When Death Comes Callin’ (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   15,352


 

“Thank you Miss Jones,” Ben uttered, his head dropped low in an effort to keep the teacher from seeing his rising anger.  “I’ll have a word or two with the boy just as soon as he comes home; you can be assured of that.”

“Thank you Mr. Cartwright, and…I’m sorry, really I am, but I thought that Joseph was sick, and that was the reason that he has been out of school for the last couple of days,” Miss Jones said.

Ben glanced up at the teacher and shook his head, “Sometimes I worry about that boy, just when I think he’s just about grown up, he goes and does something so childish.  Hooky, I would have thought he had out grown that by now; after all, this is his last year in school, what with being fifteen and all.  Miss Jones?”

Ben paused and pushed his hat back on his head, “You’re sure that the Morgan boy was playing hooky with Joseph?”

Abigail Jones stepped down one step, making herself to be on the same level with the senior Cartwright.  Her eyes were wide as she met his dark anger filled chocolate ones.

“Absolutely, Mr. Cartwright.  Ever since Trae Morgan came to school here four months ago, he and young Joseph have been as thick as thieves, if you will pardon the expression.  When you see one, the other is usually close by, and if there’s trouble, well…how can I say this without offending you…hmm…Joseph is usually right in the thick of things.  And Trae, though he never gets into the actual fighting, he isn’t too far from Joseph’s side urging him on, mind you,” Miss Jones stated in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.

Ben was well aware of the fact that the teacher was very confident in her assumption of his youngest and most trying son and he had no cause to doubt her words.  “Miss Jones,” Ben said, almost groaning as he turned to his horse and started to mount up, “again, I’m sorry for my son’s actions, for his absence from school and for whatever lies he might have made up to cause you to think that he was sick.”

Miss Jones’ blond head was bobbing up and down.  “Thank you sir, but just one piece of advice…if you don’t mind?”

Ben sat astride his big buckskin horse, watching Miss Jones who watched him with eyes that spoke of her desire to speak her mind.  “Yes?” Ben said in a low voice.

“Personally, I think a good thrashing would be in Joseph’s best interest, and…I might add…restricting him from keeping company with the likes of that Morgan boy.  Now please, don’t get me wrong…it’s just that I happen to think that perhaps Joseph should pick and choose his friends a mite more carefully.  The Morgans are fairly new here and they tend to keep to themselves, so there is no way of knowing just what sort of people they really are.”

Ben tipped his hat, “yes, I will agree with you on that point, but as far as a thrashing, he is fifteen and I think a little too old for me to be putting across my knee.”

Miss Jones’ mouth dropped opened but before she could utter another word, Ben quickly hurried on.

“I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve one, but I assure you, I have other methods of dealing with his misconduct.  Good day, ma’am.”  Ben turned Buck toward home and gently kicked at the horse’s sides.

All the way home Ben stewed about his youngest son’s deceptiveness, and with each passing mile, his anger grew.  Nothing that his son would have to say, would defer the angered father from dishing out much deserved punishment to his son.  Ben brushed his hand across his face and allowed the air to expel from his lungs.

‘I’m getting too old for this nonsense,’ he muttered softly to his mount.

By the time that Ben reached home, he was past being angry.  He reined in his horse and tossed the reins lightly around the hitching post and stomped into the house.

“JOSEPH!” he roared loudly, bringing Hop Sing scurrying from the kitchen, his hands coated in white flour from where he had been busy making biscuits for supper.

“What all the shoutin’ about?  Little boy not in house!” ranted Hop Sing, slinging his arms about in the air and sending the white flakes of powdery dust about in a cloud.  He turned, muttering in his native tongue, words that Ben was sure he did not want to know the meanings to.

“Something wrong, Pa?”

Ben glanced up toward the top of the stairs.  Adam stood, clad only in his trousers and boots, a slight configuration of a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.  He had recognized the tone of voice his father had used to summons the youngest member of the family and knew without asking, that Joe had somehow managed to get himself into some sort of trouble, again.

“Have you seen that youngest brother of yours?” Ben demanded as he made his way to his desk and pulled out the chair to sit down.

Adam descended to the landing and stopped.  “No sir,” he said, watching his father pour himself a brandy.  “Sort of early in the afternoon to be drinking, isn’t it?” he dared to question Ben.

Ben’s ebony eyes sought his oldest son’s face.  “No need to be sarcastic, young man. I think I’m plenty old enough to decide when I need a drink and when I don’t, and for your information, right now…I happen to need a drink.”  Ben turned the miniature goblet up and downed the brandy in one gulp.  He glanced back up at Adam and saw the smile that had deepened the dimple on the left side of his son’s face.

“What’s so amusing?” he shouted.

“Nothing, I’m sorry Pa.  I can see that you’re upset, need I ask at whom?” Adam questioned as he rested both of his hands on the railing.

Ben couldn’t help but crack a smile, though he was still plenty angry with his youngest son.  “I think you figured that out when I came through the door.  Have you by chance happened to have seen the little scalawag?”

“No, I suppose he’s not home from school yet.  What’s he done this time, got kept late again?” laughed Adam lightly, knowing his little brother’s tendency for finding or making trouble for himself.

“School,” muttered Ben to himself.

“What was that?” Adam snickered.

Ben glared up at his son and then repeated himself in a deep voice, “School!  The boy has been playing hooky from SCHOOL!” shouted Ben.

Adam didn’t bother to make a verbal reply to his father’s outburst.  His only reaction was to raise his thick brows in response and turned slowly making his way back to his room.  Once the door was shut, Adam chuckled to himself, the shouting had only begun, he thought silently.

*****

“Are ya sure Trae?”  Little Joe’s voice dripped with emotion and he fought against the tears that threatened to flood his eyes.

“Positive Little Joe, I overheard my folks talking about it, last night,” Trae explained to his friend.

He had turned his head away the minute that he had seen the tears forming in Joe’s eyes.  He had thought it would be a simple thing to do, to tell his friend of his predicament.  Tears were the last things he had expected, especially from Joe Cartwright.  He thought that he had cried enough of his own.  When his parents had broken the news to him the night before, he had felt sure that he hadn’t any tears left to cry; then when he had seen Joe’s eyes begin to water, Trae had had to turn his head to hide his own unexpected ones.

“When?” Joe asked, unable to make his voice louder than a mere whisper.

Trae swiped his hand across the front of his face and turned to face Little Joe.  “I don’t know, but I think soon, maybe a month, two if I’m lucky.”

Joe dropped his head, sniffing his nose to prevent the seepage from rolling onto his upper lip.  He eyed his friend, unashamed that Trae could see the pool of tears in his eyes.  “Are ya scared?”

Trae took a deep breath and then sighed deeply.  “I’d be lyin’ if’n I said I wasn’t, but I try not to think about it.  I just want to forget and then when it happens, it’ll just happen.”

Trae bent down and picked up a rock and tossed it at an imaginary target and then to Joe, smiling.  “Say Cartwright, when ya gonna teach me to ride that pinto of yours?”

Joe was surprised to see the smile that had suddenly appeared on his friend’s face.  “Are you serious?” asked Little Joe.

“Sure I am, I ain’t got nothin’ to lose, do I?” he grinned in reply.

Joe seemed lost in thought.  Trae moved to pet the velvety end of Cochise’s soft nose.  Joe watched fascinated by his friend’s sudden change in attitude and the inner strength that he could sense in the younger boy.

“Why not right now?” tempted Joe.

“Now?  But what about school, we’re already late,” said Trae, surprised that Joe had suggested the present for a riding lesson.

“So?  We ain’t got anything to lose,” Joe giggled, repeating his friend’s phrase.  “Why don’t we just skip class today and go up to the lake?  I know a secret place where we can wade in the water and I’ll teach ya how to skip stones.  After that, we can eat our lunch and maybe do a little fishin’.  By that time, school should be out and then we can just go home.  No one will ever know…”

“But what if the teacher should ask us tomorrow why we were out?  Won’t she be mad when she finds out we played hooky?” Trae asked in a skeptical voice.

Joe started to giggle.  “You don’t think we’re goin’ to tell her we played hooky, do you?  Look Trae, today’s Thursday, so we’ll just stay out Friday as well.  Don’t worry pal, I assure you, no one will know.  Come Monday, we’ll just let her think we’ve both been sick…” Joe stopped suddenly, the smile gone as he eyed his friend.

“Trae…”

“It’s okay Joe; I think we can pull it off.  I’m game if you are…I really want to learn to ride and you can show me how to skip those stones you were telling me about.”  Trae slapped his friend’s back and moved as if too mount Cochise.

“Hey, wait, that’s not the right side,” yelled Joe, stopping Trae in his tracks.  Joe started laughing and took the reins from his friend’s hands and mounted Cochise on the correct side.  He offered the boy his hand.

“Hold my hand and pull yourself up and then toss your leg over his back.”

Trae did as instructed and within minutes both boys were riding off through the woods toward the lake, the schoolteacher already forgotten as they talked in anticipation of their outing.

*****

Ben shuffled through his papers for the fourth time and finally placed them in a pile in front of him. ‘Two days,’ he thought to himself.  ‘Two days of hooky,’ he muttered.

 Just as he scooted back his chair, the front door opened and immediately slammed shut.  Ben gritted his teeth as Joe strolled past, unaware of his father sitting at the desk.

“JOSEPH!”

