The Color of Chocolate (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9314


 

 

Ben’s eyes followed his son’s movements as Joe paced around the room and then stopped, lowering his body into the blue chair that was placed near the foot of the stairs.  Joe leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  Minutes later Joe was sound asleep.

“Wonder what he’s done today to tire him out like that?” Adam snickered softly as he turned from his chair at the dining room table and glanced over his shoulder into the great room, seeing his brother snoozing.

“I didn’t see him do much of anythin’,” Hoss laughed from his seat on the settee where he sat reading a book.  “He must’ve had a long night last night.  Did he come in late, Pa?”

Ben gave both of his older sons a scowl.  “He didn’t go out last night, for your information, he went to bed about eight o’clock.”

Adam raised his dark brows in surprise and then grinned at his middle brother.  “You mean, Joe…our little brother…missed a Friday night in town?  What’s wrong, is he sick?”

Hoss heehawed loudly, waking Joe who gave each of them a glaring look.  “What’s so funny?” he growled, his mood sullen.

Ben peered from over the top of his newspaper and eyed his youngest son.  “What has put you in such a bad mood, young man?” he asked Joe who had laid his head back against the chair and closed his eyes again.

“I ain’t in a bad mood, Pa, just tired, that’s all.  I didn’t mean to snap, I’m sorry,” Joe said and finally opened his eyes.  He stood to his feet and stretched, stifling a yawn.  “I think I’ll turn in.  Night, Pa, Adam, night Hoss,” Joe called as he started up the stairs, his movements sluggish.

“Good night, son,” replied Ben, somewhat concerned as he watched Joe.  He turned to look at the grandfather clock, seven thirty.

“Night short shanks.  Ya better get some sleep tonight, we gotta round up those strays in the south pasture tomorrow,” Hoss called out.

“And we have to repair that fence where Mr. Miller’s bull broke through day before yesterday…the one that you were supposed to fix this morning, and didn’t,” added Adam, glancing up at his brother to check for a reaction.

Joe stopped and spun around, his eyes growing dark with what his father recognized as anger.  “I couldn’t fix that hole in the fence because you sent me over to the north pasture to make sure THAT fence was repaired,” Joe all but shouted at Adam.

Ben held his hand up and stopped the comment that he knew Adam was just about to throw out at his brother.  “It’s okay, Joseph can fix the south fence while the two of you, round up those strays.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances and then both glanced up at Joe.  Joe wasn’t smiling like they had both thought he would be, he looked more as if he were…about to cry?

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said in a whispered voice, meeting his father’s eyes.

“Good night son,” Ben smiled.

*****

When he was sure that his brother had time to reach his room, Adam stood and moved into the great room, his hands stuffed into his pockets.  He turned from looking at the empty stairwell to face his father.

“What’s with him?” he asked Ben.

“Why, what do you mean?” Ben asked, placing his paper on his lap.

Adam shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know, but just a minute ago, he looked like he was just about to…cry,” Adam said, sitting down on the corner of the wide boarded table in front of the settee.  Adam folded his long arms across his chest and looked at Hoss when his brother started to speak.

“Yeah, I noticed that too, Pa.  Joe sure ain’t been himself that last couple a days. He’s been moody and sullen and…all tired out like…sorta like he ain’t had enough sleep,” Hoss stated.

“I’ve noticed that he seems tired all the time, too.  I hope he isn’t really getting sick,” Ben said, seeming to ponder the idea.  “I agree that he looked about ready to cry…you boys sure the two of you haven’t been hounding him too much?” asked Ben, suspiciously as he eyed both Adam and Hoss.

“Naw…we’ve been funnin’ some with him, but we ain’t been scoldin’ him none, leastwise, I ain’t.  You, Adam?”  Hoss said as he turned to look in Adam’s direction.

“No, in fact, every time I’ve asked him to do something, he’s done it and hasn’t even put up the usual argument, which now that I think about it, that definitely isn’t like Little Joe,” Adam exclaimed wearing the makings of a smile on his handsome face.

Ben tossed his paper over onto the table and stood up, grinning.  “Now Adam, your brother usually follows your orders without putting up too much of an argument.  But I am concerned that he isn’t getting enough rest.  I think I’ll go have a talk with him, might be, he has something on his mind that’s troubling him.”  Ben stood to his feet and as he scooted passed Adam, he gently pressed his hand on the older boy’s shoulder.

“Don’t you two stay up too late, I can’t have all three of my boys down sick at the same time,” Ben grinned.

“We won’t Pa, night,” called Adam.

“Night Pa,” Hoss seconded.

*****

Ben knocked gently on the door and then pushed it opened.  From the doorway, Ben could see Joe already stretched out on his bed.  He had his back to the door and Ben was unable to see his son’s face as he crept closer to the bed.

“Joseph?” Ben said softly as he approached.

Joe quickly brushed his hand across his face, unseen by his father and then turned just enough that he could see Ben standing at the side of the bed towering over him.

“I’m sorry, were you aleady asleep?  I didn’t mean to wake you,” Ben said in a light voice.

“No, I wasn’t sleeping.  Is something wrong, Pa?” Joe asked, turning over onto his back so that he could see his father better.

Ben surprised Joe by sitting down on the edge of his bed.  Ben shook his head and smiled.  “No, I just came in to say good night, like I’ve always done,” he replied.

Joe saw the sparkle in his father’s eyes and the love that shone in their depths, something that Ben never tried to hide from any of his sons.  Joe returned the smile with a small one of his own.

“I was just wondering son, are you sure that you’re feeling okay?” Ben asked, leaning forward and pressing the back of his hand to Joe’s brow, checking for any signs of a fever.

“Pa,” Joe said in a voice that edged on exasperation and then grinned.  Softening his voice while taking hold of his father’s hand.  “I’m fine, honest…I told you, I’m just tired, that’s all.”

