Skeletons Unleashed (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9240


 

It had been a hard and trying month for the Cartwrights, especially for the youngest member of the family. Having found his closest friend, Curt Taylor, dead, had sent Little Joe’s universe plummeting downward until his entire world had nearly collapsed around them all.

The death, self-inflicted, had all but been Joe’s undoing. Even now, weeks later, he was sullen and withdrawn, never speaking unless spoken to or out of shear necessity.  He’d sit for hours staring at nothing, saying nothing, and doing nothing. His father’s concern had mounted and Ben felt as if a part of his youngest son might be lost to him forever. The anxious father had tried everything to help his son, had insisted that Joe face reality and talk about what had happened, what he had seen, yet Joe refused, sinking deeper and deeper into his despair.

His brothers, Adam and Hoss, had tried to help their sibling. Their efforts were cut short, for each time one approached their brother, Joe would spit harsh, unkind words at them, until at last they had stopped putting forth an effort and like their father, watched as each day passed and a new day of self-destruction dawned for their loved one.

It was heartbreaking to watch, the once energetic, rambunctious boy reduced to a shell of his former self.  It was obvious to all concerned that Joe’s life bordered on the edge and Ben feared that if something wasn’t done for his son soon, Joe might get it in his head to end his own life, as his friend had done. The terrifying thought had sent shivers of fear racing through his veins and he’d become so insistent that Joe be watched constantly, that it added more strain on the already overtaxed family.

*****

“You need to eat, son,” Ben said softly from his seat at the table where the family had gathered for breakfast.

He’d been watching his youngest son as Joe sat quietly, toying with the food in his plate.  The boy had yet offered a greeting and had refused to join into the morning conversation.  When he raised his head to look toward his father, Ben could see the haunted, near desperate look in the dulled hue of the hazel eyes that seemed to look at him, but not fully see him.

“Ain’t hungry,” Joe offered, returning to watch the affect his fork had when he poked at his eggs.

For several moments, things were silent around the table. Each knew within their hearts the cause of Joe’s lack of hunger. These days the boy rarely ate anything, barely enough to keep himself going.  He had lost weight; much to their distress, for Joe wasn’t a big kid to say the least.  At nearly sixteen, he had always been small for his size, in comparison to his classmates at school and especially to his family. And the fact that he ate little to nothing at all, had only accentuated his dimensions that much more.

“I’m riding over to Hubert Hastings place this morning, Joe, to look over those new mustangs he rounded up the first of the week. He sent word that he had a couple nice looking pintos in the bunch, care to ride over and have a look with me?” Adam suggested, glancing toward his father and seeing the hopeful expression on Ben’s face.

For a brief second, something sparked the flame in the deep-set eyes, and Adam saw the flicker, but it was short-lived.

Joe shook his head.  “Naw…not today…I got things to do,” he said.

Only for a fraction of a second, did Joe look disappointed about his decision.  It was a known fact to all of them that for over a year, he had been yearning for a pinto horse. His present mount, Paint, was a pinto and much to his liking, but Joe had been feeling that he had outgrown the old horse and had declared to his father that he needed a mount with spunk…something that Paint had lost over his years.

Ben, thinking back on his son’s words, wished that Joe could have some of the same spunk that the boy wished for his horse.  Trying not to look in the boy’s direction, afraid that the disappointment might show and that Joe might see, Ben turned his attention to his own eggs.  A plan had suddenly taken root within his mind and Ben wanted time now to let the seed grow.

“What things, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked. “I thought ya was anxious to find a new pinto…and Mr. Hastings always has the best horses around, ‘cept for ours,” he grinned.

There was nothing about his brother’s statement that Joe could find amusing, and he had no clue as to why Hoss was snickering. The sound seemed to only irritate him.

“I don’t need a dang horse,” Joe said, shoving back his chair and standing to his feet.  “For Pete’s sake, Hoss…what are you laughing at, there isn’t anything funny going on!” he snapped in a harsh voice.

The laughing stopped just as quickly as it had begun and three sets of eyes looked into the angry face of the boy. Hoss’ own expression showed his dismay and hurt, for it cut him to the core to know that his younger brother was suffering inside and he, Hoss, bigger than life, could do nothing to help the one he loved most, besides his pa.

“Joseph, there’s no need to be rude. Hoss was just…”

“I know what Hoss was doing…I’ve got chores to do, excuse me…please,” Joe blurted out as he hurried from the table and out the front door, slamming it loudly as he fled the house.

Ben’s lips pulled tightly closed and he set his coffee cup down with a bang.

“I didn’t mean nuthin’…honest Pa, I was just tryin’ to…” babbled Hoss.

“I know, son.  Don’t fret yourself any about this. It’s him, son, not you…not us,” Ben tried to soothe his middle son’s hurt feelings.

“What are we going to do, Pa?” Adam inquired. “He’s on the road to destroying himself and…”

Ben’s dark eyes filled with worry.  “I know, son…I know…but I’m at a loss as to how to help him…if only…”

*****

Once alone in the darkened barn, Joe paused and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.  He glanced around the interior, his body shaking.  He felt chilled to the bone.  The barn was musty and with the thin slivers of light that strained through the cracks, the barn seemed silent and eerie. It stirred a haunting memory, deep in his subconscious where he had left it and Joe tried to will the disturbance away.

Joe rubbed his hands up and down his arms astutely aware that he was alone in the one place he had come to fear the most.  He gulped, fighting his rising fear and the shrouded shadows that seemed to pierce his memory, jarring into life the lone figure of the boy, his friend, dangling lifelessly from the rafters over his head, a rope about his neck, squeezing the life from his very soul.  The bulging eyes his mind conjured up flashed before his own misting ones.

