Sticks and Stones (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,000


 

Ben had just rounded the corner from the kitchen carrying in his hand a fresh cup of hot coffee when the front door burst open and Little Joe came running into the house.  Joe nearly collided with his father, causing the older man to spill his coffee as he spun around to avoid getting hit.

“JOSEPH,” shouted Ben but the boy did not stop as he continued on this flight up the stairs.  Adam, Joe’s oldest brother was on his way down, a book in his hand and as Joe tried to pass him on the steps, Joe bumped into him.  Adam dropped the book and in a reflex type action grabbed the younger boy to stop him from falling backwards down the stairs.

“Whoa…what’s your hurry there, buddy?” Adam asked as he set Joe back onto his feet.

“Get outta my way!” yelled ten-year old Joe Cartwright as he shoved his way past Adam and ran for his room, slamming the door and throwing himself onto his bed.  Joe grabbed for his pillow and covered his head to muffle his angry sobs.

Ben who had stooped to wipe up his spilled coffee glanced at the stairs as Adam came to stand in front of him.

“What was that all about, Pa?” Adam asked as Ben stood and faced his oldest son.

“Beats me son, he came tearing in here like the devil his self was after him,” Ben stated and handed his coffee cup to Hop Sing who had entered when hearing all the commotion in the front room.

The front door opened a second time and sixteen-year old Hoss entered.  “Pa, did Little Joe just come through here?”

Ben turned to face his middle son and smiled.  “Yes, as a matter of fact he did.  Just about took out both Adam and myself on the way I might add.  Do you know what this is all about?”

Hoss hung his oversized hat on the peg behind the door and turned to face his father and brother.  “Not really, Pa.  When I got to school to pick him up, some of the older boys were pushing and shoving him and…” began Hoss.

Adam’s face took on a stern look.  “Pushing and shoving?” he asked as the protective side of his personality began snapping to attention.

“Yeah, but they tweren’t hurtin’ him none.  Looked like they was ateasing him.  But he sure ‘nough was mad.” Hoss explained as he sat down at the table and helped himself to the glass of milk and cookies that Hop Sing had waiting for Little Joe for an after school snack.

Ben and Adam joined Hoss at the table and Adam helped himself to one of the cookies, stuffing the whole thing in his mouth in one bite.

“What were they teasing him about this time?” Ben asked. Hop Sing handed Ben another cup of coffee and Ben sat, sipping slowly at the hot liquid.

Ben knew that Little Joe didn’t take teasing very well, especially when the older boys at school were responsible for doing it.  Joe rarely got mad when the family teased him, unless of course he was referred to as a kid or little boy and calling him the baby really sent him into a rage.  Joe was like an unchecked stick of dynamite, one never knew for sure just how short or how long his fuse was until it was too late.

Adam swallowed another cookie and turned to his father.  “I’ll go have a talk with him, Pa.  Maybe he will tell me what happened and we can put a stop to it before it gets so far out of hand that he does something stupid,” Adam said and turned toward the steps.

“Yeah Pa, he might just decide to take on the whole pack of them boys at school and end up getting himself pounded instead,” Hoss stated.

He had seen the look on the youngster’s face when he had run from the school building.  The boy had been on the verge of tears and had not even stopped to greet him as he waited.  Instead, Joe had mounted his pony and kicking as hard as he could, had left the schoolyard and had headed home in a fury.  Hoss doubted that his younger brother had even realized that he had been following close behind.

Ben turned and faced Adam giving him a warm smile.  “Go ahead son, find out what you can about this and then I will speak with him later if I am needed.  He might just need his big brother this time instead of his Pa.”

“Sure thing, don’t worry, I’ll worm it out of him,” Adam chuckled and started up the stairs.

Adam knocked gently on the door, opened it and stepped inside.  The room was dimly lit but he could see his little brother lying face down on the bed, his head covered with the pillow.  Adam could hear the soft sounds of crying filtering from under the pillow and moved to sit on the edge of the bed as he laid his hand on the boy’s back and rubbed gently.

“Hey Little Buddy, have a bad day at school?” he asked.

Joe pulled his head from underneath the pillow and turned his face away from the face of his brother.  “Go away and leave me alone.  I don’t wanna talk about it,” cried Joe in a choked voice.

Adam moved from his spot next to his brother and pulled the chair close to the bed and sat down.  For several minutes both boys sat in silence.  At last Joe turned to look over his shoulder, thinking that Adam had left him alone as he had asked.  When Joe saw Adam sitting in the chair close to his bed, the smaller boy, who looked as if his heart were breaking, wiped away the remaining tears.  Joe pulled himself into a sitting position and sat on the edge of the bed, facing his older brother.

Adam remained quiet, waiting for Joe to speak first.  He watched the play of emotion on his younger brother’s face and noticed the redness of his eyes, a sure sign that the boy had spent the last several minutes since arriving home, in tears.

“Joe?” said Adam, “why not tell me what’s bothering you.  Maybe I can help, you never know,” encouraged Adam.

Joe lowered his head and picked at an imaginary piece of lint on the blanket. “Ain’t nuthin’ to tell, except that I ain’t never going back to school.  I hate it, ya hear?” he said solemnly.  Joe raised his hand to his face and wiped the tears that had begun to slip down his cheeks again.

Adam watched, his heart breaking for this little boy that he loved as if he had been his own.  Adam knew that something had set the boy off, causing the tears, the unwillingness to talk, and the hurt feelings to show so openly on the young face.

Adam patted his lap and smiled.  “Joe, why don’t you come sit here.  Just for a few minutes.  Maybe you’ll feel better and we don’t have to talk about anything if you don’t want to,” offered Adam.

Joe raised his head and met the eyes of his brother.  He really did want some comforting and Adam seemed ready with his offer so Joe climbed from the bed and into the lap of his big brother.  Adam’s arm closed protectively around the smaller boy and held him, neither boy nor young man speaking.

After a short time, Joe looked into his brother’s face and Adam noted the small smile that tugged at the corners of the younger boy’s lips.  “Feeling better buddy?” Adam asked softly.

“Yeah, sorta,” paused Little Joe.  “Adam?”

“Yeah Joe?” responded Adam.

Joe looked again into the dark eyes that studied him.  “Why do people have ta be so mean all of the time?”

Adam thought about the question briefly before answering.  “Well, Joe, just what do you mean?  And what people are we talking about?”  Adam rearranged the boy on his lap so that they could face each other.

Joe studied his brother’s face.  “The guys at school.  They are always teasing me, calling me names.  I don’t like it either.  I don’t call them names.  Why do they do it to me, Adam?”

“The boys at school; well, let’s see now Joe.  What kind of names do they call you?” Adam asked.  He thought if he could find out that much, then he might be able to give his brother a reason as to why the boys were calling him names.  Not that that would make it right, but it might give him an insight as to the problem that Joe seemed to be having with the others.

“Some of them called me a southpaw… whatever that is, and another said I was a midget.  I think I know what that is,” Joe told his brother.

Adam could not resist the smile that crossed his face.  “Joe, a southpaw is a word that is used to describe someone who is left handed, like you are.  It’s not anything bad.  Most people are right handed, so it probably seems strange to them to see someone who uses the opposite hand from what they use.”

“I didn’t know that Adam.  But just because I use a different hand, that shouldn’t be no reason for them to make fun of me is it?”  Joe wanted to know, not sure whether or not he fully understood.

“You are right Joe.  Just because someone is different from you, gives a person no excuse to poke fun at the other person, especially when it is something that they have no control over,” Adam said watching to see if his brother was getting his point.

“And a midget is a word used to describe a very short person.  Usually that person never grows to the full size as what we call a person of normal height, like me and Hoss and Pa.  A midget is always short.  Remember the little clowns we saw at the circus last year?” Adam asked and saw a smile break through the unhappy face.

“Sure, they were funny,” laughed Little Joe.

“Well, they were short people, midgets that were dressed up as the clowns,” explained Adam.

Joe looked at his brother, “That is what a midget is, a really short person that never gets tall?” he asked.

Adam smiled at the look on his brother’s face, “that’s right, Joe.”