Ben made no move to withdraw his hand from his son’s, as Joe seemed totally unaware that he still held his father’s hand within his own.  Ben glanced quickly at the pair of hands; Joe’s thumb was gently rubbing the back of his palm.  The tender action puzzled Ben, for at seventeen, Joe, though loving and caring by nature, was at an age when most times, he was not so demonstrative in his passion.

“I see,” Ben said softly.  “Perhaps you have something on your mind, then?” he questioned gently.

Joe’s expression suddenly changed, though he tried to hide it from his father.  His hand released Ben’s and dropped to his side.

“I told you Pa, I’m fine,” Joe said flatly and turned his head.

Joe heard his father sigh and knew when Ben stood up.  He turned toward his father, seeing again the eyes that had always shone with compassion and caring.  Joe forced a smile.

“Really, Pa…I just need to get some sleep.  Please don’t worry about me,” Joe said.

Ben returned the smile, seeing the inner struggle that Joe was trying so hard not to let him see.  Something was eating at his son, but unless Joe was ready to talk, Ben knew his son well enough to know that to push the issue would only drive Joe deeper into his resolve not to open up.

“All right son, but…I’m here, should you want to talk,” Ben said.

“Thanks Pa, I know,” Joe said as he pulled the blankets up to his chin.  “Good night.”

“Good night son, God bless.”

Ben slipped silently from the room and down the hall into his own.

*****

Joe flipped over onto his back, staring through the darkness at the ceiling.  How could he tell his father what was really bothering him?  He felt so foolish, so…childish with his inner fear.  Joe sighed deeply and pushed back the covers and climbed from his bed to stand before the opened window.  Joe pinched his eyes tightly shut to silently push the disturbing thoughts from his mind.

“This is just plain silly,” he scolded himself softly, “it was only a dream.”

Joe brushed his hand across his lips then turned to the bedside table, pouring himself a drink of water.  He drank slowly, letting the water cool his dry mouth before swallowing.  When he was finished he crawled back into bed and pulled the blanket up to his neck, shivering slightly.  He lay awake for a long time, afraid to close his eyes for fear of having the same dream. How many nights had it been now, three, four, possibly as many as five?  He couldn’t remember, but each time that the nightmare had disrupted his sleep, Joe had awakened with a start.  His body shook with fright, his brow had been covered with tiny sweat beads and he had felt as if he were smothering, so hard had it been to breathe.

Joe felt the sting of tears and quickly brushed them away.  “This is ridiculous, I’m not a kid anymore,” he whispered aloud, turning over on his side and closing his eyes.

*****

Ben’s eyes loomed before the frightened young man.  They appeared glazed and unseeing as Joe stood over the lifeless body of his father and wept.  He felt Hoss slip his arm around his shoulder and saw Adam bending down to press their father’s eyelids closed.  Joe’s body trembled and he felt his knees grow weak and finally buckle beneath him, no longer able to support the weight of his body.

Hoss quickly gathered the sagging body into his arms and carried Joe away from the heart-wrenching scene to place him in his own bed. He kept his eyes pressed tightly shut, his head welded into the pillow beneath his head and not believing what had just happened.

He felt the tears as they filled his eyes and rolled gently down the sides of his face, staining the crisp white pillowcase.  He simply could not get the picture of his father’s expression or the eyes that stared at nothing, out of his mind.  When he had entered his father’s room and found his father laying on his back, his usual warm dark eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, instant fear had wrapped its cruel fingers around his heart.  Joe had approached the bed, almost dreading what he knew in his heart had happened.

“Pa,” Joe whispered, leaning forward and placing his trembling hand on Ben’s arm and giving a gentle nudge, hoping to wake his father.  Joe felt the icy touch of his father’s flesh and knew the answer even before making the gesture; his father had died sometime during the night while lying in his bed. 

“NO!” screamed Joe, loudly, “PA! PA!” 

*****

The bedroom door burst opened and Ben rushed to his son’s bedside.  Joe was tossing about on the bed; his tears dampened his cheeks as he struggled to free himself from the soft blanket prison that had wrapped itself about his body.

“PA!” Joe screamed out as he at last bolted upright in the bed.

Ben quickly placed himself on the edge of the bed taking a gentle hold of Joe’s shoulders.  The steady stream of tears that coursed their way down the front of his son’s face tore at Ben’s heart.

“Joseph,” Ben spoke softly, holding his son as Joe struggled against him.  “It’s okay son, wake up, you’re having a nightmare,” Ben said, his voice soothing.

“PA!  Pa…”

Ben, his eyes fixed on Joe’s face, waited while the eyelids fluttered and slowly opened.  When Joe had at last opened his eyes, the first thing that he saw was his father’s eyes looking into his.

Ben smiled, “Are you awake now?”

Joe’s breathing was rapid and it took him several moments to regain enough control to be able to speak.

“I…I think…so,” he said, his eyes never leaving his father’s.  “I must have been dreaming,” Joe said, almost shyly and finally averted his eyes.  When he glanced up, Ben was still watching him.

“Your…your eyes…” Joe stammered.

Ben seemed slightly taken back by Joe’s muttering, but he gently brushed back a stray damp curl and continued smiling.

“What about my eyes, son?” he questioned.

Joe dropped his head and Ben was aware when his son sniff his nose.  “They…”

Ben heard Joe gulp, felt the tremors that ran through his body and then, when Joe met his gaze, the hazel eyes had filled with tears once more.

 “Nothing,” he muttered and looked up.  “I’m sorry I woke you, I’m all right now, Pa, you can go back to bed,” Joe said and quickly wiped away the tears before giving them a chance to break free.

Ben gave a slight nod of his head and as Joe lay back against his pillows, Ben pulled the tangle of blankets back up around Joe’s shoulders.  “Would you like for me to sit with you awhile?  Just until you go back to sleep?” Ben added quickly.