A small rodent scurried across the floor in front of the trembling boy, causing Joe to jump back and scream out in fear.  Joe turned to flee, but stopped at the door, suddenly taking control of himself.  He stood, leaning weakly against the closed door, breathing heavily, sucking in large gulps of fresh air as he tried to assure himself that he had nothing to fear, but fear itself.

“It’s just a mouse,” he told himself.

Slowly, Joe moved back into the interior and picked up the rake. It was his turn to muck out the barn, a job that he hated, but today, he almost welcomed the chore. Mucking would take his mind off his worries, he told himself. The unwelcome chore would be his excuse to stay home. He cared nothing these days, of venturing too far. The boy would never admit it to anyone other than himself, but the thoughts of getting too far from home, and the security he had with his father, terrified him. He was afraid of what he might encounter in the way of unpleasantness…leastwise, that’s the excuse he used to convince himself.

Joe was deep in thought, busy with his work and totally unaware that Adam had entered the barn. His back was to the door, and Adam, not realizing that his younger brother was anywhere around, slipped unnoticed into the barn and headed for the tack room.

So engrossed in what he was doing, Joe reacted violently when Adam paused, seeing his brother working and clamped his hand down on Joe’s shoulder.

“AW!!” screamed Joe as he swung around, rake in hand and without thought, caught Adam with a hard, deliberate blow to his side.

“AUGH!” groaned Adam, dropping to his knees, his arms gripping his side as his body sank to the ground.

“ADAM!” shouted Joe, tossing the tool aside and bending down to help his brother.

Joe reached out to offer his help, but Adam, his expression filled with pain and his eyes dark with anger, brushed Joe’s hands away.

“You little fool,” moaned Adam as he attempted to sit up. “What in blazes were trying to do, kill me?”

The minute the words were out of his mouth, Adam wished he could bite off his tongue.  The expression on Little Joe’s face turned to one of horror and he backed away from the older brother and slowly rose to his feet, staring at Adam in disbelief.

“Joe…I’m sorry, buddy…that was a poor choice of words,” Adam said, his voice faltering slightly as he looked into the tear filled eyes of the retreating boy.

Adam managed to get to his feet, his hand still gripping his side.  Cautiously, he took a step forward.  “I didn’t mean to scare you, Joe…I guess I deserved that wallop…”

Adam stopped speaking, the tear filled eyes, were more than he could bear. Gently he reached out his hand, but Joe surprised Adam by turning and running from the barn, nearly colliding with Hoss in his haste to distance himself from the spiteful words.

Hoss was pushed back against the wall as Joe fled from the barn but quickly recovered and peeked in to see what it was that Joe was running from.  Scratching his head when he saw Adam, Hoss entered.

“What in the world’s gotten into that kid?” Hoss stated, glancing over his shoulder toward the door. “He plum near knocked me on my caboose…hey, ya alright?” he asked, suddenly aware that Adam was holding his side and looking a little pallid.

Adam nodded his head as he found an old crate and sat down.

“I’ll be alright in a minute, just let me catch my breath. Dang fool kid nearly knocked the wind out of me,” Adam said, rubbing his side.

He looked up at Hoss, whose unasked question remained on his face.  When Adam took longer than what Hoss thought necessary, he plunged forward, his curiosity getting the better of him. “Well, ya gonna tell me what spook’em?”

Adam let the wind expire from his lungs and gave Hoss a sideways glance. “I guess I did, and then I said the wrong thing.  I tried to apologize but he took off before I had the chance,” explained Adam.

“What happened?” Hoss wanted to know.

Adam stood and stretched from one side and then the other, trying to work the kinks out of his body. “I’m not sure Hoss. I came here and Joe was mucking out the stable. I swear, I thought the kid heard me come in, but guess not. When I put my hand on his shoulder, he jumped a foot high, swung around and clobbered me with the rake handle. The force doubled me over, and when Joe tried to help me, I guess I lost my temper and blurted something about him trying to kill me.”

Adam scrunched up his face. “Guess it was the wrong thing to say.”

“Aw…shucks, Adam, ya didn’t mean nuthin’ by it,” Hoss said, trying to reassure his brother. “Did ya?” he added, his brows drawn down and a look of remorse on his face.

Adam picked up the rake that Joe had dropped and gave Hoss a stern look. “Of course not…but he thinks I did.”

Hoss walked to the doorway and looked out.  Joe was nowhere to be seen.  He puckered up his face and looked at Adam. “I’m worried about him, Adam.  I’m scared the boy’s gonna…gonna go off’en the deep end,” he said in a low tone.

Adam noted the bothersome tone in his brother’s voice and moved to stand in front of the big man. “So am I, Hoss…and Pa’s worried about the same thing.  But how do we help him?  He won’t talk about what he saw or what happened, or even what he’s feeling.  It’s eating him up inside, like a disease.”

“We gotta try somethin’…but what?” Hoss said, thinking hard.  “There’s gotta be a way to help the boy.”

“Yeah, but how?” muttered Adam.

*****

Joe had run as far as he could before his breath began giving out and he started huffing and puffing. He sank to the ground, buried his face in his hands and began to weep.  His sobs pulled deep into his lungs, sucking what air remained into his throat as he cried out his despair.

“WHY!” he beseeched loudly. “OH GOD…PLEASE, MAKE IT STOP!”

Joe wiped his shirtsleeve across his nose and raised his head upward, looking into the bright cloudless sky.  He took a deep breath, letting it out more slowly.  “Why did you have to do it?” he said into the breeze.  “It doesn’t make any sense,” he babbled.  “It’s not fair…leaving everyone wondering.”

