Until He Turns Eighteen (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,850


 

The laughter around the small wooden table on the side porch where Ben sat with his three sons was light and pleasant.  Anytime that Ben could catch his three handsome boys in such a merry mood, it was like music to his ears.

He watched the shining light in Hoss’ blue eyes and snickered when the heavyset boy scrunched up his face in a frown.  When he glanced at Adam, his dark hazel eyes were alight with the same glow, amused at the gentle banter going on between his two younger brothers.  Joe, on the other hand, had eyes that glimmered with impending mischief and as Ben watched, Joe’s emerald eyes seemed to dart from one brother to the next.  Ben was always amazed; each and every time that he looked at his younger son, he saw again the image of his third wife, Marie, Joe’s mother, and his heart seemed to lurch into high gear at the memories that surfaced.

“That’s how it went,” Joe was laughing, “you should have seen ole man Watkins run!  That ole bull of his was right on his tail and he was snorting like that ole steam engine over in Carson City,” Joe giggled.

“I thought old man Watkins said that Edgar was as gentle as a lamb?” Adam inquired.

Edgar was Mr. Watkins old bull that Joe had been telling his brothers about.  Mr. Watkins had named the bull after his father-in-law, which had not made Mrs. Watkins happy, to say the least.

“That’s what he said, until he pulled that red bandanna out of his pocket.  That’s when Edgar began acting kind of funny.  Mr. Watkins didn’t pay the bull any mind, until it was too late; by then Edgar was charging him and Mr. Watkins had to run for his life.”  Joe laughed louder.  “There wasn’t a thing I could do to help him, except yell at him to run faster.  You know, brothers, that old goat can run pretty dang fast to be so old, why he’s nearly as old as Pa here and…”

“Excuse me?” Ben refrained from smiling, though with the look on his youngest son’s face, it was next to impossible.

“I…I…I…didn’t mean to imply that you were old, Pa,” stammered Joe as he got to his feet and began to fidget nervously with the button on his jacket.

“Well I should hope not, young man,” Ben said, glancing back and forth between Adam and Hoss and noting how they were struggling to keep from laughing as well.

“I…I…I…better get to my chores,” Joe said as he slid around the far end of the table.

“That would be a good idea,” Ben finally laughed at last.

Adam and Hoss began snickering as well.

“You know what they say, Pa,” laughed Adam.

Ben spun around masking his expression of amusement, “No, son, what do they say?”

 “Yeah, Adam, what do they say…by the way…who are they?” asked Hoss, gently scratching his head.

Adam gulped; this conversation had somehow taken on a strange twist.

“Adam?” Ben said in a low voice, “what do they say?”  Ben was finding himself hard pressed not to laugh out loud.

“Out of the mouths of babes, cometh the truth?” Adam quoted softly.

Ben burst out with his deep laughter, surprising his oldest son.  “Are you saying that you agree with your youngest brother?”

Adam quickly jumped to his feet.  “Nosir,” he said almost too quickly.  “I have chores to do, you coming Hoss?”

“Heh?”  Hoss glanced at Adam who was nodding his head toward the barn.  “Oh…hmm…yeah, I’m comin’, Adam.  See ya Pa!” he called as he quickly followed Adam.

Ben snickered and sat back down at the table and picked up his ledger.

“Hey Pa!” Joe called from across the yard.

He had saddled his horse and was sitting abreast Cochise as he shouted at his father.

Ben looked up and smiled, secretly admiring the handsome boy.  “What is it son?”

“I’ve finished with my chores, you said it was alright to go down to the swimming hole, remember?” Joe called.

“Yes, I remember, but you remember, young man,” Ben said as he stood to his feet and pointed his finger at Joe.  “You be careful and be home by supper…or else!”

Joe gave his father one of his winning smiles and tipped his hat.  “I’ll remember!” he laughingly shouted.

Before Ben could seat himself, Joe had spurred his mount into action.

“JOSEPH!” Ben shouted, trying to gain the boy’s attention. Ben pinched his lips tightly and shook his head.  “That boy charges out of here as fast as Watkins’ bull charges after him,” Ben gently grumbled to himself and then casting one last glance at his departing son, sat back down.

*****

“Don’t worry, Mr. Jenkins, Mitch and I’ll watch out for Rocky, he’ll be fine, I promise,” smiled Joe.  “The water ain’t all that deep any ways,” he added.

“Isn’t,” corrected Mrs. Jenkins.  The young mother had just come from the kitchen and had heard Joe’s last statement.  She smiled up at the boy.  “I’m sorry, Joseph, but being a teacher, I just can’t help myself,” she laughed.

Joe gave her one of his most charming smiles.

“That’s alright ma’am, I’m used to it, my oldest brother, Adam, he and my Pa are correcting me all of the time.”

Rocky burst through the door and stopped when his father grabbed him by the arm.  “You remember, young man, you’ve just learned to swim, so I want you to be extra careful, you understand?”

Rocky glanced up at Joe and rolled his eyes, causing Joe to giggle.

“Yessir, I will,” Rocky promised, “you needn’t worry, Pa, I’m fifteen years old now and…”

“I don’t care if you are fifty years old, you are my only son and I want you to be careful!” growled Mr. Jenkins in a light tone, which told all the boys that he really wasn’t mad, just worried.  When he reached over and placed his hand on Joe’s knee, it took the youngest Cartwright by surprise.

“I’m putting you in charge, Little Joe; you look out after my boy.  He ain’t…ere…isn’t a very good swimmer,” Mr. Jenkins informed Joe.

“Oh, don’t worry, sir, I’ll make sure he gets home safely,” stammered Joe, not really sure what he was supposed to say to his new friend’s father.

“Good, I’ll hold you responsible!”  Mr. Jenkins turned back to his son, “well, get going,” he smiled, “and have fun…just be careful!” he called as he watched his son mount up and ride off with his new friends.

The three boys rode along in silence for several minutes before Rocky said anything.  He glanced over at Joe who rode to his right side.

“I’m sorry about my ma and pa, Joe, but they worry about me all the time and still tend to treat me as if I were a little boy.”

Joe grinned, “I know how you feel, I have two older brothers and they, and my pa, still treat me the same way.”

“Yeah, me too,” Mitch added, “I have an older brother and a sister, talk about getting nagged at!”

All three boys laughed.  “Here we are,” Joe said pointing off in the distance.  “Look Seth and Carl are already here.”

“Hi ya, Joe!” shouted Seth as he swung by the long rope that was attached to a tree limb that hung far out over the top of the water.  “Watch this! Whee…”

Seth made the rope swing out until he was out over the water and then turned loose, dropping down into the water and disappearing under the surface.

“Hey, that looks like fun!” Rocky said as he jumped from his horse and ran to the water’s edge.  “Ain’t….isn’t he coming back up?” he asked worriedly and then glanced at Joe for an answer.

“Sure, but ya gotta give him a minute, it’s pretty deep right there in the middle…there he is,” laughed Joe.

He had begun to shuck his trousers and then his boots.  When he had his shirt off and was down to his long johns, he grabbed the knotted rope and ran backwards from the water and then forward until his feet left the ground.  He swung back over the bank, kicked the ground with his feet to give himself more of a boost and then curling his legs upward, waited until he was out over the water and then released the rope.

“GERONIMO!!” he shouted loudly and then splashed into the deep dark water.

“WOW!” screamed Rocky.  “I wanna try that!” he said and stripping down to his long underwear made a run for the rope.  He grabbed on to it, just as Joe’s head popped above the surface.

“Burr…why didn’t ya tell me that the water was so cold!” Joe giggled and shouted at Seth as he began swimming to the bank.

“Go ahead, Rocky, try it…just make sure you swing way out until you’re over the middle!” warned Joe as he waded in the shallow water along the edge of the bank.

“Okay, here goes!”  Rocky repeated the same action that he had seen Joe doing and soon was swinging precariously out over the water’s edge.

“Higher…ya gotta swing higher,” shouted Joe as he, Seth and Mitch were laughing at Rocky’s first attempt.

“NOW!” called Carl.

Rocky let go of the rope and as he did so, twisted his body around.  By the time he hit the water, he was belly down and made a loud plop into the water.

“Ouch,” giggled Joe.  “That had to hurt,” he said, smiling at his companions.

Moments later a rather beaten Rocky broke through the surface of the water and began swimming toward the shore.  When he reached the water’s edge, where it was too shallow to swim, he stood to his feet, smiling up at his friends.

“That was fun!” he laughed, brushing his wet hair out of his eyes.

“Look at your belly…it’s all red,” laughed Mitch, pointing toward Rocky.

The boy glanced down at his middle and then rubbed gently at his stomach.  “Yeah, and it burns a little,” he commented.

“That’s called a belly buster,” laughed Seth.

“Next time try going in feet first!” giggled Joe.  “Come on, let’s do it again,” Little Joe called as he ran to the rope.

“Hey, let’s do it together,” Mitch said and laced his fingers around the knot that was one higher on the rope than where Joe had twisted his fingers.

“Okay, get ready!” shouted Joe.