Joe stopped in his tracks, turned to face his father and smiled.  “Oh, hi ya Pa.  I didn’t see ya sitting there.”

“Come over here, please,” Ben’s voice was stern and Joe’s brows rose in surprise at his father’s tone.

Joe ambled over suddenly suspicious of the way that Ben was eyeing him.

“Have a seat,” Ben ordered, pointing at the chair on the opposite side of the wide oak desk.

Without questioning his father’s motives, Joe sat quietly down, dropping his head and beginning to fidget with a button on his shirt.

“So…how was school today?” Ben surprised Joe by asking.

Joe’s eyes quickly swept his father’s face searching for something that would clue him in as to why Ben was acting so strangely.  Joe gulped.

“School?” he stammered.

“That’s right, school?” Ben said as he fought to control his quickly rising ire.

Joe gulped again and glanced at his father.  Surely his father had not found out already about his playing hooky from school.  There was no way, they had been so careful not to be seen.  Joe had taken Trae for a long ride, up into the foothills of the high country, where the air was cool and crisp.  Joe had shown the other boy the cave where the mama bear lived with her two cubs.  They had sat for an hour or more and watched the cubs playing.  Trae had been born and had lived all of his life in a big city back east before coming to Nevada with his parents, so the experience was something new to him and the boy had seemed to enjoy the time spent with his friend.

*****

Joe had laughed at his friend’s excitement; he had agreed when Trae had been determined to follow the cubs and when mama bear had sensed their presence, the pair of young boys had quickly mounted Cochise and rode off to safety, laughing together.  They had eaten their lunches under a tall Ponderosa pine that had provided them with shade and had even taken a little nap before starting back.  Joe had kept a sharp eye on his friend always cautious least the other boy might grow tired and needed to rest.

On Friday, the two boys had met at a place where Joe had secretly told Trae about and had spent the day fishing and wading in the water.  When the sun had risen to its highest point, they had stripped down to their underwear and had swum around in the warm waters.  Trae had never learned to swim, but by the end of the day, Little Joe had taught him enough so that he could at least dog paddle from one side of the bank to the other.

Joe had even taught his friend the fine art of skipping stones across the glass like water.  Joe had explained in detail how Adam had taught him to skip the stones when he had been but five.  He explained that during that time, his mother had died and his father had all but stopped living, so great had his grief been that Adam had stepped in and had taken charge of both Hoss and himself.

“How’d she die?” Trae asked shyly.

“She fell from a horse,” Joe explained, glancing sideways at his friend, all the while tossing the smooth stones out across the equally smooth water.

“I’m sorry,” Trae whispered.

Joe stopped and turned to his friend.  “Thanks, but that was a long time ago.”

“Do you still think about her?  I mean, once someone dies, they’re gone forever.  Do you think you’ll ever forget her?” Trae tried his luck as he tossed a rock out into the water and watched the ripples as the stone sunk to the bottom.

“I used to think about her all the time, back when it first happened.  I missed her a lot, cause I didn’t understand about death, I just thought she went away cause she didn’t love us anymore,” admitted Joe.  “I even had nightmares.  I still do sometimes.”

“Nightmares?  I have those sometimes too.  I wake up screaming, sometimes I cry,” stated Trae as he selected another rock.  This time when he flung it, it skipped across the top of the water.  “Hey, Joe, look I did it!” he shouted excitedly.

“Hey you did, didn’t ya?” laughed Joe and flung the rock he held in his hand.

“Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“Ya reckon she went to heaven?  Your ma, I mean?” asked Trae.

Joe stopped and glanced at his friend.  “Well, my pa says she did, and Adam, my brother says that if we’re good and live like God wants us too, when we die, we all go to heaven, why?”

“I was just curious.  Ya reckon God will hold it against me when I die, for playing hooky from school?”

Joe straightened himself up and thought before answering the question.  “I hope not…I mean, I’d hate to think that with all the bad people running around in this world, I’d end up going to hell just cause I skipped a couple of days of school,” Joe laughed softly.

Trae giggled, “Yeah, me too.”

“Come on, we’d best be getting back,” Joe said as he dusted off his hands and began to gather his things.  “We got to time it just right, so that we can get home about the same time we normally would have if we’d been in school.”

Trae followed Joe around and gathered his things as well, stuffing the sack that had held his lunch, down into the saddlebag with Joe’s.

“Joe,” Trae said, turning to face his friend.

“Yeah Trae,” Joe said as he skipped one last rock across the water.  “Hey look, that one bounced five times,” he laughed.

Joe turned at the strange sound that his friend was making.  “Trae, are you okay?” Joe asked as he turned from the sight of his friend retching.

Trae’s stomach heaved twice more before it was finished emptying onto the ground.  He wiped his shirtsleeve across his mouth and with tears still in his eyes, smiled slightly at Joe.  “Sorry.”

“Are you okay?” Joe asked a second time, more concerned, that maybe his friend had over done himself.

“I am now.  Hey, don’t look so scared, I said I was fine.”

“But why…I mean, what made you sick?” Joe wondered aloud.

“Don’t know, it just happens sometimes, don’t fret about it.  Come on, we better get goin’,” Trae said.

Joe watched as the boy finished stuffing his belongings into the saddlebag and when he’d finished, Joe mounted up, offering the boy a hand up.

“Joe, thanks…I mean, I’ll never forget all we’ve done the last couple of days.  It’s been great,” Trae said when they were on their way.  “I just hope we don’t get found out,” he snickered.

“It won’t be the first time; I’ve done it before, though it has been a long time ago.  I had fun too Trae, whatever happens if my pa finds out, will be worth it,” Joe called over his shoulder.

“Well, it meant a lot to me, Little Joe.  You’ll never know how much.  I’ve never had a chance to do the things that I’ve done yesterday and today.  Living in the city like I’ve always had to do, didn’t give my father and me time to get out in the woods to hunt or fish.  I can’t thank you enough for spending time with me like ya did,” Trae whispered.

“It meant a lot to me, too,” Joe replied, glancing over his shoulder at the boy behind him.  His gaze was met with a happy smile and Joe smiled in return.

*****

“JOSEPH, I asked you a question, I’m waiting for an answer,” Ben said, his voice growing deeper, which only meant that his anger was rising.

“Hmm…I’m sorry Pa, what did you ask me…I was…”

“I know what you were doing, you were trying to avoid the question,” Ben shouted as he stood to his feet and moved to stand in front of Joe who was trying to avoid his father’s penetrating eyes.

“Hmm…school…” stammered Joe.

“Look at me when I talk to you,” ordered Ben, his hands placed firmly on his hips.

Joe glanced up, seeing the deep scowl embedded on his father’s brow and instantly knew that somehow, his father had found out that he had played hooky from school.  But did he know about both days?  Joe swallowed and dropped his head.

“Well, Pa…about school…you see…I, hmm…” Joe glanced up; Ben was not making this easy for him at all, thought Joe to himself.

“I’m waiting!”

“I didn’t go to school today,” Joe blurted out in a rush.  “But I can explain, Pa…honest…”

Ben moved around Joe’s chair and was standing behind his son.  When Joe glanced up, his father was gone and he twisted his head around to find his father standing behind him.  Joe stood to his feet and faced his father.  The look that Ben had on his face left no doubt to his son, that he was mad.

“Pa…”

“Joseph, I don’t want to hear any of your feeble excuses, because there are no excuses for what you have done.  You have skipped school…not just one day…but two days.  You have led me to believe you have been in class, when all along you have been…just where have you been?” ranted Ben, his voice booming.

“To the lake,” confessed Joe.  He omitted the fact that he and Trae had ridden up into the foothills, and the meeting with the bear cubs.  Ben would tan his backside for sure if he knew that his son had practically been within arms reach of the young bears and had even been chased off by an enraged mama bear out to protect her young.

“TO THE LAKE!” stormed Ben moving to the other side of his desk.  “And let me guess, you went for a little swim as well?”

Joe dropped his head.  “Yessir,” he replied.  “But the water wasn’t cold…honest Pa.”  Unfortunately, Joe’s nose picked that instance to clear itself as Joe sneezed.

“Not cold, heh?  Well, that’s your opinion,” growled the angry father as he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to his son.

Joe accepted the cloth and wiped his nose.  “Thanks,” he said in a tiny voice.

“Sit down,” Ben pointed to the chair where Joe had sat just moments before.  Joe quickly did as suggested and watched as Ben moved around the desk again and sat on the corner, facing him, staring down at him.  Suddenly Joe shivered.

“I had to make an unexpected trip into town this afternoon.  I had to have some papers signed at the bank.  By the time that I finished, it was nearly three o’clock so I figured I’d ride over to the school and meet my son.  Do you know how shocked I was when I sat there and watched all the other children leave for the day and there was no sign of MY son?”

Joe shook his head from side to side.

“Of course you wouldn’t.  I thought maybe Joseph was being kept late, again, but just as I was getting down from my horse, out comes Miss Jones, and you want to know what she was doing?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders.

“She was locking up.  I knew right then that you weren’t staying late, so naturally I asked her where you were.  Needless to say, I was speechless when she told me that she thought you must be sick because you haven’t been to school…FOR TWO DAYS!”

“Pa…please…I can explain…” begged Joe.

Ben had started to pace and had his back turned to Joe.  Suddenly, hearing his son’s words, he spun around.