The boy could not say the words that seemed to stick in his throat.  He could not voice what he felt, nor could he wipe the memory of what he had seen from his mind. More than anything else, he longed for his father’s arms about him, whispering words of comfort into his ears, promising him that everything would be the same as it once was.

But Joe knew that his life had changed forever and that things would never again be what they had once been. He had, whether by fear or by choice, possibly both, kept his inner most fears buried deeply within himself and had refused to talk to his father, or anyone about what he had experienced or how even now, weeks after the death of his friend, the suicide had left him with a deep-seeded emotional need to which he could find no comfort.

Joe’s nose continued to drip and he dragged his arm across his face a second time.  He lowered his head, shaking his head gently from side to side, sniffling. “Why did I have to be the one to find you?”

His head leaned back, far back, against his shoulders and Joe pinched his eyes closed tightly, unleashing his tears as they rolled gently down from the corners of his eyes. “I can’t get the image of your face out of my head!” he screamed, balling up his hands into tight fists and covering his eyes.  “Please God…oh please, make it go away!”

For several minutes Joe sat on his knees, crying, wishing that God would hear his pleading and fulfill his request.  His friend’s face haunted every waking hour and deprived him of the sleep he needed so badly.  When he could manage a rare moment of sleep, his dreams and distorted images plagued his thoughts and most near every night he’d waken the family with his screams. After many such occurrences, his father had been advised, by the doctor, to administer a sleeping power before bedtime, so that the boy could get some much needed rest.

The ordeal was weighing heavily on the youth, draining him of his strength, snatching from him, the joy of living and the thrill of just being alive.  His infectious laughter was no longer heard within the walls of his home, the soft sounds of his weeping filled the hallways instead, when at night, before the medication took affect, Joe could no longer contain himself and his fury would be allowed to run riot.

“Joe?”

Joe jerked his body around, unaware that Hoss had ridden into the clearing where he was still crouched on the ground.  Quickly, before his brother could see his tears, Joe wiped dry his face and stood to his feet.

“I don’t mean to disturb ya,” Hoss said almost shyly. He had seen the tears, but knew enough not to let on to Little Joe that he had.  He smiled, hoping that his worry was well masked. “It’s about lunchtime…I thought maybe…ya’d like a ride back to the house?” he stammered slightly, not sure what his brother’s reaction to his intrusion might be.

“I ain’t hungry,” Joe said, in a low voice.

“Ya didn’t eat ya breakfast, Joe. Ya gotta be a little hungry…and Hop Sing’s done gone and fixed some fried chicken and he’ even made an apple pie. He sure is gonna have his feelin’s hurt, if’n ya don’t eat somethin’,” Hoss declared.

“An apple pie and fried chicken?”  It was Joe’s favorite.

“Yep…don’t ya reckon ya could at least eat a chicken leg, just to please ’em?” Hoss asked in a near begging tone.

Joe glanced up into the chubby face and could instantly see the worry etched into his middle brother’s brow. It was just like Hoss to worry…it was just like his entire family to worry about him.

“How’s Adam?” Joe asked, changing the subject.

“Sore, but he’s alright, Joe…he knows ya didn’t mean to…”

“Yes I did…he crept up on me and I meant to do what I did…I just didn’t know it was Adam doing the sneaking…that’s all,” Joe explained. “He should have called out…or something,” he added.

Hoss smiled slightly and stepped closer to the boy.  He rested his large, beefy hand on Joe’s shoulder. “I think he will next time.”

“Is he mad at me?  I really didn’t mean to hurt him…its just that he…took me by surprise, that’s all,” Joe said, looking up at Hoss with a look of remorse on his young face.

“Naw…he ain’t mad, Joe, honest.  And I bet when we get home, he’ll be atellin’ ya that he’s sorry for scarin’ ya…”

“He didn’t SCARE me…I was just…just.”

Joe ceased talking; a lump had developed in his throat and strangled his words.  He spun around, moving toward Hoss’ mount.  He was lying, what was the sense of trying to explain, Hoss knew, Adam knew…they all knew, he was scare of everything these days and he felt like a coward, and he had no clue as to what to do about it.  Joe felt as if he were losing his mind, his life was spinning out of control and he wasn’t sure just how much more he could bear.  Suddenly, life didn’t seem worth living.

Hoss watched as Joe stood in silence, his back toward him.  Slowly he approached the boy whom he loved dearly and without touching the lad expressed his own feelings. “Joe…I cain’t say I know how ya feelin’…cause in truth I don’t. I ain’t ever had to go through what ya been through.”

The big man swallowed and continued. “I just want ya to know…that if’n ya ever wanna talk about it…I’m here for ya,” he said softly.

Joe turned his head and looked into Hoss’ face, seeing the sincerity in his brother’s misty blue eyes.  He was overcome with emotion and for a brief moment thought about spilling his guts to this gentle giant that towered over him.  But something deep down inside of him, fighting against the willingness and the unwillingness forbid him from sharing his feeling.

“Thanks.”

It was all the boy could muster.

Hoss swallowed his disappointment that Joe would not trust him enough to confide in him and forced himself to smile down at the boy.

“Let’s go home, Joe…I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry,” grinned Hoss.

*****

From the side porch where he sat, Ben glanced up, a look of relief on his face. “Here they come now,” he said to Adam as he stood to greet his two youngest sons.

Adam pushed back his chair and stood next to his father.  He watched Joe as the boy dismounted and walked slowly toward them.

Ben smiled.  “Well, I’m glad the two of you made it back.  Hop Sing was getting worried that his supper would be ruined.”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said, his head low, his eyes adverted so that he would not have to look at Adam.

“No problem.  Hoss, why don’t we go inside and tell Hop Sing that we’re about ready to eat?” Ben suggested.

He knew that Adam wanted a minute alone with his brother and the suggestion was a way in which he and Hoss could give the two, time alone.

