Word Count: 12,183
The boys stopped suddenly and twirled around to face the two men who had just entered the barn. Mr. Grant’s face bore an expression of intense fury as he glared first at his son and then at Little Joe. The boys exchanged glances, fear beginning to seep into their hearts as Cal’s father and uncle approached them. Neither one of the young boys knew why Mr. Grant wore such a furious look on his face; he hadn’t taken the time to tell them. As the father reached out his massive hand and struck his son across his boyish face, Joe felt his body tremble in newfound fear, for never in his life had he seen a father strike his son in such a manner.
Cal staggered backwards, catching himself before he fell to the dusty ground.
“Pa!” cried out the youth, his hand rubbing the red spot on his cheek where he had been struck. Joe, stunned, watched as his friend struggled to contain the tears that had so rapidly pooled in his brown eyes.
“What’ca hit me for? I didn’t do nothing,” he stammered.
Mr. Grant approached his son and grabbed him by both arms, locking his strong fingers around each and jerking the boy to within inches of his face.
“Don’t lie to me, boy!” spat the father, his spittle spraying in his offspring’s face. “I know what you and this Cartwright brat have been doing in here, don’t try to deny it!”
Joe opened his mouth in protest for his friend but quickly clamped it shut again without uttering a word when the irate father turned his wrath on himself.
“You just keep quiet, Cartwright, I’ll deal with you when I finish with my son,” growled the furious man as he shook his finger at Joe.
Mr. Grant turned back to face his son. Joe could see the tears begin to seep down his friend’s young face and saw the fear that had clouded the boy’s eyes. Joe took a step backward, looking quickly over his shoulder toward the barn door and wondered if he could make a break for it.
Mr. Grant must have seen Joe’s hesitation for he shouted at his brother to grab Joe, which Dave Grant quickly responded. Before Little Joe could even move, Dave had Joe’s hands pinned tightly behind his back, forcing Joe to remain where he was.
“Now you can watch; this is what happens when this rapscallion disobeys me!”
With that, Mr. Grant, all in one quick movement, reached down and picked up a long thick board, then sat down on a wooden crate. He forcefully slung Cal across his lap wrapping his long legs around the squirming adolescent so that he could not get away from the man who held him captive.
Joe’s mouth dropped open, his eyes not wanting to believe what he saw as Mr. Grant began using the board, which had several small holes bored into the paddle and cringed when his friend’s cries of mercy echoed within the thick walls of the barn. Joe, whose eyes had filled with tears, struggled to free himself from his captive’s strong hands and fingers but was no match against the brawny man who held him tightly in his grip.
Cal’s cries continued as his father pounded again and again at his son’s buttocks. The boy’s tears dripped from his chin as he screamed out for his father to please stop. The enraged man paid no heed to his son’s requests and only when he had satisfied his own anger, did Mr. Grant at last stop, pulling his stunned boy up and onto his feet. Roughly he pushed the boy backward into the wall and shouted at him.
“You stand right there and don’t you move!”
His rage turned to Joe, establishing a new kind of fear into the youngest Cartwright’s heart. Sure, Joe had been spanked before, by his father and his older brother Adam, but he had never been made to suffer as Cal had just been made to do.
“Don’t touch me!” shouted Joe as he struggled against the hands that still kept him from escaping. “You ain’t got no right to raise your hand to me, my Pa will kill you if you touch me!” threatened Joe, hoping to bring the mad man to his senses.
“You’re old man don’t scare me none. So you think you are beyond getting what’s coming to you? Well, I’ll show you!” raved Mr. Grant.
As his friend’s father reached out to him, Joe began twisting and turning his body from side to side, all the while kicking his feet out at both men. It was useless, but Joe was determined that this half-crazed man would not do to him what he had just accomplished doing to his own son.
“LET ME GO! WE DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!” screamed Joe in his own defense as fear rendered him near helpless.
“Get some rope Dave, and tie his hands behind him,” ordered Mr. Grant.
Dave quickly snatched a short length of cord from a nail and quickly pulled Joe’s hands back behind his back and tied his hands tightly together. Joe continued to kick at both men until Chester, Cal’s father, backhanded him, bringing his struggle to an abrupt halt.
“No Pa, No! You can’t beat him, please Pa, don’t,” cried Cal, moving awkwardly toward his friend in a futile attempt to put a stop to what he knew would spell disaster to his father, should he succeed in his quest to wallop Ben Cartwright’s youngest son.
“SHUT UP!” screamed Chester, “Unless you want more of this here paddle!” bellowed Chester, waving the thick paddle frantically about in the air.
Cal glanced at Joe, saw his companion’s fear and turned his head, unable to watch what was about to happen. Cal knew that Joe had endured his fair share of spankings, but was well aware of the fact that his friend had never once in his life, suffered a beating like what was about to take place.