He and Mitch ran back and then forward and then swung back to the bank for the second time, each pushing with their bare feet until they were far enough over the water that they let go of the rope.

“Whoopee!” shouted Mitch.

“Yahoo!” yelled Joe as both boys plunged into the water.

Seth, Carl and Rocky stood at the water’s edge, laughing at their two friends.  Minutes later Joe and then Mitch’s head both resurfaced, both boys were giggling.

“Hey look,” called Joe, pointing from the water.

“It’s the girls!” snickered Mitch.

The three boys on the bank turned to face the four girls that were starting to dismount.  The girls, Cindy Hamilton, who was the banker’s daughter, Sarah Thornton, the daughter of the local minister, Sally Mitchell the daughter of Elizabeth Mitchell who owned a dress shop in Virginia City and Lucy Foster who was the niece of Clem Foster, the town’s deputy, quickly dismounted their horses and hurried to join the boys.

“Who are they?” Rocky whispered to Joe who had joined the others.

Joe smiled at the girls and then glanced at his new friend, “they’re classmates…we all go to school together,” he whispered.

“Hi ya, Little Joe,” Cindy said as she smiled coyly at Joe.

Joe felt his face begin to redden.  At nearly sixteen, he still felt awkward around the girls, especially Cindy, for he had a secret crush on the beautiful girl.

Before Joe could acknowledge Cindy’s greeting, the other girls all started talking at once.  Mitch introduced Rocky to the girls and informed them that he would be starting to school with them when school resumed in the next few weeks.

The boys went back to their rope swing, each taking a turn at trying to impress the girls.  Joe was no different than his friends and his antics kept everyone laughing.

“We brought some sandwiches; you fellas want something to eat?  I bet you’re all hungry!” Lucy said.

She and Sarah quickly pulled the sacks from around their saddle horns and hurried to spread the inviting lunch out for the boys.  Seth and Carl were the first to sit down and grab sandwiches.  Joe wiggled his way between Seth and Carl and plopped down next to Cindy.  When the girl handed him a sandwich and smiled, Joe blushed again.

Mitch had made himself comfortable sitting next to Elizabeth and Lucy and Sarah sat opposite Seth and Carl.  The group was deep into conversation, when Carl noticed that the new boy had not joined them for sandwiches.

“Hey, Joe, where’s your buddy?” Carl asked.

Joe had just stuffed his mouth with a large bite of the chocolate cake that Cindy had baked and brought along to tempt him with.

“I dunno,” he muttered.

“The last time I saw him was a couple of minutes ago, I think he took another swing on the rope,” Seth said as he glanced over his shoulder at the water.

The water was smooth, like glass and there were no signs of ripples that would have indicated that Rocky had taken a last dive into the swimming hole.

“How long ago was that?” Joe asked.

He turned his head and gazed out at the water and then searched the edge of the woods with his eyes, hoping that perhaps Rocky had had to take a little walk into the thick growth to relieve himself.

“A couple of minutes ago,” answered Seth.

Seth had seen the worried look that had suddenly come into his friend’s eyes and automatically his own eyes followed the same route that Joe’s had.

Joe stood to his feet and cupped his hands around his mouth.  “ROCKY!”

By now all the boys were standing and casting anxious glances all around them.  “Reckon he went for a walk?” suggested one of the girls.

“No, he doesn’t know these woods like we do, he wouldn’t chance it,” Joe was quick to answer.

“Joe,” Mitch moved quietly to his best friend’s side.

“Yeah Mitch?”  The soft tone of Mitch’s voice had quickly drawn Joe’s attention to his companion.

“Ya don’t reckon he’s still in the water do ya?”  Mitch’s eyes had darkened and grown large with the fear that such a thought evoked.

“Still in the water?” mumbled Joe, his own eyes widening.

Joe moved down to the edge of the water, staring into the murkiness, wondering if Rocky had somehow taken a dive and not surfaced.  The fear caused his body to begin trembling and he felt very near the edge of panic.  He swallowed and turned frightened eyes at his friends, who by now had circled around him and looked at him as if he could provide the answer.

Joe took a deep breath.  “There’s only one way to find out…”

“How?” Cindy asked.

“I’m going in.”

With that, Joe stripped off his pants that he had donned earlier, when the girls arrived.  As he walked down the bank and stood ankle deep in the water, he looked one more time into the faces of all seven of his friends.

Taking a deep breath to fill his lungs, Joe dove smoothly into the water and disappeared beneath the surface.  Under the water and deep near the bottom, it was cloudy, making seeing anything next to impossible.  Joe swam around, fighting to keep his eyes opened as he searched the water for his friend.  He felt his lungs begin to burn and knew that soon, he would have to resurface and come up for more air.  Joe twisted his head about in all directions, even looking up to judge just how far out into the middle of the water he might be and to distance himself as to where they had been landing when they released the swing rope.

Feeling as if he were about to burst, Joe swam for the surface.  The instant his face broke water, he opened his mouth to refill his lungs and dove for the second time down into the water.  For several moments, he swam about, always searching the depths with his anxious eyes.

Joe allowed tiny bubbles to pass his lips; his cheeks were puffed out and were beginning to ache.  He pushed himself downward for one last look, intending to surface, fill his lungs and then make a third dive.  He turned one last time, amid the underwater grasses that grew in thick dark patches.  The grasses where long and swayed gently with the soft flowing current and seemed to be waving at him as he swam by.

Suddenly the grasses appeared to part, and what Joe saw, sent horror’s piercing arrow straight through his young heart.  His lips parted and the heart-wrenching scream that sputtered from his mouth sent hundreds of tiny air bubbles floating to the surface. Joe was forced to clamp his lips tightly so that water would not fill his mouth and though his heart was beating rapidly with fear, he began trying to jerk and pull the long tightly woven grasses from around Rocky’s body.  He was near panic as he worked.  Tears filled his eyes as he struggled against the greenery that had somehow twisted themselves around their prisoner and refused to relinquish their hold.

Joe glanced up, into his friend’s face.  Rocky’s eyes were opened, and he appeared to be staring at nothing, his thick blond hair floated high above his head, next to his arms that rose above his shoulders.  Joe closed his eyes to the horrific scene and having no other recourse but to swim to the top and refill his lungs, pushed himself upward.

“OH GOD!” he screamed to his friends, who had been sitting on the bank, waiting for his return.  “GO FOR HELP…HE’S TANGLED IN THE GRASSES!” Joe screamed; his voice was high pitched with terror.

Joe made another dive while the young people on the bank snapped into action.

“Seth, go for Mr. Cartwright, he’s the closest, Carl you go fetch Rocky’s father, and girls…a couple of you better ride into town and tell the sheriff what’s happened, and bring the doc back with you!” ordered Mitch.

Everyone scattered, anxious to help and fearful for not only their old friend, Joe Cartwright, but their new friend as well.

“Cindy, you stay with me, Joe might need some help when he comes up again,” instructed Mitch as he and Cindy began to make preparations for when Joe brought Rocky up.  Neither knew what to expect, and being young, neither Mitch nor Cindy were prepared for what was about to happen.

Far below the surface, Joe fought a losing battle with the thick growth of grasses.  He could feel his own tears as they streamed down his face.  His stomach churned and he was hard pressed to keep his lunch down.  Try as he might, he could not keep from looking up, into the face of his friend, and each time that his eyes met those of the other boy’s, Joe felt as if a part of him died along with his friend.

Joe popped to the surface, never giving a thought to his two friends who waited anxiously or to the fact this his lungs burned as if a smoldering fire had been started deep down inside.  The only thing that Joe had his mind fixed on, was freeing Rocky from his underwater prison. Time after time Joe rose to the surface and then dove under.

*****

“MR. CARTWRIGHT!  MR. CARTWRIGHT!” Shouted Seth as he yanked back on his mount’s reins and pulled the horse to a sudden stop.

Ben, who had been sitting at his desk, jumped up at the sound of his name and ran from the house, followed by Adam and Hoss.  He watched as Seth’s horse danced in circles and once had to move to avoid being stepped on.

“Seth…what’s wrong?” demanded Ben, suddenly fearful, for Joe had yet to return from the swimming hole and he knew that Seth was one of Joe’s friends whom he had planned on meeting there and spending the afternoon with.

“You better come quick; there’s been an accident, hurry!” the frightened boy urged.

“Adam, get our horses.  Seth, what happened…is it Joe?”  Ben grabbed the halter on Seth’s horse and stopped the horse’s nervous prancing.

“It’s Rocky, he dove into the water and didn’t surface…Joe went in after him and now we can’t find him!”

The fear stabbed at Ben’s heart and he felt his stomach do a violent flip as he swallowed the hot tasting bile that had filled his mouth.

“Dear God,” he muttered.

Minutes later the three Cartwrights were mounted up and racing to the swimming hole.  When they arrived, they found Mitch and Cindy standing together along the bank, staring into the water.

Ben slid from his horse almost before Buck had stopped and raced up to Mitch.

“Where’s Joe?” he practically shouted.