“Save it Joseph…just don’t say anything…not one word.  I will do the talking, you will do the listening.”  Ben had his hands on his hips, his head slightly bent forward as he eyed his son.

Joe sneezed again and then groaned slightly in aggravation at himself as he wiped his nose.

“I was informed that you have missed two days of school this week.  Joseph, I am very angry with you…you have begged me for months now to let you quit school and I had almost decided to let you…you seemed to have grown up so much over that last few months but now I’m not so sure!  Hooky…Joseph…hooky is a child’s game, not a young adult’s.”

Ben stomped off and then returned.  “I may just make you go another year…until I am sure you are fully grown!”

“PA!” Joe shouted as he jumped to his feet.  “That’s not fair…”

“NOT FAIR?” yelled Ben.  “I”LL TELL YOU WHAT’S NOT FAIR!  HOOKY, DECEPTION, BLANTANT DISREGARD FOR AUTHORITY!”

Joe was fighting back his tears.  He could explain why he skipped school, if his father would only give him a chance.  “I didn’t do it on purpose,” he declared in a weak voice.

Ben spun around, his eyes a deep ebony as he glared at his son.  “Joseph,” he said in a voice so low that Joe had to raise his head and meet his father’s stance to be sure that Ben had truly spoken.

“Purpose?  You didn’t do it on purpose?  Tell me something young man, did you plan on playing hooky…you and that Morgan boy?” quizzed Ben.

“I…I…I mean…well…I suppose…but Pa…”

“YOU SUPPOSE?  Then how in blazes can you say it wasn’t on purpose?”

Joe’s eyes filled with tears as he stood in front of his father with his head lowered.

“Joseph, I’ve a good mind to give you a good thrashing, just as Miss Jones suggested.”

Joe’s head twisted upward, his eyes wide as he gazed at his father in shock.

“But, as I explained it to the teacher, I feel you are too old for that, so…” Ben watched his son’s face and noted the instant relief that crossed over the boy.  “You are restricted, for the next month to…”

“A MONTH?” shouted Joe, jumping to his feet.  “Pa…please, not a whole month!” pleaded Joe, his thoughts turning to Trae and how much time his father’s punishment would take away from the time he needed to be with his friend.

“That’s what I said, a full month.  You are not to leave this yard.  You will do your chores everyday after school and when they are finished, you will remain inside and…you will no longer be allowed to keep company with that Morgan boy, do I make myself clear?  Stay away from him!” ordered Ben.

Joe was stunned.  “Pa…” he stammered softly.  “Why can’t I see Trae?  He didn’t do anything…he’s my friend.”  Joe’s tears had slowly filled his eyes and were on the brink of slipping over the top of the rims.

“I know he was with you Joseph…I know that the two of you planned this whole little scheme together.  I’m sure his father isn’t any more pleased about his skipping school than I am.  You are to stay away from him.”

“But he didn’t do anything…honest….”

“JOSEPH!  DO NOT ARGUE WITH ME!  I HAVE MADE MYSELF CLEAR ON THIS…YOU ARE NOT TO BE HANGING AROUND THAT BOY AGAIN!” shouted Ben, glaring at Joe.

“It wasn’t his idea…It was mine, Pa…mine…he didn’t do nothing!” Joe yelled.

“Don’t raise your voice to me young man.  I don’t care who’s idea it was; if he was so eager to follow along on such a fool-hearted suggestion, then he’s just as much to blame as you are.  Heaven only knows what he might think up for the two of you to get mixed up into.  Besides, I don’t know his family; they could be hooligans for all I know.  His father might even be wanted by the law, that boy might be…”

“STOP IT, PA!” Joe shouted, the tears finally slipping free and rolling down his face.  “Trae’s not like that at all, and you ain’t got right to call him names!”

Ben, stunned, glared back at Joe, seeing for the first time the tears that coursed down his son’s face.  Taken back by his son’s reaction, his voice softened.

“Joseph, I wasn’t calling the boy names.  I just meant to imply that perhaps he isn’t someone with whom you should keep company with…”

Joe was still obviously upset.  “Why?  Just because he’s new in town, or because he’s poor and not rich like you?”  Joe turned his back to his father and stomped toward the stairs, stopping and twirling around to face his father.

“You said more than once that we should never judge a man by the clothes on his back, but by what’s in a man’s heart.  Now, just because my friend plays hooky with me and his folks are dirt poor and have nothing, you think he isn’t good enough to be my friend.  Well, that makes you very narrow-minded Pa, plain and simple.”

Joe turned and ran up the stairs, stopping on the landing and turning back around to stare down at his father who had followed him as far as the bottom of the steps.

Joe dabbed at his falling tears and then cleared his throat that had become thick with emotion.  “You…don’t understand…you won’t even give me a chance to explain…I don’t have a month…and neither does Trae!”  Joe turned and fled to his room, the slamming of the door ringing loud in the silent house.

*****

For the next couple of days, Joe sulked about the house, doing his chores, keeping to himself within the walls of his room and avoiding any contact with his father.  Ben had chosen to give his son the time and space he needed to gather his anger and hurt feelings together before approaching the boy to talk to him.

Joe’s sneezing had continued and he had even begun to cough occasionally, clearing his throat several times in an effort to keep the cough from being noticed by members of his family.  His body ached, though he hid that fact as well.

By Monday morning, Joe’s attitude, unlike his stuffy nose and hacking cough, had seemed to improve, so when Joe joined his family at the breakfast table, it was with a smile, however forced.

“Mornin’ Pa,” greeted Joe.  “Mornin’ Hoss, Adam,” he smiled as he reached for the stack of pancakes and began serving himself.

“Well, good morning,” Ben returned the greeting with a smile at his youngest and a swift glance around the table at Hoss and Adam.

Joe hurried to finish his breakfast and then asked to be excused.  “Pa, I have a couple of things to do in the barn before I leave for school, may I be excused?” he asked.

Ben nodded his head as he wiped his mouth.  Quickly, Joe rose and started for the door without a backward glance at his family.

“Joseph,” called Ben, pushing back his chair and standing, “while you’re in the barn, could you please saddle my horse, I’m going to ride into town with you,” Ben announced.

Joe stopped suddenly in his tracks and turned to face his father.  “Ride into town with me…why?” he asked.

Ben’s eyebrows rose slightly and when Adam glanced over in Hoss’ direction, Ben did not fail to see the movement.  He eyed both of his older sons with a look of hesitancy as he moved around the table to speak with Joe.

“Because I said I was, there are a couple of things I need to check on in town, so I thought I would accompany you,” Ben informed the boy, who by now was growing somewhat impatient.

Joe scrunched up his face, forming a scowl to distort his handsome features.  “Is that the real reason, Pa?  Or are you tagging along to be sure I get to school?” Joe’s voice had risen slightly and the touch of sarcasm in his voice did not go undetected by his father.

“That will be enough of that kind of talk, young man,” snapped Ben as he reached for his hat.

Joe dropped his head, instantly regretting having been so short with his father.  “I’m sorry, Pa.  It’s just that I don’t like to be treated like a little boy.  I’m plenty able to get to school by myself,” he muttered, glancing up at Ben.

Ben pinched his lips tightly together.  “I’m sure you are, if I felt sure that was what you intended to do.  As for being treated like a little boy, when you stop acting like one, and begin acting like the young man you are supposed to be, I will treat you as such.  Until then, I will treat you accordingly.  Now, please let’s go, you surely do not need to add tardiness to your list of offenses.”

Ben strapped on his holster as Joe turned on his heels and marched out the door to the barn.  Ben briefly closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Take it easy, Pa,” laughed Adam.  “I think you are still one step ahead of him.”

Ben grinned, “I need to be about a mile ahead of that boy, not just one step,” laughed Ben as he closed the door behind him.

*****

The ride into town was quiet.  Joe would cast his eyes over at his father occasionally but Ben too, was silent.  Each had certain thoughts going through their heads as they rode along.  Joe couldn’t wait to get to school; he wanted to talk to Trae to find out whether or not his father had found out about them skipping school and if so, what had Mr. Morgan done about it?  Somehow, Joe thought that Trae’s father would be more understanding, considering.

“I’ll see you this afternoon Joe.”

Joe’s attention was snapped back to the present by the sound of his father’s voice.  He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not even been aware when they had reached the school and stopped.

Joe’s eyes found his father’s.  “See ya,” he said as he slid from the saddle and led his pinto toward the stable.

“I’ll meet you here after school,” Ben called.

Joe paused, looking up at Ben.  Ben noted the unhappy expression on his son’s face and sighed softly, he hated treating the boy as if he were a child in need of his father’s guidance.

Joe shook his head gently.  “You don’t have to…I mean…if you’ve got work to do.  I’ll come straight home, I promise,” Joe told Ben.

Ben hesitated momentarily and then smiled, breaking the tension that had seemed to be hanging over them.  “All right Joe; I do have some paper work at home that needs my attention.  I’ll see you at home then, after school.”

Joe’s expression changed to one of relief as he returned his father’s smile.  “I won’t be late, I promise.”

Ben nodded his head and turning, made his way down the street.

*****

“Hey Little Joe,” a voice from behind him called.

Joe turned and saw Trae step from behind the side of the building.  “Trae, I was wondering where you were.  How ya feeling?” asked Joe as he fell into step beside Trae.

“I’m okay.  Was that your Pa with ya?” he asked, glancing back over his shoulder as he watched Ben ride down the street.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Joe said, following Trae’s gaze.