Cal’s tears spilled forth at the first sound of the heavy paddle resounding against his pal’s backside. His father spared Joe no leniency; he was relentless as again and again the paddle pounded against the quickly bruising flesh of Joe’s bottom. Joe’s screams rang in the ears of his friend, forcing Cal to cover his own ears in hopes of muffling out the piteous sounds. Joe continued to struggle and kick his legs about. Chester paused momentarily while wrapping his long legs about Joe’s in the same fashion he had done to his first victim. The action was immediately successful in putting a final halt to Joe’s thrashing about and pinning the boy down, making him helpless to move and completely at Chester’s mercy.
Cal tried to keep count of the wallops that his father rendered to his friend, but after ten or eleven, gave up the effort, for Joe had unexpectedly fallen silent. Cal jerked his head around and watched in horror as his father applied several more blows to the silent boy before standing and dumping Joe’s body to the ground. Joe lay motionless at Chester’s feet, soft whining sounds emitting passed his lips, which appeared bloody from having bitten down on them during the course of his abuse. Chester nudged at Joe with the toe of his boot, turning the hapless youth onto his side. Joe moaned as the pain increased in pressure when the weight of his body pushed against the damaged flesh of his backside.
“Get out of here Cartwright, and don’t you ever come back. If I see your face around here again, you’ll get more than what you deserved this time,” ordered Chester, standing back so that Dave could haul the boy to his feet and untie Joe’s hands.
Joe staggered slightly, his hands moved to rub the soreness that burned his flesh. Tears of massive proportion dripped from his face as he glanced quickly at his friend whose face was still turned away from him.
“You’ll be sorry for this,” uttered Joe, swaying gently as he inched his aching, inflamed body toward the door. Joe opened his mouth to finish his statement but clamped it shut as Chester took a step in his direction. Joe turned suddenly and using all the strength he could muster under the circumstances fled the barn.
Joe quickly untied his horse and pulled himself up into the saddle. He nearly screamed as the pain shot upward from his bottom into the upper portion of his body. Joe was forced to clamp his lips tightly together and wondered whether or not he would be able to ride all the way back to the Ponderosa. Joe leaned his body forward, resting the upper half over his horse’s neck, and pushed with his feet in the stirrups, lifting the lowered half of his anatomy off the saddle. Joe rode for more than a mile in that fashion, until the aching in his legs forced him to pull his mount to a halt.
Using the utmost of caution, Joe slid from the saddle, staggered slightly as he felt his knees buckle and gripping the stirrup, he leaned his head against the side of the saddle. Joe took a deep breath of air to steady himself and forced his tears to stay within the wells of his eyes. The pain and discomfort that burned his bottom had become almost unbearable for the youth. Joe took a second deep breath and let it out more slowly, his thoughts turned suddenly to his father and Joe wondered what he would tell Ben. He knew if he told his pa how badly that Cal’s father had beaten him, Ben would rip the man to pieces. Joe also knew that if that happened, his father could be in grave trouble, and that frightened the young boy even more than having to admit the truth about what had taken place.
Joe began walking slowly toward home. His body ached from the abuse he had been made to suffer but he could not make his feet quicken their steps. It would take him more than an hour at the rate he ambled along and he knew that his father would be put out with him for being late to supper. Joe also knew that his father would rant and rave, he could stand that, for Joe had learned to tune out much of his father’s shouting when his father’s voice reached a certain level.
Joe allowed his thoughts to turn again to his friend, Cal. He remembered other times that he had been witness to Mr. Grant’s wrath when it had been directed at his son. Once Joe had arrived at the Grant home, only to find Cal’s father coming from the woodshed, a riding crop clutched in his hand. Seconds later, Cal appeared, tears rolling off his chin and when Joe had questioned him about what had taken place, Cal admitted that his father had beaten him with the crop. Cal had tried to make light of the situation, saying that he was used to getting walloped like that, but Joe had had his doubts.
Days later, Cal had sported a black eye and busted lip when coming to school and had explained to Joe and the others that he had fallen from his horse. Joe doubted that story from the very beginning and later while alone with his friend, and he had pushed Cal for the truth, the young boy had broken down and cried, telling Joe that if he were to ever tell a soul, his father would beat him worse. Joe had promised his friend that he would not tell his Pa or brothers, but his conscience had troubled him for days about taking such an oath. Eventually with the passing of time, he and Cal had seemed to forget all about the promise and life went on as usual, until today, when Mr. Grant and his brother had burst into the barn, shouting and yelling at both of them. Joe wondered briefly what had set the match to the man’s anger, for he and Cal had not been doing anything wrong; in fact, he had just finished helping the other boy with his afternoon barn chores.