The corners of Joe’s mouth tugged themselves into a tiny smile and he shook his head.  When he spoke, Ben was aware of the slight quiver to his son’s voice.

“I’m fine Pa, honest…you don’t need to sit with me, I’m not a little boy anymore,” Joe said in a soft voice.

“I agree, but to me…you will always be, my little boy…and Joe, sometimes even a grown man needs a comforting touch,” whispered Ben, his eyes holding nothing back in the way in which his loved flowed through them, reaching out for his son.

“Thanks, Pa,” whispered Joe, seeing the mist in his father’s expressive eyes.  “I’ll be fine, though.”

Ben nodded his head and started toward the door, “Then you have a good sleep Joe.  Pleasant dreams this time, son,” smiled Ben as he closed the door.

*****

Joe was still awake when he heard his father open and close his bedroom door early the next morning.  Joe listened at the sound of his father’s footsteps as Ben walked quietly down the hallway, and then stopped at his door.  At first, Joe thought that his father would open the door and stick in his head, just to check on him.  Ben had, in the past, always made a point of doing that, especially when Joe had suffered from a nightmare.  Old habits were hard to break, Joe knew, but over the space of time Ben had broken the habit, more so because of his youngest son’s insistence, that his father need not baby him than from Ben’s own desires.  Moments later, Joe heard Ben move on, the creaking boards of the staircase assured him of that.

Exhausted from lack of sleep, the emotional strain he was under and the continual calling of his name finally drove Joe from his warm bed.  He stumbled his way to the mirror, brushing his fingers through his thick curly hair to peer at his reflection.

“Good Lord,” he mumbled as he leaned in closer for a better look.  “I look like hell,” he said aloud, unaware that his bedroom door had been opened slightly and that Hoss was peeking around the edge.

The soft chuckling from the doorway drew his attention upward.  From inside the mirror, Joe caught his middle brother’s reflection, smiling back at him.

“Rough night?” inquired Hoss, who looked bright-eyed and ready for whatever the day had to toss his way.

“What do you think?  Look at me,” growled Joe, splashing cold water onto his face.  “Brrrr, that’s cold,” he groaned.

Hoss laughed and entered the room.  He placed his hand on his brother’s bare back as Joe dried his face with a soft towel.  “I’ve seen ya look worse…but then ya was probably hung over…ya ain’t been drinkin’, have ya?” Hoss teased.

Joe lowered the towel and scowled at his brother.  “No, I haven’t been drinkin’.  I haven’t been sleepin’ either,” Joe squeaked in a condescending tone of voice.

Hoss suddenly looked serious.  Joe went back to his grooming as Hoss leaned in to the mirror, examining Joe’s features.  “Your eyes are red; ya got dark circles under’em too.  Ya sure ‘nough look like ya missed a night or two, what’s ailin’ ya, short shanks?”

Hoss straightened himself up, having to step back as Joe turned around, looking for his shirt.  “Just can’t sleep, that’s all, what’s it to you?”

Hoss’ blue eyes widened in surprise at Joe’s tone.  “Ain’t nothin’ to me, just askin’, that’s all,” he mumbled and headed for the door.

Joe spun around, realizing that he had snapped at his brother.  “Hoss,” he said quickly, halting Hoss from leaving.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your head off,” Joe apologized while he buttoned his shirt.  “I…”

“Aw, never mind Joe, it’s okay.  Hurry up, Hop Sing’s got breakfast ready and we’ve got work to do,” said Hoss wearing a broad smile, happy that Joe was in a better mood.

“I’ll be down in a minute, Hoss, you go ahead,” smiled Joe as Hoss went on his way.

Joe’s smile vanished just as quickly as it had appeared.  He glanced one final time in the mirror to check his reflection.  Sure enough, his eyes were red and there were dark circles under them, just as Hoss had claimed.  There would be no fooling his father this morning, after last night’s episode, Ben would be sure to notice that Joe had spent another sleepless night.

*****

“Joe, I’m worried about you son, are you positive that you’re feeling okay, because if you’re not, I’m sure your brothers wouldn’t mind fixing that fence for you,” Ben said after observing his youngest son’s appearance at the breakfast table.

“Oh yes we would,” Adam jumped in to say.  “You told him to do it, three days ago, and it’s not done yet.  It’s his job, he should do it,” Adam interjected before Ben could reassign the job to either Hoss or himself.

Ben cut his head around to glare at Adam.  Joe watched how his father’s eyes turned a dark shade of brown when he was angry, but he kept silent.

“But if your brother is getting sick, I don’t want him…” began Ben.

“But he’s not sick, look at him, he just needs to go to bed and sleep it off,” growled Adam, giving his youngest brother a quick appraisal. “I’ve heard him pacing around in his bedroom at all hours of the night, he even keeps me awake.”

Ben did turn and look at his youngest son as Adam had suggested.  Ben studied Joe’s face and noted the tired expression, the redness that tainted the hazel coloring of his eyes and he saw first hand the dark circles that gave Joe the appearance that he was wearing a mask.

Joe had started to turn his head to keep his father from scrutinizing him but when his eyes met his father’s, Joe was unable to force him self to look away.  There was just something so compelling about his father’s eyes that drew him inward and seemed to mesmerize him.  Ben spoke with his eyes, most of what as a man, he found hard to say sometimes to his grown sons.  But it wasn’t hard to mistake, for the brown depths held all the love in his heart, all the unspoken words, the compassion and understanding, the warmth and tenderness.  Joe had seen the kindness, forgiveness and mercy all at some time or another during the course of his lifetime.  He remembered seeing the fiery glow of anger when Ben had been mad, the sudden darkness that changed the color from brown to ebony in an instance and he had seen the passion and fury, all within the depths of his father’s eyes.  And he was now only beginning to understand the importance of those eyes in relationship to his own life.