“How come he rode in with you?” Trae continued.  “He looked mad.”

“Aw…he used the excuse that he had some business in town this morning, but what he was really doing was making sure I got to school.  He found out about us playing hooky and I got in trouble,” explained Joe.

“Yeah, my pa found out, too,” added Trae.  “What did your father do, did ya get a thrashing?”

Joe shook his head, “No, worse, he grounded me for a month.  I ain’t allowed to go any place except for the house and barn.  I can’t even go fishing on Saturdays anymore.  What about you?  What’d your pa do to you?”

Trae couldn’t keep the smile from his face.  “He didn’t do nothing.  Ma was madder than a wet hen, but Pa all Pa did was laugh and say, ‘well Martha, boys will be boys’.  That didn’t set to well with Ma, but she didn’t say no more about it, until she thought I was asleep, and then my folks got into an argument about it.”

“Really?  My pa yelled at me for nearly an hour, and then he said that I wasn’t allowed to…” Joe suddenly realized what he was saying and stopped in mid-sentence.

Trae surprised him by laughing.  “My ma told my pa the same thing about you.  She said you were a bad influence on me and that I have to stay away from you.  She made Pa tell me the next morning.”

Joe couldn’t help but giggle.  “I told Pa that it wasn’t your idea about playing hooky, it was mine, but he said that if you would follow along so easily with the idea, there was no telling what you might talk me into.”

Both boys had reached the front door of the school and had stopped.  Trae placed his hand on Joe’s arm, stopping him from opening the door.

“I’m sorry ya got in trouble Joe, but I ain’t sorry we did it.  I had more fun those two days than I have since…well…since way before I found out,” said Trae, all traces of humor gone now from his voice as he fought to control his emotions.

“Thanks Joe, you’re a true friend.”

“Hey, what are friends for?” laughed Joe as his voice cracked and he began coughing.

The coughing spell lasted for several minutes and there were times that Joe thought he might lose his breath.  At last he was able to bring it under control and the pair of friends slipped quickly into the class.  Miss Jones had her back to the door but was well aware of the boys as they tried to hurry to their seats.  When she was sure that they had sat down, she turned, picking Joe to fix her eyes on.

“Young man, you are late!” she snapped, not happy with the way that she had been deceived the last two days of the previous week.

“I’m sorry Miss Jones, but I started coughing and couldn’t stop,” Joe explained and as if to prove his point, he sneezed and that set off another bout of coughing.

Miss Jones snarled up her nose in distaste.  “Well for heaven’s sake Joseph, excuse yourself and go get a drink.  But mind you, you and Trae will stay after school this afternoon because of your tardiness.”

Joe was half way to the back door when he stopped and twirled around, his hand covering his mouth as he fought to silence his cough.  “But Miss Jones…” he sputtered between coughs, “I can’t…I promised my pa that I wouldn’t be late…”

Abigail looked up from her papers and glared at Joe.  “Well, that’s a pity, but I’m sure Ben Cartwright will understand when he reads the note that I am sending home with you.  Now please, Joseph, go outside until you can control that awful hacking noise!”  Miss Jones pointed her finger at the door.

Joe quickly glanced at Trae, saw the anxious look on his face and then went out.  Quickly he made his way to the old pump and pumped fresh water into the outside sink and taking an old tin cup from the make-do shelf, filled it with cool water.

Joe stood in the warm sun for several minutes, trying to warm himself with the bright rays that filtered through the tall pines.  He felt like running away, he wanted nothing more than to signal for Trae to join him and then he and his friend could slip off.  Why not, he questioned himself, he was in trouble again and there would be no way that his father would understand.  Ben had not even wanted to listen when Joe had tried before to explain why he and Trae felt the need to skip class the week before.  Joe convinced himself that Ben would never believe him when he tried to explain why he had been late when Ben had delivered him to the school himself.  Joe groaned, and then felt the trembles that coursed through his body, making him to shiver.  His head ached, his stomach churned and when he started coughing again, the stomach reacted and suddenly emptied itself onto the ground.

Joe wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and re-entered the classroom.  He cast Miss Jones a quick glance and then sat down.  The teacher handed Joe some papers, gave him brief instructions as to what he should be doing and then returned to her desk.  Joe shuffled through the work and with a quick look at Trae he began working.

Time seemed to pass far too slowly as Joe worked on the problems that Miss Jones had scribbled down on the paper for him.  His head throbbed, making thinking straight almost useless.  He cut his eyes over at Trae and was shocked to find the boy with his head down on his desk, his eyes shut tightly.

“Trae,” whispered Joe softly, trying to wake the boy.  The boy behind Trae heard Joe’s muted whisper and poked Trae softly in the back.  Trae groaned softly, catching the teacher’s attention and bring her to her feet.

“Trae Morgan, you wake up this instant,” Miss Jones ordered in a commanding voice.  “There will not be any sleeping in my class, do you hear me?” she said as she made her way to the Morgan boy’s seat.  Giving the sleeping boy a good shake on the shoulder, Trae slowly opened his eyes.  He was shocked to see the teacher towering over him and more surprised to find the entire class laughing at him.

“Get in the corner this second, young man!” demanded Miss Jones, pointing to the nearest corner at the front of the class.  “You may join your friend, Joseph, after school by staying late this evening.”

Joe groaned; he knew that Trae’s parents would not be happy with having their son held after school.  It seemed to him that the harder he and Trae tried, the worse things became for them.

*****

Ben paced the floor in front of the fireplace, his hands buried deep into the pockets on the side of his trousers.  He stopped as the front door opened, revealing his youngest son.  It was late, nearly six o’clock according to the number of chimes that resounded in the suddenly quiet house.

Joe gave a swift glance at his father and noted the unhappy expression on his father’s face.  He pulled his hat off and hung it on the peg behind the door and with evident dread written on his young face, turned and faced his father.

“I can explain…” he began as he walked slowly over to the fireplace and stopped in front of his father.  Joe was aware of his two brother’s eyes following him and watching their father’s reaction to his late home coming.

Ben said not a word as he stood silent much like a statue and watched the boy fidget nervously.

“Hmm…I…ere…I mean…we were…late and when we…hmm…went…”

“Joseph, what do you mean, late?  I hope you are going to try to make me believe that you…late…for school.  I happen to know that you were there in plenty of time,” Ben stated.

“Yessir, I…know…but after you…left…I started talking to Trae and then I…”

“Talking to Trae?  After I told you to stay away from him?” Ben was getting madder by the minute.  “So you wasted time doing something that you were told not to do and that made you late for class and…let me guess, Miss Jones kept you after school, am I right?” Ben growled.

Joe dropped his head; it was useless, he thought.  The way that his father worded it, it made it sound like there was much more to it than what really happened.  Just at that minute, Joe began coughing.

“Hoss, get him some water,” Ben instructed, his anger momentarily forgotten as concern took charge.  “Joe, are you all right?” Ben said, gently slapping his son on his back.

Joe was nodding his head up and down.  When Hoss returned with the glass of water and placed it in Ben’s outstretched hand.  “Here son, drink this.”

Joe accepted the glass and took a sip, “thanks,” he said as the coughing subsided.  Ben’s hand remained resting on Joe’s shoulder as he watched the redness in his son’s face fade away.

“Better?” asked Ben.

Joe nodded.  “Pa…about what happened this morning…”

“Joseph, I don’t want to talk about it right now.  You feel a little warm; I want you to get ready for bed while I find Hop Sing’s cough medicine for you.”  Ben smiled slightly and brushed back a stray curl from Joe’s forehead.  “Go on, get upstairs, I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

“Come on Joe,” said Hoss, “I’ll give you a hand.”

Joe and Hoss proceeded to the stairs but Joe stopped and turned back to his father.  “Pa…please don’t be mad at Trae, he didn’t do anything…honest,” Joe said in a quivering voice.  “I know you don’t like him, but he’s my friend and I do like him.  He’s…he’s…” Joe gulped, his eyes suddenly filling with tears.

Without finishing his sentence, Joe turned and rushed up the stairs, unable to speak, as his emotions became too overwhelming for him.

Ben exchanged looks with Adam and then Hoss, taken back by his youngest son’s actions.  “Well I wonder what in the world that was all about?”

“Beats me,” replied Hoss and followed after Little Joe.

*****

By the time that Ben had collected the cough remedy and taken it upstairs to Joe’s room, Joe had already fallen to sleep.  Ben slipped softly into the room to the bed.  He couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips as he gazed down into the face of his youngest son.  Ben sat down on the edge of the bed, gently shaking Joe’s shoulder to attempt to waken the boy.

“Come on Joe, wake up son.  I have this medicine for you to take,” encouraged Ben.

Joe moaned softly and finally after two more tries by his father, opened his eyes.  “Oh, hi Pa,” smiled Joe as he coughed again.

Ben poured some of the medicine into a spoon and held it to Joe’s lips.  “Take this, it will help stop that cough.”

Joe eyed the medicine in the spoon and then eyed his father.  “Do I have to?  I don’t feel so bad,” he asked hopefully.

“Yes you have too.  It’s either this, or I send for Doctor Martin.  Now what’s it to be?” Ben said sternly, though a smile softened his words.

“You don’t play fair,” moaned Joe as he relented and opened his mouth for his father.  Ben tipped the spoon up until all of the medicine was gone and poured another spoonful.