Joe stopped to catch his breath and to give his weary body time to rest. His thoughts turned to home and his father. Joe remembered some of the times that Ben had been forced to spank him; Joe also remembered that along with each of those times, his father had taken a few minutes to explain to him, the reasons for which the spankings were being given. Afterwards, Ben had always gathered his remorseful son into his arms, assuring Joe of his love for him. Joe could not recall a time that Ben had failed to do this and never, never, thought Joe, had his parent struck him in anger or in the matter in which he and Cal had been beaten. Ben had been adamant, even to Adam, that his older son not discipline either of his younger brothers while angry. Adam had never forgotten his father’s advice and therefore had never done to him, what Mr. Grant had done. The beating with the paddle had been a new and terrifying experience to young Joe Cartwright, one that would not soon be forgotten.
Joe sighed deeply, his buttocks ached and Joe knew that there would be a great deal of bruising to his flesh. He was very much aware that he would have to be careful, not to let his father or brothers see the result of the whipping he had been given. He felt his body shiver, he still trembled at the thoughts that haunted his memory, he could still feel the sting of the board as Cal’s father beat it against his backside. Joe felt his eyes fill with tears and quickly wiped them away before they had a chance to run down his face. He would not tell his father, or his brothers, unless forced too, he was too ashamed and of what he was not even sure.
Ben sat at the dining room table, his elbows supporting his chin, his thoughts wandering to his youngest son. “Where is that scamp? I told him to be home before supper, but does he listen, of course not!” shouted Ben, answering his own question.
Adam and Hoss exchanged quick glances. “He’ll be along Pa, you know how that boy is, he’s…
Ben’s head snapped upward, giving Adam a glaring look, “Yes, I am well aware of how he is…he is ALWAYS late for supper!”
Adam covered his mouth to hide the smile that tried to deepen the dimples on his handsome face. “Take it easy Pa, he’s only a few minutes late…anything could have happened…”
“Yeah Pa, maybe his horse threw a shoe or somethin’,” smiled Hoss, hoping to calm his father’s anger.
Ben took a deep breath and looked at each of his sons. Suddenly a smile changed the scowl on his face and he laughed softly. “You’re right…you would think that I would be used to it by now,” he said, adding, “I could change the supper time to accommodate his lateness, but if I did, he would only wander in later.”
Adam and Hoss snickered, “well, give him a few more minutes Pa, I’m sure he’ll be here as soon as he can…he knows what happened the last time…he couldn’t sit for about a week.”
“Now, now, you know as well as I do, that his being late had nothing to do with the thrashing I gave that boy…it was his…”
The front door opened and all three members of Joe’s family rose from their seats and met Joe just as he was hanging up his hat on the peg behind the door.
“Well young man,” said Ben in a soft voice, “it’s about time that you got home.”
Joe turned slowly, withholding as long as he could, letting his family see his face. His cheek had a good-sized bruise where Chester had struck him and his lip had split. Joe dreaded having to face his father for he knew that he would have to lie about what really happened and it bothered him to have to do so.
“Joseph!” whispered Ben as his eyes spotted the mar on his son’s face. Quickly Ben stepped closer to his son and cupped Joe’s chin with his large gentle hands. “What happened to your face?” he asked, moving Joe’s head from side to side to compare each cheek.
“And your lip. Have you been fighting again, Joe?” asked Adam, giving his father an anxious look.
“No, I haven’t been fighting,” snapped Joe in response. Joe briefly wondered why his older brother always expected the worse from him.
“Well, what did happen?” his father questioned.
“Nothing really,” answered Joe as he tried to avoid his father’s dark probing eyes. Ben, whose hand still cupped Joe’s chin, gently forced Joe’s head upward and looked deeply into the hazel eyes.
Joe wanted nothing more than to throw himself into his father’s arms where he knew he would feel safe from the world around him, but he fought against the urge. Joe blinked his eyes, willing them to maintain a look of innocence.
“Honest Pa,” he lied, “Cal and I were just horsing around in the barn and knocked our heads together. It was an accident, that’s all,” he finished and pulled back his head, freeing it from his father’s hands.
Ben smiled down at his youngest son and ruffled his curly hair. “How many times, young man, have I warned you about horsing around? See what happens when you don’t listen?”
“I know, I know,” Joe forced his lips into a smile. His father seemed satisfied with his reply and he sighed in relief.
“Okay Joseph, go get washed up, Hop Sing has supper on the table,” Ben ordered and watched as Joe sauntered off to the wash room.
“Pa,” began Hoss, taking his father by the arm and stopping him from returning to the table. “Did ya get a real good look at that boy’s cheek?”
Ben stopped and faced both Adam and Hoss, “Yes son, I saw the mark.”
“Well why’d he lie then? Anyone could see that someone struck him and I don’t mean by accident, someone either slapped or backhanded that boy!” growled Hoss, his temper beginning to rise at the thoughts that someone had raised their hand against his baby brother.
“I know that son, but we’re not going to question him any further, do you both understand?”
“But Pa, why, I mean, he’s lying to you,” stated Adam, taking his seat at the table.