“Joseph?”

Joe snapped from his thoughts.  His father had been speaking to him but he had been so lost in the eyes that were now shimmering with amusement that he had not heard when Ben had spoken to him.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said, blushing when Adam and Hoss started snickering at him.

Ben chuckled softly and placed his hand on Joe’s arm.  “You must have been a thousand miles away, son.”

Joe dropped his head and then grinning, looked again into Ben’s eyes.  “No, not quite that far, but almost,” Joe said.

“As I was saying, now that I have your attention, you do look beat, Joe.  I think you should do as Adam suggests and go back to bed.  I don’t want you getting sick on me.”  Ben stood to his feet and gently pulled on Joe’s arm, forcing Joe to his feet.

He pointed to the stairs. “Go on, get back to bed.”

“But Pa!” Adam pushed back his chair and stood up.  “It’s his turn to muck out the barn, he has fence to repair, a wagon wheel to mend and cattle to round up, and after that…”

Ben placed his hands on his hips and interrupted his oldest son.  “Adam, I think you and Hoss could do without your little brother’s help for one day.  Didn’t you just say that he should go to bed and sleep it off?”

From across the table Hoss snickered.  Adam swirled around, giving his middle brother a dark glare.

“Pa’s right big brother, that’s just what ya said, heard it with my own ears,” laughed Hoss.

“Pa, really, I want to do my part…” started Joe.

“Oh no you don’t,” shouted Adam, “you’re going right up stairs and get in bed.  God forbid that you get sick!  I’ll probably get the blame for that if you don’t do as Pa says.  Now get going.”

Adam gave Joe a gentle nudge on the shoulder forcing him to start moving.  Joe glanced at his father and saw the wink that past between him and Adam.

“All right, but when I wake up, I’ll finish whatever the two of you haven’t gotten too,” said Joe as he reached the bottom step and stopped.  “See ya later.”

“I’ll be up in a few minutes, if I can ever get these two to get a move on!” grumbled Ben good-naturedly, while watching Joe until he reached the top landing and turned to go down the hall.

Ben turned to Adam.  “Thank you son, for understanding.  Joe does look worn to a frazzle and I can’t understand why.  I know he isn’t sleeping well, but I contributed that to those nightmares he’s been having.”

“Have you asked him about them?” questioned Adam as he turned up his coffee cup and downed the last few drops.

“I tried last night, but he wouldn’t tell me a thing.  He said he was fine but I could hear him pacing as well, Adam.  Something’s on his mind, he’s just too stubborn to talk about it,” Ben reported.

Hoss had gotten to his feet as well.  He tossed his napkin down on his plate and rubbed his full belly.  “Sure was good eatin’.  Listen Pa, Little Joe will talk when he’s ready.  Ya know how he is, he ain’t one to open up until he’s just about to bust wide open.”

“I know Hoss, and you’re right.  Maybe after he sleeps for awhile, he’ll feel better.  You two best be going; lots to do this morning,” smiled Ben.

“Don’t remind us!” laughed Adam.  “And don’t worry, Pa, I was only teasing Joe.  I’m as worried about him as you two are,” he said.

Ben laughed as well, “Aw…get out of here,” he ordered as he closed the door behind his two sons.

*****

Joe sat on the edge of his bed and pulled off first one boot, tossed it in the floor and repeated the process with the second boot.  Without getting up, he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the tail from the back of his pants.  After pulling his arms free of the sleeves he tossed it to the foot of his bed and stood up, removing his trousers as well.

Joe stretched, he was tired and he knew that a few hours sleep would make him feel much better.  He welcomed the opportunity, thanks to his understanding father.  Joe pulled back the blankets and snuggled down between the covers, getting comfortable.  Once settled in, Joe yawned and closed his eyes, secretly hoping that he would not be disturbed by the haunting dream that had plagued him night after night.  The dream had terrified him, seeing his father’s still form laying on his bed, the icy fingers of death leaving Ben’s flesh cold to the touch.  Joe’s eyes popped opened.

‘It’s only a dream,’ he told himself.

Joe shivered and turned to his other side, closing his eyes again and willing himself to put the vision out of his mind.  Minutes later, Joe was fast asleep.

*****

“I’m fine son; I just don’t think what I had for supper agreed with me.  I think I’ll go to bed, maybe I’ll feel better in the morning,” Ben assured his youngest son, and then, rubbing his chest, Ben turned and climbed the stairs to his room.

Joe turned to his two brothers, a worried expression on his young face.  “Pa’s not well, I can see it in his eyes, but he won’t admit it to us,” Joe proclaimed.

“Aw Joe, Pa’s just got an upset stomach, or heartburn, that’s all.  He’ll be fine,” Hoss said from his chair where Ben usually sat.

Joe walked to the foot of the stairs, his hand resting on the railing as he stared upward.  

“I’m worried; Hoss, you and Adam should be too, instead of just sitting there like nothing was wrong…you should be doing something!” 

Adam, who sat in the blue chair, turned around in his seat to look behind him at his youngest brother. 

“Joe,” Adam said calmly.  “Just what is it that you feel we should be doing?” 

Joe spun around, his anxiety easily seen on his face.  “How should I know?  Go get the doctor and let him take a look at Pa…”

“Joe, you know as well as I do that unless Pa wants us to go fetch the doctor, there is absolutely no reason to do so.  You’ll only make him mad if you were to do that,” Adam explained to Joe who had by now moved to the arm of the settee and sat down.  Joe hung his head. 

“I know, but I can’t help it Adam; Pa just doesn’t look or act like himself.” 

Joe stood to his feet and, without saying another word, strolled to the staircase and started up. 

“Where ya goin’?” Hoss asked.

Joe glanced back over his shoulder; “I’m going to check on Pa.” 