Adam waited until his father and brother were out of earshot and then glanced at Joe.  Joe was digging in the dirt with the toe of his boot and still refused to look up.  Adam cleared his throat. “Joe?”

Joe’s head snapped up, his eyes focused directly on his brother’s face.  “I’d better go get washed up,” he stammered as he started toward the door.

“Joe…wait a minute, please,” Adam called as he reached out and put his hand on Joe’s arm.

Joe stopped and looked down at the fingers that held his arm, and then up into his brother’s face.

“I’m sorry little buddy, about what I said this morning.  I didn’t mean anything by it, honest,” Adam apologized.

Adam felt the tension ease somewhat beneath his fingers. Sensing that Joe would not balk and run, he released the boy’s arm.

“I’m sorry too, Adam.  I didn’t mean to hit you…I was only…only…”

“It’s alright, kid; I’ll know to make myself known the next time,” Adam smiled.  “It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Thanks…and next time…I’ll try not to take a swing at you,” Joe said, forcing a slight smile.

Adam saw the faint semblance of the smile and he returned the gesture. “You should do that more often,” he said with a touch of humor.

Joe’s expression turned to one of bewilderment. “What, hit you?” he stated.

Adam ruffled the dark curls and laughed.  “No, silly, smile. It looks good on you, and it is a nice change.”

“Oh,” Joe said absentmindedly as the smile faded.  “I don’t have much to smile about anymore.”

“And why is that?” Adam questioned, hoping that perhaps Joe might open up to him just a little.

Joe moved toward the house, away from the dark, probing eyes. “You know why as well as I do.  Come on, I’m hungry,” he said, avoiding the subject.

Before Adam could respond, Joe was gone and he had no other recourse but to follow.

*****

The night was hot and from the window, where he stood, Joe could find no relief from the heat.  Earlier, there had been a gentle breeze and for a while it seemed as if it might rain.  In the distance, the soft rumbling of thunder could be heard, but now, the gentle vibrations had faded away and it seemed hotter than before.

Joe turned from the window to pour a small amount of water from the china pitcher into the basin.  He glanced at his reflection in the mirror, appalled by the haggard look on his face.  His sleepless nights were beginning to show; his face looked tired and dark circles had formed beneath his eyes. No wonder his family looked at him with such concern in their eyes, for he looked like hell, Joe determined. When he finished splashing the water onto his face and dried off with a towel, he returned to the bed, plopping down against the softness of the bedding.

After several minutes of staring at the ceiling in the total darkness, Joe rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes.  Moments later he was sleeping.

*****

“CURT! CURT!” screamed Joe in his sleep.

The nightmare had quickly become reality in the boy’s mind as he entered the barn and saw the still form of his friend dangling from the end of a rope.

“NO! NO!” shouted Joe, rising upright in the bed.

The bedroom door was flung opened and Ben rushed to the bedside, grabbing Joe’s fraying arms.

“Joseph…son…wake up, precious…you’re dreaming,” Ben soothed.

“CURT! NO!” yelled Joe, unable to shake the nightmare from his confused mind.

Ben gave Joe several gentle shakes, attempting to wake the boy. When Joe’s screams ceased, and his eyes fluttered opened, seeing his father’s worried face before him, Joe leaned forward into Ben’s embrace and began to weep.

“Shh…it’s over now, son.  It was just a nightmare,” Ben whispered, holding Joe close to his heart.

He could feel his son’s body trembling beneath his fingers and he tenderly ran his hand up and down Joe’s back.  Joe’s sobs wracked his body until at last he had cried himself out and pushed himself away from the loving hands that held him.

Joe rested his head back onto the pillows, dabbing at his tear-drenched face.  Almost bashfully, he looked up at his father. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said in a soft voice that sounded much like a small child’s.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Ben asked, hopefully, knowing that the issue still remained unsolved.

“No…I’m fine now, Pa…honest,” Joe lied. He snuggled down deep into the bed.  “I just want to go to sleep…if’n you don’t mind?”

“Of course.  But Joe, if you want to…”

“I don’t,” Joe said curtly.

Ben rose from the bed, arranging the covers about Joe, who tried to avoid looking directly into his father’s eyes.

“Good night, son,” Ben said as he made his way to the door.  “Try to rest…”

“I will…Pa?” Joe called.

Ben paused, a flicker of hope sparking his heart.  “Yes, Joe?”

Ben saw Joe pinch his lips together as if he were trying to keep words that had surfaced from spewing forth from his mouth.

“Never mind,” Joe whispered.  “It was nothing,” he said.

“Alright son…you get some sleep…perhaps we can talk in the morning?”

“Maybe,” muttered Joe. “But not likely,” he thought to himself.

Deep in his heart, Joe knew he should voice his fears, that he should rid himself of the guilt that tormented his thoughts.  He should tell his father about what was eating away at his insides, the knowing about and the not speaking up when he should have. It was killing him, and Joe knew that before long, his fate would end in the same way as his friend’s had been. His life was no longer his own, his destiny lay within the hands of providence and the more he thought about it, the more compelled he was to follow though. He had to know…what was it that Curt had been thinking, feeling, at the very moment that he slipped the rope about his own neck?

*****

“I heard him crying out last night, too,” Adam said at breakfast where he sat with his father and Hoss.  Joe had yet to put in an appearance.

“It’s been nearly every night since Curt’s death,” Ben stated as he sipped his coffee.  “I thought for sure last night he was going to talk, he was so broken up…but, for whatever reason, he just wouldn’t open up to me.”

“I don’t know how much longer he can go on like he is, Pa.  He’s goin’ down hill mighty fast; he looks terrible,” Hoss added to the conversation.