“I realize that Adam, but he was fighting back tears, I didn’t want to get him all upset before supper, and besides, you know as well as I do that it is useless to push that boy for any kind of answer when it comes to this sort of thing. I detest fighting, and lying is worse, you both know that, and so does Joe. He doesn’t look to be hurt too badly and to be perfectly honest with you, I just don’t feel like arguing with the boy before supper, so let it drop for now. I’ll talk to him later, after we have supper. Now please, can we just eat?”
Ben started to fill his plate, unaware of the strange glances that his older sons gave to one another. He raised his head slightly and cast a smile in Joe’s direction when the younger boy joined his family at the table.
Joe lowered his body ever so slowly into his chair and forced himself to return his father’s smile. He hoped that the intense pain he felt in his backside was not showing on his face as his rear made contact with the seat of the chair. Joe almost whined aloud at the burning and tingling sensations that seared his flesh. Quickly he glanced around the table, glad to see that each member of his family was busy piling their plates with Hop Sing’s good home cooking.
It took every ounce of courage that Joe could rally to keep from screaming out in agony and to keep his eyes from filling with tears. Joe was in no mood to eat; he picked at his supper and moved his food around so that it would look to his father as if he had eaten part of his supper. His hands trembled, his fear was still fresh in his mind and he fought to hide his shaking from his family. When he could stand it no longer, Joe spoke up, trying to keep his voice from quivering.
“May I be excused?” he said at last, casting a glance in his father’s direction. “I ain’t real hungry; Cal and I had something to eat at his house. ‘Sides, I think I’ll turn in early, that is, if ya don’t mind, Pa.”
Ben studied his son’s face, noting the strange way in which Joe’s eyes darted from one to the other and back to himself. Strange, thought Ben, Joe seems nervous about something.
“Are you feeling all right, son?” he asked as he watched Joe’s exchange of expressions.
Joe suddenly brightened, “Sure, don’t I look all right? I mean, other than this busted lip.”
Joe cringed; he hadn’t meant to draw his father’s attention to the split lip and silently prayed that his father would not ask again about how it had come to be.
Ben laughed and placed his hand over Joe’s arm, surprised to feel the slight tremors that passed through his son’s body. “You look fine Joseph; just go on to bed if you want to. I’ll be up in a little while to say good night.”
“Thanks Pa,” smiled Joe, rising slowly and moving away from the table. “Night Adam, night Hoss,” he forced the smile to remain on his face until he had his back completely turned from his family. The smile faded immediately, and was replaced with a frown.
Ben watched his son’s retreating back as Joe made his way slowly toward the stairs. Something about the way that Joe carried himself, the way in which the boy walked, caused Ben’s heart to fill with worry for his son. Perhaps, thought Ben, the boy was hurt worse than he had first expected, and he made a mental note to further question his son when he went in to say goodnight.
Joe made sure that his bedroom door was firmly shut before dropping his pants. He turned his backside to the mirror and twisted his head to look at the damaged flesh. Joe’s eyes widened in horror at the sight of his buttocks. The fatty tissue was black, blue, yellow and even red. There were blisters made from the holes in the wooden paddle and when Joe touched one of them, he groaned softly in discomfort. Turning, he could see that the bruises ran from one side of his bottom, across the middle to the other side. He had known that it would be bad, but he had had no inkling that the bruising would be so massive; now he was worried sick that he might not be able to hide the damage from his father. Not that Ben ever saw him in the buff anymore, but it was not uncommon for one of his brothers to come, unannounced into the wash room when he was bathing. Often as not, Adam or Hoss would shave while he soaked in the tub and neither brother gave a second thought as to being seen unclothed by one or the other sibling.
And then there was the agony that sent sharp burning sensations throughout his lower body each and every time he moved. Joe was unsure as to how he would be able to ride, much less complete a day’s workload with the amount of discomfort that plagued his body. Without realizing that it was happening, his eyes suddenly filled with tears and when he tried to blink them away, they rolled slowly down his cheeks. Joe sniffed his nose and quickly brushed the dampness from his face.
Taking a clean nightshirt from the bureau drawer, Joe started to slip it over his head but stopped short, one arm already in place. He pulled his arm free of the clothing and tossed the garment back into the drawer, reached instead for his long john bottoms and quickly pulled them on.
‘Better not get caught with my butt shining,’ he told himself as he tossed back the home made blankets that covered his bed and crawled in.
Joe turned onto his stomach, pulled the covers over his body and settled into position, closing his eyes tightly to the discomfort. Even the weight of the blankets seemed to remind him of the whipping he had suffered and in the darkness of his room he saw again the haunted and forlorn look he had witnessed in his friend’s eyes. It was strange, he thought, he had never noticed that look on Cal’s face before today. Joe felt himself tremble, remembering his own fright when he first realized that Cal’s father had every intention of beating him along with his own son. It was something that Joe had never experienced and prayed that he would never have to do so again.