Suddenly a frown creased Joe’s forehead and tears returned to the green eyes that looked at Adam.  “Adam,” Joe said softly, a lone tear making its way down the cheek.

Adam hugged his brother, wondering at the tears that had suddenly reappeared.  “What is it little buddy?”

“Am I goin’ to be a midget?  ‘Cause I’m shorter than any of the other guys, is that why they make fun of me and call me that?”  Joe leaned his head onto Adam’s chest and tried to stop the next tear from escaping.

Adam tightened his hold on his brother and kissed the top of his curly head.  “No sport, you will grow and you will get taller, in time.  You are not going to be a midget,” smiled Adam to himself behind the boy’s head.

Joe kept his head against Adam’s chest, all the while enjoying the comforting presence of the older boy.  “Know what else they say to me?”

“What else do they say?” inquired Adam, gently rocking back and forth with Joe on his lap.

Joe glanced up at Adam; he wanted to see his brother’s reaction to his next statement.  “They call Hoss a horse and they say he’s as strong as a mule and dumber than an ox.  They say he couldn’t possibly be my brother, ’cause he’s too big and I’m too small.”

“Joe, we both know that isn’t so.  Of course Hoss is your brother, and he’s my brother also.  As far as Hoss being big, well, he is and he is strong.  But Joe, we both know too, that Hoss is not dumb, don’t we?”  Adam stated firmly, beginning to understand his little brother’s anger at the boys at school.  Joe could get mad very quickly when he tired of the name calling when they called him names. But Joe was fast to come to the defense of one of his family members when the name-calling referred to one of them rather than to him self.

“I know that, but they only laugh at me when I try to explain it to them.  They think it’s funny to make fun of someone else. I don’t understand that Adam,” cried Joe, wiping his tears again.

“And they say Pa is a rich old coot and I’m a spoiled rich kid.  Shucks, Adam, I ain’t got no money, but they don’t believe me,” Joe explained to Adam.

Adam grinned to himself; all three of the brothers had at some time or other been called spoiled rich kids.  More so Joe than himself or to a lesser extent, Hoss, when Adam was growing up, they really were poor, not better off as his younger brothers were now.  But Adam knew how badly that hurt his little brother’s feelings.  Joe tried harder than Hoss or he had about trying to be friends with everyone.  To Joe, it was important to be liked by his peers.  Hoss was always happiest when alone or with his critters that he was always finding and bringing home.  As for himself, Adam didn’t care either way; you either liked or you didn’t like Adam Cartwright.

 “And they say you are a boring snob.  And you are stuck up cause you won’t drink and chase women with their older brothers.  They called you stupid ’cause you like to read Shakespire and…” continued Joe.

“Shakespeare,” corrected Adam.

“That’s what I said.  Then they started calling Hop Sing stupid names like Chink and Slant-eyes,” the tears had returned once again and Joe’s chin began to quiver as he pressed his face against the chest of his brother and cried. Adam held the little boy and allowed him the needed time to compose himself.

Joe turned to look at Adam, the tears shining on his little cheeks.  Joe puckered his lip and continued.  “Adam, they said my mama was a bad woman, and that Pa was wrong for marrying her.  I almost punched that ole Lucas Tatum, but Mitch stopped me.  I hate him Adam; my Mama wasn’t bad and Pa ain’t never been wrong,” wept Little Joe.

“And the worst part about it Adam, they didn’t even know my ma and most of them don’t really know Pa but they were laughing anyway.  Why would they think it so funny?”  Joe didn’t seem to think it was the least bit funny, in fact he thought that it was rather mean of the boys to make fun of someone else especially a member of his family.

Adam moved Joe onto the bed and propped him on the pillows then climbed up and sat facing his brother, both boys sitting Indian fashion. “Joe, I’ll try to explain this to you.  Some people think that it is okay to make fun of others.  They are probably people who have low self-esteem.  Do you know what that means?” asked Adam.

Joe shook his head no and Adam continued, “That means that a person with low self-esteem doesn’t think very well of themselves.  It’s like they don’t like themselves.  People who have low self-esteem are probably people who have been bullied by others, or maybe they have been laughed at and teased, called names and made fun of.  Their only way to make themselves look big or important is to do to others what has been done to them.  If they see someone who is different, say like Hop Sing, or maybe someone who has a disability, like Josh, down at the livery.  He has a wooden leg, remember?”

Joe nodded his head again.  “Yeah, he showed it to me one time and told me that he lost his real leg when he got shot by the Indians.  He said the doctor had to cut it off or he would die,” Joe told Adam.

“That’s right Joe, and how many times have you heard the guys teasing and laughing at him because of it?  Plenty, I’m sure.  And even though Josh laughs along with them most of the time, it hurts his feelings and I’m sure it makes him feel as if he were only half a man.  I know how I would feel,” finished Adam.

Joe seemed lost in thought, “Yeah, me too Adam.  But Adam?”

“Yeah?” said Adam, looking up and watching Joe’s face, knowing that the boy was trying to understand all that was being told to him.

“I’m still not sure why they think it’s funny.  It just seems to me like it is mean,” stated Joe. “You know Pa says the golden rule says to ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’.  But people don’t really do that do they?”

Adam smiled at his brother.  “No buddy, they sure don’t.  People that make fun of others are only trying to feel good about them selves, just as I said.  To them, it makes them feel special, they get attention from it, they like that.  They see nothing wrong with it.  They seem to think that they are hurting no one by the things they say about someone. Joe, it’s hard to like or love someone else when you don’t even like or love yourself.”

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” chanted Little Joe.  “But that ain’t always so is it Adam?” Joe asked.

“No Joe, it isn’t. Wonder why that is?” Adam asked.  He wanted to let Joe think about his answer to see if the boy was truly getting the point.

Joe looked into his brother’s dark eyes and without flinching or hesitating stated, “Cause when ya get hit with sticks and stones, it hurts but you get better and the marks go away.   But when you get hurt in here,” and Joe stopped and patted his chest over the area of the heart, “it don’t always get better.  It’s harder to forget the names, the laughing, and jokes made about ya and it’s especially hard to forget how those things made you feel.”  Joe looked sadly at his brother, remembering how the taunting of the older boys had made him feel.  “They all claimed to be my friends, Adam,” Joe added sadly.

Adam gathered Joe into his arms and kissed his head.  “Well, maybe they are your friends Joe, but that doesn’t make it right.  And when you hear them calling other kids names or making fun of others, I hope you remember how you’re feeling tonight, and not take part in their so called fun.”

“I won’t Adam; I promise, ’cause it hurts too bad,” Little Joe crossed his heart with his fingers, confirming his promise to his brother.

“Joe, one more thing,” said Adam, turning Joe’s face so that the smaller boy could see his own.  “Don’t ever lower your standards by joining in something that you think or know is wrong, just so that people will like you.  You were taught right from wrong, and no matter what, in the end, right will overcome the wrong.  If your friends think you weird for not joining in, then let them think what they will, stand strong for what you believe in.  Pa has always taught us that if you cannot say something nice about someone, then say nothing at all,” Adam continued. “And Joe?”

“Yeah Adam?” answered Joe.

“When you open your mouth to speak and nothing but crude remarks comes out, you will be the one to end up looking like a fool, not the person you were commenting about,” advised Adam.

“Remember Joe, life is good but it has a way of playing mean tricks on us.  We don’t always know what happens to a person in the course of a lifetime to make that person the way they are.  Things happen, people change, and not always for the better.  Sometimes good people go bad and bad people become good people.  People get injured, or disfigured or crippled, others might grow old and fat, some may be grouchy and cranky all reasons that someone else might have for laughing at them or making rude remarks about their looks or behavior.  There is nothing Joe, nothing that makes that right, not even in the name of fun.  People, who do that, have nothing else to do, and I feel sorry for them.  If they took half the energy they use to bad mouth others and put it to a good use, lots more good would come of this world.  There would be less fighting, less killing, fewer robberies, and the world would be a happier place for all of us,” Adam stopped and watched his brother.