When Mitch turned to face his friend’s father, Ben could see the swell of tears that had collected in Mitch’s blue eyes.  As he turned toward Cindy, Ben could easily tell that the girl had also been crying.

“MITCH!” Ben grabbed the boy’s shoulder, giving him a firm shake.

Mitch pointed toward the water.  “In there, he won’t come out…he’s dove in…at least a dozen times.”  Mitch’s voice cracked and the tears slowly freed themselves and rolled gently down the boy’s face.

“I’ll get him, Pa,” Adam said without hesitation.

He had already stripped off his shirt and had tossed his hat on the ground.  Quickly he leaned down and yanked his tight fitting boots off his feet.  Without a word, he dove smoothly into the water, barely breaking the surface or making a splash. Tiny air bubbles began to dance around in the center of the ringlets that circled the spot where Adam had gracefully entered the water.

Adam used his long muscular legs and paddled hard toward the bottom in search of his brother.  It took only seconds to locate Joe, and when he swam in behind the boy and placed his hand on his brother’s arm to alert the boy of his presence, Joe turned, stunned to see his brother behind him.

Adam’s heart melted, for the look on his little brother’s face told him just how deeply the boy was suffering.  Adam glanced over the top of Joe’s head and saw the lifeless body of his brother’s friend, swaying with the flow of the undercurrent.  The boy’s eyes had remained opened, though the spark of life had been extinguished early on.  Adam could only assume that because of the tangle of undergrowth that held the boy captive, the boy had drowned almost instantly and without the knowledge of the others, until it was too late.

Adam grabbed Joe’s shoulders and forced his brother to face him.  Adam pointed his finger up, indicating the surface, and gently urged Joe to swim to the surface.  Joe shook his head and pointed in Rocky’s direction.  When Adam released one hand, Joe tried to make his way back to Rocky.  Adam grabbed again at Joe, catching his arm and pointed toward the top of the water.  When Joe refused, Adam tightened his grip and began swimming toward the top, forcing Joe to swim with him.

Within moments, both brothers surfaced above the water.  Adam still had Joe in tow and when they reached the shallow end, he quickly motioned for his father and Hoss to help him.

“NO! NO!” screamed Joe.  “I”VE GOT TO HELP HIM!” he bellowed as he tried to wrench his arm free of the hands that were now holding him.

Adam gave his father a stern look and shook his head before filling his lungs and diving again, into the water.  Joe began to squirm within his father’s arms, his crying and pleading bringing his father’s attention back to his distraught son.

“Shh…Joseph, you’re exhausted, let Adam help Rocky…please son,” Ben said in a soothing voice.

Joe was exhausted and he fell against his father’s body.  Ben wrapped his arms tightly about Joe’s shoulders, which had begun to tremble.  Joe began to sob as he clung to his father.

“He’s dead…he’s dead and it’s my fault!” sobbed Joe, very near the edge of hysteria.

“No, no, Joseph, it wasn’t your fault, it was an accident,” Ben whispered.

He cast his eyes up at Mitch and Cindy who had gathered around.  Mitch nodded his head, telling Ben what he needed to know; Rocky’s drowning was an accident.  Hoss appeared with a blanket from his bedroll and gently wrapped it around his shivering brother.

“It was…Pa…Oh God…Mr. Jenkins…he told me I would be…responsible…for Rocky.”  Joe pulled back from his father’s embrace and turned tear filled, red rimmed eyes up to look into his father’s face.

Joe’s breathing was coming in short, quick jabs, making his speech broken and choppy.

“My…fault,” he sobbed.  “I…I…”

Ben felt his son’s body go slack in his arms.  “He’s passed out,” muttered Ben, lowering Joe onto the ground.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Mitch said in a low voice.

Ben glanced up, seeing the horror in the blue eyes.  He glanced at Cindy when he heard her scream and then pointed her finger behind him.  Ben turned; Adam was emerging from the water, Rocky held in both arms.  The young boy’s body was dripping with water and his arms were dangling at his sides.  Ben needn’t ask; he knew…Joe’s new friend was dead.

“Pa?” whispered Hoss who had squatted down in front of his father and younger brother.  “Lookit, here comes the boy’s father,” he pointed over Ben’s shoulder at the group of riders that had just arrived.

Ben turned toward the group.  Mr. Jenkins had indeed arrived, along with Roy Coffee, Clem, and the doctor.

“Stay with your brother, Hoss,” Ben ordered.

Ben rose to his feet and went straight to Walter Jenkins who all but shoved him aside as he ran toward Adam who was carefully lowering the dead boy to the ground.  Walter pushed Adam aside as he dropped to his knees.  His heart-wrenching sobs ripped at the hearts of the small gathering of friends and neighbors.  Doctor Martin quickly rushed to the grieving man’s side so that he could examine the man’s son.

Clem and Roy dismounted and stood next to Ben.  Joe had awakened and Hoss had hauled his brother to his feet and stood with Joe’s body leaning against his own.  Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Walter Jenkins rose to his feet and twirled around until he faced the youngest Cartwright.  His features began to distort with the hate he felt at Ben’s youngest son and took on a grotesque facial cast as he approached Joe.

“YOU!” he screeched while waving his fist in the frightened boy’s face.  “YOU ARE TO BLAME FOR THIS…YOU LET MY SON DIE!” he ranted, causing Joe to cower and shield his face against his big brother’s mid-section.  “YOUR FAULT…YOU…YOU…KILLED MY SON!”

When Walter Jenkins made a mad grab at Joe and nearly had him yanked from his brother’s protective arms, it seemed as if everyone within reach made a grab at Jenkins.  Adam was closest and was quickly able to pry the raving man’s hands free of Joe’s shoulders.

Adam spun the man around, slinging him into Ben’s arms who quickly held Walter by the shoulders until Roy and Clem were able to subdue the weeping father.

“Stand still, Jenkins,” ordered Roy.

Ben and Adam stood with their bodies between Joe and Hoss and the man who had, in his grief blamed Joe for his son’s death.

“Get him out of here, Roy,” growled Ben.  Behind him he could hear Joe’s sobs and knew that his son had taken to heart, the harsh words spoken in anger by a despondent father.

“Joseph…” began Ben as he reached out for his child.

Joe spun around; the tears dripped slowly down his ashen face, his chin quivered and his entire body had begun to tremble.

“I…told…you…it…” Joe gulped and swallowed deeply, “was my…fault…”

The boy bolted free and began running for the woods in a vain effort to distance himself from the people who had gathered around him.

“I’ll get him, Pa,” Adam called as he jerked on his last boot and began running after his brother.

Hoss watched as his own eyes filled with tears and he quickly dabbed at the moisture.  “I’ll help’em,” he said and followed Adam into the woods.

The sheriff had helped Walter Jenkins tie his son across the boy’s saddle and with Clem going along, the three took the boy’s body into town.  Paul Martin had remained behind with Ben, who waited with growing fear for his oldest sons to bring their brother back.

“Ben, I’m going back to ride out to the Jenkins’ place.  Mrs. Jenkins might need some tending too, and then I’ll come over and see about Little Joe.  He’ll probably need something to help him rest, he’s very upset about this entire mess,” Paul explained to Ben.

Ben’s was only half listening to what the physician was saying.  He had moved to the edge of the woods and stood silently.  Paul clamped his hand firmly on Ben’s shoulder, causing Ben to finally turn and acknowledge the doctor.

“Ben, I said I’d be by the house shortly, I need to see about Mrs…”

“I heard what you said, go ahead Paul, we’ll take care of Little Joe,” Ben informed the doctor.

*****

Joe crashed through the tangle of trees and low hanging branches.  He had fallen twice and his upper body, which bore no shirt, had been scratched and tiny places where the flesh had been broken had begun to seep miniature droplets of bright red blood.

“JOSEPH!  STOP, PLEASE!”

Joe glanced back across one shoulder as the sound of his brother’s voice reached his ears.  His eyes blinded by his tears and his body still weakened from being in the water for such a long period of time caused him to stagger and he whirled around.  His bare foot became tangled in the undergrowth and he stumbled and fell for the third time.  Before he could free himself, Adam was by his side, kneeling down next to him.

“Joe,” cooed Adam, reaching out with his hands to gather his brother into his arms.  Joe tried jerking away from the loving touch.

“NO! NO…Please…just…let me…go,” sobbed Joe.

Adam, with Hoss now next to him, wrapped his arms about his sobbing brother and pulled the boy into his arms. The fight instantly left the younger boy as Joe clasped tightly to Adam’s vest and poured out his heart.

“My…fault…mine…” he cried.  “Oh…Adam…please…what have…I…done?”

Adam glanced up at Hoss and saw the swell of tears in his blue eyes.  It was all Adam could do to control his own emotions and he quickly swiped his own eyes with the back of one hand.

“Nothing Joe, nothing.  You aren’t to blame little buddy…honest…it was an accident.  Your friend got tangled up in the grasses.  Joe…there was nothing anyone could do,” Adam said, hoping to console his brother.