“Joe!” Adam called.  “It hasn’t even been half an hour.” 

“I don’t care,” Joe said as he rounded the corner. 

Joe knocked softly on the bedroom door and waited for a response.  When none was forthcoming, he eased opened the door and slipped into the dimly lit room.  From the doorway he could see his father.  Ben lay upon his bed, face up, unmoving, staring blankly… 

“NO!  NO!  PA…PA!” Joe screamed, bolting upright in the bed.

Through the door, Ben burst into the room and quickly to the bedside.  Joe was gasping for air; beads of perspiration dotted his brow and sprigs of dampened curls clung to his forehead.

“Joseph, are you okay, son?” Ben said, sitting down on the bed and taking Joe’s hand into his.

Joe continued to gasp for air, staring into his father’s eyes.  At last he regained control enough so that he could speak.  “Pa…how are you…feeling I mean?  You don’t feel sick or anything…do you?”

Ben smiled and shook his head.  “No, I’m fine.  Why, son?” Ben asked, studying his son’s expression.

Joe’s head dropped, he could barely make himself look into Ben’s eyes.  They shimmered with brightness, unlike the dull lifeless eyes of his dream.

“I was just wondering,” Joe said in a tiny voice.

Ben cupped the quivering chin, bringing Joe’s face upward.  His son’s eyes had filled with tears and Ben could see the inner pain that Joe suffered and it tore at his heart.

“What’s wrong son?” Ben asked in a compassionate voice.

Joe pulled his chin free of Ben’s fingers and shook his head.  “Nothing, it was only a dream,” he whispered as he returned his head to his pillow.

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“NO!  I mean, no…it was nothing…really,” Joe was quick to answer.

Ben folded his hands in his lap and watched Joe.  “Must be something, to have you so upset,” he said calmly.

“No…just a silly dream, that’s all.”  Joe turned over to the opposite side, putting his back to his father.  “Can I just go back to sleep now, please?” he muttered.

Ben stood to his feet, adjusted the blanket.  When he reached the door, he paused, and glanced back over his shoulder.  “Joe, if you want to talk…”

“I don’t…but thanks anyway, Pa.”

Ben sighed and shut the door behind him.

Alone at last, Joe flipped over onto his back.  ‘Why God?  Why are you doing this to me?’ cried Joe, feeling the pool of tears as they filled his eyes.  ‘I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t get my work done, why?’

Joe rubbed the dampness from his face with the palms of his hands to dry the tears.  ‘I’m scared…it’s his eyes, God…they look so…so empty…so…lifeless.’

Joe tossed back the blanket and scrambled from his bed.  The sounds outside drew him to the window.  Down below, Adam and Hoss were talking with some of the fellows from the bunkhouse, probably giving them their orders for the day, thought Joe.  He watched as Ben crossed the yard to join them in conversation.  It was impossible for Joe to pull his eyes from his father as Ben went about from man to man and then stopped to speak with his brothers.

He smiled when he heard his father laugh and when Ben turned around and looked upward, it was as if their eyes met and locked together.  Joe knew that from where he stood behind the sheers watching, it was impossible for his father to actually see him, let alone his eyes.  But Joe continued to watch; he was drawn to his father.  They shared a special relationship, the two of them.  No doubt, that Ben loved all his son’s equally, but Joe knew, and so did his brothers, that with the two of them, it was different.  Joe wasn’t even sure how it was different, only that it was.

Joe loved his father, worshipped him even.  Ever since he had been little, Ben had always been Joe’s hero, the man that he most desired to be like.  Loving and kind compassionate and caring, Joe strove to pattern his life after his father’s.  He yearned for the same type of respect, the same kind of admiration from his father as he felt for Ben.  His father was a man of honor, truthful and generous, gentle-hearted and probably the most gracious man that Joe had ever known.

Joe smiled again, his nightmare forgotten as he turned from the window and returned to the bed.  The two things that Joe loved most about his father were Ben’s deep booming voice that could rattle the windows when he was mad and shouting at you, and his deep dark eyes.

The eyes, his father had always told him, were the windows to a man’s soul.  You could tell everything about a man, just by looking into his eyes.  One could tell whether or not a man was lying or telling the truth.  If the person was in pain, or frightened, or whether that person was happy or angry or even in love.  The eyes told it all.  Perhaps, thought Joe that’s why I love his eyes the best.

Joe slipped back into the bed and before long was sleeping.  It was several hours later that he woke.  He quickly brushed off the covers and grabbed his clothes.  From the fading light that lingered at his window, Joe could tell that it was getting late.  He hurried, for he had not intended to sleep all day, only a short while.  There was work to be finished chores that needed his attention and several other things that he had planned to take care of this afternoon.

From his desk, Ben glanced up as Joe made his way down the stairs.  “Well, good afternoon, young man.  Did you sleep well?” smiled Ben, standing to his feet and moving around his desk to greet his son.

Ben was pleased to see the smile that graced his son’s handsome face.  He noted that the hazel eyes had cleared and now looked shiny and alert, the dark circles seemed to have diminished and over-all, Joe looked more like his old self.

“I certainly did.  I feel like a million dollars, thanks Pa,” smiled Joe as he joined his father.

Ben rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “You hungry?  I think Hop Sing still has some chicken left over from lunch?”

“No…I’d really rather get to work, if you don’t mind.  I can eat when supper is ready,” Joe smiled, noting that his father’s eyes had not left his face.

“That’s fine Joseph.  Hoss and Adam finished with the fence repair and I think I heard them ride in a few minutes ago.  They’re in the barn,” Ben explained, walking with Joe to the front door and waiting while his son grabbed his hat.

“I better get out there then and help them with the chores.  Ole Adam won’t ever let me live this down as it is,” laughed Joe.