“Never judge someone by what you see, their clothes, the way they look, where they come from, whether they are smart or not so smart, but look at what is in here,” and this time Adam patted his own chest over his heart.  “Joe, you might pass up a really good friendship it you don’t take the time to get to know someone before writing them off as a friend, and lastly, never judge anyone, especially someone you don’t even know.  I can’t imagine why anyone would even think about doing that, don’t cast judgment on what you hear about a person, make your own assessment of an individual before either making him your friend or choosing not to make him your friend,” finished Adam.

Joe rested his head on Adam’s chest.  “Thanks Adam; I think I understand now.  But it’s hard to ignore them.” Joe raised his head briefly and looked at his brother, “I’ll try, but if they don’t stop, I’m gonna tell ‘em I’m gonna send Hoss after them.  That’ll stop ‘em, they’re scared of Hoss,” giggled Little Joe as he reached up and placed both his arms around his brother’s neck and planted a series of wet kisses to Adam’s cheeks.

Adam laughed and returned his little brother’s hugs and kisses with his own.  “I’m sure that will work, I don’t even like to tangle with that middle brother of ours.”

“Now, what say we go find those cookies Hop Sing baked for us today before Hoss eats them all, if he hasn’t already,” Adam said as he stood and swung Little Joe onto his back and gave his little brother a piggy-back ride down the stairs.

*****

The rest of the week at school was a repeat of the first day.  The older boys continued to taunt and tease, bashing him by calling him names along with his family and even Hop Sing.  Joe did his best to ignore them, though many times Mitch, Joe’s best friend, had to stop him from taking a swing at one boy in particular, Lucas Tatum.  Lucas and Joe had known each other since Joe’s first day of school.  Lucas was two years older than Joe, and had used that to his advantage many times over the course of their time together in school.  Today was no different.

“Cartwright,” Lucas yelled out to Joe as Joe and Mitch was readying their horses for the ride home after school.  Joe turned his head, trying to ignore the older and now much taller boy but the boy continued to shout out at Joe.

 “Hey midget, can’t ya hear nothin’?  Or are you just stupid, like your big dumber-than-an-ox brother, Horse?”  Lucas laughed and several of the older boys who were with him joined in.

“Look fellas, the little shrimp is scared. He’s gonna run home to his papa and big brothers.  Little Shrimp Cartwright is a baby, I bet he still wears diapers!” Lucas continued with his taunting hoping Little Joe would react.  He had been baiting the smaller boy all week hoping to get a reaction out of him but so far none had been forth coming and Lucas worried that he was losing his touch.  Usually Cartwright was quick to take the bait, making it easier for Lucas to take him in a scuffle but something had changed and now Little Joe seemed immune to his insults and it was a bit unnerving for the older boy.

Mitch looked at Joe and could see the fire burning in his friend’s eyes and knew that he was just about to loose his temper.  “Come on Joe, let’s just go home.  If you answer him back, there will just be a fight and then you will be the one to end up in trouble,” Mitch advised his friend.

Joe frowned up at his friend who had already mounted his horse. “I know, but I would love the chance to flatten his mouth for him.”  Joe cast his eyes in the direction of the older boys and watched as they mounted their horses, all the while laughing at the two younger boys.  “But I promised Adam, I wouldn’t stoop to their level so I guess we just better get on home.”

Joe and Mitch turned their horses toward home, hoping that the small group of boys would not follow and continue with their snide remarks.  They were in luck for the others seemed to have tired of Lucas’ game and left in the other direction.  Lucas remained behind for a few minutes watching Joe and Mitch until they were out of view before turning his horse and catching up to the rest of his friends.

Mitch and Joe made plans for fishing on Saturday, allowing of course that they could get their father’s consent and then parted ways when they reached the divide in the road.  Joe rode home slowly, all the while trying to regain his composure.  After Mitch had gone his way, Joe had tried to stop the tears that had formed in his eyes, but had no luck.  The things that Lucas had been saying to him all week and then again today were tearing at his heart.  Try as he might, he could think of no real reason why Lucas would have to dislike him so much that he would take pleasure in tormenting him as he had been doing.  Joe tried to be nice to all of the fellas at school and even most of the girls.  But Joe realized that no matter what he did, Lucas was just one boy he could not win his friendship and that realization made Joe feel sad.

Joe knew that there had been times this last week when he had been tempted to strike out at the older boy, but had stopped himself.  He was learning that it took great restraint on his part to do so because Little Joe was one who usually acted first and thought later, mostly when it was too late.  But he had promised Adam that he would do his best to ignore the name-calling and the insults, but Joe had found that harder to do than he had first thought.

Joe caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and turning in that direction he was surprised to see Lucas Tatum and another boy, Tommy Walters, riding in his direction.  Joe quickly wiped the remaining tears from his eyes as he pulled his pony to a halt.

“Hey Shrimp,” sneered Lucas.  Joe’s heart began racing and a knot began forming in the pit of his stomach.

Joe swallowed the lump that had suddenly tightened his throat and watched as the two boys approached him.  “What?” was all Joe managed to get out before Timmy jumped from his horse and grabbed the reins to Little Joe’s pony causing the animal to pull back suddenly.  Joe who was caught unaware slipped backward from his saddle and landed unhurt into the dust.

“Hey,” yelled Joe as he rose and dusted off his trousers.  “What’d do that for?” he said and made a grab for his pony.

Timmy pulled back from Joe’s reach and laughed.  Lucas dismounted from his horse and came from behind Joe.  The taller boy grabbed Joe by the shoulder and spun him around to face him.  “You’re yella ain’t ya?” stated Lucas, giving Joe a dirty grin.

Timmy released Joe’s pony and closed in on Joe, making it impossible for the smaller boy to back away from the advancing Lucas.  Joe cast worried eyes over his shoulder, trying to keep Timmy in his view but the other boy was standing so close that the only way Joe could see him was to look up into the boy’s face.

“I ain’t yella.  I’m just not goin’ to fight ya, that’s all,” Joe stated firmly, trying to hide the fear in his voice.  He knew it was coming down to a fight and he knew he was at a disadvantage, the odds being two to one.

Lucas took a step closer, laughing as he moved in, “Oh, you’ll fight me Shrimp, I’ll make ya.”  Lucas’ face was inches from Joe’s and Joe could feel the other boy’s breath on his face.  Joe closed his fists, readying him self for the first punch.

“I heard tell that your mama was a…” and Lucas’ face broke into a wide grin, savoring the moment, “trollop!”

When it was all over, Joe could not remember who had thrown the first punch.  But now he found himself lying in the dirt, feeling as if every inch of his body was crying out in pain.  He had tried to cover himself as best he could.   With two of them pounding away at his body, he had finally had to give up trying to get in punches himself and just try to protect his body from the onslaught of fists and feet that repeatedly connected with his entire body.  Joe wiped at the blood that oozed from his mouth as he pulled himself to his feet.  His knees buckled from beneath him and he fell to the ground groaning.

*****

Adam and Hoss had been in the yard when Joe’s pony arrived, the saddle empty of its rider.  Hoss made a grab for the reins and stopped the pony.  “What’ll ya make of this Adam?”

Adam walked to the pony and began inspecting the animal, looking for any signs of blood that might indicate that their brother might have been injured.  “I don’t see any blood, maybe he just fell off,” offered Adam.

“Oh, come on Adam, fell off?  Little Joe?   That’s not very likely.  But one thing for sure, he’s on foot now.  Better mount up and go find him before Pa gets home,” Hoss stated and led the pony into the barn where he unsaddled him and put him in his stall.

Adam followed Hoss into the barn and quickly both brothers saddled their horses and led them outside.  Mounting quickly they turned from the yard and went in search of their younger brother, who by this time had managed to get to his feet and had started walking home.  As Hoss and Adam rounded the bend, they both stopped suddenly, pulling their horses up short.  Sport, Adam’s horse, danced in circles while Adam tried to make out what they were seeing in the distance.

“Hoss, look, there he is.  He’s staggering, come on.”  Adam kicked his mount into a run and was soon sliding from the saddle as soon as the big stallion had come to a stop.