Joe raised his head slightly; his eyes still clouded with tears.  Adam noted the haunted look in the hazel eyes that searched his face.  Joe was whimpering softly.

“I…wanna…go home…please Adam…please?” he said in a tiny voice and then buried his face against Adam’s chest.

“All right buddy, Pa’s waiting for us…think you can walk?” Adam said softly as he helped Joe to his feet.

Immediately, Joe’s legs buckled beneath him.  Hoss caught Joe before he could fall to the ground and easily swung his brother up into his arms.

“I’ll carry ya, Short Shanks,” he whispered as he locked his arms around his brother and started back toward the lake, where Ben was waiting.

Joe, completely worn to a frazzle, allowed his head to rest against Hoss’ massive chest and closed his eyes.

*****

Seeing his sons coming toward him, Ben reached out and grabbed Paul’s arm before the doctor could walk away.

“Here they come now,” he said, and hurried forward to meet the threesome.

Paul hurried along beside Ben so that he could take a quick look at the boy.

“Set him down, Hoss, let me check him out before you take him home,” Paul said as he knelt down on the ground along side of Joe.

Joe opened his eyes, seeing the doctor’s face looming over him.

“NO!” he shouted and tried to get up. “I wanna go…home…Pa…please…”

“Easy son,” Ben said in a soothing voice.  “The doc just wants to check you over and then we’ll go home.”  Ben had taken Hoss’ place on the opposite side of his son from where Paul was quickly checking Joe’s vital signs.

“Get the horses ready, will you Hoss?  Adam, give him a hand,” Ben asked.

Ben held Joe’s hand within his own.  His eyes continually searched his son’s face, noting the strained expressions that flickered across Joe’s young features.  Joe had stopped struggling against the doctor’s gentle probing and laid silently, his eyes staring at the open sky over head.  Every now and then the boy would blink and a lone tear would break free from the rim of Joe’s eye and roll slowly downward.  Ben gently brushed back the damp strains of hair that had glued themselves to the boy’s brow, wishing that he could somehow take the pain and grief away that he saw in his son’s eyes.

“He seems fine Ben, physically,” Paul said in a soft whisper.  “But he needs to be in the bed, he’s beyond going now, totally exhausted and drained.  Wrap him in some blankets, he’s still shivering, though I think it’s more from nerves, you know, fright, than from being cold.  It’s been too warm to worry about him catching a cold…or worse…but I want to be on the safe side.  Make sure you get him to drink something warm, perhaps some of Hop Sing’s broth, and keep him in a warm bed until I can get out to the ranch to check on him.”

Paul touched Ben’s arm and silently motioned for Ben to follow him, which Ben complied.  Adam returned to Joe’s side, and while his father spoke privately with the doctor, Adam covered Joe with the blanket that had been used earlier and helped Joe over to his horse.

“Ben, Little Joe’s been through an awfully lot today.   He’s seen something that has forever left its impression in his mind.  I dare say, knowing the boy as I do, he isn’t likely to sleep very well for the next few nights, so I want you to give him these, they will help relax him and let him sleep.  If he knows that you have them, he most likely will try to refuse them, so just put the powders into some water, or milk about thirty minutes before bedtime.”

Paul placed the small packets of powders into the palm of Ben’s hand and waited until Ben had placed them into the pocket of his vest.

“If you should need me, send word.  Right now, I best be getting over to the Jenkins’ house.”

“Thank you Paul, for everything.  Please give Walter and his wife our sympathy…though I’m not sure how well received it might be,” said Ben regrettably.

“Their son’s death has come as a shock to them, Ben,” Paul stated.

“Yes, I know it has.”  Ben glanced over at Joe and shook his head slowly from side to side.  “What a shame…to loose a son in such a way and then to blame another man’s son, when he was the only one trying to save that man’s boy.”

“Yes, Ben…I agree, but Walter Jenkins is a good Christian man, he was only spouting off out of grief, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”  Paul followed Ben’s gaze.

Joe had mounted up and sat slumped over the saddle horn, waiting for his father.  “Take him home Ben, and shower him with love and understanding and compassion.  I think that Joe, along with the Jenkins, all have a long, hard road ahead of them.”

*****

Joe was almost asleep by the time that they reached the ranch house.  Ben quickly dismounted and hurried around to Joe so that he could help him down.  Joe’s actions were sluggish and when his feet touched the ground, his legs gave out from under him.  Ben slipped his arms about Joe’s sagging body and scooped him up into his arms.

“Adam, you and Hoss take care of the horses for us, please.  I’m going to put your brother in bed,” Ben stated as he began walking toward the house.

Joe rested his head on his father’s shoulder.  The steady beat of Ben’s heart and the warmth and security that Joe felt helped him to relax and he sighed deeply.  Ben glanced down into the boy’s face; Joe had closed his eyes.

When Ben reached the front door and started to place his hand on the handle, it suddenly opened and startled him.

“Hop Sing,” whispered Ben, smiling.

“Sorry boss, but Hop Sing see that arms are full,” he smiled softly.  “Hop Sing have hot bath waiting for number three son.  It help to warm boy on outside. I fix Lil’ Joe hot cocoa to warm inside.”

“Thank you Hop Sing, I’ll get Joe started on his bath.”  Ben slipped one of the powders into Hop Sing’s hand and gave his faithful servant a nod of his head.

Hop Sing returned the silent message with one of his own and padded softly back into the kitchen.

“I can walk, Pa,” Joe said in a tired voice.

“You sure, son?”

“Yessir,” replied Joe.

“All right, but go slowly, I’ll be up in a minute to help you, I just need to speak with Hop Sing again,” Ben told his son as he stood Joe on the first step to the upper level of the house.

Joe turned, looked for several moments at the top of the stairs and then taking a long breath he began very slowly climbing to the top.  Ben watched until Joe got to the landing and then hurried to the kitchen to speak once more with Hop Sing.

Once in his room, Joe went straight to the bed and sat down on the side.  He allowed his head to drop, his chin nearly resting on his chest.  Tears once again filled his eyes but he was quick to brush them away.  As he sat motionless, his eyes began to close and by the time that his father knocked softly on the door and pushed it opened, Joe was asleep sitting on the edge of the bed.  Ben crossed the room and smiled.

“Joseph?” Ben said in a soft voice.  He placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gently squeezed.

Joe’s eyes popped opened and when he glanced up and saw his father smiling down at him, a small smile curved his lips upward and for a brief second, Ben saw the tiny glow that shone in the hazel eyes that looked at him.

“Let me help you, son,” Ben smiled.

Ben stooped down and pulled Joe’s feet free from his boots and helped Joe stand.  When Joe had unbuttoned his shirt, Ben helped him pull his arms out of the sleeves.  Joe walked to the edge of the tub and stood staring into the water where a fine mist of steam still brewed.

“Son,” Ben muttered, catching Joe’s attention.  “You can’t get in until you take off your trousers,” he smiled.

“Oh,” Joe uttered, almost surprised with the idea.

Slowly he undid his pants and allowed them to fall to his ankles.  Joe, preoccupied with his own thoughts, made no effort to hide the fact that he stood naked before his father, but Ben had the good graces to turn his back to the boy.

“You finish with your bath son, I’ll be back in a few minutes with your hot cocoa,” Ben said as he made his way to the door.

Ben paused at the door waiting for an answer but Joe did not acknowledge his father.  Ben watched in silence as Joe stepped into the tub and then slowly lowered his weary body down into the warm water.  Joe had pinched his eyes tightly shut; his lips were pressed together as his father turned, troubled by the disconcerting expression on his young son’s face, and left his son alone to take his bath.

A short time later, Ben returned and tapped lightly on the door before pushing it opened.  As he entered, Joe was just finishing pulling his nightshirt over his head.  The boy turned around and when he spied his father entering his room, Joe sat down on the edge of the bed.  Ben set the tray baring Joe’s hot cocoa on the table and poured a mug for his son.  When he stood before Joe, Joe glanced up, tears filling his eyes.

“It was an accident…honest, Pa…I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Joe muttered and then hung his head.

Ben quickly sat the mug down on the tray and then placed himself on the bed next to his son.  Wrapping his arm about Joe’s shoulders, Ben gently pulled Joe’s head down onto his shoulder.

“Of course it was an accident, son.  No body meant for it to happen, but things like that do happen.  It’s sad and regretful when they do, but Joe it’s a part of life.  Dying, I mean.  And death, when it comes, isn’t concerned with the how and why’s of things, only that it was that person’s time to die,” Ben explained as he cradled his son close to him in his arms.

Joe had begun to whimper softly.  “I know about all of that, Pa…but I promised Rocky’s pa that I would watch out for him…and I…I…didn’t do what I promised.  Doesn’t that make it my fault?”

Joe had raised his head and was watching his father.  Ben knew that what he would have to say now must be words of comfort for his son and said in such a way as to be of help to his youngest.

“Joe, you were not the only young person with Rocky today.  From what I saw, there were several of you.  Son, can you tell me what happened?  I mean, what were all of you doing when you first realized that your friend was not with the rest of the group?”

