The Green-Eyed Monster (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   11,177


 

Ben read the note for the third time, sighing deeply as he laid the crinkled paper down in front of him and leaned back in his chair. It was the third note in less than two weeks that was sent home from school with his son from the teacher, Miss Abigail Jones. Moments later, he forced himself to take a deep breath; letting it out slowly, he pushed back the chair and stood up.

He hated confrontations of such, especially with his youngest son. They always seemed to have an ill affect on him, leaving him feeling like the one being held accountable, more so than the actual guilty party. And when corporal punishment was needed, it seemed like the thrashing hurt him more than the one being punished.

Slowly, the reluctant father climbed the stairs. Adam, who had been sitting in the blue chair at the base of the staircase, and Hoss who had settled himself on the red settee, both watched as their father lumbered upward, his footsteps clunking heavily on the hard wooden steps as he made his forward march. Ben hesitated slightly on the top most steps and glanced back. Quickly, Hoss looked down; Adam straightened himself in the chair and pretended to be reading the book held in his hands. They hadn’t fooled the eldest Cartwright; Ben had seen the looks in both of his sons’ eyes. He could sense in them, the same dread that he, himself was currently feeling. The desperation that churned in his stomach did nothing to squelch the dread or lessen his feelings of inadequacy over control of the situation.

Ben tapped softly on the door and without waiting for an invitation to enter, pushed the thick oak door opened. It was as he knew it would be, Little Joe stood at the foot of the bed, his arms behind his back, his hands folded together, waiting. His father could not help the feeling that he was entering into the den of lions, much as Daniel of olden days had been forced to do. The outcome of that long ago event suddenly escaped from his mind as Ben tried to focus on the present rather than bygone days. He couldn’t help intercepting the sensation of dread that appeared on the young face and which hung as a cloak of fog, heavy upon the mist. The green eyes, dulled with worry, stared at him, unblinking, as he tread silently into the room, closing the door firmly behind him. Ben saw the boy swallow deeply when the sound of the closing door echoed softly in the hallway. He felt his own heart rate pick up momentum and knew without doubt that the boy’s had done the same.

The youngster’s head lowered. Ben could already see the chin that had begun to quiver. What he was being forced to do was not going to be easy. He loathed physical punishment, but sometimes, such as now, he was left with no other choice. Everything he had tried, had failed, and still his youngest son seemed determined to disobey his authority, setting himself above reproach, which in the end, would prove to be the boy’s undoing.

Saying nothing, empathy surprisingly engulfing him, Ben stepped forward, placed his fingers gently under the boy’s chin and raised the curly head upward so that he could look into his son’s eyes. They had started to mist, though Ben knew that the youngster was struggling not to cry.

“What do you have to say for yourself, young man?”

Little Joe swallowed, seeking to clear the thickness from his throat before trying to give his excuses for his unacceptable conduct. His mind quickly ran through the events of the past few days, but trying to collect the thoughts that seemed to fall into no particular pattern was no easy task.

“Joseph?”

Ben’s fingers added just a smidgeon of pressure to the upturned chin.

“I…I’m…” Joe suddenly pulled free of his father’s touch, stomping his foot and turning away. “I don’t know why I did what I did…I just did!”

Feeling of compassion had started to root in the elder man’s heart, but the sudden outburst had stilled the emotion and changed rapidly to anger. “Now just what kind of an answer is that!” he stormed at the boy.

The boy misunderstood; it was a statement, not meant for answering. Frustration slipped in, taking command of his thoughts and misguiding his tongue. “I don’t know…it’s the only one I’ve got!” Joe stormed back.

Ben inhaled deeply. His face reddened slightly, but enough so that when his son glanced back at the father, he knew he’d pushed too far. “I think a trip to the barn is in order, young man…you most certainly seem to be long over due for a good thrashing!”

Joe’s eyes widened as he spun around on his heels. His tongue seemed to come unglued as his mouth hung open. His words came out in a sputtering style. “WHAT…you wouldn’t! I’m almost sixteen…you can’t spank me…”

“I can’t? I most certainly can, young man!” growled Ben. “Or would you prefer your mouth washed out…perhaps you might do well to have both!” He stood in shock at the boy’s audacity. His hands were firmly gripping his hips as he took the first step forward.

Fear instantly shrouded the boy’s expression and Joe dared to step back. “I didn’t mean, ‘you couldn’t’…honest, Pa,” he sputtered in an attempt to clarify his badly chosen words. “I…I meant…you couldn’t…no, I mean…you wouldn’t dare…no…no…I mean, you…hmm…aren’t serious, are you, Pa, I mean, sir?”

Joe had taken another step backward. The back of his legs pressed against the mattress on his bed and the sudden realization that he was trapped whizzed through his thoughts.

“I can…and I will!” Ben shouted. “How dare you speak to me as such!”

“I’m sorry, Pa…honest…it just came out all wrong…please…I…I didn’t mean it, I apologize…”

Joe took a deep breath and let it rush from his lungs. What’s the use, he pondered; he was his own worst enemy. He had not only been disrespectful to others, but now he had the added crime of being disrespectful to his own father. A very bad move, he conceded.

Ben too, took a deep breath. He had noted the downcast expression in the sad green eyes. Though he knew that his son fought against the tears, one lone droplet managed to roll silently without cause, down the front of the youngster’s handsome face.

“I guess I deserve anything you deem fit, Pa,” the boy muttered softly, his voice resounding with more than just capitulation.

The observant father thought he picked up on something more, something akin to bitterness. It surprised him somewhat, for he still had no answer to his first question…the reasons behind the unconventional behavior. Something had happened to change his son, but what…what could have transformed the once happy-go-lucky boy into a spiteful, resentful and obnoxious young man?

Joe raised his head slowly, glancing at his father. Ben had fallen silent, a strange occurrence to be sure, thought the boy. His father seemed deep in thought, and so, Joe took the time to move slowly away from the bed, freeing himself from the trap he had backed himself into. Without a word, he eased toward the door, never taking his eyes from his father.

When Ben at last looked up, he was shocked to find his son…gone! Joe had actually had the impertinence to flee the room, taking advantage of his father’s deviant trance. Instantly, Ben rushed to the window, jerking back the drapes to peer out the window just in time to see Joe disappear into the barn.

Ben tore from the room in a flash. His nostrils flared with unbridled anger as he raced down the stairs.

Hoss glanced up from the bridle he was working on. Adam sat forward in his chair; both wore perplexed looks on their faces. It was the second time in a matter of a few seconds that one of their family members had tore through the living room, running as if Lucifer himself was in pursuit. One glanced at the other. Adam raised his thick brows. Hoss shrugged his shoulders.