“One more,” smiled Ben as Joe scrunched up his face at his father and opened his mouth a second time to receive the yucky tasting medication.

Ben placed the cap back on the bottle and set it and the spoon aside, on the table.  He then arranged the blankets to suit himself in an effort to make his son comfortable.

“Am I going to die?” Joe surprised Ben by asking.

Ben’s shock registered on his face.  “Joseph, of course not, you just have the beginnings of a cold.  Probably from swimming in that cold water,” he added.  “But why would you ask such a thing?”

Joe pinched his lips together and shrugged his shoulders.  “I don’t know.  What’s it like when you die?  I mean…what’s it feel like, does it hurt?”

Ben smiled softly at Joe.  “Well son, I can’t say for sure what it feels like.  About the only thing that I can tell you is that the actual dying, you know, when your spirit leaves your body, that doesn’t hurt.  Unfortunately, sometimes the thing that kills you could hurt.  Like when someone gets shot and dies from the wound, or maybe someone is very, very sick, and has suffered for a long time, the sickness might hurt the body, but then again, the act of dying I don’t think would hurt.  Why son, why do you want to know?”

“I was just wondering, that’s all.  Do you suppose that when mama died, it hurt?” inquired Joe in a soft voice.

“No son.  When your mother died, it was sudden, very quick.  One minute she was there, riding into the yard and in a blink of an eye, she was gone.  I honestly believe that she felt nothing, not even the pain in her body before she passed.”  Ben brushed back the stray curls from Joe’s brow.

“Pa…why does God let some people die quick like, and others are made to suffer for a long time?  Why does he allow someone so young to die?”  Joe was having a hard time holding back his tears and when he blinked, tiny droplets of water trickled down the sides of his face.

“Joe, what’s wrong son?  Why are you crying, sweetheart?” Ben whispered while his thumbs wiped away the moisture.

Joe quickly swiped his hands across his eyes and took a deep breath.  “No reason, I guess I’m just tired.  Can I go to sleep now?” he asked, his questions forgotten now.

“Okay Joe, close your eyes,” whispered Ben, tucking the edge of the blankets around his son.  Ben leaned down and placed a kiss on top of the curls.  “Good night son, God bless.”

Joe gave his father a tiny smile and turned onto his side.  “Night Pa,” he said as his voice drifted off.  “Sorry…about…today…”

Ben smiled, though the gesture went unseen by the recipient who had quickly fallen to sleep. Ben turned the lamp’s wick down low and slipped from the room, his son’s questioning fuel for his troubled thoughts.

*****

By the next morning, Joe’s cough seemed better.  Ben was reluctant to send Joe on to school, but with the missed days the week before, he felt it necessary for his son to go and catch up on the work that he had fallen behind on.

“Joseph, please, try to stay out of trouble today,” smiled Ben.  “I let yesterday slide, but if it happens again, I promise you, I will take more drastic measures, ones I’m sure you will not like, do I make myself clear?”

Joe sat astride his horse as he absorbed his father’s words.  “Yessir,”

“Good, now get going,” said Ben as he stepped back, giving Joe and his horse time to turn around.

“See ya tonight,” called Joe over his shoulder as he disappeared around the corner of the barn.

*****

When Joe reached the school, he hurried to stable his horse and, once back out into the bright morning sun, his eyes searched the group of children who were slowly gathering, for his friend, Trae.  Joe strolled through the schoolyard but could not find Trae among the children.  He was just about to ask a group of boys if they had seen him when Miss Jones began pulling on the rope that was attached to the bell.  The bell clung noisily, a signal for the children that a new school day had begun.  Kids seemed to have appeared from all about the yard as they hurried inside.  Joe lagged behind, delaying for as long as he could for his friend.

“Joseph, are you coming inside?”

Miss Jones’ voice drew his attention away from his search and he had no other recourse but to go inside.

The morning dragged on endlessly for Joe.  He had expected to meet up with Trae in hopes that they might be able to spend a few minutes together.  Joe liked Trae; though the other boy was nearly a year younger than Joe was, they had found that they had a lot in common.  A city boy by birth, Trae loved the wide opened spaces around Virginia City and Joe soon learned that the boy had a deep seeded desire to know all there was about ranching, living on a big spread such as the Ponderosa.  He loved for Joe to tell him about the mustangs, and about the cowboys who rode the horses until they could buck no longer.  When Joe told of the round-ups and the branding, Trae had asked a million questions and had hung on every word that Joe had said.  Trae had soon become Joe’s shadow and followed him everywhere, and Joe loved the attention.  He loved sharing the stories with his friend that his father had passed down to him about the days that Ben and Adam had traveled in covered wagon all the way from Boston to settle and finally stake their claim to the land that made up the Ponderosa.  Today had become drudgery for Joe, Trae was absent, his own head had begun to pound, his stomach churned and then, late in the day, the dry hacking cough had started.

“Joseph,” Miss Jones’ had said as she stood at the side of his desk, “why don’t you go on home?  I see just by looking at you, you feel terrible.  I wouldn’t want any of the other children to catch that awful cough.  I’ve written a note for you to give to your father, explaining why I’m sending you home.  Now please, gather your things and go home. And young man, go straight to bed.”

Joe felt awful as he took the note from the teacher and began gathering his things.  By the time that he had made his way to the tiny stable to saddle his horse, he felt has if he had put in a long day working.  He could feel the tiny beads of sweat gathering on his brow as he swiped his hand across his face in order to wipe away the slowly dripping beads.

“Whew…come on old boy, let’s go home.”  Joe pulled himself up into his saddle and gently kicked his mount’s side, urging him on.

Ben was standing in the yard talking to Hoss when Joe arrived home.  Hoss, who was facing Joe, glanced up and then whispered to his father.

“Ut Oh, looky who’s home early.  Wonder why he got sent home?”

Ben turned, surprised to see Joe entering the yard.  He waited until Joe had stopped and dismounted before moving to his son’s side.  “You’re home a mite early today,” commented Ben.

Joe nodded his head in agreement, “Miss Jones sent me home.”

Ben’s face formed a frown as his hands found their way to his hips.  “Why?  What kind of trouble have you gotten into this time?”

Joe’s eyes quickly sought his father’s face, stunned by the harsh words and the tone of his father’s voice.  He felt awful and the only thing that his father could think about was what kind of trouble he might be in.  His temper quickly sprang to life as he glared angrily at his father.

“Why do always think the worst of me?” Joe snapped as he flashed his anxious, tear filled eyes at his father.

Ben was taken back by the sharpness of his son’s voice.  “Joseph, do not take that tone of voice with me!  I only thought that since you were home early that…”

“That I was in trouble again?  That maybe Trae Morgan had led me astray?  Is that it Pa?  Well, you’re wrong, that’s not it at all!” grumbled Joe as he turned to lead his mount into the barn.

“JOSEPH! YOU STOP RIGHT THERE, YOUNG MAN!” Ben bellowed, his own anger at his son’s insolence washing away what was left of his good mood.

Joe stopped but refused to turn around and face Ben.  Ben stomped across the yard to stand behind his son.
“Turn around and look at me, young man.”

Ben’s voice was low but carried a depth to it that warned Joe that he had better do as instructed.  Slowly Joe turned and looked up at his father.  It was then that Ben saw the flushed cheeks, the sweat dampened brow and the tears that had begun to seep tiny beads from the corners of his son’s hazel eyes.  Instantly, Ben’s anger vanished as he placed a strong hand down on the top of Joe’s shoulder.

“Joseph,” he said, and the way in which he voiced aloud the boy’s name, was all it took to shatter Joe’s reserve.

Joe flung himself into his father’s arms and wrapped himself within Ben’s embrace, and wept.  “I’m sorry Pa…I didn’t mean to be so rude…it’s just that…that…everything is all wrong…nothing’s right anymore…and I feel so awful.”

Ben’s hands cradled his son’s head against his chest as he allowed the boy to rid himself of his frustrations.  “Shh…Joe, I’m not sure what you mean, but everything’s going to be okay.  You’re burning up son; let’s get you into the house and into bed.”  Ben gently turned and began guiding Joe towards the door.

As they reached the porch, a rider rode into the yard just as Ben ushered Joe into the house.  Joe, whose head was still buried against his father, failed to see the man.

“Howdy, Mister, what can I do for you?” greeted Hoss.

“Howdy, I was wonderin’ if’n I might speak to Ben Cartwright.”

Hoss noted the harried look on the man’s face and thought how stressed the man seemed.  He glanced at Ben who had continued to lead Joe into the house and wondered briefly if this was a good time for the man to speak with his father, after all, Joe had been mighty upset about something and needed his father’s attention, probably more than this stranger.

The gentleman cleared his throat.

“Oh, sorry sir.  Come on to the house, Pa just took my little brother inside, he came home early from school today, ain’t sure why.”  Hoss chuckled softly, “sure hope the little scamp ain’t been playin’ hooky again.”

The man glanced up at Hoss, his expression troubled, his eyes filled with sadness.  “That’s what I wanted to talk to your Pa and brother about.”

They had reached the door and Hoss twisted the handle and allowed himself and his guest inside.  “Pa,” Hoss called.

Ben and Joe were at the bottom of the steps when the sound of Hoss’ voice stopped them. “Pa, there’s a man here to see ya,” Hoss called.