“We had been swinging off the rope, you know…the one you helped me fix last summer.  And we were all having a turn when the girls showed up with a picnic for all of us.  We all sat down and started eating, that’s when someone noticed that Rocky was missing.  When we couldn’t find him and someone suggested that he might have taken one last swing on the rope, I got scared and dove in…that’s when…when I found…him.”  Joe swallowed hard and looked away.

“He was already dead…I could tell cause…there were no air bubbles coming out of his nose or mouth,” gulped Joe.

Ben could feel Joe’s body begin to tremble and for several moments Ben held his son tightly, his heart aching for the father who had lost his son, but comforted by the presence of his own son, which he felt crushed against him.

“I should have…been paying more attention to him than to…Cindy,” Joe whispered.

“Oh son, Rocky chose to take that last dive.  True, he shouldn’t have, leastwise, without letting the rest of you know, but what happened, happened.  You couldn’t have foreseen what would happen, nor could you have prevented it, and besides son, there were the others, if you are guilty, then so are they,” Ben tried to make his son understand the total situation.

“But Pa, you don’t understand…I’m the one who invited Rocky to come alone, and I’m the one who promised his father that I would make sure he got home safely.  But instead…Rocky’s dead, because he…”

“Because he did something very foolish…not because of anything that you did or didn’t do, Joseph.”  Ben stood to his feet and reached for the mug of cocoa and handed it to Joe.

“Here, drink this son, and I want you to try to get some sleep.”  Ben smiled down at his son.  “Careful, it’s still hot.”

Joe took a sip of the hot drink.  He held the mug with both hands and continued to sip the cocoa until it was almost gone.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said as he handed the mug back to his father.

Ben took the mug and replaced it on the tray and turned back to his son.  “Now, I want you to go to sleep,” Ben ordered gently while covering Joe with the blankets.  “Joseph, try not to worry about what happened, at least for now.  Things will look better in the morning, they always do son.”

Ben bent over and placed a kiss on Joe’s brow.  “I love you Joe,” he whispered tenderly.

Joe looked deeply into his father’s eyes, and tried to smile.  “I love you too, Pa,” he sniffed, trying hard not to cry again.

Ben’s hand gently caressed the boy’s cheek.  When Joe suddenly reached for his father’s hand and held it tightly within his own, Ben made no attempt to pull away.

“Pa…I…don’t want to be…alone right now.  Could you…”

“Of course I will.”  Ben removed his hand then and pulled the chair over to the bed.  “Now, you close your eyes and I’ll be right here when you wake up,” he promised.

“Thanks Pa,” whispered Joe as he snuggled down beneath the warm blankets and closed his eyes.  Minutes later he was asleep.

*****

It had grown dark outside and the time had slipped by slowly.  Ben dozed in the chair in which he sat.  His head had dropped forward and he had begun to snore softly.  Joe’s eyes were tightly closed, and had his father been watching, he would have seen the way that his son’s eyes danced around behind the lids.  It was a sure sign that the boy was dreaming.  The soft whimpering sounds, had they been loud enough, would have alerted his father to the fact that his son’s dream was anything but pleasant.

Across the hall, and down at the far end, Adam had just laid aside his book and lowered the wick on his lamp.  Hoss, who had been asleep for hours now, snored softly.  Neither were unaware of the beginnings of their younger brother’s nightmare that was soon to shatter the tranquility of the slumbering household.

*****

“No…no…” Joe’s sweat drenched head lolled from side to side on his already dampened pillow as he fought against the faceless predator who had slipped into his dream and had caught him unaware.

The whimpering started softly and slowly began to grow in volume.  Ben, deep in sleep had not yet heard the murmuring of his troubled son.

“Rocky!  Rocky!  Where are you!!”

“NO…OH GOD…NO!” Joe screamed as he bolted up right in bed.  “HELP ME! HELP ME!  SOMEONE…PLEASE…HELP M….”

“Joseph…Joseph…wake up son…wake up…Joe…sweetheart…” Ben had awakened with a start and placed himself on the side of the bed next to the boy.   He tightly gripped his son’s shoulders and began gently shaking the boy who thrashed about and waved his arms frantically about in the air.

Joe was gasping for breath, the pupils of his eyes had enlarged, and the uncommon fright that caused his body to shiver violently, showed in the hazel depths.  Tears streamed down his face where the twisted features gave further evidence of the immense terror that had invaded the young boy’s dreams.

Adam was first to burst into the room, followed moments later by Hoss.  Both boys stopped in their tracks at the sight of their younger brother fighting against the hands that so lovingly were trying to calm him and bring peace to his confused mind.

“Shh…Joe…Pa’s here now, precious…don’t cry, son.”  Ben had clasped Joe’s fraying arms and pulled the weeping child in against his chest.

After several moments, Joe began to calm down and his sobs became soft whimpers.  “I’m sorry…Pa…I didn’t mean…to wake everyone up,” Joe said in words that were broken.

“It’s alright son, I know you didn’t mean too.  Are you feeling okay now?” Ben pulled Joe gently back and smiled down at the boy.

Joe swallowed and nodded his head.  Behind his father he saw that his brothers were awake as well.

“Did I wake you up too?”

“I wasn’t really asleep Joe, I had just turned down my lamp,” Adam explained.  “I was reading.”

“Oh…Hoss? Did I wake you up?  If so…I’m sorry.”  Joe rested his head back against his pillow, his countenance was heartbreaking for his family to see, as he appeared very unhappy, and down hearted.

“Don’t make no never mind, Joe.  I’ll just go back to bed and get a couple more hours sleep; it’s awhile afore daylight anyway.  You need anything?” Hoss inquired, giving the boy one of his most gracious smiles.

“No, I’m fine now…honest,” Joe answered.  He glanced around the room at his family and tried to smile.  “I’m sorry,” he said again.

Adam and Hoss slipped silently from the room, leaving their father to deal with the aftermath of their brother’s nightmare.

Joe’s head was buried deeply into the pillow as Ben sat gently brushing back the dampened curls and tenderly caressing his son’s cheek where Ben could still feel the moisture from the previous onslaught of tears that had yet to dry.

“Would you like to tell me about your dream” Ben encouraged in an affectionate voice.

Joe shook his head slowly from side to side.  “Ain’t nothing to tell…it was only a dream,” he said flatly.

“I heard you calling Rocky’ name…I take it that your dream had to do with him?”  Ben’s voice held all the compassion he had for he knew that his son had had one of the very worst days of his entire life.

“Please, Pa…” Joe’s voice sounded tiny and frightened as his eyes began filling with tears once more.  “I don’t want to talk about it…I’d rather just try to forget…it,” sniffed Joe as he ran his hands over the front of his face attempting to wipe away the tears before they had managed to steal away.

Ben could see that Joe was once again becoming agitated and felt it best for now to let the subject drop, but he knew that soon, Joe would have to open up to him and talk about what had happened up at the swimming hole.  If he didn’t, the matter would grow and fester deep within his heart and if he weren’t careful, Joe would end up very emotionally scarred, perhaps for the rest of his life.

“All right, Joseph, you just try to go back to sleep.  What you need most right now is plenty of rest.  I’ll stay right here…if you still want me too?” Ben said as he covered Joe with the blanket.

Ben saw Joe swallow and then heard him gulp.  “You need sleep too, Pa.  Why don’t you go on to bed…I’ll be okay? I’ll call you if I need anything…that is, if it’s okay with you?”

Ben smiled, “Of course it is, son.  You close your eyes and I’ll wait until you fall asleep and then I think I will lie down and try to catch a couple of hours of sleep.”

Joe nodded his head and then snuggled down, turning over on his side, with his back to his father.  The dream had frightened him beyond reason and he felt himself shiver from the effects that the dream had left with him.  Rocky’s face, the blank look in the vacant eyes, the lifeless body swaying against the gentle flow of the current, the body already beginning to bloat from the water that his friend had swallowed…it had been a horrific sight…and…reasoned Joe…it had been his fault!

*****

Joe woke finally by mid-morning.  He lay listening but could hear no one moving around down stairs and so eased himself out of bed.  As he slipped on his trousers, he heard voices coming from the yard below and he hurried to his window to see who it was.  His father was talking to the sheriff, Adam came from the barn and joined them and a moment later Hoss rode into the yard and joined them as well.  Joe watched and wondered what it was that had brought the sheriff out to speak with his father and he couldn’t help but worry that perhaps Roy’s errand might have something to do with what had happened the day before.  Joe turned from the window and hurried to slip on his boots.  He grabbed his shirt from the back of the chair slipping it on as he rushed from his room.

By the time that Joe made it to the porch, Roy had already said his good-bye’s and was already riding around the corner of the barn.  Ben had started back toward the house and when he spied his youngest son he smiled warmly at the boy.

“Well, I see you finally woke up,” Ben greeted Joe. “I hope you rested well,” he added.

“Yessir.  What did Roy want, Pa?” inquired Joe as he followed Ben to the side porch and sat down opposite his father.

Ben stood in front of the table as he picked up his papers and thumbed through them.  He paused and glanced at his son, worried by how haggard the boy still appeared.