“JOSEPH! YOU COME BACK HERE, RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” Ben bellowed at the top of his voice. He stood on the porch watching his youngest son ride wildly from the yard, away from the house. Cochise’s black tail straightened as the wind caught it’s long silken threads in his mad dash to adhere to his master’s commands and put distance between themselves and the man on the porch who bellowed like a mother bear in war to protect her young.

Adam and Hoss hurried outside to join their father. They glanced quickly at the red face and dark eyes and without having to ask, knew that the man whom they called father was more angry than they had ever seen him.

“Just wait until I get my hands on that boy!” Ben muttered under his breath.

“What’s he done this time?” Adam dared to question.

Hoss held his breath, expecting his father to turn his wrath on Adam and himself.  But the angered man held himself in check. His eyes were like black onyx and his breathing was slow and deliberate. Hoss watched his father’s Adam’s apple move up and down as Ben swallowed his emotions. He felt his own throat constrict and he was forced to swallow as well.

“Pa?”

Ben turned to his oldest son. “Saddle my horse.” He turned and without further ado re-entered the house.

Minutes later, Ben came back outside. He had donned his hat and was in the process of tying down his sidearm as he made his way toward his sons. Adam had saddled Buck and was waiting at the hitching post. When Ben came close, Adam handed the reins over to his father.

“Don’t wait up for me,” Ben ordered as he took the leather straps and moved to mount up.

“Pa…do you want us to go with…”

“NO!” Ben snarled. “I’ll handle this! I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone, but I want you two to stay here and take care of things.”

“Pa…where are you goin’?” Hoss questioned timidly.

“I’m not sure, Hoss…probably where ever your brother leads me…”

Ben had mounted up and Adam moved closer to rest his hand on the side of Buck’s neck.

“What happened, Pa…why did Little Joe take off like he did?”

Ben let the air rush from his chest. His head shook slowly from side to side. “I’m not sure what happened, son. One minute we were talking…or rather I was shouting…the next thing I knew, he was gone. I just turned my head for a moment…I don’t know…I’m not sure what’s going on with that boy, but something’s troubling him.”

“Yeah, we’ve noticed it too, Pa,” Hoss said.

“He’s been acting strange, that’s for sure…I mean, he’s always a bit weird, but this time, it’s different,” Adam added.

“Has he said anything…to either of you?” Ben asked.

Hoss shook his head. “No sir.”

“Adam?”

“Pa…you know yourself, I’m the last person Joe would confide in…but in answer to your question, no, he hasn’t said anything to me. Something’s eating him up, that’s for sure.”

Ben sighed deeply. “I wish I knew what it was!”

“Take care of things around here,” Ben told both young men. “And keep an eye on you know who.”

“Hmm…I’d almost forgot about our guest,” Adam said, his brows drawing together as if he were deep in thought.

“Pa…” Hoss called, stepping forward. “Do ya reckon, you know who, might be the cause of Little Joe’s strange behavior?”

At the suggestion, Ben’s brown eyes suddenly widened. “Hoss…I never thought of that…but why would it…I mean…they haven’t been quarreling, have they?”

“No sir, not so’s I’d notice,” answered Hoss.

“Adam, have you noticed anything going on between them?”

Adam seemed to ponder the thought. “I haven’t heard either say anything cross or out of the ordinary to one another, but…”

“But what?”

“Well, I did see Joe making some menacing looking scowls a time or two.”

“When?” Ben asked.

“Oh…just about every time he saw the two of you together.”

Ben’s shoulders slumped as his large frame relaxed in the saddle. His eyes took on a faraway expression. Lips that had minutes ago been taunt with stress turned upward forming a half smile.

“What’cha thinkin’, Pa?” Hoss asked as he glanced at Adam and then back again at his father.

Glancing down at both Hoss and Adam, Ben grinned. “I think your little brother might be suffering from a case of the green eyed monster.”

“The green eyed…what?” stammered Hoss.

“The green eyed monster, Hoss…jealousy!”

“Ohhhh.”

*****

Joe pulled his horse to a halt and quickly slid down from the saddle. His legs shook with weakness, his stomach churned and when he spun around, away from his horse, he fell to his knees, his arms crisscrossing and clutching his abdomen. From deep within, he felt the urgent need to vomit and seconds later the hot bile gushed from his mouth, spewing out, onto the ground. Twice more his stomach lurched, sending spasms of bile erupting forth. After several moments, Joe wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his mouth to dry the dampness. Slowly, he got to his feet and walked the short distance to where his mother was buried.

Marie’s grave was, to her son, a sanctuary, a source of comfort when the boy was troubled or unhappy. He had grieved long for his mother when she passed, but now tended to go there often, if for no other reason but to feel the closeness of the mother whom he loved and who had died long before her time.

It was times such as these, when Little Joe Cartwright found himself in more trouble than he could measure, that he needed the reassurance that kneeling in his mother’s presumed presence often brought to him. Joe slowly lowered his slender frame to the ground and placed a hand on the hand carved stone that bore his mother’s name. His head was bent low and his shoulders slumped heavily. Had she been able to hear him, Marie would have heard her son softly begin to sob. Tears rolled unchecked down the boy’s dirty face, leaving tiny white tracks as they made their way to the end of his quivering chin. “I…can’t believe…I took…off like I did…”

Joe’s head moved slowly from side to side. “You…would…be…so…ashamed of me…Mama…”

The weeping lad brushed away the tears with one hand. “I’m…leavin’…I gotta…get out of…here. I don’t know…where I’ll go…but it…doesn’t matter…he…he…doesn’t care. Not anymore…he don’t…he’s got what…he’s always wanted…a…a…Oh…Mama…how could he…do that…to me…”

Unconscious of his actions, Joe lowered his body down, across the mound of soft grasses that lay like a carpet atop Marie’s final resting place. Forceful, heart-wrenching sobs shook the slender frame. It was several long minutes before the sobs began to subside and only a matter of seconds, so it seemed, before the unhappy boy had fallen to sleep upon his earthen bed…..

*****

Ben burst into the house, grinning from ear to ear. “Hey, Adam, Hoss…Joe…guess what?” he shouted excitedly as he ripped his hat from his head and tossed it onto the credenza.

His sons were sitting at the table and quickly got to their feet and rushed over to greet their father. From the happy glow that covered his weathered face, it was plain to see that Ben had some sort of good news to share with his sons.

“What’s up, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Yeah, you sure are in a good mood,” grinned Hoss as he glanced around at his brothers.

Little Joe stood with his arms crossed, grinning at the strange look his father wore.

“Well, come on, what’s going on?” Adam pressured his father, who seemed to be taking his time in sharing his good news.

Ben chuckled softly as he pulled an envelop from his breast pocket and waved it in front of the trio of young men. “I got this letter today.”

“Who’s it from?” questioned Little Joe.