Ben paused and looked toward the door where Hoss was ushering the man inside.  “Joseph, you go on up stairs son, I’ll be up in a few minutes.”  Ben gently nudged his son forward.

Joe glanced back at the visitor and then up at his father.  “Go ahead son,” smiled Ben.

Joe did as instructed and continued to his room.  Meanwhile, Ben slowly made his way over to where the stranger stood next to Hoss.

“I’m Ben Cartwright, what can I do for you?” greeted Ben as he offered his hand to the man.

The gentleman accepted the outstretched hand and shook it.  “Thank you Mr. Cartwright, for seeing me.”  He nodded his head toward the stairs, “was that Little Joe?” he asked, surprising Ben with his question.

Ben’s eyes narrowed, wondering why this stranger seemed so interested in his youngest son.  The man saw Ben’s hesitancy and quickly continued.

“I’m sorry sir, my name is Ralph Morgan; I’m Trae Morgan’s father.  My son was a friend of Little Joe’s,” he explained.

Ben laughed softly, suddenly feeling a mite foolish.  “I’m sorry Mr. Morgan, I didn’t know…yes of course, Trae, Joe has told me a lot about him.”

“Well, Trae spoke very highly of your son, to.  He admired Little Joe, and I can understand why.  Though I’ve never met the boy, from what Trae told me, he must be a very fine young man,” Ralph went on.

“Joe is a fine young man, I’m very proud of him.  But please, won’t you have a seat?”  Ben pointed to the settee and stepped aside to give the man room to make himself comfortable.

“May I offer you something to drink?  A brandy, or cup of coffee?”

Ralph shook his head, politely refusing the hospitality.  “No thank you, I have to get home…my wife…well…hmm, say Mr. Cartwright, would it be possible for me to speak with Little Joe?  There’s something that I need to tell him.”

“My son’s not feeling too well, Mr. Morgan.  He was sent home from school early and I’ve just sent him upstairs to bed…”

“Please, I assure you, it’s very important.  I promise, I’ll not take up much of his time, as I’ve already stated, I’m needed at home, sir,” Ralph insisted.

“All right, if he isn’t already asleep.”  Ben turned to Hoss who had been standing nearby.  “Hoss, will you please tell Joseph to come down here?”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

Ben motioned for his guest to have a seat and this time, Morgan allowed himself to be guided to the settee where he lowered himself onto the edge of the couch.  In a matter of minutes, Joe appeared at the top of the landing, clad only in his nightshirt, his feet bare.

Ben hurried over and slipped his arm about his son’s shoulders.  “Joseph, you should have something on your feet, son,” Ben scolded gently.

“Sorry Pa,” the boy muttered softly, his eyes searching his father’s face questioningly.

Ben gently guided his son over to the wide boarded table.  Mr. Morgan stood to his feet to greet Joe as Ben inched him forward.

“Joe, this is Trae’s father, Ralph Morgan,” Ben said.

Joe’s eyes lit up as he extended his hand in greeting.  “Howdy, Mr. Morgan,” smiled Joe.

Ralph shook Joe’s hand, holding the smaller one within his two.  His eyes filled with tears as he smiled at his son’s friend.  “The pleasure is mine, son.  Trae has told me a great deal about you.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied, puzzled by the expression on the man’s face.  Joe turned to his father, realizing that Ben had also witnessed the man’s eyes brimming with tears.

“Mr. Morgan, what is it that you wanted to talk to my son and myself about?” Ben hurried on.

“I’m sorry.”  Ralph dropped Joe’s hand and flopped down on the settee, covering his face with his hands.

Ben sat on the wide boarded table in front of the man, glanced up at Joe who watched, wide eyed at the man who appeared to be weeping.

“Ralph?” Ben uttered in a compassionate voice.  “Please, tell us, what’s wrong?”

Ralph took a deep breath and wiped his large worked scared hands across his face.  “Please excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, let me explain,” he glanced up at Joe who had not moved.

Joe watched the man struggling to compose himself as he felt his insides begin to churn with dread and fear.  His thoughts went back to his day at school and the absence of his friend, this man’s son, Trae.  Suddenly Joe felt his own eyes pool with tears and he began to tremble violently.

“Pa?” he whispered in a muted voice.

Ben was quick to his feet, wrapping his arms about his son.  “Joseph, what is it son?” Ben asked with deep concern.  “Here, sit down.”  Ben forced Joe onto the settee, next to Mr. Morgan.

Joe wiped away his tears before they had a chance to escape and turned to his friend’s father.  “It’s Trae isn’t it?  That’s why you’re here…he’s…he’s…”

Mr. Morgan glanced over at Ben and then back to Joe, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  He nodded his head gently.

“I knew you would want to know.  Trae admired you so much, Little Joe.  He counted it a privilege to be your friend, he asked me to tell you thank you for all that you did for him…” Morgan’s voice cracked as his throat thickened with emotion.

Joe’s tears streamed down his face as he turned to Ben and buried his face deeply against his father’s breast.  Ben’s arm’s automatically wrapped themselves around his son’s trembling body and held his son tightly.  Hoss, who had placed his large frame down in the blue chair wiped his own face to dry the moisture that had gathered in his eyes as he watched his little brother’s breakdown.

“Morgan, I’m not sure I understand?” Ben muttered.

Ralph cleared his throat and looked into Ben’s face.  In a voice that betrayed none of the inner turmoil that the grief stricken man felt he explained.

“My son is dead, sir.  He died this morning.”

Ben’s eyes widened in shock and horror.  He felt Joe pressing deeper into his chest.  “How?  What happened?” Ben forced the question.

“Mr. Cartwright, my son Trae, has been sick for a very long time.  That’s why my wife and I decided to come out here.  The doctors back east thought that maybe the cleaner air would help him.  No one knew; we made a point of not telling anyone.  Only the doctor here knew, naturally we had to confide in him, but then later, we found out that Trae had told your son.”  Morgan took a deep breath.

“That’s why the boys played hooky at school, Mr. Cartwright.  There were so many things that Trae wanted to learn about living out here.  Trae was dying and he knew that his time was short.  That’s why, when Joe volunteered to show my son some of the wonderful sights around here and teach him about the wild life, how to skip stones, where the bear cubs lived and even taught Trae how to ride a horse, I couldn’t find it in my heart to punish the boy for skipping school.  Trae was happier those two days than I had seen him in…well…several months, Mr. Cartwright.  And I’ve your son to thank for that.”

Ben was silent for several minutes before finding his voice.  “I’m sorry Mr. Morgan, very sorry.  I didn’t know about your son, Joseph didn’t say a thing to me about him being so ill.”

Ben’s hand lovingly caressed the back of Joe’s neck as he held his son.  Joe raised his head, looking into his father’s face.  “I couldn’t Pa, Trae asked me not to say anything.”  Joe glanced around at Mr. Morgan.  “I’m sorry too, sir, I know you didn’t want Trae to say anything to anyone, but…well…one day we got started talking about what happens to someone when they die…and Trae just sorta let it slip out.  He didn’t mean too, honest,” Joe explained as he turned his face back to his father.

“It’s okay Little Joe, I’m just glad that Trae had a friend such as you,” Mr. Morgan said as he stood to his feet.  “I’d best be getting back home, I didn’t wanna leave the Miss’us too long.”

Ben stood to his feet, pulling Joe up with him and bid Ralph good-bye.  “If there’s anything that we can do…”

“Oh, you’ve done enough, just by allowing your son to be a friend to a dying boy.  I can’t thank you enough for that, Mr. Cartwright, Joe,” smiled Ralph weakly as he offered Ben his hand in friendship.

Ben shook the man’s hand and then Ralph turned to Joe who had started coughing again.  “Ya best get back to bed young man, that cough ain’t soundin’ so good.”

“He’s right son,” Ben said, as he watched Joe with concern.  “Hoss, will you make sure that Joe gets settled in?  I’ll see Mr. Morgan out?” Ben asked of his middle son who had hurried to his brother’s side.

“Sure ‘nough, Pa.  Come on Short Shanks, let’s get ya upstairs,” Hoss said kindly as he slipped his arm around his brother and gently guided him to the staircase.

Joe paused, his coughing under control as he turned and called to Mr. Morgan.  “Mr. Morgan, will you tell your wife how sorry I am about Trae, please sir,” Joe sniffed.

Ralph forced his lips into a small smile as he nodded his head in response.  “Thank ya Little Joe, for everything.  I’ll be sure to tell her, for ya.  Ya take care of that cough now, ya hear?”

“Yessir, I will,” replied Joe as he glanced up at Hoss who waited patiently behind the smaller boy.  “Come on Punkin,” whispered Hoss.

Hoss had seen his brother’s tears and felt the sorrow that the boy was feeling for the lost of his friend.  Joe slowly made his way to his room and allowed his brother to help him into bed.  Once he had Joe settled comfortably, Hoss sat on the edge, next to Joe.

“Ya all right, Short Shanks?” Hoss asked with compassion in his voice.

Joe wiped at his eyes to dry the tears that had filled his eyes.  “I suppose,” he said in a hoarse voice.  Joe glanced up into Hoss’ blue eyes and felt his own sting once again with tears.

“Hoss, are ya afraid to die?” Joe asked in a tiny voice.