“Joe, buddy, what happened to you?”  Adam was beside his younger brother instantly and gathered the beaten boy into his arms.  Joe, exhausted, collapsed into the waiting arms.  Hoss was immediately beside his brothers.

Adam carefully laid Joe on the ground and scanned the body for signs of injuries.  “Joe, can you hear me, buddy?” he asked softly.

“Hoss hand me some water,” Adam ordered, taking his handkerchief from his pocket and wetting it with the canteen water that Hoss handed to him.  He wiped away the dirt that had been smeared across Joe’s face and cleaned the blood that still oozed from the busted lip.

Joe opened his eyes and seeing his older brother’s face, began crying.  “I’m sorry Adam, I’m sorry,” sobbed Joe.

“Hey little buddy, you don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Adam said, trying to comfort the boy.

“I broke my promise to ya, Adam.  I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let them say the things they were saying about my mama.”  Joe turned his head toward Adam as tears streamed from his eyes.

Hoss looked from Joe to Adam, unasked questions showing in his worried blue eyes.  Adam’s dark eyes reflected the same questions.  “Joe, let’s get you home first, we can talk about it later.”  Adam lifted Joe in his arms and carried him to his horse.  Hoss took Joe from Adam and held him while Adam mounted his horse and then handed the wounded boy up to ride with Adam.

“Adam, I think I’d better ride into town and get the doctor.  He looks like he might have some busted ribs and that lip might need some sewin’ up,” Hoss offered, and turned toward town.

Adam adjusted Joe onto his lap and agreed with his brother.  Joe however did not like the idea.

“I don’t need the doctor, I’ll be fine,” Little Joe said through gritted teeth.

“You will see the doctor, Joe.  Pa won’t let this pass without a visit from Doc Martin and you know it,” Adam informed him.  He could see how Joe had been gritting his teeth in an attempt to cover his pain.  The bruising on his face and arms were beginning to brighten, blood was showing from a small cut above the left eye, and the way that Joe held his arm around his mid-section, left no doubt to his brothers that a doctor was needed.

“Go ahead, Hoss, get the doctor.  I’ll get him home and clean him up and have him in bed by the time you get back.  Pa should be home soon, he’s not going to be happy about this.”  Adam turned and started toward the ranch house and Hoss left in the other direction for the doctor.

Joe tried to keep from crying out but could not stop the soft moans that escaped each time that Sport seemed to move.  Joe felt as if the big horse was jarring every bone in his body on purpose.  Finally, Joe leaned his head back onto Adam’s chest and dozed.  Adam held him carefully, keeping him upright against him.

“Joe, we’re almost home buddy.  Want to tell me who did this to you and why?”  Adam said softly.

Joe turned slightly trying to see his brother’s face but the movement only caused him discomfort and he moaned again.  “It doesn’t matter who dun it Adam.  Like I said, I couldn’t let them get away with saying those things about my ma.”

Adam had picked up on the plural word, them.  “Joe, tell me this, was there more than one who beat you like this?”

Joe laughed slightly, “Course Adam, ya don’t think one guy by himself could have dun this much damage do ya?  What’ll ya take me for?”

Adam had to refrain from laughing, his brother was a fireball when he was mad enough to fight and unless his opponent out weighed him or was lots bigger, it would indeed take more than one to do the little fella in as was now the case.

“I thought as much.  You sure took a beating this time, but Joe, tell me why?  It might help when we have to explain to Pa.  You know how he feels about you fighting.”  Adam wanted to get to the bottom of this and he wanted to make things easier for him when Pa had to be given a reason for the fight to have taken place.

“No, I don’t wanna talk about it.  Please, Adam, I just wanna lay down.  I don’t feel so good.”  Little Joe rested his head back on Adam’s chest and closed his eyes.

 Adam decided to wait until he had his brother safely tucked into bed and perhaps then the boy would open up to him.  He was very much aware that something serious had happened to the boy to cause him to resort to fighting and also to bring on the tears that were now slowly making their way down his cheeks.  Adam tightened his arms around the young boy offering him a better feeling of comfort.

By the time that Adam rode into the yard, Ben had arrived home also.  Ben, who had been surprised to find both his older sons away, had been further surprised to find Little Joe’s pony in the barn but had found no trace of his youngest son or his two older sons.  Ben had only supposed that Joseph had ridden off with the older two for whatever reason and therefore had not yet begun to worry.  But that changed the minute he stepped into the yard and saw Adam cradling the smaller boy in his arms and Hoss nowhere to be seen.

“Adam, what happened?” Ben asked as he hurried to except his least son into his arms, allowing Adam to dismount his horse.

Adam watched his father’s face, it held only concern for the younger boy and no anger was apparent.  A sigh of relief passed from Adam and he answered his father.  “His pony came in earlier, without him, so Hoss and I went to find him.  We figured the pony must have gotten away from him somehow so we thought we’d better go look for him.  He was still quite a ways from the house.  Hoss has gone for the doctor; we thought he might need to take a look at the boy.”

Ben stood Joseph on the ground, keeping a protective arm around his son.  “Are you able to walk, son?”  Ben’s concern was still apparent on his face as he helped the boy move toward the house.

“I think so Pa.”  Joe walked slowly, allowing his father to help him.  He hurt from head to toe and he fought against the urge to cry out.  He did not want his father to worry more than was necessary and he knew if he showed any further signs of being in pain, Ben would insist that he remain in bed for several days.  Joe had no such intentions, in his mind he had begun to devise a plan to repay Lucas Tatum for calling his mother such a bad name.  The memory of what Lucas had said about his ma caused Little Joe to forget his promise to Adam about stooping to the level of others in such matters.

Ben and Adam helped Joe up the stairs and into his room.  Carefully they undressed the boy and put him into bed.  Ben sat on the bed next to his youngest and with care, cleaned the cut above his eye and tended as best he could, the split in the lower lip.  Joe kept his eyes shut while his father tended his wounds in hopes of avoiding having to answer the questions that he knew his father would ask.  When Ben at last finished he lowered his son onto the pillows and covered him with the blankets but made no move to leave his spot next to his son.

“Joseph,” Ben spoke softly.

Joe opened his eyes and looked into the dark eyes of his father’s.  Seeing the worry there, he was quick to reassure him that he would be okay.  “Pa, don’t worry, I’m okay.  I’m just sore.”

“I can see that, son.  Now, before Doc Martin gets here, why don’t you tell me why you were fighting?  I can’t seem to get a straight answer out of your older brother.” Ben smiled up at Adam who had returned to the room and had heard what his father had said to Joe.

Joe had no intentions of telling his father about the name that Lucas had called his mother.  He knew that things like that would hurt his father and doing that to the father that he loved so much was one thing that the ten year old refused to do, even if his defiance earned him a trip over his father’s lap.  Joe hesitated, trying to find words that might satisfy the man who watched him but those dark penetrating eyes made him nervous and Joe had trouble thinking of an excuse.

“Joseph, I’m waiting, son,” Ben said at last, never allowing his eyes to stray from his young son’s face.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe raised his eyes to meet those of his father’s, “I can’t tell ya.”

Ben’s face reddened slightly but he managed to control the anger that began building inside.  He could plainly see the tears that had suddenly pooled in his son’s eyes and knew that arguing with the boy would not make matters better.  Ben decided to let the matter drop for now and give Joseph time to calm down before the doctor arrived.  Once the doctor finished with his exam and Joe had rested, there would be plenty of time to get to the bottom of the matter then.

Ben smiled at his son, and gently brushed back a stray lock of hair that had fallen out of place.  “Okay, son, for now we will let the matter drop.  But, when you are feeling better, we will continue this conversation, and you will give me a straight answer.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”  Joe closed his eyes but opened them quickly when he felt his father rising from the bed.  “Pa?” Joe called quietly.

“What is it, son?” Ben sat back down and faced the boy.

“I’m sorry,” cried Joe, the tears appearing again in the sad eyes.  Ben reached out and pulled the crying boy to his chest and held him.

“Joseph, please son, don’t get so upset.  I said we would talk about it later.  I want you to just rest for now until Hoss gets back with the doctor.  Everything will be okay, I promise.”  Ben kissed the top of the curly head and gently lowered Joe back against the soft pillows and pulled the covers up to the boy’s chest.