He tried to take the letter from his father’s hand, but Ben pulled back before the boy could snatch it. “A cousin…from back east.”

Hoss’ brows rose slightly as he scrunched up his face. “I didn’t know we had cousins back east.”

“Well, I reckon we do,” laughed Ben. “This here letter is from my second cousin, Samuel Larson, on my mother’s, mother’s side of the family.

“Heh?”

“Never mind,” chuckled Ben. “Anyway, Sam wrote to ask if I would mind having his daughter come stay for an extended visit.”

Adam and Hoss swapped smiles; their merry eyes twinkled with anticipation; already their minds were swirling with pleasant thoughts of having a young lady in the house.

Joe wrinkled up his nose in displeasure.

“Hmm…just how old is this daughter?” Hoss hinted.

“Gee…I’m not sure, Sam didn’t say exactly…only that she had completed her studies at some finishing school for young ladies, so…I would guess she’d be around seventeen or eighteen, why, does it matter?” Ben explained, eyeing all three.

“No…no…it don’t make no never mind to me…how about you, Adam?”

“No…not at all,” Adam answered, trying to keep the smile from broadening.

“Little Joe?”

“I don’t reckon…fact is, I really don’t care one way or the other, just as long as she stays away from me…”

Adam snickered softly and Hoss chuckled aloud. Joe just looked at his brothers with a perplexed look on his young, innocent looking face, not really understanding what his two older brothers found so amusing.

“Why does your cousin want her to stay with us?” Adam inquired.

“Don’t know that either. Sam just says in the letter that she will be arriving on the 10th of the month…which is next week! I guess I’d better ride into town and send a wire to him and tell him we’ll be looking forward to her visit.”

“I’ll do it for you, Pa…it’s Saturday night and Hoss and I will be going into town later,” offered Adam.

“That’ll be fine, son, thank you. It will be nice having a young lady in the house…you know,” grinned Ben as he slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and smiled down at the boy. “When your mother was carrying you, Joseph, we so hoped for a daughter…”

Hoss laughed, winking at his older brother. “Yeah, me and ol’ Adam here wished for a baby sister too, and look what we got instead!” he teased.

“Trouble…all wrapped up neat and pretty like, all in blue,” Adam said, taking up the teasing.

Joe’s face puckered up in a deep frown; his cheeks reddened slightly. His father felt the muscles tighten beneath his touch. He glanced down, seeing the hurt expression on the young face. “Alright, you two…enough teasing. They didn’t mean that, Joe…we were all perfectly happy when you turned out to be a boy…”

“Yeah…I just bet you were!” snapped Joe as he pulled away from his father and rushed from the house, banging the door shut behind him.

Ben’s own smile disappeared as he glared at the other two. “Now look what you’ve done…”

“Aw…shucks, Pa, we was just afunnin’ the boy…we didn’t mean nothin’ by it, did we, Adam?” Hoss cried in his own defense.

“No…Pa…we were only teasing. That boy takes everything we say the wrong way…”

“He’s very sensitive, Adam…you know that.”

Adam sighed deeply and nodded his head. “I suppose. Well, we’ll apologize to him; come on Hoss, let’s see if we can find him.” Adam started for the door.

“I know where he hides…in the loft,” Hoss said, following Adam out the door.

Little Joe was in the barn, but not up in the loft like his brother assumed he would be. Instead, he was currying his horse and never bothered to look up when Adam and Hoss entered the barn and stopped next to where he was working.

Adam glanced at Hoss, raised his brows slightly and then turned to the boy. “Joe?”

Little Joe ignored the pair and kept on with what he was doing, totally aware that he was being watched.

“We just want ya to know, we didn’t mean anything by what we said a little while ago,” Hoss said in a remorseful tone.

Joe barely glanced their way. “Of course you didn’t.”

Adam took a deep breath trying to keep himself calm. “We didn’t…honest, Joe. We were only funning with you…”

“Oh…is that what you call it? Well, I guess I owe you an apology, ‘cause I didn’t think it was funny…”

He tossed the currycomb down on the shelf and pushed his way passed his brothers. “I guess Pa thought it was funny too, didn’t he? He never has let me forget the fact that when I was born, he wanted a daughter…but instead, he got me…just like you pointed out. Well, that wasn’t my fault…I’m sorry the lot of you are so disappointed.”

Stunned, Adam and Hoss could say nothing. Joe ran from the barn before either could collect their senses. Seconds passed before Hoss spoke. “Well, I’ll be dadburn!”

*****

“Joseph, son…they were only teasing…”

“I don’t care…it wasn’t funny!” stormed Little Joe.

Ben and his youngest son stood together in the den area of the large open room. Joe had rushed inside, having been confronted by his two brothers and quite unhappy with the teasing that had continued for several days since Ben had announced that he had once hoped for a daughter but had gotten a third son instead.

Ben couldn’t help but smile. His son’s curly head bobbed up and down and from side to side. He noticed immediately that the boy was in much need of a haircut. He’d have to see to that before company arrived, he thought to himself.

“PA! You haven’t even heard a word I’ve said!” Joe wailed.

Ben’s pondering stopped immediately as he glanced up at the boy, not sure of his son’s last words. “I’m sorry, Joe…what did you say?”

“Never mind…it was nothing,” Joe muttered. He heard the door open, glanced over to see his brothers entering the house and hurried toward the stairs. “I gotta clean up before supper,” he rushed, leaving no time for his father to question his motives for a quick departure.

“What’s with him?” Adam said, nodding with his head toward Joe who took the stairs two at a time.

Ben pressed his lips tightly and shook his head. “Beats me,” he answered, returning to the papers scattered about on his desk.

“Say…Pa…I ran into Joe’s teacher today in town…unfortunately,” groaned Adam.

Hoss chuckled softly, earning himself a stern look from his brother. The old maid schoolteacher made little secret of the fact that she thought Adam Cartwright was the man for her. She had, on more than one occasion, made a point in letting the elder son know of her feelings for him. Today had been no different and Adam had found himself trapped when he had fool heartedly darted into the mercantile to avoid her. Miss Jones eyesight was keen and when Adam had tried his daring escape, she had followed him into the store, cornering him instantly. It had then taken her over half an hour to present the note to her secret love with a request that he pass it on to his father.

Hoss had stood to the side, waiting and watching the proceedings, snickering under his breath, much as he was now.

Adam braved another intimidating glare at his middle brother. “She asked me to give you this,” he said, holding out a small white envelope.

Ben glanced up, eyed the envelope and with a sudden dread in his gut, took the article from Adam’s hand.

“I sure hope this doesn’t mean what it usually does,” Ben said in a disheartened mood.

“Guess you won’t know until you open it,” Adam said with a touch of humor.