“I realize that, son. I think I’ll ride into town and have a talk with Paul. Maybe he can give me some new ideas on how to get the boy to talk about what happened,” Ben said as he set his cup down and wiped his mouth.

“What me to saddle ya horse for ya, Pa?” Hoss offered.

“No…that’s alright, I’ll do it.  Adam, will you go up and see what’s keeping Joe?  If he’s still sleeping, let him be, he needs the rest,” Ben issued.

“Sure Pa,” agreed Adam, pushing back his chair and doing as his father had asked.

Ben moved to the credenza and began strapping on his gun and holster.  By the time he put his hat on and was ready to go, Adam appeared on the landing, mid-way of the staircase.

“Pa…Joe’s not in his room,” he said, continuing on his way down.

“Hmm…” grunted Hoss.

Ben’s eyes opened wide in surprise.  “Maybe he’s getting an early start on his chores?”

“Joe?” snickered Adam. He saw his father’s grave look and the smile quickly disappeared from his handsome face. “I’ll look in the barn,” he offered, but Ben stopped him by holding up his hand.

“No need, I’m heading that way.  If he’s not there, he’s probably indisposed,” Ben said, trying to push down the sudden feeling of dread that ached to consume him. “I’ll not be long; when you find Joe, see that he eats something, if he will,” Ben said as he turned to go out the door.

On the porch, he paused and took a deep breath to fill his lungs.  The feeling of doom still lingered and a sick sensation, as if he needed to retch, caused his stomach to lurch.  Pushing the thoughts to the back of his mind, and swallowing deeply to wash down the queasy feeling, Ben made his way to the barn.

Seeing that the cross bar had been pulled back, indicating that someone had already entered the barn that morning, and assuming it was his youngest son, Ben felt himself relax.  His frown lines were replaced with a smile as he walked into the dimly lit barn and remembering Adam’s experience from the morning before, called out his son’s name.

“Joseph?”

His son’s life instantly flashed before his very eyes, as Ben’s own dark eyes saw and his mind registered the sight he was beholding.  In a loud voice, so unlike his natural tone, Ben roared as a mighty lion, his repulsion.

“OH MY GOD!  JOE! NO!” bellowed Ben at the top of his voice.

Ben felt his stomach do a double flip as he raced toward the table.  His brow had beaded with tiny droplets of moisture as his adrenalin surged throughout his veins. The panic rose to his throat, and Ben spat the phlegm from his mouth in his haste to reach his son.

“Pa…” cried Joe, seeing the horrified look on his father’s face.  He could only imagine what his father must be thinking as he tried to pull the noose from about his neck.

The chair in which he had so carefully placed in the center of the old three-legged table, wobbled precariously as he struggled to free himself.  Joe turned as his father scampered to climb on the table with him and Joe felt the chair begin to topple over just as he freed his head of the rope that he had tied across the beam.

Ben screamed again, just as the chair fell over and crumbled to the floor of the barn.  His strong arms wrapped themselves about Joe’s legs, causing both he and his son to lose their balance and fall to the floor in a heap of arms and legs.

“Oh dear God…Joe, no…not you,” wailed Ben as he quickly righted himself and pulled the sobbing boy into his arms where he held the trembling body tightly to his breast.

“Pa…” sobbed Joe.  “No…no…please…”

“Joseph, Joseph, dear Lord, son…what were you thinking?  My God…I can’t believe this,” Ben lamented.

“No, Pa…no,” Joe cried repeatedly.  “Please…it’s…not…I wasn’t…honest…Pa, honest,” Joe sobbed into his father’s vest.  “I wasn’t going…to do…it…please, Pa…listen,” he beseeched.

Ben, his horror still lingering on the grotesque picture that had presented itself of his son hanging from the beam of the barn, refused to let his mind comprehend his son’s pleas to hear his words.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Ben continued.

“Pa…oh Pa…” cried Joe.

“Why Joseph, why, son?  You could have come to me…I would have helped you…you didn’t need to do this…” Ben sobbed out.

His tears had ran down his face and dripped into the chestnut curls beneath his chin.  Ben’s hold tightened, as though he were afraid that once he let go, his son would be lost to him forever. Clinging desperately to one another, the pair continued to cry, until after long moments, they returned to themselves.

Ben could feel the shivers that ran through the boy’s body and Joe, resting securely within his father’s arms, his head against Ben’s chest, could hear the rapid pounding of his father’s heart.  The organ was racing wildly and Joe knew that he had practically scared the life out of his father.  His mind raced to find a way to make his parent understand his true intentions, for the look on Ben’s face broke Joe’s heart, more so than when he found his friend dead.

Carefully, Joe raised his head and looked up at his father.  His voice quivered slightly when he spoke. “Pa,” he whispered softly.  “I wasn’t going to…do what you thought I was…honest,” Joe said, a sob catching in his throat.

Ben’s face, a mixture of emotions, stared blankly into the younger, tear drenched face.

“Then please explain to me, what on earth you were thinking, Joseph,” Ben muttered.  “What in God’s, good name were you doing?”

Despite the effort, Joe began weeping softly. He lowered his head just enough to shield his face from his father’s deep, probing eyes. Gently Ben lifted the quivering chin.

“Joe, tell me, please…what is going on inside this head of yours? Let me help you, sweetheart…before…before…” Ben was forced to swallow the bile that sprung from the pits of his stomach into his mouth.

“I wanted to know…what Curt was feeling…what he must have felt like…when he…he…put the rope…around his neck,” Joe began weeping openly and leaned forward, burying his face deeply into the soft leather of his father’s vest.

“It was awful, Pa…his face…so blue…his eyes…staring out…at nothing,” cried Joe.  “Oh God…I can’t get it out of my head!”