Joe smiled weakly at his father and closed his eyes again, this time falling to sleep.  Ben pulled the chair close to the bed and sat down.  Adam sat on the foot of the bed and turned to his father.

“Pa, I don’t know what happened out there, but Joe said there was more than one boy who jumped him.  This might not have been something that the boy could have prevented.”  Adam wanted his father to understand Joe’s position, just in case their father had plans on tanning a certain backside.

Ben smiled up at Adam, knowing full well that the older boy was trying in his own way, to save the younger boy’s hide.  “Adam, did he tell you anything?”

“Not really; only that he couldn’t let whoever it was get by with what they were saying about his mother.  Pa, you know how defensive Joe can get when he thinks someone is putting down his ma, or any of us for that matter.  The kid just can’t help himself at times.  And, I can’t say that I blame him,” Adam said in defense of his younger brother.

Ben saw the dark look that had suddenly appeared on Adam’s face.  “Has he been having problems with someone at school?  Does this have anything to do with what happened earlier this week, you remember, the day he came home and nearly knocked the two of us down?”

“Probably, or at least I think so.  I talked to him that day, he seemed fine afterwards but something else probably happened.  Pa, he promised me that he would not do anything or say anything back to the ones who were teasing him and calling him names.  If he was on his way home, my guess is that someone stopped him and started something; he was probably only trying to defend himself, from the looks of him.”  Adam glanced at his younger brother and then back to his father.  “Pa, he knows how you feel about fighting, but sometimes a guy just can’t help it and…”

“Adam,” smiled Ben, “don’t worry; I can plainly see that this was not his doings, alone.  I will go easy on him, unless of course I find out differently.”

Ben rose from his seat and peered out the window.  “Paul’s here now.  Would you see him in, please, Adam,” Ben said and turned to his son.

Adam immediately left the room and went to show Paul Martin in.  Hoss had already placed his hat on the peg behind the door and was helping the doctor to remove his coat.

“Hello Adam.  Hoss said Joe had a little fight and might need my services,” the doctor smiled, knowing full well that the patient upstairs would in no way welcome a visit from him.

Adam joined in the small joke, “That’s right, and I’ll warn you before hand, he’s already said he didn’t want to see you.”  Adam led the way up the stairs and the doctor followed laughing to himself.

“Does that boy ever want to see me?  I should be use to his rejection, but somehow I find myself feeling unloved every time I am called out here,” joked the doctor.

Adam led Paul into Joe’s room and Ben stood to greet his long time friend.  “Thanks for coming Paul.  Look’s like my least one has been at it again.”

“Well, let’s take a look, shall we?  Do you boys mind waiting downstairs for me?” he asked Adam and Hoss.  Both boys turned to leave the room as asked but each wanted to remain with their brother and stopped briefly at the door.

Ben noted his son’s hesitations and smiled at both.  “Go on, we will be down shortly to talk to you,” he instructed gently.  “It shouldn’t be too long.”

Adam closed the door as he and Hoss went out and together the brothers returned to the great room and sat quietly, waiting for the doctor to finish with his exam of their brother.

Hop Sing came in with a tray of coffee and some sandwiches for everyone.  “Thanks, Hop Sing, I was starvin’,” smiled Hoss as he reached for a big sandwich and began to eat.  Adam reached for his own sandwich and together the brothers waited for their father and the doctor to give them the news about Joe’s injuries.

It didn’t take long for the doctor and Ben to return to the great room and give the anxious brothers the news they had been waiting for.  Ben smiled as he faced his sons.  “He’s fine, no broken bones.”

“He is sleeping now but should be up and around by Sunday afternoon.  I had to put a couple of stitches in the cut over his eye and about four in his lip,” Paul smiled and continued, “you were right Adam; he didn’t want to see me!”

Hoss moved to face Paul and asked, “No broken ribs?  I would have thought they were broken.”

“No Hoss just bruised.  He’s sore, but even that should be better by tomorrow.  Just let him rest tonight and tomorrow, Ben, then he can get up Sunday.”  Paul had turned his attention to Ben.  “If you need me, just send word,” Paul reached for Ben’s out stretched hand and shook it.  Hoss handed the doctor his hat as Ben moved to see the doctor out.

Ben returned to Little Joe’s room after the doctor had left and sat down in the chair.  He planned on remaining close to his son during the night, just in case Joe woke and needed anything, but mostly to reassure himself that the boy was truly okay.

*****

“Pa?”  Little Joe had awaken the next morning and found his father asleep in the chair next to the bed.  “Pa?” Joe repeated.

Ben stirred from his sleep and when he opened his eyes, it was to look into the smiling face of his youngest son.  “Well, good morning.  How are you feeling?” he asked as he moved to sit on the bed next to the boy.  The bruises on Joe’s face had deepened during the night, giving the face a whitish almost ghostly look about it.

“I’m okay,” Joe said, feeling somewhat relieved that part of the soreness was gone from his body.  “Pa, about yesterday,” began Joe.

“What about yesterday, are you sure you’re up to talking about it?  We can wait until later if you’d rather,” Ben said as Joe pulled himself into a sitting position and leaned back on his pillows.

“No, we might as well get it over with, I know you ain’t gonna like it,” said Joe, hanging his head but peeking up to watch his father’s face.

Ben noticed his son’s actions but said nothing about them.  “Okay, Joseph, why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me all about it.”

“I didn’t start the fight,” Joe was quick to defend himself.  “Lucas Tatum started it, and Timmy Walters was with him.  It was two against one, Pa; I had no choice but to fight them.”  Joe began to explain the circumstances to his father.

“Joseph, what was the fight about?  I understand you having to defend yourself, but what started the fight in the first place?” questioned Ben, still watching Joe’s face.

Joe seemed to stall before answering his father.  He still did not plan on telling his father what the boys had called his mother.  “I don’t remember,” he lied and hung his head in hopes that his father could not see through to his lie.

“You don’t remember?  Joseph, do you really want me to believe that?” Ben said, hoping to get the boy to open up to him and tell him the truth.  He knew that Joe was holding back and was protecting someone, but he wasn’t sure at this time just who that someone might be.

Joe glanced briefly at his father and then lowered his head to keep from meeting the dark eyes that seemed to be boring straight into him.  Joe often wondered how his father could always tell when he was lying to him.  It bothered Joe to lie to his father, but it bothered him more thinking how his father would feel if he found out that his so called friends thought that his mother had been a …bad woman.  Joe could not even allow himself to think the word that Lucas had used.

Ben gently cupped his son’s chin and raised his head so that he might look eye to eye with the boy.  Ben saw the despair that reflected in the hazel eyes that had begun to tear up.

 “Joseph, I know that you do remember what the fight was about.  However, I respect your decision not to tell me.  But unless you can come up with a better reason than not being able to remember, you will be made to pay the consequences of your decision.  Do I make myself clear?”

Joe wiped away his tears, surely his father would not tan his backside now, not when he was just getting over being beaten up, he thought.

“I understand, sir.”  Joe’s voice was low and sounded pitiful even to his father’s ears.  Ben’s heart melted slightly as it usually did when the youngest of his three sons managed to turn on the charm.

“Joseph, you know I do not abide by your solving your problems with your fists.  However in this case, I will forego any punishment for the fight…” Ben began.

Joe quickly smiled up at this father, thinking that he had managed to avoid punishment entirely.

“But, because as you and your brothers made plain to me, you had no choice in the matter, what with the odds being as they were.  On the matter of lying to me, which we both know you are doing, am I correct?” Ben asked, watching his son’s face.

“I…I…just can’t tell you why, Pa.  I’m sorry. I guess I did lie about it,” cried Little Joe as the tears finally found their way down his cheeks.

Ben gathered Joe into his arms and held him.  “Thank you, son, for at least admitting that much to me.  Do you want to change your mind and tell me what the fight was about?”  Ben knew he was offering his son a way out and hoped that the boy would take it.