All three of them knew what it usually meant when Ben was presented with a note from Miss Abigail Jones, the local schoolmarm. His youngest son was usually in some sort of trouble. Ben sighed deeply and slowly tore open the envelope, pulling the note from inside. Quickly, the reluctant father scanned the contents and sighed again.

“Well?” Adam muttered.

“Well, what you think? Naturally the boy’s been in trouble again,” Ben heaved.

“What’s he done this time?”

“Disrupting the class…arguing with the teacher, fighting…what on earth has gotten in to that boy!” groaned Ben. “Why Lord…why couldn’t you have given me a daughter!”

From the top of the stairs and just around the corner, Joe had his back pushed tightly against the wall. His father’s words reached his ears, leaving the boy with a heavy heart. He slowly turned and made his way to his room where he shut the door and flung himself across the bed. He buried his head under his pillow and willed away the unhappy tears that formed in his eyes. “Why God? What is so special about a girl baby? Nothing…they can’t do anything…they can’t ride, they can’t rope and they’re too sissy to brand calves. So why does Pa want one so badly?” he whined in soft muffled words.

*****

“Joe?” Adam said as he stuck his head into the room. “Pa asked me to tell to come downstairs; he wants a word with you.”

With his lips drawn tightly together, Joe moved off the bed. He glanced up at his brother who waited at the door. “I guess he’s mad, heh?”

“I’d say so, buddy,” Adam answered.

Reluctantly, Joe moved into the hallway.

“Hey, Joe…what’s up with all these notes? It’s not like you to talk back to the teacher…and knowing you as I do…I’d say you had a pretty good reason for fighting.”

Joe paused, raising his head. Adam noted the unhappiness that clouded the hazel eyes. “You wouldn’t understand…”

“I might…”

“No you wouldn’t, nobody understands…in fact…nobody even cares…”

Joe didn’t give his brother time to respond, but instead hurried down the stairs. He stopped on the landing, seeing his father sitting at his desk. Ben sensed the boy’s presence and when he looked up, Joe moved more slowly downward. Ben rose to his feet.

“Joseph, come over here please.”

Obediently, Joe complied. When he stood face to face with his father, he glanced slowly up to meet his father’s deep probing eyes.

“I think we should talk.”

“Yes sir.”

Ben held the note up so that Joe could see it. “Would you like to explain this?”

“It wasn’t my fault…”

“Of course not…it never is, is it?” Ben barked, angered that another note had made its way to his desk. “What is going on, son?” Ben asked after taking a deep breath to try to calm himself. He knew it would do no good to anger the boy; Joe would only clam up or worse, talk back which would earn him the dreaded trip to the woodshed.

Ben walked around the desk and stopped beside the boy. Tenderly, he placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Son…”

“Like I said, Pa…it was nothing…I mean, some of the guys were teasing me…and I lost my temper…as usual. Then when I tried to explain it to Miss Jones, she wouldn’t give me a chance…and I got mad, so, I…I…guess I shouted at her, I’m sorry…it won’t happen again.”

“You’re sorry? Well, I suppose that’s something good in your favor. I expect you to apologize to her, tomorrow…”

“Yes sir, I will…but Pa, tomorrow is Saturday…”

“Then do it Monday! What were the boys teasing you about?”

Joe hesitated slightly. He couldn’t really tell his father that his so-called friends were teasing him about his size…and…and…how he resembled a girl more than a boy…what with his curly hair and slender build… “I…forgot; I’m sorry though, Pa…honest…for fighting…I won’t do it again…”

“Joseph!” Ben said sternly.

Joe’s eyes took on a near pleading look as he tried to quickly think of the answer that he knew his father would demand. Ben heard the wind rush from the boy’s lungs.

“It was just some silly jokes about…how…small I was…” Joe’s heart was in his eyes, and his father saw the hurt look.

“That again, heh?”

“Yes sir,” the boy answered lowly.

Ben’s own heart mellowed as he slipped his arm about his son’s shoulder and pulled the boy to him. “Joseph…I’ve had this same conversation with your brother, Hoss…about his size. When he was your age…he was as big as any man around, and I had to keep reminding him that it wasn’t his size that counted or his size that made him a man, but what was inside. Here, in his heart. The same is true for you, son. You’ll grow…you’ve nowhere reached your full growth…it may take several years yet, but you won’t always be…the shortest, or the slimmest, or the one with…” Ben chuckled as he ran his hand through the boy’s mass of chestnut curls, “or the one with all the curls. You need a haircut, Joseph. We’ll do that first thing in the morning when we go into town to pick up our guest. That way you will look presentable. But about the fighting…”

“It won’t happen again, Pa…I promise I’ll try to ignore the teasing…and I promise to apologize to Miss Jones first thing on Monday morning.”

“Alright. I should punish you…but I’m not going to…this time. But rest assured young man, if another note is sent home…you and I will have to have a very necessary little talk!” Ben smiled. “Understand?”

Joe returned the smile. “Yes sir!”

“Good, now off to bed with you.”

Joe turned to go but stopped just a few steps into his retreat. When he turned around, he saw that his father had sat back down behind his desk. “Pa?”

Ben looked up, surprised to see Joe still there. “Did you want something, Joe?”

“You’re…I mean…you’re happy about your cousin’s daughter coming to visit, aren’t you?”

Ben nodded his head. “Yes…of course I am. It will be nice to have a young lady in the house again. It’s been so long since…well…it will be nice, it’ll be almost like having a daughter…”

Joe’s frown deepened slightly. He turned to go, still at a loss as to why having a girl in the house would make everyone so happy, except for him. Slowly Joe made his way up the stairs. ‘She just better not get in my way!’ he grumbled to himself.

“Did you say something, Joe?” Ben called, looking up from his desk.

“I said, I’d better be on my way…night, Pa.”

“Good night son…”

*****

They stood together on the platform and watched as the stage came rolling into town. Hoss grinned at his older brother, anticipation glowing in his sky blue eyes. Adam smiled too as he straightened his tie. He had secret hopes of his own, about the young woman, which he had not bothered to share with his brother.

“Here it comes,” Ben said in an excited voice.

Joe stood off to one side, away from the others. He had tried to talk his father into letting him wait at home for the unknown cousin to arrive, but his father had stood firm, stating that it was only proper that all four of them be there to greet the girl, so Joe had no other recourse but to do as his father ordered. He was walking on thin ice as it were and Joe had enough good sense to know not to push his father too far.

Ben was immediately at the coach door ready to offer a helping hand to the disembarking passengers. The young woman was the last to step down, accepting Ben’s hand. She was breathtakingly beautiful as she smiled a warm greeting to her hosts. Adam and Hoss seemed stunned into immobility by the lady’s beauty until their father turned and urged them to step forward. Joe lingered behind, unimpressed by the soft voice and gentile manner. He could see nothing in the young woman that interested him and was determined not to be beguiled by the lady’s out going personality that his brothers seemed so smitten by.