The heartbroken sobs continued.

“He told me…but I didn’t believe…him.”

Ben listened intently, for much of what Joe was saying was garbled and hard to understand between the deep sobs that shook his young body. “He told you what, son?  What didn’t you believe?”

“I should have…told someone…but I…just laughed it…off.  I didn’t…take…him seriously…”

“His face…it was…hideous!” blurted Joe, burying deeper, if possible, against his father.

Ben, wanting nothing more than to put the issue to rest, gripped Joe by the shoulders and pulled him free of his vest.  He shook the boy gently.

“Joseph, listen to me…stop crying and answer me,” Ben ordered in his deep, authoritarian tone.

“What is it that Curt told you that makes you feel responsible for his death?” Ben said, softening his voice.

Joe wiped his sleeves across his eyes and looked up at his father. He tried to gain control of his sniffling.

“He told me…he was going…to…kill himself,” Joe said, his eyes watering once more.

Again he wiped his shirtsleeves across his face.

“I laughed…and said I didn’t…believe him…but Pa…” Joe could do nothing to stop the tears from rolling down his face.  “He…meant it.  Why?  Why Pa…why did he do it?” cried Joe.

Ben gathered his distraught son back into his arms as he fought his own tears.  He held Joe close, his fingers running through the thick curls as he tried to calm his son’s weeping. “I don’t know, Joe…why a person, or how a person…comes to believe that something is so awfully wrong with their lives, that they have to end their own,” Ben tried to explain.

Joe shook his head and pulled back. “He said his mother and father…were getting a…divorce,” Joe whispered. He had never know a man and wife who had gotten a divorce, it was practically unheard of and Joe had always thought of a divorce as breaking one of God’s commandments. “Curt made me promise not to tell anyone…even you. He said that his mother was leaving his father and going back east to get…it,” Joe explained.

“But that’s not reason enough for the boy to want to take his own life,” Ben said, puzzled by Joe’s friend’s thinking.

“That wasn’t all of it, Pa.”  Joe swallowed.

Ben could see the boy’s chin quivering as he struggled with his words.

“Curt overheard his parents arguing…and Mister Taylor accused Curt’s ma of being…with…child…another man’s child…not his,” Joe said, barely above a whisper.

“And Curt said that…his pa told his mother he could forgive her one time, but not twice,” Joe added.

“What did he mean by that?” Ben pondered.

Joe sniffed at his nose again.  “Curt told me that Mister Taylor…told him that he wasn’t his real father, that he married Misses Taylor after she had had an affair with another man…”

“Joseph!  That’s nothing more than gossip,” Ben scolded gently.

“I know that, Pa…but Curt was the one telling me.  He was so ashamed…he said he wanted to…die,” stammered Joe.  “A bastard…that’s what Curt called himself…a bastard that nobody wanted.”

“Dear God,” muttered Ben. “That poor boy!”

“Pa?” Joe said timidly.

“What is it, son?” Ben said, brushing back the dampen curls from Joe’s brow.

“I think that I sort of know what Curt was feeling…about his mother, I mean,” Joe said.  “Once, someone told me that…my mother was expecting me…when she married you…remember?”

“I remember,” Ben shook his head.

“Well, I remember what I felt like, thinking that you weren’t my real Pa either; that is until you told me different.  But with Curt…it was different…he grew up believing that Mister Taylor was his real Pa, and then in a moment of anger, his Pa blurts out the truth.”

Joe lowered his head again, and began fighting back tears.  When he looked up at his father, Ben’s heart melted.

“I should have helped him, Pa, instead of making light of it.  I could have stopped him…”

“No, son…no.  You cannot blame yourself for any of this.  The boy was devastated, heartbroken, and that was no one’s fault but his father’s.  The man should be horse whipped for telling that boy something so horrid in such a manner,” growled Ben, furious at Taylor for shattering a young boy’s life and practically destroying his own son’s life as well. “Joseph, listen to me, please.  You are not to blame for this, not any way, shape or form.  Do you understand me?”

Joe nodded his head.  “I suppose I know that, but Pa…when I walked into that barn and saw…”

“Joe…please…I know how shocked you must have been, how frightened…you have to try to put the image out of your mind.  I know it was horrible; I saw Curt shortly afterwards, and I know how affected you were…you stopped talking for days afterward.  The doctor said you were in shock…”

Ben paused, suddenly remembering his own sick feelings when he entered the barn a short time ago and saw his own son about to do what his friend had done.

“Joe,” Ben’s voice was strangely calm.

Joe watched his father’s eyes darken to near ebony with a look on his face that he had never seen before.  It frightened him. “What’s wrong, Pa?” he said in a quivering voice.

“What were you attempting to do, when I came in here and found you on that table…with that rope around your neck?” Ben quizzed.

“Not what you were thinking, honest Pa…ya gotta believe me,” stammered Joe.

“I want to son, but you have to explain…because right now, at this moment, I don’t understand…do you have any idea how I felt when I saw you about to…”

Joe butted in with a rush of words. “I understand, Pa…I know what you thought, I saw your face…I heard you scream…I saw,” Joe took a deep breath to calm himself before continuing.  “I saw in your eyes…what must have been in my eyes, when I found Curt.”