His thoughts turned to his friend, how many times in the past had Cal’s father beaten him as he had done today? Was it common place, for Chester Grant to inflect such abuse to his own son to the degree that the boy’s flesh would bruise so horribly, and if so, why would a father do that kind of a thing? Had the man no love or respect for his only son? Joe quickly and silently, tears glistening on his young face, offered up a prayer of thankfulness that his father, Ben Cartwright, had never rewarded his bad behavior with such cruel and painful methods.
It was the wee hours of the morning when Ben was suddenly jolted from his dreams by the piteous sounds of crying and screeching coming from down the hall. As Ben hurried to slip on his robe and rush from the room, Ben knew all too well who it was that was making the doleful noises. Ben pushed opened the door to Joe’s room and quickly raised the wick to the low burning lamp to allow more light to filtrate the room. Joe was thrashing about on his bed, his arms fraying wildly about in the air, tears streamed from his eyes that had yet to open. But what tore at Ben’s heart were the pitiful pleas for mercy that his distraught son was uttering.
“NO! NO! PLEASE, DON’T HIT ME AGAIN, PLEASE…OH…STOP!” yelled Joe as his father leaned down and clasped the fraying arms between his strong but gentle hands.
“Joseph…Joseph…son, wake up,” Ben said in a soft voice, sitting down on the side of the bed and tenderly pulling his weeping son into his arms.
“Joe…come on, sweetheart…open your eyes…that’s it,” smiled Ben as Joe’s eyes finally opened and he spied his father’s face.
“Oh Pa!” wept Joe as he flung his arms about his father’s neck and buried his face against Ben’s robe.
Ben could feel the tremors that coursed through Joe’s body and wondered at the intensity in which the boy clung to him.
“Son, you were having a bad dream. Would you like to tell me about it?” Ben asked as his own arms encircled his young son.
It was uncommon for Joe to be so distressed that he allowed even his father to hold him as he was doing. At fifteen, Joe was at the stage where being caught crying, much less held in his father’s arms, was an embarrassment to himself. But Joe seemed not to care, for on this night, his fears and need for his father’s comfort far out-weighed his thoughts of embarrassment.
Joe’s crying had stopped but he refused to remove himself from the protecting arms that continued to hold him. His tear stained face remained glued against the soft fabric of his father’s robe as he nuzzled even deeper against the beating heart that had always brought comfort to his troubled soul.
Ben’s hand gently rubbed up and down Joe’s back, his other hand held the side of Joe’s head protectively against his chest where the boy seemed determined to stay. Ben said nothing for several long minutes, giving his son time to collect himself. Adam and Hoss had slipped silently into the room, and stood quietly behind their father, concern for their youngest brother showing on their sleepy faces.
“Everything all right, Pa?” Adam whispered.
Ben nodded his head at both boys. “He’s just had a nightmare. You boys go on back to bed; I’ll stay with him for a while.”
“All right, but if’n ya need us, yell for us, Pa,” offered Hoss, standing in bare feet, his long nightshirt twisted about his over-sized frame.
“I will, good night,” whispered Ben, never missing a stroke with his hand that lovingly caressed Joe’s back.
“Night Pa,” Adam muttered silently as he closed the door softly after Hoss and he had left the room.
Ben stopped his rubbing motion and gently placed a kiss on top of the curly mop of hair. “You want to talk about it now, son?” he asked.
Joe shook his head. “No…I just want you to…hold me, please.”
Ben heard the sob that caught in the boy’s throat and could not help but wonder what had caused the boy to have such a bad dream that it would give reason for Joe to want his father to cradle him as such. Something terrible must have happened, or Joe had been witness to something so awful as to transmit fear to his young heart and cause him to suffer such a horrid dream, his father reasoned. Ben tightened his hold about the shivering body and Joe allowed himself the pleasure that his father’s care offered him, until at last, he pulled back.
“I’m okay now, Pa,” said Joe, somewhat shyly as he glanced up at his father. In his parent’s eyes, Joe could see the worry that Ben tried so hard to hide from him.
Joe, aware of the burning aching feelings coursing through his backside, laid back against his pillow, masking his own painful expression from this man whom he loved with all of his heart, and offered his father a tiny smile.
“I didn’t mean to wake you, I’m sorry,” Joe apologized.
Ben brushed back the curls that had glued themselves to Joe’s sweat dampened brow and returned the smile. “It’s all right son. Are you sure you’re going to be okay now?”
Joe nodded his head, and trying hard not to flinch, snuggled down deeper into the bed as Ben pulled the blankets about him. “I’m fine, honest.”
Ben leaned down and brushed his fingers through Joe’s thick mane, stopping for a long moment to study the expression on his son’s face. Something wasn’t right, of that Ben was sure, but reasoned that now was not the time to pursue his doubts.
“All right Joseph, if you’re sure?”
“I’m sure Pa. You go back to bed, I’ll be all right,” Joe returned and then turned his head, shutting his eyes so that his father might not see the new pool of tears that had unexpectedly threatened to spill over.