Emily Grace set her dainty foot on the ground. Her smile only deepened as she greeted Hoss and then Adam. The glow of happiness lit her emerald eyes, and then she turned, spying the young, shy teenager who stood silently behind his father, trying not to let his eyes light on the pretty face.

“And this must be, Little Joe?” Emily stated in a delicate, smooth voice.

All three of the Cartwright men, turned their heads to glance at the youngest member of the family. Joe felt his face redden at the unwanted attention. Emily moved between the older gentlemen until she stood inches away from the embarrassed boy. Her gloved hand reached out, beckoning for Little Joe to take it and welcome her to Virginia City.

Joe’s eyes darted from one face to another. In his father’s eyes, he saw the expectancy that forced him to comply with the young woman’s greeting. “Hello,” he said in a rather subdued manner. He quickly caught his father’s stern look that Ben gave from where he stood slightly behind the lady. “Welcome to Virginia City…I hope you enjoy your stay,” he added quickly and in a more enthusiastic manner.

Joe took the pro-offered hand by the fingertips, amazed at the tingling that surged through his veins when they touched. As if they were hot coals, Joe drew back his hand and placed it behind his back. The pink hue that had settled on his cheeks, deepened when he heard his two brothers snicker.

“Why thank you, Little Joe, I’m sure I will have a very pleasant visit.”

Emily turned to Ben. “I just can’t wait to see your ranch, Mr. Cartwright. Father has told me so much about it.”

“Well then, we should be going, it’s a long ride. The buggy is over here,” Ben pointed, turning to look down the street where his team was tied.

When he turned back, Adam and Hoss had already offered their arms to their guest. The trio walked arm in arm down the boarded walkway toward the buggy. Ben snickered, glanced down at Joe and slipped his arm about his son’s shoulders.

“Guess we’d better get the young lady’s baggage; seems as if your brothers have only one thing on their minds.”

Joe looked puzzled. “What might that be?” he asked as he gathered the smaller bags.

Ben gave Joe a quizzical look. “Never mind, son; you’ll learn soon enough.”

*****

Miss Emily Grace Larson appeared to have made herself at home in the Cartwright household. She even had them all eating out of the palm of her hand…all but one, and that one, young as he was, remained aloft to her gentle mannerisms and sweet enticing voice. He watched from afar at how the pretty young woman batted her eyes at his oldest brother and played flirting games with Hoss, who blushed each and every time he stood in her presence. Even his father had been smitten by her charms, and the methods she used to play out her wiles were sickening for the younger boy to watch.

Oh, he’d been polite to her, had even gone so far as to go riding with her. That in itself was surprising, for Joe had thought she didn’t know how to ride. Another thing that caught him off guard was when they were alone, he had even found her fun to be with, but he’d never admit it to anyone, least of all his brothers.

But there was something about her that troubled him. Maybe it was the way that she eyed his father, or the way that she was always reaching out her perfectly manicured hand and resting her fingers on his father’s arm…maybe it was the ways in which she some how managed to keep all of his father’s attention for herself, leaving him nothing.

She catered to his father, fetching his slippers for him, pouring his coffee and once she even lit his father’s pipe for him. Joe felt his body shutter with repulsion. She was wiggling her way into his father’s heart, that was obvious, if to no one else, it was to him and the idea that Ben was beginning to think of her as the daughter he’d been denied, gnawed away at his soul, nibbled at his thoughts until he felt consumed by it and leaving him with the feeling like he wanted or needed to run away. But he had managed to shrug off the urge for now; what point would it serve, his running away, he had asked himself. She’d be leaving soon; not soon enough for his liking, but still, once her father arrived, she’d be gone and he’d have his father back again…and his brothers. That came as a revelation to him, missing his brothers’ attention, even if most of the time they were teasing or nagging him about something. It wasn’t something he’d given much thought to, having to vie for their favors. The girl had changed all of that…she’d changed a lot since showing up uninvited! And the anxious, worried, jealous boy counted the days until the pretty, well-mannered young woman’s father would arrive and take her away.

*****

The boy’s speculations proved more accurate than he had first thought. They were gathered around the dinner table the next evening when a resounding knock interrupted their dinner conversation.

“I’ll get it,” Joe volunteered before anyone else could respond.

For the last fifteen minutes, he had listened to the girl’s bantering about ranch life and how much she loved living there on the Ponderosa and what she’d give to stay forever and ever. Joe had silently groaned, hoping with all of his heart that his father would not extend such an invitation. He’d be forced to run away for sure.

The heavy door was drawn open. Joe stood face to face with a stranger, well dressed and surely of great means.

“Hello,” the man smiled. “I just bet that you are…now let’s see…Little Joe Cartwright! Am I correct?”

“Yessir,” stammered Joe. “But I don’t know you…”

The gentleman laughed lightly. Joe liked the man instantly; there was something familiar about the stranger that caused Joe to be drawn to his friendly demure. “Of course you wouldn’t, son. I’m…”

“PAPA! PAPA!” shouted Emily as she shoved back her chair and hurried to the door.

The man dropped what baggage he held in his hands and embraced the girl in a tight hug.

“Oh, Papa! What a surprise…you weren’t expected until next week!” squealed Emily in excitement.

“Yes, I know my dear, but I couldn’t wait another moment to feast my eyes on your beauty,” laughed the happy father as he hugged his daughter even tighter.

“Sam!” Ben shouted in a joyous tone.

Ben stepped forward and grabbed his cousin’s hand, pumping it up and down rapidly.

“Ben, you ol’ son of a gun…look at you! You haven’t changed one little iota!” Samuel laughed heartily.

“A little older perhaps, and grayer, but look at you!” Ben roared. “Welcome…this is a nice surprise…”

“Well, as I told Emily…I just couldn’t wait a minute longer. It’s been…how many years, Ben…twenty…twenty-five?”

“I don’t know…too long, though. Sam…” Ben said, turning to his three sons. “I want you to meet my sons…this is Adam…”

“Adam…my, my, how you’ve grown. You know, you were just a toddler when I saw you last!” boasted Sam as he shook Adam’s hand.

“And this is Hoss, my middle son.”

“Pleasure to meet ya, sir…Pa sure has told us a lot about you…and so has Miss Emily,” smiled Hoss in greeting.

“Oh dear…I hope it wasn’t all bad!” laughed Sam.

“Oh, Papa,” smirked Emily.