Hoss scrunched up his face for a few moments, trying to find words to answer his brother’s question.  After what seemed like minutes, he faced Joe.  “I’d be atellin’ a lie if’n I said no, but it ain’t the dyin’ that scares me Joe, it’s more like the not knowin’…I mean…not knowin’ for sure what happens to a person, once they’re dead.  Pa’s tried to tell us, but even he cain’t say for sure,” Hoss smiled teasingly, “since he ain’t had no first hand experience.”

Joe smiled at his brother’s comment and just as quickly became serious again.  “I’m scared Hoss.  I never really thought about actually dying, me I mean.  I’ve thought about what would happen to me if Pa, or you or Adam were to die.  But I’ve never thought much about my own death, that is…well…since Trae told me that day that he was dying, I’ve thought a lot about it, and it scares me,” confessed Joe, his eyes beginning to seep with tears.

“Aw…shucks, Joe,” smiled Hoss, “there ain’t nothing goin’ to happen to ya, why…you’re just a young’un,” Hoss said, trying to reassure his worried brother.

Joe’s head shot upward as he stared into the blue eyes that watched his face.  “Trae was younger than me Hoss and he’s dead!”

Hoss saw the tears that rolled gently down his brother’s face and he hung his head, unable to watch the sadness that spread across the young face.  “I’m sorry Joe…I guess I wasn’t thinkin’,” Hoss muttered in a low voice.

When he heard Joe sniff his nose, he raised his head.  “Come here, pal,” Hoss whispered as he gathered the weeping boy into his embrace and held him tightly, allowing his brother to cry himself out.  After several minutes, Joe pulled away.

“Thanks,” he said in a tiny voice.

“Joe, looky…none of us knows when we’ll die, only that someday…hopefully a long time away, that we will die.  It’s part of livin’ Joe, that’s what Pa’s always told me.  ‘To die one must live…and to live…one must die’ I think them’s the words he said to me when your mama died.  I ain’t never forgot’em either,” Hoss explained.  “And when we’s good, we’ll go to heaven, just like mama did and we’ll all be together again.”

Hoss leaned forward and using his thumbs dried his brother’s tears.  “Try not to think about it Punkin, ya need to rest now.”  Hoss pulled the blankets up under Joe’s chin.  “Close ya eyes, little brother,” ordered Hoss and waited until Joe had done as he was told.  When Joe’s eyes were sealed, Hoss leaned down and played a kiss on his brother’s brow.  Joe’s eyes snapped opened and he smiled up into his brother’s face.

“Thanks Hoss,” he whispered and closed his eyes once more.

Hoss patted the tear stained cheek with his large beefy hand and stood up, wiping away the sudden rush of tears that threatened to spill over the rims of his blue eyes.  He slipped silently from the room, pulling the door closed behind him as he went out.

“Hoss?”

He turned and found his father standing behind him, a look of concern on his face.

“It’s okay Pa, he’s sleepin’,” Hoss explained, dabbing at his eyes.

“Are you okay, son?” Ben questioned.

“Sure…but Joe’s scared…he’s afraid he’s gonna die young, like Trae.  I tried to reassure’em, but I ain’t for certain I did much good,” Hoss said.

“Hoss,” whispered Ben as he placed his hand on Hoss’ broad shoulder.  “Trae’s death hit your brother hard.  It’s not every day that someone so young, like Trae, is taken from this world.  It can leave a young man, like Little Joe, feeling very vulnerable and frightened.  The fact that Joe is getting sick, only adds fuel for his fright.  Don’t worry Hoss, I’ll stay with him and if he needs to talk to anyone, I’ll try to explain things to him.  Right now, I think it would be best if you and Adam ride over to the Morgan’s and see what you can do to help them,” suggested Ben.

“Is Adam back from town yet?” Hoss inquired.

“Yes, he just rode in.  I’ve already explained to him about Trae, he’s waiting for you outside,” Ben said.  “Do what you have to, I’ll stay with Joe.  Please, Hoss,” Ben added as Hoss turned to go.  “Give Mrs. Morgan my deepest regards.”

Hoss nodded his head, “I will, Pa.”

*****

A low murmuring sound that came from somewhere in the upstairs part of the house awakened Ben.  He lay absolutely still, listening as he tried to figure out what the sound was and where it was coming from.  It seemed to come and go and then quite unexpectedly was interrupted by Joe’s persistent cough.  Ben jumped from his warm bed and slipped into his robe as he hurried down the hall.

Joe was practically sitting up in the bed, coughing and hacking.  He was struggling to pull air into his heaving lungs as the cough lingered.  When Ben placed his hand onto Joe’s brow, he was startled to feel the heat that radiated from the hot flesh beneath the palm of his hand.

“Joseph,” Ben whispered as he hurried to pour water into a glass and offer it to Joe.

Joe shook his head back and forth and held his hand up to stop his father’s actions.  “No,” he said as he struggled to get the word out.  The persistent cough stopped finally and Joe was able to suck in large gulps of air.  “I’m okay now,” he muttered, allowing his head to return to the pillow.

Ben still held the glass in his hand.  “Please son, take a small sip, it will help your throat,” Ben instructed as he raised Joe’s head just enough to place the glass at Joe’s lips.  Joe allowed the cool water to enter his mouth and then swallowed.

“Thanks,” he mumbled as he rested his head back and closed his eyes.  “I don’t feel so good, Pa,” whined Joe, his eyes still shut.  “I hurt, everywhere, Pa…please…I don’t want to die,” he cried as tiny tears emerged from beneath the thick lashes.

“Oh baby, you’re not going to die,” Ben promised.  “You’re sick, that’s all, but you’re going to be fine.”

Ben managed to pull his eyes from Joe’s face and look up at Adam who had slipped silently into the room and joined Ben at his brother’s bedside.  “Joe’s burning up with fever,” Ben whispered as he wet a cloth in the basin that he had filled with water.  He returned to Joe and began wiping the tiny beads of sweat from his son’s face.

“What’s he saying about dying?  Surely he doesn’t think he’s going to die?” Adam questioned as he began buttoning his shirt.

Just at that moment, Joe’s eyes flickered opened as he searched frantically for his brother’s face.  “Adam…”

“I right here little buddy,” answered Adam, hurrying to his brother’s side.

“Trae…he died…Adam,” Joe muttered, his voice thick with emotion.

“I know Joe, Pa told me.  I’m sorry about your friend, I know how you feel, I’ve lost….” Adam began and then stopped when Joe interrupted him.

“He was sick, too…and he died,” Joe said sadly.

Adam pinched his lips tightly together and tenderly brushed the back of his hand along the side of his brother’s face.  “I know Joe, but he was sick in a different way than what you are,” Adam said to comfort the sick boy.

“Adam’s right son, you just have a bad cold, or possibly the influenza, I’m going to send Adam into town to fetch the doctor,” Ben said and then turned to Adam who was still sitting on the edge of the bed with Joe.  Ben nodded his head toward the door.

Adam took the hint and rose from the bed, giving his father room to sit next to Joe and place a cool cloth on the boy’s brow.  “I’ll be back later Joe, you take it easy and do like Pa tells you,” smiled Adam.  As he reached the door he stopped and turned back to glance at his brother, fear gripped his heart as he watched the pained expression cross the boy’s face.

“Joe,” he called from the doorway, “try not to worry about dying…I don’t think even Heaven’s ready for you and all your shenanigans,” smiled Adam.

“Adam!” retorted Ben, turning and seeing the smile on his oldest son’s face, his voice softened.

Joe couldn’t help but giggle and then groaned.  “Don’t make me laugh, Adam, it hurts too much.”

Adam winked at his brother as he started to pull the door closed.

“ADAM!” called Joe, stopping his brother in his tracks and sticking his head back around the door to peer into the room at his brother who was raised up on both elbows.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks,” smiled Joe, dropping back into the softness of the pillows behind him.

*****

“You’re right Ben, it is influenza.  This fever and cough are a sure sign.  His throat is irritated but doesn’t look too bad.  Plenty of liquids, and lots of rest, that’s what he needs.  Just keep an eye on the fever, if it keeps climbing, let me know.  I think bathing his body in cool water right now will help keep him comfortable.  This should pretty much run its course within the next few days.  Hop Sing can fix him something light to eat, but don’t worry if he hasn’t any appetite; his stomach can’t take too much,” instructed Paul Martin, the family’s physician.

“Thank you Paul, for coming out,” Ben said as he walked to the door with the doctor.

“Anytime Ben,” smiled Paul.  “I suppose you heard about the Morgan boy?”

“Yes, his father came by earlier and told us.  It’s sad, the boy was so young, only about a month shy of his fourteenth birthday I believe,” Ben said.  “Joe took it pretty hard, they were friends.  I found out when Mr. Morgan came by, that Joe knew that Trae was sick and could die anytime.  Joe didn’t say anything to me about it; he just kept it to himself.”

“Nobody knew it, except for me, and the Morgans, naturally, and Joe.  They were odd people Ben; they moved out here from back east somewhere and pretty much kept to themselves.  I was surprised when they told me that the boy and Joe had taken up together.  Not that there was anything wrong with that, I just couldn’t see Joe and Trae as having anything in common, guess that just goes to show you how wrong a person can be,” laughed Paul.