“Roy just stopped by to tell me that the Jenkins were burying their son first thing in the morning.  He thought that we might like to attend the funeral,” he explained, not surprised that the expression on Joe’s face suddenly changed.  The boy looked as if he might burst into tears.

“I think it only proper that we go, but if you would rather not, I’d understand, son,” Ben said.

Joe had dropped his head but slowly raised it and looked up at his father.  When he spoke, Ben heard the hesitation in his son’s voice.

Joe gulped, “Do I have too?”

Ben sat down across from Joe and placed his hand over Joe’s.  “As I said, I think it would only be the right thing to do, but I won’t force you Joe, if you’d rather not.”

“I…I…it’s just…” stammered Joe and then faltered.

“Just what, son?” Ben asked.  He saw the sad expression that clouded Joe’s vision as the tears slowly began to fill his eyes.

“I don’t think that I could…face them…not after what I’ve done,” Joe muttered.

Ben felt as if his heart had stopped beating.  He had been hoping that Joe would have come to terms with the fact that his friend’s drowning had been an accident, not his fault.

“Joseph, you didn’t do anything.  Rocky’s drowning was an accident.  Won’t you please try to believe that?  It wasn’t your fault, or anyone else’s.”  Ben was getting worried that the death of his neighbor’s son might have a lasting affect on his own son.

“I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but Pa…even Mr. Jenkins said it was my fault.  I should have been…”

“Joseph,” Ben’s voice had taken on a more authoritative tone knowing that he had to somehow get through to his son.  “Mr. Jenkins spoke out of grief, shock, and…

“Anger…I know all of that Pa, but what he said was the truth…”

“So, you think I’m lying to you by telling you that it was an accident and not your fault at all?” Ben said angrily.

“No Pa!”  Joe pushed back his chair and stood up.  “I didn’t say that…”

The tears began slipping slowly down his cheek and his father’s heart softened as he came around the corner of the table and placed both hands on Joe’s slim shoulders.

“I’m sorry son, I didn’t mean to snap at you, or to upset you,” Ben said.  He gently pulled Joe into his arms and held him tightly.  “Why don’t you and I stay here?  I’m sure that Adam and Hoss wouldn’t mind paying our respects to the Jenkins.”

Joe buried his face into his father’s chest and allowed Ben to hold him for several moments before he pulled away.  As he turned from his father, he dabbed at the tears that still clung to his chin.

“No…we should go,” he said as he turned around and gazed up at his father.  “I’ll be alright, Pa…as long as…you’re there.”

*****

Joe’s entire body was drenched in sweat as Joe tossed from one side of the bed to the other.  His blankets lay in disarray where they had been shuffled about to the end of the bed from Joe’s constant thrashing about.  The sheets, once crispy and fresh were now torn loose from the corners of the mattress and were dampened by the moisture that seeped from practically every pore of the young boy’s body.

The nightmare varied little with each haunting dream that Joe had.  More than once he had been awakened, shivering and frightened by the memory of the hollow eyes, the discolored lips with the bluish tint, the body that swayed in motion with the undercurrent, and each time he cried, blaming himself over and over as the reoccurring dream haunted his sleep.  This night had been no different.

Joe climbed from his bed, his face streaked with the last remains of his tears.  He shoved aside the heavy drapes and peered through the window into the blackness of night.  The funeral that he had attended earlier in the week with his family had been a living nightmare.  Mrs. Jenkins had leaned heavily against her husband, the sound of her weeping had echoed in Joe’s ears long after the service had ended.  The distraught woman had finally collapsed and had to be carried off by her relatives all the while wailing her son’s name over and over until Joe could no longer stand the piteous shrieking and had bolted from his father’s side and run off.

Ben found his son an hour later bent over his own mother’s grave, weeping.  Nothing that Ben had said had offered any amount of comfort, so he had sat silently and patiently and waited until Joe had cried himself out.  Once Joe had regained a certain amount of control over his disquieting emotions, he had obliged his father by riding home with him and allowed Ben to help him into bed.  Worn totally out emotionally, Joe had dropped off to sleep almost as quickly as his father had lowered the wick in the lamp.

The pattern had been set, for every night since, Joe had awakened from his nightmares.  His pleas and whimpering had alerted his father to his distress and as always, Ben had rushed to his son’s bedside to console the distraught boy.  Ben watched daily how Joe’s personality and attitude suffered and how his son’s guilt snatched from him, his once happy, vivacious child.  Ben wondered if Joe would ever again be the laughing, carefree, high-spirited youth that he had been on the morning before the accident had occurred.  That day seemed so very long ago now, and Ben yearned to have his son back as before.  No amount of talking or pleading by any of his family members had brought Joe any closer to an understanding of the situation. Ben was at his wit’s end as to how to help his son and had, on this particular day, vowed to himself that as soon as he finished breakfast he would ride into town to consult with his friend and family physician, Paul Martin.

*****

Joe quietly pulled on his trousers and slipped from his room.  He had given up any hope of going back to sleep.  Besides, he reasoned he didn’t really want to sleep, he was afraid to.  The face of his friend, the empty eyes that stared out through the murky water, the wailing sound of a woman’s voice, the tormented shouts of the grieving father, frightened Joe and thus the boy had willed himself to remain awake, night after long night.  Now the boy walked around as if in a trance, adding more worries and concern to his already anxious family who fretted over his every move.

Joe fumbled his way through the darkened hall until he stood at the top of the staircase.  He paused to steady himself before moving downward.  When he at last reached the last step he glanced up over his shoulder to be sure that his father or brothers had not heard the soft noises that the stairs made when they squeaked.  Feeling that he had managed to make it to the great-room without alerting his family of his presence, Joe slowly moved to the buffet in the dining room.  Once he was squatting down, he began opening door after door until he found what he was looking for.  As his fingers wrapped themselves about the tall slender decanter, Joe paused, closing his eyes tightly.  Just as quickly he opened them, tears had formed in the deep wells and threatened to spill over.

“Why…why…oh why…” he muttered.  “The eyes…it’s always…his eyes,” he whispered to no one as he pulled the decanter of brandy from the shelf.  Seeing a second bottle, he took it as well and moved to his father’s red chair.

Joe sank down into the cushion, careful not to drop the two decanters.  He sat one beside him on the chair and then turned his full attention to the one in his right hand.  He struggled with the top, turning and twisting it until it finally popped free.  Joe sniffed the brandy and then, placing the rim of the decanter to his lips, drank freely of the sweet tasting liquor.  After several large gulps, Joe paused, taking a deep breath and giving the beverage time to sink into his stomach.  Again he turned the decanter up and swallowed the free flowing liquid.  His head began to throb and Joe felt warm all over.  His stomach protested by rumbling and when Joe stood to his feet, he grabbed the second bottle from the cushion.  When he turned too quickly, he swayed and was forced to hold on to the pieces of furniture as he staggered to the front door.

When he reached the credenza, he rested, leaning his body against the sturdy piece of furniture while he finished off the last of the brandy from his father’s decanter.  Joe dropped the bottle as he reached for his hat that hung on the wall behind the door.  As he arranged his hat on his head, he yanked opened the door with one hand, the other clinging tightly to the second bottle and stumbled out into the early morning darkness.

Joe was able to see well enough to make his way across the yard.  He tottered from side to side as he headed for the barn and once there, quickly raised the latch and pulled opened the door.  Joe stepped inside and stopped long enough to drink deeply of his father’s brandy.  Joe heard himself burp and then giggled.  Somehow, he managed to put the bridle on his horse and led Cochise out into the open.  With no saddle, his brandy still in his hand, Joe managed to haul himself up onto his horse and ride out of the yard unobserved.

It took him over an hour to arrive at the old swimming hole.  The boy slumped over his horse’s neck when Cochise finally stopped.  As Joe slipped from the back of his mount, he clung tightly to the horse’s mane for support and to keep himself from sinking to the ground in a crumbled ball.  Once he felt sure that his feet were firmly planted on the ground, Joe some how, in his drunken state, managed to walk to the water’s edge where he stopped and stared into the mucky depths.

“ROCKY!” Joe shouted at the top of his lungs.  “ROCKY!”

He swayed and turned the bottle up to his mouth and took a long swig.  His arm dropped carelessly to his side, his fingers entwined around the neck of the bottle.

“WHY’D YA HAVE TO GO GET DROWNED?” he screamed.

Joe brushed his hand across his face, cleaning the tears from his eyes.  Joe took a step and staggered backwards.  As he felt himself falling, he reached out for a handhold, dropping and shattering the bottle of brandy on the rocks beneath the shallow water.  Joe toppled over, cutting the palm of his hand as he fell.  His senses dulled by his drunkenness, Joe was unaware of the pain or the blood that seeped from the deep gash.  He lay half in and half out of the water’s edge, sobbing out his sorrow.

“STOP STARING AT ME!  WHY DON’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE?” Joe cried loudly.