“Not at all, sir…”

“And this is my youngest son, Joseph…”

“Ah yes, young Joseph,” beamed Sam, smiling down at the youngster. He extended his hand, which Joe accepted immediately. “My goodness, you sure are a handsome young fellow. I certainly hope that Emily hasn’t made life too hard for you…she tends to want to tease…and sometimes she can be merciless…”

“No sir…we’ve gotten along just fine,” stammered Joe. His mind was racing…he liked the man…but liking the daughter was something else entirely…though he had tried. She had teased him, about his curly hair…saying girls would die to have the natural curls that he hated, and she teased him about his size and about what his father had told her, just a few nights ago, how he had missed having a daughter of his own…and she said it with such venom that he was forced to rethink his faltering friendship with her. It dawned on him later that night that she was trying purposely to make him jealous…and was succeeding! He just wanted the man to take her away…get her as far from his father and the ranch as possible…and the sooner the better.

Nearly a week had passed and still the Larson’s had not so much as spoken about when they would leave. Things were getting complicated. It was getting harder and harder for Joe to be nice to their guest…at least the girl, her father was an interesting sort of man, always telling him about his travels and his adventures…always making Joe feel a part of the group by including him, asking for his opinions and wanting to know his thoughts. On the other hand, it seemed that his father had lost interest in those things but had found them again in the girl that had stolen his admiration away from the boy and transferred it to herself.

So many times he had gone to bed, feeling as if something in his life were missing, that things had been turned topsy-turvy and there was nothing he could do to right his world.

This night was one of those nights. He had retired early, simply because he had grown weary of listening to Miss Emily Grace Larson brag about what a wonderful life she had and all her rich, well-to-do friends. Joe had tossed and turned and finally out of desperation, had gotten up. His intent was to go to the kitchen for a late night snack, but when he reached the top of the stairs and had heard voices, he had stopped. He was about to turn back to his room when he suddenly head his name mentioned. Knowing how his father detested eavesdropping, Joe felt a pang of guilt when he stood still, listening with unbelieving ears to the conversation taking place downstairs between his father and his father’s cousin, Samuel Larson.

“Really, Sam, it sounds like a wonderful offer, but I’m not sure Joseph would agree to anything like that…”

“You won’t know unless you ask him, Ben. You’ve told me over and over how you’ve let your sons make their own decisions in matters…why not let the boy decide?”

“Because he’s just a boy, Sam. I was referring to Adam and Hoss when I said those things, not Little Joe.”

“But Ben, it would be a wonderful opportunity for the boy. Just think…the best schools; I’d see that he had the best of everything…I’d care for him as if he were my own son…you know how I’ve always wished for one…and you said yourself how you missed not having a daughter…it would be a perfect trade…and it would only be for a year, two at the most. It would take the rough edges off the boy, make a gentleman out of him, introduce him to society and he’ll meet influential people…he could study politics or maybe he’d like to attend military school. Ben,” Sam said with force as he placed his hand over Ben’s arm. “You wouldn’t deny him that, would you…if he really wanted to go?”

Ben was thoughtful for a long moment, studying his cousin’s face. He could see the sincerity in the man’s face and knew that Sam would do all he promised for his son. But could he let the boy go…for a whole year…two maybe? It would be hard, but what if Joe wanted to go…dear God, how would he live during that time, missing the boy who had brought him so much joy, so much happiness into his life? Ben swallowed hard, almost regretting the decision to allow his cousin’s daughter to visit them. He had somehow allowed the girl’s presence to overshadow his relationship with his own son.

“Ben?”

Ben’s thoughts were snapped back into the present. He shook his head. “No, of course I would not deny him. The experience would be good for him, on that I agree, but…I still doubt that the boy will want to go.”

“And if he does?”

“Then I’ll have no other recourse but to allow him,” Ben said sadly.

Sam’s smile was soft and understanding. “Ben, I know how you must be feeling right now. I felt the same way when Emily announced that she wanted to go away to school. Here I had everything planned for her…and she chose a completely different path than what I wanted her to take. But it all worked out for the best, you’ve seen for yourself what a wonderful girl…young woman…she’s become. The same thing will happen for Joseph. Why…with Joseph living with me…it will be like having the son I never had…and you, that daughter you’ve always longed for.”

“I’m not sure I ever really wanted a daughter…perhaps it was just the idea of having one…”

“Nonsense…it’s a perfect trade, your son for my daughter. It won’t be forever, Ben, and it really won’t be any different than when your oldest son went away to college…”

Ben recalled his son’s departure almost immediately, as if it were just yesterday. It had been one of the hardest things he had ever done, saying goodbye to his first-born and then having to face the empty hours without him. It was heart wrenching, to say the least.

Ben glanced at his cousin. His eyes were heavy with dread; fear of what Little Joe might be encouraged to do brought all the old hurts back. “I suppose it wouldn’t be much different…still…”

“Then we shall put the question to him, tomorrow morning…at breakfast?”

“I…I don’t know…I…can’t honestly say, Sam, that I want him to go…”

*****

Had he stayed a minute longer, Joe would have heard his father’s honest proclamation. But in stead, he had listened with burning ears and before his father could speak from the heart, Little Joe had run from his hiding place at the top of the staircase and had hidden himself in his room. His breath came in short, hard little gasps. His ears burned with the sting of the lingering words…his father was going to trade him for the girl…the daughter he had always wanted and never had! Tears stung his emerald eyes as he fought not to cry.

“I’ll not cry,” vowed Little Joe to himself, “crying is for girls!”

*****

The next morning, he was barely able to eat the breakfast that was placed in front of him. The more he chewed a bite, the bigger it seemed to get until he was forced to gulp his milk to wash down the morsels. Looking at his father was almost as impossible as eating. Ben wore a dark solemn look on his face. Every once in a while, Joe would steal a peek in his father’s direction, only to find that Ben was looking at him. When Sam and Emily, joined them, Joe could hardly sit still. His mind raced with thoughts as to how he might avoid the upcoming conversation and instead, find excuses to leave the table, thus putting off the inevitable until another time. But luck was not with him.

“Good morning, Joseph,” greeted his cousin.

“Mornin’, sir,” replied Joe and then quickly filled his mouth full.

“Good morning, Cousin Ben,” smiled Emily politely. “My father has made me a most wonderful offer…I would love to stay with you. Living here on this beautiful ranch is like a dream come true…but…Papa says that Little Joe must agree to the arrangement first.”

“What arrangement?” Adam said as he glanced around at the table. He noted his father’s dark expression and his youngest brother’s sad, sad green eyes. He could only wonder what was in the making now.

“Sam has made a very nice offer…he wants your brother,” Ben nodded at his young son, “to come stay with him for awhile…and has offered to allow Emily to stay with us…”

“Ya mean ya gonna trade the squirt for the young lady?” snickered Hoss. He grinned broadly at Joe. “Might be, Cousin Sam would get the short end of the stick…hahaha…so to speak, what’cha think, Shortshanks?”