Joe thought about it for a moment before speaking.  “No, I can’t tell ya, Pa.  I just can’t,” cried Little Joe as he buried his face deeper into the comforting arms of his father.

“In that case then Joseph, tomorrow afternoon, you will ride to the Tatum farm and apologize to the Tatum boy for fighting with him.  After you have finished doing that, you will then ride to the Walters’ place and apologize to their son.  Is that understood?”

Ben pulled Joe back so that he could see his face.  Joe’s anger had surfaced and it was clearly seen in the boy’s eyes.

“Why do I gotta tell them I’m sorry?  I dun told ya, I didn’t start the fight!”  Joe demanded, throwing all caution to the wind.

“Joseph!  Don’t take that tone with me, young man.  I told you what I expect you to do, and you will do it, do you understand?”  Ben’s own anger was beginning to surface also.

Joe jerked back from his father’s embrace and sunk down into the pillows.  “That ain’t fair, and you know it!” he cried loudly.

“Perhaps not, but you leave me no choice in the matter.  You have refused to justify your actions, choosing instead to lie to me, therefore, seeing that a whipping is out of the question due to your condition, you will do as I have instructed.”  Ben rose from the bed and turned to leave his son to think on his actions.

“Rest assured, I will talk with both boys later to see that you have carried out my orders.  I am sorry Joseph, if you are unhappy with things as they are, but you were given every opportunity to explain yourself.  I personally think you are getting off rather easy, had things been different, we would be having a very necessary little talk right now.”  And with that Ben left the room, closing the door behind him.

Joe turned his head into his pillow and cried.  His father just did not understand how things had been going for him.  And he did feel as if his father were being unfair to him, making him to apologize to the two boys who had for days on end been taunting him and calling his family and himself awful names and telling things about them that was not true.  All he could see that came of it was his getting beat to a pulp and then having to be the one to say he was sorry.  It just wasn’t fair cried Little Joe into his pillow.

*****

By Sunday afternoon, Joe felt well enough to join his family at the table for the noonday meal.  As he slid quietly into his place, he glanced briefly at his brothers who watched his every move.

“How ya feelin, short shanks?” asked Hoss as he piled his plate with mashed potatoes.

Joe smiled at his larger than average big brother.  “I’m all right, I guess.  Still a little sore.  Hey save some of those spuds for me.”

Hoss laughed and passed the serving plate to this brother.  Ben watched the teasing between his youngest sons and smiled.  He was glad to see that Joe was feeling better, however the boy had yet to speak to him and Ben took that to mean that his son was still angry with him over the punishment he had handed out.

“Joseph, as soon as you are finished with your meal, you may be excused to ride over to the Tatum’s and Walters’,” Ben instructed Joe and watched as his son turned angry eyes at him.

“Yes, sir,” was Joe’s only reply and suddenly Joe lost his appetite.  In its place, a sick feeling began churning in his stomach.  He did not look forward to having to face his tormentors, let alone having to apologize to them.  Several minutes passed as Joe sat and moved his food around and around his plate, never stopping to take the first bite.

“I’m not hungry, may I go now?” Joe turned to look at his father.  Ben had been watching Joe play with his food.  Knowing what the boy must be feeling, he could hardly blame him for not having an appetite.  Maybe when he returned from his errand, he would feel more like eating.

“You may be excused Joseph.  Please do not be any longer than necessary to finish your errands,” Ben said.

Joe paused as he pushed back his chair and glanced at his father.  “Yes sir.”  Joe still hoped his pa would have a change of heart but when his father said nothing more as he slowly made his way to the door, Joe gave up on the idea.  ‘Might as well get this over and done with,” he thought to himself.  Without so much as looking back, Joe walked out the door, closing it loudly enough to indicate to his father that he was not happy about having to do this certain chore.

*****

As Joe neared the Tatum farm, the smell of smoke began to fill the air.  Joe slowed his pony and turned his head in all directions, trying to locate the spot where the smoke was coming from.  In the distance, he caught sight of the billowing dark smoke cloud and reasoned that the smoke came from the direction of the Tatum home.  Joe applied kicks to his pony’s sides in an effort to hurry the slow moving animal.  In what seemed like ages to the young boy, the pony finally made its way into the yard of the Tatum homestead.  What Joe saw stopped his heart; the large white-framed house seemed fully engulfed in fire and smoke.  Laying on the ground several feet from the burning building lay Lucas Tatum, crying and screaming.

“Lucas, Lucas,” shouted Joe as he jumped from his pony and ran to the boy’s side all thoughts of getting back at the boy now gone.  It was obvious that the older boy had suffered a broken leg and could not get up.  His hair had the smell one gets when singed and his clothes were tattered and torn and covered in soot and dark ashes.

“Joe, oh God, I’m glad to see ya.  My brother, he ran back into the house,” cried Lucas grabbing Joe and pulling him down close to him so that he could hear him.  “Please, you have to help him,” continued Lucas, the tears streaming down his sooty face, leaving white tracks in the wake.

“Where’s your folks?” Joe asked, looking around, hoping to see Mr. Tatum.

“They went into town, please Joe, there isn’t much time.”  Lucas’ head rolled to the side and he began coughing, gasping for air.  “Hurry,” he squeaked between coughs.

Joe ran toward the burning house, the heat covering his body instantly, causing him to pull back.  The fire was leaping from the windows that had since been blown out from the heat that collected inside.  Joe grabbed an old blanket he found on the porch and ran to the water trough and soaked it until water ran from its edges.  He tossed the wet blanket over his head and ran back to the house; taking a deep breath he entered the inferno.

The smoke was thick and black and Joe could see nothing in front of him.  Instantly he dropped to the floor and crawled about the room calling for the missing four-year old.

“Frankie, where are you?” called out Joe.  “Frankie, answer me, please,” Joe called again as he poked his head from beneath his wet blanket.  Joe moved as quickly as he could, not sure where to go next.  The floor was hot to his hands and he could feel the heat beginning to make blisters on them and on his knees as he continued to search.

*****

Ben had decided to follow his son, not so much as to make sure that the boy followed his instructions, but because he wanted to assure himself that Joe would be okay.  He knew his son was still sore from the fight and that he resented being made to apologize to the other boys.  But Ben wanted to make sure that another fight would not occur when Joseph faced either of his tormentors.

As Ben approached the Tatum’s, he too picked up on the scent of smoke and panic gripped at his heart.  Giving a swift kick to Buck’s ribs, Ben galloped into the yard.  When he saw the Tatum boy lying on the ground and Joe’s pony standing next to the boy, and his son nowhere in sight, his heart began racing with fear.

“Lucas, son,” Ben carefully raised the injured boy’s head and held him in his arms.  “Where is Joseph?”  The panic coming to surface, causing Ben’s face to take on the appearance of a mad man.

Lucas could not speak but pointed instead to the burning house.  Ben looked in the direction where the boy indicated and cringed when he saw the roof of the house collapse into the bottom floor of the dwelling.  Ben placed the boy’s head back down and ran for the front of the house.

“JOSEPH, JOSEPH!” screamed Ben until his voice grew hoarse from the effort.  Ben attempted to enter the burning inferno but the flames leaped and tugged at his body, denying him entrance.  The roof had already burnt through to the first floor and Ben’s hope of finding his young son was slipping from him.  Tears began building in his dark eyes; sorrow began in his gut and worked its way into his heart until at last he fell to his knees, tears of anguish running in a steady stream down his face.

“Pa,” called Adam as he and Hoss ran to their father.  They had followed behind their father, both boys wanting to be on hand in case their younger brother needed help with his errand.  Adam fell to the ground beside Ben and grabbed the man who had always been a source of strength for him and turned the older man to face him.

“Pa… Pa,” Adam shook his father, trying to bring his father back to reality. Ben turned blank eyes up at his son.  “Pa, where is Joe?” cried Adam, Hoss knelt down with his brother, tears beginning to make their way down his cheeks.

Ben only pointed to the burning house.  Hoss gasped in despair and ran toward the fire.  Adam jumped up and ran after this bigger brother, grabbing him before he could go inside of what was left of the house.