“Don’t take it to heart Joe, you know how your brothers like to tease you,” Ben laughed also.

“I know…,” said Joe as he made his way across the yard to the barn.

*****

“SUPPER ON TABLE!” shouted Hop Sing from the doorway.  “YOU COME NOW OR HOP SING LEAVE ON MORNIN’ STAGE.  GO BACK TO CHINA IF SUPPER GET COLD!”

Inside the barn, Joe and his two brothers started snickering.  “Better hurry up, he sounds like he means it,” laughed Adam.

“Yeah, and if’n he were to keep that promise, I’d starve to death…I hate Pa’s cookin’,” groaned Hoss as he put away his tools.

Joe tossed his saddle over the railing, and nodded his head.  “I’ve not eaten all day, he doesn’t have to ask me twice,” he giggled.  “Race ya!” he called as he bolted from the barn ahead of his brothers.

Ben had just opened the door to call for his sons when he was all but plowed down by the sudden rush of bodies that converged on him.  He stumbled backwards, almost falling on his behind, had it not been for Joe and Adam whose hands came out of nowhere to break his fall.

“You all right, Pa?” asked Adam anxiously, pulling on Ben’s arm to keep him from hitting the floor.

Ben’s eyes were opened wide; his breath was coming in short spurts as he wrenched his arms free of Adam and Joe’s hands.  “Well I was before I was practically trampled by three charging bulls!” he shouted.

“What in the world has gotten into you boys?” he demanded, straightening his clothes.

“Me?  I didn’t do nuthin’, it was them two,” moaned Hoss as he pointed to Little Joe and Adam.

Joe spun around to face his middle brother.  “Us?  You’re the big ox that pushed us through the door!”

“Joe’s right, Pa.  Hoss shoved us, we didn’t mean to…plow you down,” Adam snickered.

“Come now!” yelled Hop Sing, standing at the table, a dish in his hand.

“We better sit down,” suggested Adam, eyeing both of his brothers as he moved quickly to take his place.

“Yeah, good idea, big brother,” Joe said, suppressing a giggle that threatened to burst forth.

“Hmm…you comin’, Pa?” Hoss asked meekly, his face scrunched up.

“Yes, yes…just get your hands off me!  I am capable of walking by myself!” growled Ben.

“Sorry…sir,” Hoss whispered and waited to follow his father to the table.

*****

Ben got up from where he had been sitting in his leather chair and moved to the hearth.  He turned his pipe upside down over the fire and tapped lightly on the stones to remove the tobacco from the pipe.  Turning, he happened to glance up and saw that his youngest son was watching his every move.  When Joe averted his eyes, Ben scowled slightly and went on with what he had been doing.

Strange, thought Ben, Joe had been eyeing him for days now.  Every time that he had turned around, it seemed as if Joe was always there, watching him.  It had begun to grate on his nerves and he had meant to question his youngest son about it, but knowing that Joe had not been sleeping well and knowing of the boy’s nightmares, Ben had put if off.  He’d brushed it aside for now, thinking that perhaps the nightmares had something to do with the way that Joe had been following him around.  Ben glanced over his shoulder.

“Joseph,” he said, straightening up and facing his youngest son.  “What is going on with you?” he demanded, unable to let it pass this time.

His words caught the attention of all three of his sons, each looking up at their father with surprised looks on their faces.  When Ben moved to stand in front of Joe, who had suddenly risen to his feet and looked as if he had been caught with his hand in Hop Sing’s cookie jar, Adam and Hoss’ attention was diverted from their father’s face to their younger brother’s.

“Nothing,” stammered Joe, seeing the dark glow in his father’s eyes.

“Something must be…you haven’t taken your eyes off me since you came inside before supper.  And you have been acting strangely for days.  Now, I want an answer…why are you following me around like a little lost puppy?” Ben insisted, wanting to know, for the boy was beginning to try him just a bit.

Joe dropped his head, afraid for his father to see the sudden dismay that he knew must surely show on his face.  Joe swallowed hard, he hadn’t meant for his father to catch him, he hadn’t meant to upset his father, only to…to what? Joe asked himself.

He allowed his eyes to meet his father’s.  There it was again, that haunting, nagging fear that had kept him awake, night after night.  Those eyes boring into his, searching his soul, and demanding an answer…never leaving his face!  Joe felt like crying but willed himself against it, for it would only draw more questions from his father, and put more stress on both of them.

“I’m sorry, Pa…I was…I was only…hmm, watching you?”

It was more of a question than a statement.  Joe lowered his head, he knew he was stalling.  When he heard his father sigh, he chanced looking up at Ben.

“What’s the matter, Pa?” he heard Adam ask.

Ben had turned from them, his hand rubbing his mid-section.  Joe’s eyes widened, fear pierced his heart as he hurried around his father and placed both of his trembling hands on Ben’s shoulders.

“Pa, are you okay?” Joe said in a quivering voice.

Ben raised his head, seeing the fear in the hazel eyes that had suddenly filled with tears.  He smiled and gently touched his son’s arm.

“I’m fine, Joseph.” Ben turned to Adam and Hoss who had quickly jumped to their feet as well.  “I didn’t mean to upset you boys, I suppose I ate too much,” he laughed lightly, turning back to Joe.

“It’s just a little heart burn, or gas.  If you boy’s don’t mind, I think I’ll turn in.  I’m sure it will pass and by morning, I’ll feel just like new.”  Ben patted Joe on the shoulder and smiled.

“Don’t look so frightened Joseph; I told you, I’m fine…honest.”

“Pa…” stammered Joe, unable to voice his thoughts.

“What is it son?” Ben said, his voice making him to sound a little irritated.

“Nothing…night, Pa,” Joe muttered, dropping his head so that Ben could not see his face.