Everyone around the table grew silent as all eyes turned to Joe. He felt trapped, cornered like an animal. They all expected him to jump at the chance…but he didn’t want the chance, he wanted to stay here…with his father and his annoying bigger brothers…they were all he had, the only ones in the whole wide world who really loved him! Or did they? The stupid grin on the big ox’s face and the lopsided grin on Adam’s face…told a different story.

Joe looked over at his father, completely at a loss for words. He silently prayed that his father would speak up, tell them no, his son was not going anywhere…but Ben remained silent, and the silence broke the boy’s heart. Slowly, Joe lowered his head. “How long would I have to be gone?” he muttered softly.

“For as long as you’d like, son,” Sam rush in to say. “You could go to school back east; we have some mighty fine schools you know…just ask Adam.”

Joe glanced Adam’s way. His brother wore a strange look that surprised him.

Adam cleared his throat. “I agree, there are some good schools back east, but ours are very fine…”

“But they lack so much…they don’t have the proper books, the outstanding libraries…why, Little Joe could even go to a military school if he desired to do so. Or he could study law…or be a doctor…” Emily replied.

“Now, now, my dear, we have to let Joseph make up his own mind. Joe…if you agree to come live to me for at least a year…I’ll see to it that you have the finest of everything…schooling, horses, friends…” explained Sam.

“I already have those things…here,” Little Joe said.

“Well, yes…I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t. But you could have so much more…the city is a wonderful place to live. There is so much to do there…there is the opera…I bet you’ve never even see a ballet, have you?” Sam asked.

Little Joe shook his head.

“Or seen a real stage play…or seen the equestrian shows…there’s the piers with all the big ships…”

Joe glanced at his father and found that Ben was watching him. He swallowed hard. “Is this what you want me to do, Pa?”

Ben took a deep breath. His heart was in his throat. “It’s not up to me, son. It has to be your decision…”

“Your father said last night, Joe, that it would be a wonderful opportunity for you,” Sam hinted.

Joe looked at his cousin and then swept his eyes around the table, taking in each expression on each individual face. It was impossible to know what his father or Adam was thinking. They hid their true feelings so well. Hoss was still grinning, and Joe wondered if he really should go…the girl was practically drooling with hope and for sure her father wanted to make the trade. A daughter for a son, Joe briefly wondered if child swapping was legal. He wondered if he agreed to the arrangement, if his father would miss him, or his brothers…probably not, he mentally reasoned…not from the looks on their faces.

“Well?” Sam asked, interrupting Joe’s thoughts.

“I…I’m not sure…may I think on it for a while?” stammered Joe.

Everyone swapped quick glances. He heard the air rush from his father’s lungs and turned so that he could his father’s face. Ben smiled at him.

“Of course you may,” Ben said.

“But could we have your answer this afternoon? I really need to make arrangements…coach fare you know…” stated Sam.

Joe’s lips were pulled tightly together as he nodded his head. “Yes sir…this afternoon…after school…”

Joe turned to his father. He fought back the tears that threatened to overflow. Pushing back his chair and rising, he excused himself. “I’m gonna be late if’n I don’t hurry,” he said and then ran for the door.

Outside, Little Joe sucked in a chest full of the fresh morning air. His heart beat wildly as he raced toward the barn. He had to get out of there…quick…he had to find some place to hide…so that he could think and form some kind of an answer…for one was expected before supper, tonight.

*****

Ben was standing in the yard, unsaddling his horse when Miss Jones’ buggy rolled to a stop. Turning quickly to greet the schoolmarm, a feeling of dread washing over him, he extended his hand to aide the lady in getting down.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Cartwright,” Abigail greeted the worried father.

“Afternoon, Miss Jones…what brings you out this way?”

Abigail snickered softly. “Why do I usually pay you a visit?”

“Little Joe?”

Abigail nodded her head. “I’m afraid so.”

Ben sighed deeply. “What’s he done this time?”

Miss Jones pulled a white piece of paper from her purse and handed it to Ben. “It’s all in here…perhaps I should just leave it with you…let you read it alone. You’ll know what to do. I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright…” Abigail’s voice took on a note of remorse and concern. “But Joseph just hasn’t been himself…for days now…I honestly feel as if something is troubling the boy…and his behavior…he’s never acted this naughty before. It’s as if he doesn’t care about…anything. Maybe you should…please forgive me for saying this…but…maybe you should spend more time with the boy…lately he seems…lost…yes…that’s the word…lost.”

Abigail turned to leave. Ben held the note in his hand, stunned by the teacher’s words.

“Mr. Cartwright, I heard Joseph telling Mitch Devlin this afternoon, that he was going away…for a very long time…”

Ben’s head popped up, acutely aware of the teacher’s words. “What did you say?”

“I said, Joseph stated that he would be going away, soon…back east, I believe he said. When I asked him why…he just got very sullen and wouldn’t say anything else. But he looked so…sad…heartbroken. Mr. Cartwright…is…everything alright at home…here, I mean. Is…oh…forgive me…it’s really none of my business…”

“No…I mean, yes…I’m really not sure, Miss Jones. Little Joe has been acting odd; I’ll agree…I’ll have a talk with him later…after I read this. Please, don’t worry, things will be fine, I assure you. Thank you for coming out…though I’m sorry you had to make such a long trip.”

“Oh, that’s alright, Mr. Cartwright, I didn’t mind. Please…tell Adam I dropped by…and give him my regards, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all, he’ll be sorry he missed your visit,” Ben said, knowing full well that the man in question was hiding himself inside the barn, watching and waiting until the old maid teacher had left.

*****

Ben slid down from his horse and quickly tied the reins to a low hanging branch next to where Joe’s horse stood. He knew that this would be the first place his son would run to; he always did when troubled. His mother’s grave was a source of strength for the boy and Ben was not surprised to find his son there now. He was surprised though to see the boy lying sprawled across the soft mound of grass. A moment of panic seized his heart. Was the boy injured? Frantically, he scrambled over the mound and reached down, turning the boy onto his back.

“Joseph?” Ben muttered in a strained voice.

Eyes, reddened by the tears that stained his face, opened slowly. It was several long moments before recognition registered on the boy’s face. Ben continued to hold the boy gently in his arms, waiting.

“Pa?” stammered Joe.

Ben smiled warmly.

“I guess I must have fallen to sleep,” Joe said almost shyly.

Ben helped the boy into a sitting position and studied his son’s expression. “It appears so.”

“I’m sorry, Pa…I shouldn’t have run off like I done.”

Ben made himself comfortable by sitting down next to Joe and propping his back against his wife’s headstone. “Why did you, son?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s no answer.”

“I know…I mean…I don’t know…I just…had to…get away, I…guess.”

“Joe…what’s bothering you?”