Joe felt his father move away from him and when the light began to grow dim within the room, Joe opened his eyes and saw his father pause at the door long enough to look back at him one last time, slip from the room closing the door behind him. Joe let out a long sigh; he had come so close to confessing to this father what had happened to him and to his friend, Cal. Once Joe had felt his father’s arms embrace him, it was all that Joe could do to keep from crying out his anguish to his parent.
By the time that Joe reached the breakfast table, his nightmare from the night before had been forgotten. The pain in the lower half of his body though, was a constant reminder of what had transpired the day before.
“Where’s Adam and Hoss?” he questioned his father who sat alone at the family table.
Ben swallowed the sip of hot coffee he had just taken and carefully replaced the china cup to its saucer, smiling at Joe.
“They finished breakfast a little while ago and set out for that fencing job you were supposed to have finished yesterday,” Ben said, giving his youngest son a sideways glance.
Joe quickly dropped his head, avoiding the dark eyes that scrutinized his face. “I’m sorry Pa, really. I forgot all about it,” stated Joe as he reached for the platter of scrambled eggs and began filling his plate.
“I’ll hurry out there and help them, as soon as I finish eating,” muttered the boy, turning at last to look at his father.
“Is there something wrong son? Something you need to talk to me about?” asked Ben, unexpectedly.
Joe, who had turned his attention to his breakfast, pivoted his head around to face his father, surprised at the question he had just been asked. Swallowing what was in his mouth, and hoping that his expression was of the neutral state of mind, Joe offered his father a tiny smile.
“No,” he gulped, “why would you think that something was wrong?” Joe instantly bit his tongue, angry with himself for asking something that would open the topic to discussion. Quickly, Joe returned to his breakfast that was just as quickly getting cold.
Ben studied the anxious expression on the boy’s young face, aware that Joe was holding something back from him, but not sure how to approach the subject. He raised his coffee cup to his lips and took a sip, his eyes never leaving Joe’s face.
Joe began to squirm; he hated it when his father’s eyes locked onto his face; the act always made him feel uncomfortable for he knew his father was reading him. Joe glanced at Ben, and when he saw the look that his father held in his dark compassionate eyes, it was all that the young boy could do to keep from flinging himself at his father and cry out his misery.
“Joseph, I just thought that perhaps you had something on your mind. You seem…well…distracted,” Ben said at long last.
Joe dropped his head and shook it back and forth. “No, there’s nothing,” he lied and then glanced again at his father to check Ben’s reaction.
Ben sighed. Joe heard the expulation of air from his father’s lungs and dropped his head a second time.
“Well, you know that anytime you want…or need…to talk to me; I’m always ready to listen to anything you have to say.” Ben placed his hand over Joe’s arm and smiled.
“Finish your breakfast, son. Your brothers need your help with that fence.”
Joe took that as his cue to escape the probing eyes and questions that his father rendered and quickly wiped his mouth, pulling back his chair and rising from the table.
“Thanks Pa. I’ll ride on out there now.”
Joe said nothing more, but moved quickly to slip on his jacket, grabbed his hat and practically ran from the house. Once outside, Joe took a deep breath of fresh morning air and slowly let the wind free from his lungs. Giving a glance over his shoulder toward the house, Joe moved on to the barn where he saddled his horse and led the animal from the stall. With care, Joe slipped his foot into the stirrup and mounted, being sure to lower his bottom slowly into his saddle. Joe nudged the sides of his horse and soon joined his brothers in the lower pasture where they were fast at work repairing the fence that had been assigned to him.
Adam glanced up from his work to watch as Joe dismounted and joined them. “About time you got here,” he smirked, an angry tone to his deep voice.
“I’m sorry.” It was all that Joe could think of to say, what was he supposed to tell his brother? Joe quickly took the bucket of nails and the hammer from his older sibling and began pounding away at the slats of wood being held in place by Hoss.
Adam moved out of Joe’s way, gave a questioning glance at his middle brother before moving to the wagon to unload more boards.
It was later in the morning, just before noon that Hoss began noticing that Joe had begun to slow down on his hammering.
‘Drivin’ himself into exhaustion,’ thought Hoss to himself as he watched the sweat bead and then roll off his younger brother’s brow. Hoss wondered at the force that drove the boy to work with such fury.
“You feelin’ all right, Short Shanks?” asked Hoss softly.
Joe stopped his hammering and turned toward Hoss, surprising the big man with the testy glare on his young face.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that? I’m fine; I’ve already told all of you that I am. Now don’t ask me again!” he all but shouted, returning with new vigor, to his job of hammering nails.
Hoss stared in shock at his brother’s outburst and then cut his eyes over at Adam who had stopped what he was doing to listen to the disturbance. He raised his dark brows at Hoss, silently wondering what had caused Joe to be so put out by their brother’s question.
Minutes later, Joe tossed the hammer to the ground and straightened his back. His hands gently rubbed at his tender flesh that seemed to be ablaze after the coarse material of his trousers constant brushing against the fiery soreness.