Ben’s voice softened as he tenderly cupped Joe’s chin and lifted his head.  Ben’s eyes searched his son’s face, but whatever it was that had been troubling the boy, was gone now, or masked well enough that he could not see beyond the hidden wall.

Joe stared into his father’s eyes.  He knew Ben was searching his face, seeking answers to his questions that he had refused to answer for his father.  Joe felt himself sinking into the depths of the dark probing eyes that were looking at him with so much love and compassion.  Dear God, his heart screamed, they were so warm and caring, so…alive!

Joe pinched his own eyes tightly together willing away the sudden vision that had unexpectedly clouded his own eyes with fear.

“Joseph,” he heard his father whisper.

Joe swallowed and opened his eyes.  Ben was watching him intently.

“Hmm…I thought you were going to bed, Pa?” Adam spoke up to break the tension that had suddenly developed between his younger brother and their father.

Ben’s head pivoted around, his hand dropped from Joe’s chin, the moment had been broken.

“Yes, I am,” Ben said, smiling.  “Good night, boys.  Don’t stay up too, late.  We have church in the morning.”

“We won’t,” promised Hoss.

“Good night, Pa, hope you get to feeling better,” Adam added.

“Thank you, son, I’m sure I will,” Ben declared.  He turned back to Joe who had not moved.

“Joseph?”

“Night Pa,” Joe said in a weak voice.  “Sleep well…and…if you need anything…just call.”

Ben had made his way to the first step when he groaned and doubled up.  As if on cue, all three of his sons rushed to his side.  Joe was on the verge of panic.

“PA!” he shouted, startling the others.

Adam and Hoss stood on either side of their father, their hands on Ben’s shoulders, easing Ben upright.  Ben turned toward Joe, the discomfort plainly showing on his face.

“Please don’t shout, Joseph!”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said in a softer voice.  “But…”

“I’m fine…honest…I just need to lay down.  There is absolutely no need to worry; I just had a stomach cramp, that’s all.  Now let me go so I can go to bed…please,” Ben demanded in a commanding tone.

Hoss and Adam both stepped back, giving their father room to climb the steps.  When Ben had reached the top, he stopped and turned back to face all three sons.

“Good night.”

His tone had softened and he smiled.  “Gas, that’s all it is,” he laughed.  “Too many sweet potatoes!”

His laughter could be heard until the sound of his bedroom door being shut, drowned out the musical notes of his laughter.

“Joe?” Adam said, placing his hand on his brother’s arm.

“What?” growled Joe, his eyes fixed on the staircase where he had been watching his father’s back as Ben climbed the stairs.

“He’s going to be fine…you heard him…it’s only gas or heartburn,” Adam said with concern for his brother’s feelings.

Joe turned to face Adam, “I know, but it’s just that…well…I don’t like it when he’s feeling poorly.”

“None of us do, Short Shanks.  But even Pa can’t feel good everyday…as much as we’d like for him to,” smiled Hoss, encouragingly.

“I know that!” snapped Joe.  “I just don’t like to think of him…dying, that’s all.”

Hoss’ eyes widened and he started to snicker.  Joe glared at his brother and then turned on Adam when he started to laugh as well.

“Buddy, no one ever died from having gas!” laughed Adam, covering his face with his hand to try to gain control.

Hoss was snickering so hard that he had tears in his eyes and he clamped his hand down on Joe’s shoulder.

“Joe…” Hoss couldn’t stop laughing.

Joe wrenched his arm free and stomped up the stairs.  The sound of his brother’s laughter followed him all the way down the hall to his door.  It was only when he had slammed the door that the sound ceased to mock him.

Angrily, Joe flung himself down, across his bed.  His dream seemed to be coming to life, a true to life nightmare he thought.  He turned onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.

‘Dear God,’ Joe silently prayed, ‘please…I…please God,’ whispered Joe, unable to say the words aloud as he closed his eyes.

*****

Joe had no clue as to what time it was, only that he had lain awake for several hours, unable to sleep.  His father was constantly on his mind, his nightmare crowding his thoughts for equal time.  When he could stand it no longer, Joe eased himself off the bed and slipped as quietly as possible out of his room, slowly making his way down the hall to his father’s door.  There he paused; listening for any clue that might alert him to the fact that his father was doing anything other than sleeping.

Joe pushed gently on the door.  It opened slowly and Joe peeked around the edge, trying to see into the dark room.  Using caution, his heart pounding hard within his chest cavity, Joe snuck inside, closing the door quietly behind him.  He had no need for a light for he had spent half his lifetime in this very room, with his father.  He knew the layout as well as he did his own room and so, with confidence, he inched his way over to the bed.

In the dimness of the night, he could easily make out his father’s form, laying face up on the bed.  Joe had no way of knowing whether Ben’s eyes were opened in death or closed in sleep.  His heart skipped a beat; his brow beaded with sweat…what if his father was, as in his dream…dead?

Joe’s hand stretched forward, trembling as he placed it on his father’s arm.  Before he could determine in his own mind, whether or not the flesh was cold or warm, he heard an unexpected swish of air and then something solid struck him on the chin.  He staggered backwards, fell across the rocking chair and landed on his behind in the center of the room.

“OUCH! THAT HURT!” cried a voice in the dark.

From his bed, Ben spurted upward.  He had heard the soft creaking of his door, had seen the shadowy figure as it stole across the room veiled in the darkness.  When the intruder’s hand touch his arm, Ben reacted and he swung out his fist.  He had no idea that he had made his mark until the crashing body stumbled through the night and over his chair into the floor with a resounding thud.

Ben hurried to light his lamp and when he turned, all color drained from his face.  In the middle of the floor, trying, though ungracefully, to get to his feet, was his youngest son.

“JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT!” shouted Ben, bending to offer a hand to his son.

“WHY’D YA HIT ME?” stormed Joe in a voice just as loud.