Reliving the memory of what he had seen, brought on an onslaught of fresh tears.  Clinging tightly to his father, Joe broke down. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he sobbed, “I didn’t mean to scare ya…I was only trying…to get into my head, what Curt must have been feeling.  I needed to find out if he really wanted to die, or if somehow…it might have been an accident.  I’m so sorry, I didn’t think you were anywhere around, I…I…”

Joe eye’s sought his father’s and his expression begged for understanding. “I don’t wanna die, Pa…honest…no matter how bad things get.  I’d never do that to you…especially now, after seeing your face.”  Joe continued to sob.  “It was wrong…what Curt did, it didn’t solve anything; it didn’t make the problems go away…did it?  It only made a bad situation worse, isn’t that what you always tell me…that you can’t run from your problems, that we have face them…that…”

“That’s right, son.  And in the wake of his death, he left behind so many unanswered questions, so many broken hearts and so much grief.  If you knew these things, Joe, why didn’t you come to me before now?  Why did you go to such drastic measures to find an answer to your problems?” Ben insisted.

Joe tossed his head from side to side, trying to put things into perspective. “I don’t know…I guess I was just…ashamed…and scared…and…oh…please, forgive me…I didn’t mean anything by what I was doing…ya just gotta believe me…”

“Shh,” soothed Ben, taking his son back into his arms.  “I believe you Joseph…I believe you.”

“Just promise me that from now on, you’ll come to me…it doesn’t matter what the situation might be, or how much trouble you might think you’re in, I’m here for you son…now and always,” Ben cooed in a loving voice.

With the knowledge that Joe had not been able to do what he had first thought, his insides had begun to settle down.  His heartbeat had slowed and was reaching a more normal beat.  Ben could now grasp the fact that he had interpreted the situation wrong, he had misjudged the boy and regardless of how obscure and missed placed his first impression had been, Ben was thankful that his son was only acting out, searching for his own answers in his own way, and not the alternative.

That night, Joe slept like a baby.  He had insisted that Ben leave the lamp burning low, just in case he was awakened by a nightmare, and Ben, happy to have his son back, whole-heartedly agreed.

*****

“I’ll only be gone a couple of days, Joe. And when I get back, we’ll have that birthday party we’ve been planning,” smiled Ben as he ruffled Joe’s thick curls.

“Do ya have to go, Pa?  Why can’t I go with you?  I promise, I’ll be good and…”

Ben laughed at the boy’s eagerness. “Not this time, Joe.  I’ve already explained to you, that I have business with the chief that does not concern you.  Now…let me go, the sooner I leave, the sooner I’ll be back,” Ben insisted.

Joe reluctantly nodded his head and stepped back so that his father could mount up. “You promise, two days, no more?” he called as Ben readied himself to leave.

“I promise,” Ben said to the wide-eyed boy. “Adam, Hoss, you take care of this rapscallion for me,” he teased.

“Don’t ya worry ‘bout a thing, Pa; I reckon me and Adam can handle one pint-sized little boy,” heehawed Hoss in his good-natured manner.

“I ain’t a kid, Hoss…I’ll be sixteen in three days, and that makes me a man, ain’t that right, Pa?” Joe said, demanding an answer from his father.

“That depends, young man…we’ll talk about THAT when I get home.  Now, you be good and mind what your brothers tell you!”

Ben turned Buck around and disappeared around the corner of the barn, out of sight of the three young men who waved at him.

“Wonder what he’s gonna do with all them rifles?” Joe questioned his brothers.  “You don’t reckon he’s aiming on starting a war with Chief Winnemucca, do ya?”

Adam and Hoss tossed back their heads and laughed loudly, causing Joe to smile.

“I don’t hardly think so, little buddy,” Adam snickered.  “Don’t worry about what Pa’s up to; you just need to worry about that barn.”

Adam pointed toward the building in question.

“What about the barn?” Joe responded.

“It’s your turn to clean the tack room!” ordered Adam as he gave his younger brother a gentle nudge toward the barn.

“Aw…shucks,” muttered Joe under his breath.  “I was hoping you’d forgotten!”

*****

The two days that his father was gone passed quickly for Joe.  His two brothers seemed to find endless tasks to keep him busy, and with the preparations for his sixteenth birthday party already in the makings, Joe had little time to reflect on past events.  He had been so worn out by the end of the day that he went willingly to bed each night and had dropped off to sleep immediately, never waking until the sound of Hoss’ shouts woke him to the beginning of a new day.

“PA!” shouted Joe as he started out the door and spied his father riding into the yard.  “HOSS, ADAM…PA’S BACK!” he called over his shoulder as he scurried out to greet his father.

Ben’s smile broke across his face as he watched Joe running across the yard to meet him.  It was such a joy to see that the haggard and forlorn expressions had disappeared and been replaced with happiness once more.

“Hello, son,” Ben greeted the boy as he slipped his arm across the back of Joe’s shoulder.

“I’m glad your home, Pa…I…missed you.  Say, don’t things look nice?” Joe said, spreading his arm out in a semi-circle.

Ben glanced around the yard, noting the decorations and the Chinese lanterns that had been strung about the yard in preparations for the party. “My, someone’s been working hard,” he said, grinning at Joe.  “I wonder whose birthday it is?” he teased.

“Aw…Pa,” Joe moaned, lowering his head just enough so that Ben could not see the smile that he was trying to hide.

Ben laughed at his son’s antics.

“Hey Pa, welcome home,” Hoss greeted his father.

“Pa…see you made it back.  I hope your business went well?” Adam hinted.

“Yes…everything worked out nicely, thank you.  My, it’s good to be home,” Ben concluded.  “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry…and I want a nice hot bath…before our guests begin to arrive,” Ben stated as he started toward the door.

“I’ll be in soon,” Joe called, “I have to finish my chores.”

Ben paused at the front door and watched Joe enter into the barn without hesitation.  He’d had lingering doubts and suppressed worries that Joe might still be carrying remnants of guilt in his mind about his friend’s suicide.  Watching the carefree manner, in which Joe bounced along, put the fears and worries to rest at last.  Ben closed the door behind him, a feeling of anticipation about tonight’s party replaced his uncertainties and he found himself smiling for the first real time in weeks.

