them,” Joe pointed to his brothers, “I don’t care, you got that?  I said I don’t care!  I could care less where you send me.  Just remember I don’t care.  I…I…Oh Pa, why?  Why are you doing this to me?” wept Joe bitterly as he slumped to his knees in tears.  “Please let me stay…don’t make me go…”

Ben, who had known something terrible had been gnawing away at his son, was quick to his son’s side.  The fight and its reason were quickly forgotten as he gathered the sobbing child into his arms and drew him into an embrace while he carefully eased his distraught son to the settee and sat down.  Ben’s arms encircled his son tightly, cradling the despondent boy to his heart.  Giving worried glances at Adam and Hoss who had moved to either side of him, Ben brushed the tears from his son’s face.

“Joseph, sweetheart.  I have no idea what you are talking about.  What is it that you think your brother and I are doing to you?  And what on earth do you mean by sending you away?” pleaded Ben.  “Joseph, please son, look at me?  I’m not sending you away, why on earth would you think that?”

“Yes you are, I heard you say so, you and Adam,” cried Joe who had buried his face in Ben’s vest and refused to look at his father.

“Where are we suppose to be sending you?” asked Ben as he pried Joe’s fingers from the leather vest and forced the boy to look at him.

“Yeah Joe, you’ve been mad at me for days, and I’d like to know why,” said Adam who had sat down on the coffee table facing his father and brother.

“Military school,” muttered Joe between sobs.  “Please Pa; I’ll be good, I promise.  I’ll do everything that you and Adam ask me too and I won’t grumble about it, honest.  Just let me stay here with you.”  Joe’s sobs increased as he buried his face deeper into his father’s chest again.  “I love you Pa, I love all of you.  I don’t want to go away for four years…”

Adam and Ben both shook their heads slowly in astonishment as the realization of what Joe was telling them began to dawn of them and they looked at Hoss when he sniffled and whose eyes had begun to mist in sympathy for his baby brother.

“Hey buddy,” said Adam rubbing his hand down Joe’s back in an effort to comfort his brother.  “Pa and I would never send you away, do you hear me?  We had no such plans…”

“But I heard you,” shouted Joe as he turned on Adam.  “It was your idea, I heard you tell Pa, and Pa agreed.  You said I was always getting into too much trouble and my grades where lousy, so you suggested to Pa that he send me to military school.  Don’t deny it Adam, I heard YOU!”  Joe’s voice had risen an octave and had become high pitched as his wailing pierced the eardrums of his astonished family members.

Ben moved from the settee, knelt down in front of his weeping child and cupped Joe’s chin, forcing the boy to look him in the eye.  “What you heard young man, was bits and pieces of a conversation that had nothing what so ever to do with you.”

“But…”

“Hush Joseph and let me finish.  Obviously you were eavesdropping again, and did not hear the entire conversation, and you have drawn your own conclusion, which happens to be wrong.  Son, Adam and I were talking about Matthew Talburt, not you.”  Ben smiled at the surprised look on his son’s young face and using the palms of his hands, wiped away the tears that lingered on Joe’s cheeks.

“You were?” whispered Joe.

“We were.  You see son, Mr. Talburt asked Adam and I for some suggestions to help him get Matthew back on the right track.  He’s been a handful for Mr. and Mrs. Talburt and they were at a loss as to how to help their son.  So when Adam suggested military school, he meant it for the Talburt boy, not you Joseph.”  Ben allowed Joe to rest his head against him and the concerned father wrapped his arms tightly about Joe’s torso and Ben felt the fight slip from Joe’s body as the boy relaxed against him.

“I would never, ever send you away like that son.  Unless you chose to go, if it were something that you thought you’d like to do…”

“NO!  I want to stay here with you.  I don’t ever want to leave the Ponderosa.  I want to raise horses and I want to raise…” Joe stopped and looked into his father’s loving eyes.

“I want to raise your grandchildren, right here.  And when I die, I want to be buried up at the lake with mama, and you.  My life is here Pa, it always has been and it always will be, that is if you want me?”

“Want you?  Oh son, you don’t have to ask that.  You and Adam and Hoss are my life.  Your heartbeat is my heartbeat.  When you hurt, I hurt.  I love the three of you more than anything in this entire world.  I would do anything for you, including giving up my life for you if I had too.  That’s how much I love you.”

Ben pulled Joe’s head against his heart and kissed the top of the curly head while he held Joe for several minutes without speaking.

“I love you too, you little river rat,” smiled Adam.

“That goes double for me, Short Shanks,” laughed Hoss.

Joe looked around at his family and smiled.  He had put himself through hell, and for what he thought?  Only to find out what he had known all along but had refused to admit, and that was that his family loved him; they always had and they always would.  He wasn’t going anywhere, not now and not ever he promised himself.

“I’m sorry Adam, for being mad at you and for not defending your honor,” Little Joe softly told his brother.

“That’s okay Pal, I know you didn’t understand what you thought you heard and why you would have been mad at me for suggesting it. But Joe, you never did tell me what Matthew Talburt said about me.”

Joe glanced up at his father and saw that Ben was waiting for an answer to Adam’s question as well.  “Hmm…I’m not allowed to use those kind of words,” Joe said, hoping to pacify both his brother and his father.

“Let’s just forget it, shall we boys?  We wouldn’t want your little brother here to get into more trouble for using cuss words now would we?” smiled Ben.

Adam and Hoss shook their heads.

“Joseph, about this fight that you say didn’t happen…” began Ben as he gently touched the swollen area of Joe’s chin and wondered again how Joe could claim he hadn’t been fighting when he had the bruises to suggest otherwise.

Joe jerked to attention, and looked to Adam for support.  “Well…hmm…I didn’t really say it didn’t happen; I just meant that I didn’t fight him…you see Pa, it was like this….”

Adam’s voice joined in with Joe’s and a moment later Hoss was adding his two cents worth about the fight.  In seconds all three of his sons were talking at once, each trying to be heard over the others.

Ben sighed, ‘military school, why had I not thought of that years ago,’ he laughed to himself.  ‘Think of all the peace and quiet I have missed!’

Ben stood to his feet, his son’s chatter ringing in his ears as they continue to argue between themselves about what might have been said about Adam and about which version of the fight was most accurate.

Ben smiled to himself as he watched his boys,  ‘I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world, he sighed.   ‘Now, where did I put those cotton balls?’

***End***

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