“WHY WERE YOU SNEAKING IN HERE, LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT?” bellowed Ben.

“Pa…please stop shouting, my head is busting,” groaned Joe, rubbing the sore spot on his chin.

“I’m sorry son, come over here and let me look at you,” Ben said, guiding Joe to the light and making him to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Ohh…yuk,” whispered Ben to himself.

“Yuk?” questioned Joe.  “What’s that suppose to mean?” he asked, holding Ben’s hand that was probing about on his sore chin.

“I’m sorry Joe, but you are going to have one first place bruise,” Ben apologized.

“Aw…that’s okay, Pa.  I didn’t mean to scare ya,” Joe said in a tiny voice.  His hand moved back and forth, his jaw held between his fingers, seeking to find whether or not the bone was broken.

“You did scare me.  Joseph, would you mind telling me just what you were doing in here in the first place?  Don’t you realize that sneaking around in someone else’s room in the middle of the night could get you shot?” Ben asked.

When Joe looked up at him, Ben was startled to see the shine of tears that had filled his son’s eyes.  Quickly he sat down next to Joe and folded his hands across his chest.

“Joe,” he said softly.

When Joe refused to answer or look at him, Ben slipped his arm around Joe’s shoulder.

“Please look at me when I talk to you, Joseph.”

This time, Joe turned, brushing at the dampness on his face.

“You have been acting strangely for over a week now.  You’ve followed me around like you used to do right after your mother passed away and you’ve lost sleep, you won’t eat…and now I find you hovering over me like…like you were expecting to find me dead or something.  Now what’s going on, young man?”

Ben heard the sudden intake of air that Joe took and forced Joe’s face upward so that he could see into the hazel eyes that appeared so frightened.

Suddenly and without warning, Ben knew.  He knew what it was that troubled his youngest son and his heart melted instantly.

“Joseph,” whispered Ben softly, tenderly pulling Joe’s head down on his shoulder and gently caressing his son’s thick mane.  “That’s it, isn’t it?  Your nightmare…you dreamed that I was dead, or dying, didn’t you?”

Joe, his throat thick with emotion could only nod his head in response.  After a moment he raised up, looking into this father’s eyes and seeing again, every ounce of love that Ben held in his heart for his son.

“Yessir,” he muttered.  “I dreamed you weren’t feeling well, just like tonight. You said it wasn’t anything to worry about and then you went to bed.  I came in to check on you, and you were laying face up, just like you were…only…only I couldn’t tell if your eyes were opened or closed.”  Joe took a deep breath and continued.

“In my dream, they were opened, only…only…they looked so…glazed…unseeing.  And you were cold when I touched you.”  Joe paused again before going on.

“Pa…your eyes…they scared me cause…well…just because.  They didn’t look the same…not like they do right now.”

“How did they look, son?” Ben asked, every bit of compassion he felt for his son, shining in the eyes that took in every physical expression of his son’s face.

“Cold, not warm and inviting…like…like…chocolate,” stammered Joe.

“Chocolate?” murmured Ben, though he was not mocking his son’s words.  “Why like chocolate?”

Joe pressed his lips tightly together.  “Yes, like chocolate…your eyes, they are the color of chocolate,” explained Joe and turned so that he could plainly see his father.

“When mama died, Hop Sing made me a chocolate cake and chocolate cookies and told me if I’d eat them, they would make me feel better.  The cake was warm and inviting and it did make me feel better, for a little while anyway.  I remember one day when I was sitting in your lap, after you had gotten to feel better, and I was looking into your eyes.  I remember thinking ‘Papa’s eyes remind me of the color of Hop Sing’s chocolate cake.’  I’ve never forgotten that moment, Pa, ever.  Every time you look at me or I look at you, I think of how warm and safe I’ve always felt when you were nearby.  And when I think back to that day in your lap and I realize that it was then that I knew, it wasn’t Hop Sing’s cake or cookies that I needed to comfort me, but you, and your eyes, the color of chocolate.”

Joe brushed his hand across his face for a second time and took a deep breath.

“In my dream that was gone, and I felt all alone and scared, just like when mama died.  I couldn’t see the chocolate in your eyes, it was gone and I…I…got scared tonight…when you said you weren’t feeling well…I was…afraid…” Joe’s voice drifted off and he glanced up at his father, surprised to see the shine of unshed tears in the chocolate eyes that he loved so much.

Ben wrapped his arms about Joe, pulling him in close to his heart.  Ben made a sniffling sound of his own and smiled through his tears.

“I had no idea that you felt like that son,” whispered Ben.  “I had no way of knowing that just the simple act of holding someone whom you love more than life, could make such a lasting memory.  I think it’s a beautiful way to be remembered, thank you, son,” Ben said and gave Joe a tight squeeze and a quick kiss on his brow.

“No, I thank you, Pa…for all the years that you’ve given of yourself, to me.  You’ve never complained, never once wished your life had been any different.  You’ve always done your best for me, for all of us.  If my life had been just the opposite, if I hadn’t had all that you’ve worked so hard to give to me, I wouldn’t care.  My greatest treasure in my whole life would be when you look at me, just like you are now.”

Joe dropped his head and then quickly raised it again.  “I love you, Pa…” stammered Joe, suddenly feeling a mite shy about admitting his true feelings to the one person whom he loved and admired most.

Ben cupped the quivering chin with his fingers and smiled.  “And I love you,” Ben answered.

“Now, if I remember correctly, I think Hop Sing still has some of that cake left that he baked this afternoon.  How about if we sneak off down to the kitchen and have a piece?” Ben suggested softly.

“Is it chocolate?” giggled Joe cheerfully.

“You know, I believe it is,” laughed Ben warmly.

“Good, chocolate’s my favorite!”

Both father and son chuckled, locking their arms about each other as they slipped from the room and headed in the direction of the kitchen.

***End***

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