 “Hoss!  No!  Don’t!” yelled Adam as he tugged on Hoss, pulling him safely away from the hot flames and back to their father who still sat in the dust.

Suddenly the yard seemed to fill with people.  Most of them were Tatum’s ranch hands that had ridden in as soon as the smoke had been spotted.  Others had come from the surrounding area when they had first spotted the smoke.  Mr. and Mrs. Tatum also arrived and ran to the side of their fallen son.  “Lucas,” cried his mother, grabbing the boy in a tight hug.

“Son, where is your little brother?” Mr. Tatum screamed.

Lucas pointed to the now burnt house. “He ran back inside, after I had him out.  Joe Cartwright went in after him, but neither of them came back out,” cried Lucas, the tears pouring from his eyes.  The mother screamed and the sound tore at each man’s heart, for it was the scream of a mother who knew her child was forever gone.

Hoss and Adam had returned to their father and helped him to his feet.  Ben was shaky; unable to stand on his own and both of his sons each held him upright.  Other men were running back and forth, pouring water on the fire as it died down from lack of fuel.  The house was a total loss and neither family moved as they stared at the dying fire in silence.

*****

No one noticed the small dirty boy who moved in silence, a smaller child held tightly in his arms as he came from the back of what had once been the house.

“Help, someone help me,” the soft plea sounding faint in the commotion going on around him.  Still no one heard and the boy unsteady on his feet continued to move closer to the crowd of people who had gathered.

Hoss saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and turned.  When he saw his little brother carrying the child his tears flowed unashamedly from his clear blue eyes.

“Pa,” cried Hoss, turning his father in the direction where Joe stood.  “Pa, look, it’s Little Joe.”

All heads turned toward the child that carried the child and Ben reacted first, running to his son.  Mr. Tatum was at his heels and removed his child from the arms of Ben’s child as Ben fell to his knees and gathered his son, soot, dirt and all, into his arms.  Ben made no attempt to hide his tears of joy as he hugged his youngest son to his heart.

“Oh, Joseph, son.  I thought we had lost you!  Are you okay?”  Ben searched the boy’s face for any signs of injuries or burns.  Adam wiped at the ashes and soot that covered the boy’s face and hugged his brother to him, Hoss, not wanting to be left out did the same.

“You sure ‘nough gave a fright, punkin.  Ya dun scared ten years offa my life,” Hoss grinned.

“I was scared Papa, I thought I was gonna die.”  Joe’s adrenaline was returning to normal levels and Joe fell into his father’s arms, crying.  “I wanna go home, please, Papa, please,” begged Joe.  “Take me home.”

Ben stood up, bringing in his arms the crying boy who clung tightly to his neck.  “Adam, please get the horses, this boy needs to be in bed,” ordered Ben.  “Hoss, do you mind staying here and helping the Tatum’s?  If need be, bring them to the Ponderosa for now, they will need a place to stay for a few days.”

“Sure Pa, you take care of that little brother for me and I’ll see to the Tatum’s,” smiled Hoss as he wiped away the last of his tears and gave Little Joe a reassuring smile.

*****

Later that evening, the Tatum’s arrived at the Ponderosa with Hoss.  Doctor Paul Martin came also to check on Little Joe who Ben had cleaned up and put straight to bed.  Lucas’ leg had been set but Paul was waiting until the family was settled before applying a plaster cast to the leg.

Hop Sing came quickly when company arrived and showed the family to the spare rooms, which he had made ready for them.  Hoss led Paul to Joe’s room and when they entered, they were surprised to find the boy sitting up talking with his father and brother.

“Well Joseph, here I am again,” joked the doctor.  “I suppose you’re going to tell me that you are okay, right?” he laughed.

Joe gave the doctor a small smile.  “I am okay, I told Pa ya didn’t need to come out, but he insisted.”

“Joe,” said Paul seriously, “do you dislike me for some reason?”

Joe looked surprised at the doctor’s question.  “No sir, why would ya think that?”

Paul tried to keep a straight face as did Ben, Adam and Hoss.  They all knew that their friend was teasing Little Joe.

“Well, I seems like every time I come to see you, you don’t want to see me?  Why is that?” asked Paul, hiding the smile that threatened his lips.

Joe thought for a short time and turned innocent eyes at the doctor, “’Cause ya never come to see me when I don’t need ya to come.  Ya always come ’cause ya gotta,” Joe explained.  And then added as an after thought, “And then Pa has to pay ya to see me.”  Joe continued to smile up at the doctor, his eyes shining with merriment.  “Why don’t ya come see me sometime just ’cause ya wanna?”

All of a sudden the room filled with the sounds of men’s laughter.  “He’s got you this time,” laughed Ben.

“Okay Joe, next time I come to see you it will be because I want to see you, and your Pa won’t have to pay me for that visit.  How’s that?” Paul laughed and sat down on the bed to begin his examination.

A short time later, Joe was declared fit other than singed hair and brows.  He had a couple blisters on his hands, which Paul left ointment for, but nothing more serious.  Paul cautioned Ben to listen carefully for Joe’s cough as the smoke could have caused unseen problems with the boy’s lungs, but after listening to Joe’s breathing, Paul was confident that Joe would be fine.  Joe was left in Adam’s care and Paul moved on to his next patients, Lucas and Frankie Tatum.

“I need to put a cast on the boy’s leg.  It shouldn’t take long, Ben.”  Paul told his friend as he entered into the spare bedroom where Lucas lay on the bed and Frankie sat in his mother’s lap rocking in the rocker that Ben had brought in for her.

Ben joined Hoss and Mr. Tatum downstairs in the great room.  “Ben, I just don’t know how to thank you enough for what you have done for us,” Mr. Tatum told Ben.

“Frank, I haven’t done anything, except to see that you and your family have a place to stay for a few days,” Ben explained.

Hop Sing brought in hot coffee for everyone and returned to his kitchen to prepare the evening meal. Ben moved to hand Frank his coffee and returned to his favorite chair while Mr. Tatum continued standing and talking, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace.

“Well, Ben, I guess I should be thanking that youngest son of yours.  He is quite the hero as far as I am concerned.  Our Frankie would have been…dead tonight if young Joseph had not risked his own life.  I can’t thank God enough that both boys are going to be okay.”  Frank Tatum gave Ben a weak smile and Ben moved to the man’s side and patted his back.

“Neither can I, Frank.  For a few minutes, I thought we both had lost our babies.”  Ben looked up the stairs as if he thought Joseph would suddenly appear and a distant look came into his eyes.  ‘Thank you, God’, prayed Ben silently to himself.

*****

Several days had past and Joe had tried numerous times to make conversation with Lucas who spent most of his days sitting in the sun on the side porch.  Lucas was sullen and moody and Joe was beginning to tire of trying to be nice to the boy.

“Adam?” said Joe late one afternoon while alone in the house with his brother.

“Yeah, what is it Joe?” Adam answered, looking up from the ledger he was working on.

“How’s come Lucas won’t talk to me?  Every time I try to start a conversation with him, he just ignores me or turns his head in the other direction.  Seems to me a week or so ago, he had plenty to say to me?” asked Joe, who was confused by the other boy’s moodiness.

Adam laid his pencil aside and faced his brother who had climbed into his lap.  Instinctively Adam wrapped his arm around the younger boy.  “Well, let’s see sport.  Could be that Lucas is embarrassed by something.  Or could be, he is feeling guilty.”

“Guilty?” asked Joe, a thoughtful look coming across his face.  “Guilty about what?”

“I’m not sure.  Maybe the fact that he was so mean to you and then in his hour of need, you were the person, who came to the rescue,” Adam offered and watched the younger boy’s face as he pondered this idea.  “He might even be feeling ashamed of his self.”

Joe considered what Adam said and wondered if this could be so.  “Should I try again to talk to him, and try again to be his friend?”

Adam smiled at his brother, “What do you think, Joe?”

Joe returned his brother’s smile with one of his own, “Okay, Adam, but if he doesn’t want to be my friend after this time, then I’ll…”

“You will what, young man?” Adam’s face held a pretend frown.

Joe laughed at the face his brother was making knowing that it was a put on.  “I’ll keep trying, I reckon.”