Ben snickered and placed a hand on the doctor’s shoulder.  “I was wrong about the boy too, Paul, and believe me, Joseph made a point to let me know about it.  Said I was narrow-minded,” Ben chuckled again, “the boy was right you know.  I judged the Morgan boy without ever having met the lad.  That was wrong of me and by doing so, I hurt my own son.  I punished him for playing hooky from school, when all the time, he was giving a dying boy his final wish.  God, I wish I had been more patient and listened to Joe when he tried to explain.  But you know me Paul, I started shouting at Joe the minute he walked in the door and didn’t have enough good sense to stop until the boy had been reduced to tears.  I couldn’t see beyond the fact that Joe had been so deceptive, but now I understand why.”

“Ben, I don’t think Joe’s going to hold it against you.  As parents, we all make mistakes at times, it’s only natural,” Paul assured as he slipped on his coat and started out the door.

“I suppose you’re right, but I was wrong on this one, very wrong.  Playing hooky, for any reason is wrong, but I do understand his motives and why he couldn’t tell me the reasons for doing so.”

“Then tell Joe you were, he’ll understand, he’s a good boy, Ben.  Cherish him.  When I think about Ralph Morgan and what he’s lost…well…makes me appreciate what I have, even if my son is a grown man,” Paul reflected.

“I agree, Joe’s my pride and joy, even Hoss and Adam know that,” smiled Ben.  “Speaking of which, I’d better get back upstairs, Joe hasn’t wanted me out of his sight.”  Ben brushed his hand across his mouth and sighed.  “He’s afraid of dying, Paul.  He thinks because Trae was sick and died, now that he’s sick, he’s going to die as well.”

“Ben, it’s reasonable, at least to Joe it is.  Trae’s death hit him hard, it’s only been a few hours, and Joe’s feeling lousy, his head hurts, his stomach is churning and he’s weak with fever.  And Ben…you know as well as I do that that influenza has killed more people than even I like to think about, and Joe knows it too, he even asked me about it.  I told him the truth, that yes, people have been known to die from influenza but I was quick to put his mind at ease, or at least I hope I did.  I explained that we were able to catch his early on and that if he would follow my instructions to the tee, he’d be fine.”  Paul chuckled to himself; “at least it was a ploy to keep that boy in bed for the next several days.

“I’ll make sure he stays there too.  Paul, thanks again,” Ben shook his friend’s hand and waited until the doctor had climbed into the buggy.

“Send word if you need me, Ben,” Paul called as the buggy rolled away.

*****

“No…no!  Please…don’t let me die!” wailed Joe as he thrashed about on the bed.

Ben struggled to keep his son from falling onto the floor as he gently pushed Joe back against the pillows.  “Shh…take it easy son, you’re not going to die,” whispered Ben in a soothing voice.

“That’s it Joe, take a deep breath.”

Joe forced opened his eyes as he searched for the face belonging to the voice.  “Pa…my stomach…I’m going to be…”

The second that Ben saw Joe clutch his mid-section and uttered the word stomach, he had grabbed the water basin and held it under his son’s chin.  It was not a second too soon as the vomit spewed from Joe’s mouth into the China bowl. Twice more Joe retched before emptying his stomach entirely.

Tears eased their way down the boy’s flushed face as he looked up at his father.  “I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe coughed.  “I didn’t mean…”

“Shh…sweetheart, it’s okay,” said Ben passing the basin to Hop Sing who hurried from the room carrying the mess with him.  Ben gently wiped Joe’s face with a clean cool rag and helped him to get comfortable again.

Joe’s eyes had closed and Ben, thinking that he had gone back to sleep, lowered himself into the chair next to the bed and leaned back his head to rest.

“Pa…” called Joe with a weak voice.

“What is it son?” Ben asked, straightening himself in his chair.

“I…” Joe coughed again.  When the coughing subsided, he wiped his eyes and continued.  “I wanted you to know that I’m sorry for what I said to you the other day.”

Ben seemed puzzled as he moved from the chair to the sit on the edge of the bed.  “I’m not sure what you mean, Joe,” Ben said.

Joe sighed and took a deep breath.  “You remember, the day you found out that Trae and I played hooky? You were saying things, about Trae and I…I got mad at you…and I accused you of being…” Joe gulped and turned his head slightly away from his father, “narrow-minded.”

Joe heard Ben expel the air from his lungs and glanced over at his father.  Ben was watching him closely and Joe was unsure of the expression he saw in his father’s dark eyes.

“I didn’t mean it, honest,” Joe whispered.  “It’s just that…that…you didn’t…”

“Didn’t give you time to explain…Joseph,” Ben smiled, taking his son’s hand into his, “I was wrong for not giving you a chance to tell me why you were doing what you were doing.  Playing hooky was wrong, you know that don’t you?”

Joe nodded his head, “You’ve always told us, ‘when you choose the behavior, you choose the consequences,’ I know that.  I did choose to play hooky, it was my idea Pa, not Trae’s, and I knew if you found out, you’d be mad and I’d get in trouble.  I wasn’t mad at you for that, I was mad because…well…you seemed to judge Trae without even knowing him.  I…I didn’t think that was…fair of you,” Joe said almost shyly.

Ben smiled again and brushed back the damp curls from Joe’s brow.  “You are absolutely right…I was wrong son.  I was judging when I should have been listening.  I’m sorry Joe, very sorry but if you had told me ahead of time about Trae, I would have probably given you the time off that you wanted.”

“But Pa, I couldn’t, I just couldn’t…Trae asked me not too.  And to be honest, I suppose that I thought just maybe, he was wrong…about dying I mean.”  Joe pulled himself up into a sitting position and smiled softly.

“Pa…I don’t want ya to think I’m a baby, but could ya just…” Joe’s eyes welled with unshed tears.

Ben smiled and repositioned himself at the head of the bed next to Joe, forcing Joe to scoot over just a mite.  When he was comfortable, he slipped his arm about Joe and pulled the boy’s head down onto his shoulder.

“Now, what story would you like for me to tell you?” smiled Ben as he felt Joe’s body relax against him.

“How’d ya know, Pa?” Joe whispered.

“Because I’m your father, it’s my business to know what my son needs.”  Ben kissed the top of the dark mass of curls.  “What shall it be, a seafaring tale or my days in a covered wagon?”

“Neither Pa.  I remember back when mama died.  You told me about dying and why we do and what happens to us afterwards.  I was older, probably eight or nine at the time and I think I was sick then too.  You held me in your lap,” Joe chuckled softly, “I’m too old for that, but I remember feeling safe and…loved when you held me and told me about life and death and about heaven and eternity.  Do ya think ya could remember what ya told me then and tell me now?”

Ben gently squeezed his son a little tighter, yes, he remembered.  He remembered well, for the message was passed down to him shortly after the death of Joe’s mother from a dear friend of his.  Ben smiled at the memory, the words had given him new meaning to life, had given him hope in his heart and had brought peace to his tormented soul.

“I remember Joseph,” Ben took a deep breath, unaware that Hoss and Adam stood nearby in the opened door, each remembering another time in their lives when their father had shared the same words with them.

“This is a chronological called Death Opens the Door to Life Evermore,” Ben explained.

 He cleared his throat and in his deep comforting, baritone voice began speaking.

“We live a short while on earth below,

Reluctant to die for we do not know

Just what ‘dark death’ is all about

And so we view it with fear and doubt

Not certain of what is around the bend

We look on death as the final end

To all that made us a mortal being

And yet there lies just beyond our seeing

A beautiful life so full and complete

That we should leave with hurrying feet

To walk with God by sacred streams

Amid beauty and peace beyond our dreams-

For all who believe in the Risen Lord

Have been assured of his reward

And death for them is just ‘graduation’

To a higher realm of wide elevation—

For life on earth is a transient affair,

Just a few brief years in which to prepare

For a life that’s free from pain and tears

Where time is not counted by hours or years—

For death is only the method God chose

To colonize heaven and the souls of those

Who by the apprenticeship on earth

Proved worthy to dwell in the land of new birth—

So death is not sad…it’s a time for elation,

A joyous transition…The soul’s emigration

Into a place where the soul’s safe and free

To live with God through Eternity!”*

When Ben glanced down, Joe had fallen into a peaceful sleep.  Being careful not to wake him, Ben eased out of the bed and gently lowered Joe’s head onto the pillow, kissing his cheek.

A sound at the door caught Ben’s attention and he turned, surprised to see his older two sons standing in the doorway.  He returned the smile that graced both Adam and Hoss’ face.

“That was beautiful Pa, thanks,” whispered Adam.

“Yeah, just plum beautiful.  Thanks Pa,” chorused Hoss.

Ben nodded his head and joined his sons in the hall.  “I just hope it helps him.”

“It will, you just wait and see,” smiled Hoss.

“He’s right Pa.  When you tell it like that, it takes away the fear of death and gives you hope for the future.  Joe knew that, that’s why he wanted you to recite the poem,” Adam stated.

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to wait and see, won’t I?” smiled Ben.

*****

He didn’t have to wait long, within a week, a very impatient young man was feeling well enough to badger his father and two brothers about getting out of bed and getting on with life.

“Please Pa?  I can’t stand being in this bed anymore.  I wanna see Cochise, I wanna go downstairs, I wanna go for a ride and I wanna go back to school….”

Three sets of eyes stared in awe at the youngest Cartwright.  “WHAT?” they echoed together as their mouths dropped opened in shock.

Joe started giggling, “Well, at least now I know that I have your attention!”

***End***

*Poem by Helen Steiner Rice…no infringement rights intended.  I just thought it was beautiful and wanted to add it to my story!

 

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