He crawled up onto the dry grass and stayed lying on his stomach.  When he swiped his hand over his face, a thin trail of blood from his bleeding hand remained. Joe refused to get up; he had begun to shiver, for the water had been cold and the early morning air cool and crisp.

“I’m sorry,” muttered Joe, burying his face in his arms.  “How many times…I gotta say it…I’m sorry…I’m sorry Rocky…I never meant…for you to die,” Joe lamented.

“Please…please…stop looking at me…your eyes…they’re so…” Joe felt as if he were dying as he wept loudly.

Suddenly Joe pulled himself to his feet and faced the water again.  He took a couple of small steps forward, his fingers folded into tight fist and he waved his left hand about in the air.

“WHY!  WHY COULDN’T IT HAVE BEEN…ME!”  Joe swayed, nearly falling for the second time. His head had been tossed backward, unbalancing his sodden body as he continued to screech.

Joe’s voice was beginning to crack.  “I didn’t mean for…you to die…” sobbed Joe.  “I tired…to…save you…OH GOD PLEASE…HELP ME!”

Joe dropped to his knees, his behind resting on the heels of his boots while his arms hung haphazardly down by his sides.  His chin was practically resting on his chest; he was totally unaware of the man who stood, silhouetted against the darkness, watching from the shadows of the trees.

Silently, the man moved forward, toward Joe and stopped directly behind the sobbing boy who had begun to mumble incoherently.  The man gently placed his large hands under Joe’s arms and pulled the boy to his feet.  As the man turned Joe about, Joe’s legs buckled and the man was forced to gather the boy into his arms or let the boy fall face down into the cold water.

Once secured, Joe was carried from the shallow water to the edge of the woods where he was carefully laid on the soft grasses.  Joe tried to focus his eyes on the man’s face but they took too long to clear and instead they closed and remained thus for several long moments.  When he opened them, the man had moved from his side and Joe raised his head slightly, looking for the man who had pulled him from the water.

As he pushed himself up on one elbow, Joe felt his stomach do a flop.  Suddenly the muscles in his mid-section tightened and when the foul tasting fluid filled his mouth, Joe retched.  Repeatedly his stomach protested against the brandy that Joe had consumed and the boy vomited until there was nothing left in his belly.

The coolness of the soft cloth wiping his face refreshed Joe enough that he was finally able to focus his eyes.  The man knelt over him, tenderly cleaning away the remains of spittle from his lips.  Joe felt his body shiver and quickly the man covered him with a warm blanket and tossed some logs on the fire that he had built.

“Drink this,” the man ordered Joe as he held out a tin cup filled with piping hot coffee.

Joe accepted the cup and carefully sipped.  His eyes followed the man about the camp for several minutes while the man checked on the horses and picked up a few more twigs to add to the fire.  He hadn’t spoken a word other than to order him to drink the coffee and Joe wondered if perhaps the man might be up to no good. Believing that to be the case, Joe started to get up but was stopped by the deep blaring tone of the man’s voice.

“Where do you think you are going?”

“Home,” sputtered Joe.

“Lie down, you’re in no shape to go anywhere,” the man ordered and then taking the blanket, rearranged it about Joe’s body.  “Now lay still, if you don’t you’ll only get sick again,” he said.  This time his voice was soft, almost as if he cared what happened to the boy.

“Yessir,” Joe said meekly.

The man turned away to poke at the fire.  Joe felt the churning in his stomach and though he hadn’t meant to, he groaned and then quite suddenly was sick again. Instantly the man was by his side, holding Joe’s head in his hands as Joe retched.  When he’d finished, the man dampened the cloth with water and once more cleaned Joe’s face.

“I take it that you’ve never been drunk before,” the man said softly, smiling slightly at Joe.

Joe shook his head, suddenly regretting the motion, for his head had begun to ache and his vision blurred.  Again the man smiled and then surprised Joe by brushing back a dampened lock of hair from his forehead.

“Your head’s gonna be hurting something awful before long.”

“It already does,” moaned Joe.  He had pinched his lips tightly and closed his eyes against the pounding pain.

“Can’t do anything to help your head, but let’s see what we can do about that cut,” the man said softly and left Joe, just long enough to get some things out of his saddlebag.

When the man returned, he carefully began cleaning the cut on Joe’s hand and within minutes had a clean bandage tied with a neat little knot to hold it in place.

“I don’t have anything for the pain, sorry,” he said.  The man’s lips twitched slightly and formed a tiny smile.

“Why?” whispered Joe.

“Why what?” the man asked as he settled himself next to Joe.

Joe had raised up into a sitting position and had wrapped the blanket about his shoulders.  He studied the man’s face, not sure of the expression in the eyes that watched him just as closely.

“Why are you helping me?” Joe said.

When he saw the man’s expression soften, and the man’s eyes fill with tears, Joe felt his own tears sting his eyes.  Rocky’s father scooted closer to his son’s friend.

“Because I owe it to you…because you tried so hard to help my son…and because I want to help you,” Walter Jenkins said.

Joe swallowed the hard knot that choked him.  “But…I let your son…die,” he muttered, confused by this man’s seeming kindness.

Walter raised his head, placed his hand firmly on Joe’s shoulder and shook his head.  “No you didn’t.”

“But you said…”

“I know what I said!  But I was crazy with grief…and I was angry…but not at you, son, not really.  Oh, I know I said it was your fault, and that I held you responsible, and my words added to the blame you were already feeling…and I was wrong, Little Joe…so very, very wrong.  I never really blamed you, only myself…because I allowed Rocky to go along.  I think it was easier for me to blame you, to accuse you rather than to admit that I was to blame.  You see Joe, Rocky’s mother had told him that morning that he couldn’t go, because of some argument that they had earlier, but I let him go anyway, against his mother’s wishes.  That’s why it’s really my fault…that’s why I let you take all the blame, so that I could live with myself.”

Joe could hardly believe the man’s words.  Mr. Jenkins had blamed him for something that he had no control over.  It had been just as his father had tried to explain, but he had been too wrapped up in blaming himself to really understand what his father had tried to tell him.

“Joe, I’m sorry.  I can see what my words…and my actions have done to you.  They have nearly destroyed your life,” Walter paused and brushed his hand over his eyes.  “I want you to know that I appreciate what you tried to do…trying to save my son.  It took courage to keep going down into that water.”

Walter took Joe by the shoulders and squeezed them firmly.  “Do you understand Joe?  You are not to blame, I am!”

“I…I…think so, but…” Joe felt his stomach churning again and fought to keep its contents down.  “I keep having this dream…a nightmare really…” Joe began sniffling.

“Tell me about it, please?” whispered Mr. Jenkins.

Joe glanced up into the man’s face, he seemed sincere, but how could Joe tell the man that what haunted him the most was the hollow eyes and swaying body and…

“Please?” he heard Walter mutter.

“When I dove into the water, the first time, I couldn’t find Rocky.  But when I dove in again, I found him…he was tangled in the water grasses.  They get real long, like vines and…he was caught.  I tried to get him loose, but the grasses are thick and I couldn’t free him.”

Walter had moved closer to Joe and when Joe’s chin had begun to quiver, Walter wrapped an arm about Joe’s shoulder and pulled the boy close to him.

“Go on, what about the dream?” Walter asked.

“His eyes…they were opened…and he had already stopped breathing.  I can’t seem to get that image of them out of my mind…and every time that I go to sleep…I see Rocky…staring at me.”  Joe had begun to whimper softly.

“I’m…scared to go…to sleep,” he confessed.

Joe had held back his tears for as long as he could but now they dripped slowly down his face.  When he felt Mr. Jenkins pull him to his breast, Joe buried his face in the man’s chest and wept.  Walter held Joe tightly, his own eyes which had filled with tears, seeped the tiny droplets as he whispered words of comfort to the sorrowful boy held tightly in his arms.

“Please Joe…try to put it out of your mind.  I know it’s hard, but maybe now, since you know that Rocky’s death wasn’t really your fault, you can get past what happened,” Walter tried to explain to Joe.

“I’ll try…but it isn’t going…to be easy,” muttered Joe.

Joe pulled back from the man who held him and glanced up.  The sun had just crested over the tops of the mountains and the early morning mist glistened like a million tiny diamonds.

“I need to get home…my Pa will be worried about me,” Joe said at last and then stood to his feet.

“I reckon he will, Joe,” Walter said as he got up.

Walter placed his hand firmly down on Joe’s shoulder and gently squeezed.  “Promise me something, Little Joe?”

“What?” Joe asked, searching the man’s face.

“Stop blaming yourself…and if you can find it in your heart…please forgive me for what I’ve done to you.”

Walter’s voice cracked and he unexpectedly pulled Joe into an embrace.  He clung tightly to Joe, who stood rigid at first and then as the man began to sob, relaxed against the man’s breast.

“Mr. Jenkins…sir…” began Joe.  “I forgive you…and, I promise I’ll try to stop feeling guilty, but you gotta promise me something too,” he said softly.

Walter pulled back from Joe, still holding onto the boy’s shoulders.  “What…I know what you are going to say…that I have to forgive myself, right?”

Joe nodded his head.