“Dadburnit Little Joe, why’d ya go and do that? Now lookit what ya made me do!” groaned Hoss whose hands had slipped from the boards that he had been trying to hold in place.
Joe turned angry eyes up at Hoss, and shouted, “It ain’t my fault, ya should’ve held on to them!”
“I was aholdin’ to’em, but you let go of your end and made me drop them!” the bigger brother continued to fuss.
“Well too bad!” stormed Little Joe, angrily turning toward his horse.
“Hey!” Adam shouted, rushing to grab Joe by the arm, thus stopping the boy from mounting his horse and riding off.
“Let go of me!” yelled Joe as he tried to pull his arm free of Adam’s tight grasp. His brother’s sudden advance had startled him and panic had wrapped its fingers around his rapidly beating heart just as tightly as Adam’s fingers tightened around his arm.
Adam, having had enough of Joe’s bad mood, jerked the boy around to face him taking hold of his brother’s other arm with his free hand. He could see the angry fire that burned in Joe’s hazel eyes but did not let that stop him from yelling back at his brother.
“You be still, boy. Just where in blazes do you think you are going? You haven’t finished this job yet!” Adam roared as he nodded at the unfinished fence.
Joe continued to pull at his arms but was unable to free himself. He was fighting not only the tears that threatened to spill forth, but with the constant movement of his body, new pain had awakened the discomfort his backside was suffering. Joe had checked earlier that morning and the bruising had gotten worse and to further his dismay, the blisters had bubbled up and even now, Joe could feel the wetness from those that had already popped.
“I’m goin’ home, that is, if you will let go of me!” Joe said, his voice deep with unleashed emotion.
“You are not! You are going to stay right here until we are finished. Now get back to work!” growled Adam, giving Joe a gentle shove back toward the fence where Joe had left his hammer.
Adam stooped to retrieve the tool and held it out in front of his brother. “Now get to work,” he ordered.
Joe stood frozen to the spot, refusing to take the hammer from Adam’s outstretched hand.
“Do as I say, Joe…or pay the consequences.”
Joe’s eyes darted upward to look into the angry face of his older brother, fear suddenly replacing his own anger that had moments ago threatened to boil over. Seeing that Adam meant business, and fearing what his brother might do if he refused, Joe grabbed the hammer from Adam’s hand and slowly went back to work.
“That’s better,” muttered Adam, turning to Hoss who had been busy picking up the boards that he had dropped.
Joe worked the rest of the morning without uttering a word to either of his brothers. His mind was on Cal, and Joe wondered how his friend was feeling. It made his stomach do flips when he thought about the whipping that his friend’s father had given to both of them. His musings made him question the fact that Cal’s uncle had not even made a move to stop or prevent his older brother from giving the beating to either he or Cal. Mr. Grant had not even given them time to defend themselves, they had done nothing wrong that they knew of, yet the older man had not taken the time to explain to them why he seemed to think that they deserved to be spanked. It bothered Joe, for he was slowly beginning to understand that Chester Grant did not really need a reason to whip his son, or his son’s friend, it was something within the man himself that drove him to such extremes. Joe shivered; unaware that he had stopped working and was lost in reflections.
“We might as well break for lunch Hoss, Little Brother here is determined that we not finish until afterwards,” glared Adam, giving a disgusted look at Joe, who suddenly snapped from his pondering.
“Aw, knock it off Adam, cain’t ya see that the boy’s troublin’ about somethin’?” retorted Hoss.
“Well, he needs to get his mind on his business…if you will recall, Pa gave this job to him, and here we are once again, picking up his slack. I’ve a good mind to tan his hide for goofing off…again,” Adam bark in response.
Joe snapped to attention, his eyes that were suddenly wide with fright stopped Adam’s advance towards him. His hazel eyes instantly filled with tears and Joe took a couple of steps backward, distancing himself from his brother.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” Joe yelled out, as panic caused his body to tremble. “I didn’t do nuthin’!”
The tears slipped silently down his young face. Hoss stood beside of Adam; both boys staring opened mouth at their brother’s unexpected change in behavior.
“Hey Joe, Adam’s not goin’ to touch ya. Calm down boy,” Hoss muttered in a soft voice.
“Yeah Joe, I wasn’t really going to thrash you,” added Adam as he took another step in Joe’s direction.
Joe’s next move both surprised and startled Adam and Hoss, for in that instant, Joe bolted toward his horse and giving no thoughts to the pain it would cause, jumped into his saddle and rode away at a gallop.
“Well what in thunder do ya reckon that was all about?” stammered Hoss, placing his huge hands on both sides of his hips as he watched Joe ride away.
Adam shook his head in amazement. “I have no idea, Hoss. Only the kid can answer that. I sure didn’t mean to frighten him like that, though; I wonder what scared him off?”