“Nothing…”

“Nothing? I don’t believe that. You’ve been acting…strange now for weeks…even your teacher has said as much. She thinks something is wrong…at home…between us, you and me.”

Joe quickly glanced over at his father. “She said that?”

“Yep.”

“How’d she know?”

Ben held his breath…so there is something wrong…between us, he thought to himself. “I guess she could just tell…was she correct, son…is there something wrong between you and me?” Ben questioned.

Joe lowered his head…how could he tell his father what was eating away at him? How could he tell his father that he didn’t want to go away…when he knew that Ben wanted him to take advantage of the opportunity? How could he tell his father that he was…was…jealous of the snip of a girl who had pushed her way into their lives and that he feared he had lost his father forever? No…he couldn’t tell his father that…nor would he! He’d opt for changing the subject. “I’m going to take Sam up on his offer,” he said with bated breath.

Ben’s dark brows rose slightly. “Oh?”

“Yes sir…I think it would be good for me…to experience new places, meet new people…see different places.”

Joe rose to his feet and walked a short distance away from his father. He kept his back turned, so Ben would not see the tears that burned his eyes.

“Is that what you really want to do, son…leave the Ponderosa…leave…us?” stammered Ben, shocked at his son’s statement.

“I won’t be leaving for good…it’ll sort of be like when Adam went away. I’ll only be gone for a year or so, not four, like Adam…the time will pass so quickly, you won’t even have time to miss me before it’ll be time for me to come home…”

Ben heard the catch in Joe’s voice and moved to stand in front of the boy. Joe tried to turn away, but Ben’s hands on his shoulders prevented him from doing so. “I would miss you if you were gone only a day. In fact…I miss you each and every morning when you leave for school. I was…sort of looking forward to the time when you wouldn’t be going to school any longer and you’d be staying at home, working with me…and your brothers, on the ranch. But…if you really want to go with Sam…I…I…won’t stop you…”

Joe’s eyes had misted but the tears had yet to overflow. His chin quivered slightly and his eyes grew wide. “You…miss me…even when I’m just in…school?”

“Every day.”

“Every day! Honest?”

“Honest.”

“And you’d miss me a bunch if I went back east?”

“Terribly…”

Joe swallowed the thickness in his throat. “You’d be sad?”

“Extremely so.”

Joe looked down. With his toe, he dug at the soft earth. “I wouldn’t want to be the cause of you being sad.”

Ben watched how the boy struggled with his emotions, trying hard not to break down. Tenderly, using his fingertips, he raised the quivering chin so that he could look into the tear filled emerald eyes. “Joseph, you’ve never made me sad…not once. I know I’ve been angry with you, at times. But not one day your whole life, have you given me reason to be sad. Not in the least…on the other hand, you have brought more happiness and more joy into my life than I could have ever hoped for. I love you more than you can ever know…”

“More than if I had been a girl, a daughter?” stammered Joe.

“A girl…a daughter? Joseph…is that what all of this is about? Because you think I want a daughter…”

“You were willing to trade Sam…”

“WHAT!”

“I heard you…I know I shouldn’t have been listening…but…a fair trade…that’s what you said…a son for a daughter…a…a…I…thought…you…didn’t love me…anymore…because I…wasn’t a…girl!”

“Joseph…I can’t believe what I’m hearing…you actually thought that I would ‘trade’ my son for a daughter? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I just told you how much I loved you, how sad I’d been if you left…”

“But you said…”

“Never mind what I said…just answer me one question…do you really want to go back east with Sam?”

“NO!” sobbed Joe as he flung himself into his father’s arms. “I wanna stay here…with you…please, Pa…don’t make me go…I’ll be good, honest…”

Ben’s arms automatically wrapped themselves about the boy whom he loved more than life and held him tightly. “I’m not going to make you go any where you don’t want to go…”

“Are you sure…”

“What kind of question is that,” Ben smiled as he gently pushed back Joe’s head so that he could see the boy’s face. “Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? I want you at home, with me and Adam and Hoss…and Hop Sing…where you belong…not far away in some big city where you’d most likely get lost…or worse…get yourself into some kind of trouble!” laughed Ben.

“Then you really are glad I’m a boy…and not a girl?”

“Of course…”

“Good…’cause girls are silly, laughing and giggling all the time…and they’re sissies…afraid of bugs and frogs…they really aren’t much use, are they, Pa?”

Ben laughed. “I suppose if I were your age, I’d think so too, but I promise you, son, you won’t always feel that way…some day, when you’re older, you’ll feel differently.”

“You suppose so?”

“I can guarantee it!” smiled Ben, knowingly.

“I don’t know about that, Pa…we’ll just have to wait until I’m older to find out. But, Pa…what are we going to do about Sam and Cousin Emily? I mean…she sure is gonna be disappointed cause she won’t be staying on…and Sam…he really thinks I want to go with him…what are we gonna do?”

“Well, first, you’re going to tell Sam thank you for the offer, but you decline. Then, I’m going to invite the both of them to stay…for as long as they’d like…”

“But Pa!”

“Now what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, I suppose,” Joe said, turning his head.

He just wanted them gone…as far away as they could get.

“Joseph?”

“Aw…dadburnit…I don’t want them here any more. I want them to go…”

“Joseph…why on earth not?”

“Because…I…I…I just don’t like them…that’s why! Especially…her!”

Ben suppressed his laughter. He could see the deep green hue of his son’s eyes and knew that the green-eyed monster had struck again. In spite of his efforts, he chuckled.

“What?” Joe demanded, surprised to see his father grinning at him.

“You’ve been bitten, haven’t you? Your whole behavior over the last several weeks is all because you’ve been bitten!”

“Bitten…I don’t get it…I ain’t been bitten by anything…”

“Oh yes you have,” laughed Ben. “Come on…let’s see if we can get your little problem taken care of.”

Ben ushered his son toward the waiting horses. As they mounted up, Ben still wore his grin.

“Pa,” said Joe as he scratched his arm and then his head. “What’cha think bit me…all of a sudden I’ve got an itch?”

“The green-eyed monster,” laughed Ben, spurring his horse into action.

“The what? The green-eyed monster…Pa…wait up…what’s a green-eyed monster!” shouted Joe as he too, urged his mount into a trot so as to catch up with his father.

Ben glanced back, slowing just enough to allow his son to catch up with him.

“Is it bad, Pa…being bit by this green-eyed monster?” quizzed Joe as they rode together side by side.

“Only if you let it be…”

“I don’t understand…”

“I know you don’t…but you will, when you’re…”

Joe sighed. “I know…when I’m older…why does everything depend on when I’m older?”

Joe spurred his mount and raced away…calling over his shoulder to his father who had pulled his big buckskin to a stop. “Last one home is a green-eyed monster…whatever that is!”

***End***

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