“That’s the same thing that my wife says…that forgiveness has to come from the heart…that to be able to carry on with life, we have to learn how to forgive, not only others, but ourselves as well.  She’s right you know…she usually is.”  Walter smiled softly.  “If she forgives me, and you forgive me…then who am I that I should not forgive myself?”

“Thank you Joe…”

“No…I thank you…you’ve made me see just what my Pa was trying to explain to me…that things happen in life…that even bad things happen to good people.  But those things shouldn’t stop us from believing in ourselves or in God…and I’d already stopped believing in both.  I was ready to give up…until you found me,” whispered Joe.

“Your father is a wise man, Little Joe.  Go home now and tell him that you finally understand.  He wants to help you son, let him…he loves you, you know.”

“Yessir…I know,” Joe made a grimace, “Though I can’t figure out why sometimes, I tend to grate on his nerves,” he whispered.

Walter helped Joe onto his horse and before Joe turned Cochise toward home, the man placed his hand on Joe’s knee.

“Drop over to visit me sometime…please?” he asked.

Joe nodded his head, “I will…I promise.  It might be a while though, when my Pa finds out that I drank all his brandy, I’ll probably never get to leave the ranch again, until I’m eighteen at least,” he smiled.

“I’ll wait,” Walter said and then stepped back.

Joe nudged his horse into action and waved his hand at Mr. Jenkins.  Walter stood back, watching silently.  When Joe was gone, the man gathered his things and went back home, a changed man.  The sorrow remained and would for a long time, but the bitterness and the anger that he had carried with him for so long, was gone now.  There had been nothing that he could have done to save his own son, but he had managed to save another man’s son from certain doom.  He smiled, his satisfaction shone in his eyes.

*****

When Joe rode into the yard, Ben was just leading Buck from the barn.  He paused, watching Joe slide down from his horse’s bare back.  He had been shocked to find his son missing, and passed being worried when he had come down stairs only to find the empty brandy decanter lying in the floor, and the front door opened.  When he had raced to the barn and found Joe’s horse gone, Ben’s fear for his son’s well being had mounted.

That fear subsided now as he watched Joe walk slowly toward him.  He saw that the troubled lines that had stamped their impressions onto his son’s young features had softened.  Ben wondered what had happened to make the change.

Joe ambled across the yard, swaying slightly as he did so.  His balance was still off some from the lingering effects of all the brandy that he had consumed.  As he looked up at this father, he could only guess at what his father might say and do to him, for it was sure that his father knew of his drunkenness.

Ben took a deep breath to calm himself as Joe stopped before him.  He could smell the sour odor of the liquor and the repugnant smell of vomit and knew instantly that Joe had been sick.  His anger that he had first felt when finding his most expensive decanter of brandy gone, and his son missing, faded as he looked into the tear filled eyes that searched his, silently begging for understanding.

“Joseph?” Ben said softly.

Joe’s chin began to quiver and when Ben lovingly touched the boy’s cheek with his fingers, Joe fell against his father’s chest and wrapped his arms about his father.

“I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to worry you…but…but…I couldn’t take it anymore…” sobbed the child.

“I drank all your brandy…and then went up to the swimming hole…I…I…”

“Forget it son, it doesn’t matter…you came back, that’s all that matters to me,” Ben whispered as he tilted Joe’s chin upward so that he could see into Joe’s face.

“Something happened to you while you were there…tell me about it, please,” Ben pleaded.

“I was drunk…and I went up there to…I’m not sure really, why I went.  I guess I thought I could talk to Rocky…maybe to get some understanding or maybe just to see if I could find some relief from feeling so guilty…I don’t really know,” stammered Joe as he looked teary eyed up at his father.

“And did you, son?” Ben asked hopefully, for he had feared other reasons as to why his son might drink himself into a drunken stupor and then disappear.  The images that his troubled mind had conjured up had frightened him.  The relief he now felt with Joe entwined within the folds of his arms, was just as overwhelming as his fear had been.

“Pa, Mr. Jenkins was there…he helped me when I fell in the water, and then again when I got sick…and he bandaged my hand.  I cut it on the brandy decanter when I dropped it and it broke.”  Joe held his hand up for his father to see.

“I asked him why he was helping me when he blamed me for Rocky’s death.  That’s when he explained…just like you said…he didn’t really blame me.  He said that he was to blame, because he let Rocky go with us when Mrs. Jenkins had already told Rocky that he couldn’t go.”

Joe blew his nose on the handkerchief that his father handed to him and then continued.

“Mr. Jenkins told me that it was easier for him to blame me than to accept responsibility for what he did, and that was going against his wife’s wishes.  It was hard for him Pa, he cried…and…so did I.”

“And then he asked me to forgive him.”  Joe backed away a few paces and then turned around to face Ben.  “It was always his eyes…in my dream…they scared me, Pa…that’s why I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep…they kept coming back…staring at me, as if they were accusing me of letting him die.”

Joe began to whimper.  His father reached out and drew his son back into his arms.  “Mr. Jenkins said we, he and I, should learn to move on…and that I should not blame myself, he didn’t blame me and so I shouldn’t either.”

“He’s right Joseph, I’ve tried to make you understand that from the very beginning and…”

“I know you have Pa, but I couldn’t see past what Mr. Jenkins said to me that day, when Adam brought Rocky out of the water.  But now, hearing him tell me, makes things seem different.  I can’t explain it, Pa…but I knew you would never blame me…but I blamed myself and when Mr. Jenkins said that is was my fault, I naturally believed him,” Joe explained. “Somehow, it was easier to believe that I was to blame than to believe that I wasn’t, maybe because I already believed I was.”

They had moved to the side porch and Ben had sat down.  Joe paced back and forth in front of him, still struggling to express his feelings.  He stopped and twirled around, looking down at his father.

“When Mr. Jenkins said that he nearly ruined my life by letting me think I was to blame, rather than to admit he that he was really the one at fault, I stopped being mad at him.  And…I suppose right then, I felt more sorry for him than I did myself,” Joe admitted. “That’s what I was doing…feeling sorry for myself, I mean.  I don’t know why, Pa…but I did.”

“And now Joseph?” questioned Ben.

“I don’t feel that way anymore, thanks to Mr. Jenkins.  It was an accident, neither one of us was to blame, I know that now, in here,” answered Joe as he tapped his chest over his heart.

“That’s right, son, and remember, Rocky played a part in his own death.  He did something that he knew he wasn’t very good at doing.  He hadn’t had enough practice but he chose to do something foolish, like jumping into water that he was not totally familiar with,” Ben explained.

“Son, I’m glad that you understand now.  I’m glad that Mr. Jenkins was there, to help you and to explain why he said what he did, and most importantly, impressed upon you how wrong he was by doing so.”

“He asked me to drop by to visit with him sometime…but I’m not sure if I can do that, at least not yet,” Joe said softly.

He lifted his head slightly and smiled at his father.  “I told him I’d probably be grounded until I turned eighteen, for drinking all your brandy and coming home with a hangover.”

Ben’s face split open with a happy smile, overjoyed to see and hear his son giggling again.

“You’re probably right young man…I’d almost forgotten about the brandy,” laughed Ben.

“Great…me and my big mouth,” muttered Joe, which caused his father to laugh again.

“Hey, what’s so funny?” asked Hoss as he and Adam joined their father and brother.

“Whew…you been drinking, Little Brother?” quizzed Adam as he sniffed the stale brandy that lingered on Joe’s clothing.

Ben and Hoss laughed and Joe pressed his hand to his forehead.

“Oh…not so loud, my head feels like someone hit it with a hammer,” Joe moaned.

“It’s called a hangover, buddy,” smiled Adam.  “It happens when you drink too much and can’t hold your…”

“How would you know?” his father suddenly surprised his oldest son by asking.

“Hmm…me?  Well…hmm…you see, Pa…it…happened to me…but only once…” Adam stammered.  “Hmm…I got chores to do…see ya little buddy,” Adam called as he scampered off to the barn, leaving his family laughing loudly.

“Come on son, you best get to bed and sleep it off.  You can sleep as long as you like…and when you wake up…we will discuss my empty brandy decanters and why your head hurts so badly,” Ben said in a stern voice, though it took all his will power to keep the smile off his face.

“Yessir…” Joe sputtered as he turned and headed off to his room.

Ben watched his son go.  He glanced at Hoss and saw that he was watching Joe as well.  Ben moved to place a hand on the massive shoulder.

“It’s good to have him back,” Ben said.  The love that he felt for his youngest son made his voice thick with emotion and he swallowed several times to clear his throat.

“Yeah, Pa…it’s good, I’ve missed my little brother.”  Hoss wiped away the lone tear that rolled down his pudgy face and smiled at his father.  “Ya gonna give him a thrashin’ for getting’ drunk?”

Ben laughed, “No, but I think I’ll keep him home…with me…until he turns eighteen!”

Ben slowly walked to the front door, leaving Hoss scratching his head and pondering the meaning to his words.

***End***

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One thought on “Until He Turns Eighteen (by Debbie B.)

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