“That’s the way sport.”  Adam stood up, holding Joe in his arms, “I happen to know that Hop Sing has some fresh baked apple turnovers made.  What do you say if you and I fix a tray and then you can take it outside to the side porch and try again with Lucas?  You know Joe he might really need a friend now.  He nearly lost his little brother in that fire and he was unable to do anything to help him.  I’m sure that doesn’t make him feel very good about things.  Joe, remember when I told you not to judge someone because things happen in our lives to make us who we are?”  Adam sat Joe on his feet as they reached the kitchen and began fixing the tray of goodies for the two boys.

“I remember, and you think that because he feels like he let his little brother down, that’s why he is embarrassed and ashamed?” Joe was beginning to see the point that Adam was trying to make.

“That’s right, Joe, that’s part of it.  And now he needs someone to understand how he feels and someone to show him that what happened was not his fault.  Think you can handle that?”  Adam finished with the tray and handed it to Little Joe.

“I don’t know, Adam, but I’ll try,” Joe smiled up at his brother and Adam could read the determination in the hazel eyes that watched him.

Adam opened the kitchen door for his brother and watched as Joe made his way to the side porch where Lucas sat, seemingly staring into space.  But Adam noticed that the sullen boy watched Little Joe out of the corner of his eye as his brother approached.  Not wanting to spy, Adam closed the door when Joe sat the tray on the table and turned to Lucas.

*****

Joe turned to face Lucas but once again Lucas turned away from Joe.  Joe just moved to stand in front of the boy.  Lucas again turned his head.

“You can keep doing that all ya wanna, Lucas, but I got somethin’ to say to ya and ya going to listen to me.  You can’t go anywhere, so you might as well listen up,” said Joe, determined that he would have his say.

Lucas turned to look up at Joe, a frown clearly on his face.  “Okay, Shrimp, say what ya gotta then leave me alone,” snarled Lucas.

Now that Joe had the older boy’s attention, he was suddenly at a loss for words. “Well?” questioned Lucas, “you gonna say somethin’ or just stand there all day?”

“I got plenty to say, I just don’t know how to start,” snapped Little Joe.  “Here have an apple turnover,” Joe said and handed one to Lucas who hesitated briefly before accepting the treat.  Joe took a big bite of his turnover and watched Lucas as he bit into his.

“Hey, these are good,” Lucas said looking up at Little Joe and for a moment smiled at him.  In that moment, Lucas forgot that he was supposed to be mad at the smaller boy.

Joe saw the smile and used it to his advantage.  “That was nice,” he said.

“What was nice?” Lucas asked, his mouth full of turnovers.

“When you smiled, it was nice.  You should do it more often, makes you look sorta nice instead of mean all of the time,” Joe said innocently, but truthfully.

Lucas was surprised at Joe’s words and remained quiet.  “Tell me something, Lucas,” started Joe.

“What?” asked Lucas, stuffing his mouth full for the second time.

“How come ya don’t like me?  What’d I ever do to you?” Little Joe asked.

“Nuthin’ I reckon, and besides, I never said I didn’t like ya,” Lucas said and turned his head so that Joe could not see the shame that he knew would be showing on his face.

Joe remained silent for a minute.  “Want some milk?” he asked and handed a glass to Lucas who took it and downed it in big gulps.  When he pulled the glass away from his mouth, Joe laughed at the white mustache that remained on the boy’s upper lip.

Lucas wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and laughed with Joe.  “You know Joe, you really ain’t so bad, for a shrimp I mean,” Lucas smiled again at Joe.

“You ain’t so bad either, but you could be nicer if ya didn’t call everybody names and make fun of people all the time.  My brother Adam says that when people do things like that, they are just trying to make themselves look important.  And he says it ain’t right for people to poke fun at others, or to call them names,” Joe explained.

“Gosh Lucas, I was real mad at you for calling my ma that bad word.  I wanted to pound you really good too, but you had Timmy with you so it wasn’t a fair fight, and you know it.  But wanna know what bothered me most?”  Joe sat in front of Lucas so the other boy had to look at him.

“What?” was all Lucas could say.  He had wanted to fight the Cartwright kid, just because he knew he could lick him.  His older brother had always picked on him, calling him nasty names and such and Lucas had grown tired of it.  Picking on Joe had been his way of feeling important, just as Joe had said.  Lucas thought back to the day of the fire; he had been treating his baby brother, Frankie, in much the same way that his older brother had often treated him.  When Lucas had seen the four-year old run back into the burning house, panic and shame overcame him and when he had tried to enter the house himself and had broken his leg, he had thought that his little brother would surely perish.  Lucas had sat helpless, crying in the dirt for God to send help when he looked up and seen the Cartwright kid kneeling before him.

Ben sat at his desk working on his ledgers.  The window above had been opened earlier and he could not help over hearing the conversation between the two young boys.  Not meaning to eavesdrop, Ben now knew the reason why his youngest son had refused to tell him what the fight had been about.  The Tatum boy had called Marie a name that had not sat well with Joseph.  ‘No wonder the boy had been so mad,’ thought Ben.  Ben also realized that the person who his son had been protecting had been himself and he understood why Joseph had felt like he had to lie to him, Joe had not wanted to hurt his feelings.  Ben turned to Marie’s picture that sat on his desk. ‘We have ourselves quite a boy darling, you would be proud.’  Ben silently reached up and closed the window; he had no need to hear more.

“You called my ma that name, and you didn’t even know her.  You never even seen her, and yet you called her such a nasty name.  And then you laughed when you saw how mad it made me.  How’d you feel it I said that about your mother?” Joe asked Lucas.

Lucas thought about Joe’s words and when he could not stand it any longer the tears slipped down his cheeks as he hung his head in shame.

“I’m sorry, Little Joe.  I know I shouldn’t have called her that.  I’m sorry for picking on ya too.  I don’t know why I did; I really do like you.  Wanna know somethin?” Lucas raised his head and looked at Joe as he wiped the tears from his face.  “I think I was jealous of you,” confessed Lucas.

“Jealous of me?  Why?” Joe was surprised by his friend’s confession.

“Cause everyone liked you and no one liked me.  ‘Cause the girls think you’re cute, ’cause your brothers treat ya like you’re somebody and not just a pest.  Your Pa loves you, no matter what you do; everyone says he’s like that. And ’cause you’re smart, cause you don’t take no crap off of anyone, and ’cause ya ain’t yella.  I have the bruises to prove it too.  And Joe, ’cause your family cares about each other; your brothers are always there for you when you need them.  My brothers are always telling me to get lost or they’ll tell Pa some lie about me and then I end up getting walloped for something I didn’t even do,” Lucas finished sadly and hung his head.

“Pa says, if’n ya can’t say nothin’ nice about someone, ya shouldn’t say nothin’ at all.  And Adam says that sticks and stones do hurt but not like names people call each other,” Joe told Lucas.  “The names do hurt; they hurt the person who gets called the name, and then the person who calls the names gets hurt sometimes too, like you. You’re hurtin’ ain’t ya?”

Lucas wiped his tears again; “I reckon so.  Little Joe thanks for saving my brother.  I promise from now on, I’m gonna treat him better than I used too.  And I promise you that I won’t call you names anymore.  From now on, I am going to be a different person,” Lucas crossed his heart.

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you; that’s the golden rule you know.  Adam says the world would be a better place if’n we all tried to live by it,” Joe smiled.  “Lucas, would ya make me one more promise?”

“Anything Little Joe,” Lucas waited for Joe to finish chewing his last bite of apple turnover.

“Promise me that you will be my friend from now on.”

“I promise Little Joe, I learned my lesson.  I will always be your friend but I hope you will always be my friend too, will you?” Lucas asked almost shyly.

“Pinkie swear?”  Little Joe smiled and held up his pinkie finger and Lucas met it with his own.

And that day in the warm afternoon sun, two young boys brought together by a near tragedy became lifelong friends.  Lessons of love, forgiveness, understanding, compassion and a willingness to change were tough taskmasters for such young souls but both boys would never break the bond of friendship that each had made with the other.

***End***

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