*****

“Joe…Pa wants ya out in the barn,” Hoss said, trying to sound as serious as he could.

“What for?  The guests are arriving any minute,” moaned Joe as he struggled with his black string tie.

“Forget the tie, Little Joe…Pa said for ya to hurry, he wants to have a word with ya.”

“Aw…alright,” groaned Joe, tossing the tie onto the bed. “I don’t know why he wants to talk to me,” he said over his shoulder as he led the way down the stairs.  “I didn’t do anything, I don’t reckon.  Did he say what he wanted to talk to me about?”

“Nope…just asked me to fetch ya,” Hoss answered.

Adam met them at the front door, dressed in his best white shirt.  Joe noted that his brother’s string tie was neatly tied and he gave Adam a disgusted look.

Adam opened the door wide and waved his hand out, offering to let Little Joe go before him.  With a quick glance at Hoss, the pair followed their younger brother to the barn.

“Pa?” Joe called into the darkened interior.

“In here, son.”

“Where?”

“Over here…”

Ben’s head appeared over the top of the half wall of the stall in the furthermost corner of the barn. “Come on over here, Joe…I want to show you something.”

Ben motioned with his hand for Joe to come nearer.  Joe took a small step forward, aware of his brothers behind him.

“Alright, stop there,” Ben, ordered.  “And close your eyes.”

“Pa…”

“Joe, just do it, son,” Ben ordered a second time.

Hoss stepped up to the smaller boy and placed his hands over Joe’s eyes, preventing Joe from seeing what his father was up to.  Joe’s smaller hands covered Hoss’ in an attempt to pull the bigger hands away from his face.

“Alright, alright, they’re closed…but hurry up…my guests will be…”

“Open your eyes son,” Ben said in a thick voice.

Hoss lowered his hands as Joe opened his eyes.  It was a second before Joe could focus on his father and the…

Joe’s mouth flew opened, his eyes widened in surprise.

“PA!” gasped Joe.

“Well…what do you think of him?” smiled Ben, please at his son’s reaction.

“He’s…beautiful!  Is he mine?” Joe’s voice quivered as he approached the…

Adam laughed.  “Well, he sure isn’t Hoss’s!”

“Come on over here and take a good look at him,” Ben laughed encouragingly.

Joe inched forward, amazed at what he was seeing.  The pinto nickered and tried to nuzzle his nose into Joe’s chest, causing Joe to beam proudly.

“Pa…I don’t know what to say,” stammered Joe, rubbing the velvety end of the horse’s nose.  “He’s really something…black and white, just like I was wanting.”

“I had a hard time talking Chief Winnemucca out of this particular pinto, son.  But when I told him I wanted him for a birthday present for my youngest son…he finally gave in and accepted my offer,” Ben explained. “Are you pleased?”

Joe spun around; tears filled his eyes. “Please?  Oh, Pa…he’s the best,” cried Joe as he flung his arms about his father’s neck.  “And so are you!  Thank you…thank you, Pa…it’s the best gift ever!”

Laughing, Ben returned the hug.  “I’m glad you like him, Joseph.”

“We have something for you too, kid,” Adam said.

Joe released his father and followed his brothers to the opposite side of the barn.  When Hoss pulled the blanket off the new saddle, Joe gasped for the second time. “Adam, Hoss…I…I,” he stammered.  “Thank you…it’s perfect!” he responded as he ran his hand gently over the soft leather.

“Well, we figured if you had a new horse, you needed a new saddle,” Adam said with a smile.

“Hey…I think company’s arriving,” laughed Ben, pleased to see the sparkle had returned to Joe’s emerald eyes.

Ben, Adam and Hoss, headed toward the door, ready to enjoy the festivities.  Ben stopped short of the doorway and glanced over his shoulder.  Joe had his arms wrapped about his new pinto’s neck and had nuzzled his face against the soft hide.

“I won’t be long…honest…and then we can get acquainted,” Joe whispered to the horse.  “I’ll have to think of the perfect name for you, boy, but we’ll have plenty of time.”

“Joe?”

“Coming, Pa,” Joe said reluctantly.  As he turned to go, the pinto whinnied.  The boy giggled and flashed his father a bright smile. “Thanks, Pa…” he said as he stood with Ben in the soft glow cast by Hop Sing’s lanterns.

“Joseph,” Ben said, finding a moment alone with his son, “I wanted to give you something special this year, something that would require your full attention.  I wanted it to be something you needed…something extraordinary that would force you into opening up your heart and taking your mind off those unleashed skeletons you’ve been carrying around with you for so long now. So, I went to see the Chief…I traded him some rifles, a few head of cattle for his people and I told him the story of a remarkable boy’s passage into manhood.  I told the chief that this young man needed a horse worthy of his endeavors…a horse that stood out among others, for the young man was such a man.  I explained to Winnemucca that the horse had to be brave, for the man was brave, and that the horse had to have spirit, for the man had spirit. I also told him that the horse should be young, so that the young man and the horse could grow older and wiser together; a strong willed horse with determination, yet gentle enough to match the fortitude and compassion of the boy-turned-man.”

I think I’ve found the perfect match for you, son” continued Ben. “The horse, like the young man, are deserving of one another.  I want you to know, Joe, that I admire your courage, your strength, and your compassion for those around you.  I love you, Joseph…Happy Birthday!”

Ben ran his hand over his face, and placed his arm around the slender shoulders as Joe molded his body against his father’s, in a tight embrace.  There were no need for further words; they understood one another in a way that often amazed others. Their devotion, one to the other, would be tried and tested over the years to come, but with a love that never faltered, they would endure the challenges, for after all, they were…father and son.

***End***

 Thanks to Peggy Fox for the story idea.

 

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