“Like I said big brother, somethin’s eatin’ at him, has been too since he got home last night. Reckon it has somethin’ to do with that handprint he was sportin’, the one Pa didn’t question him about?” Hoss questioned.
“Could be, I’d better go have a talk with Pa as soon as we finish here.” Adam turned back to his work and with Hoss’ help soon had the last of the fence repaired.
Joe rode for what seemed like hours to him, but in fact had only been a couple. Not having paid any attention which direction he had taken, Joe was surprised when he reined in his mount and found himself a short distance from the Grant ranch. From where he sat on his horse, Joe could plainly see his friend’s house and barn and Joe secretly hoped to catch Cal alone so that he could talk to his friend. There were so many unanswered questions that his troubled mind needed answers too, that the necessity to speak with his friend, outweighed his fear of getting caught by Mr. Grant.
Joe eased off of his horse and slipped the reins over a branch. As Joe carefully made his way toward the house, the front door suddenly opened, drawing his attention in that direction.
Chester was yanking and pulling Cal by the arm as he forced the boy out through the opened door. Cal grabbed hold of the door facing, preventing his father from driving him onto the porch. Chester began ranting and raving at his son and took the boy by surprise when he raised his fist and struck Cal across the face. Cal staggered backward into the house out of Joe’s range of sight. Chester followed his son back inside and slammed the door shut.
From where he stood, hidden by the bushes, Joe could hear his friend inside the house, screaming and crying in a loud voice that bordered on hysteria. Joe glanced around to be sure that Chester’s brother was no where nearby and then ran quietly up to the porch where he peeked through the window. What he saw make him sick to his stomach and he feared that he would not be able to keep the foul tasting bile that had suddenly rose to his mouth, from spilling over.
Chester stood over his son who lay in a ball at his feet. Grasped tightly in his hand, Chester held a thick leather strap that he was using to strike his son with. Cal was jerking and twisting his body around in a futile attempt to avoid being struck, but was having no luck. Time and time again the leather snapped and tore at his flesh, leaving bright red welts on his bare arms and chest that could be seen from the window where Joe watched in horror. Cal screamed out for mercy, but his pleas fell on deaf ears and only seemed to add fuel to Chester’s frenetic temper. Joe was on the verge of bursting into the house to give aide to the abused boy when a deep voice from behind stopped him in his tracks.
“What’ca doin’ here boy?”
Joe spun around, startled by the hand that grasped his shoulder in a vice like grip.
“I…I…I…was…” Joe stammered as Dave glared down at him.
“He’s going to kill him…” Joe muttered and pointed to the window.
Dave, his hand still holding tightly to Joe’s trembling shoulder, bent slightly and peered through the window and for a moment, watched what was happening inside the house.
Dave turned his attention back to Joe and studied the youth’s frightened face. “Please,” begged Joe, “you gotta help him.”
“Listen well kid, you best be agettin’ out of here. Chester said he’d kill you if he found you snooping around here, and he will too.”
Dave tightened his fingers giving Joe reason to flinch. “Don’t you breathe a word of this to anyone…if you do both Cal and I will have hell to pay, you understand me? And don’t you never come back here again!” whispered Dave, a look of fear spreading across his face.
“I won’t, I promise…I mean…I won’t tell…and I won’t come back…honest,” stammered Joe. “But you gotta stop him…before…”
“I can’t do it…I can’t, don’t you understand what I’m saying? Chester will beat me too, if’n I get in his way, now get outta here!”
Dave released his hold on Joe’s arm and shoved Joe off the porch. “I’m afeared of him,” Dave cried, surprising Little Joe. “He’ll use that strap on my back, like he useda afore Cal came along.” Dave dropped his head and covered his face with his hands. Joe could hear the man’s loud sobs and for a brief moment, felt a pang of pity for the man.
“GO!” whispered Dave, raising his head and seeing Joe still standing in the same spot.
Joe walked backward from the house, stunned at Dave’s confession and at the way in which the grown man cowed in fear of his brother. From inside the house, the wailing had stopped and just as Joe slipped behind the bushes, the door opened and Chester walked out onto the porch.
“What are you bawling about, you idiot! Get inside,” grumbled Chester as he pushed Dave inside and then turned to survey the yard to be sure they were alone.
Little Joe stood trembling in fear, afraid to move from the spot where he seemed rooted. After several minutes of deep breathing, Joe regained his senses and quickly jump mounted his horse, the pain in his body replaced with a new kind of fear, and a new kind of dread.
It was nearly dark by the time that Joe had stabled his horse and as he walked slowly toward the house, his mind was busy conjuring up an excuse he would need to offer to his father for being late, again. Knowing that his older brother had already alerted his father to the fact that he had left his assigned chore for his brothers to finish, Joe dreaded facing his father’s wrath, for he was sure that Ben would be angry with him.
The minute he opened the front door, his suspicions were realized. Ben stood waiting, hands firmly planted on his hips, legs slightly parted, and an angry scowl on his face. Joe gulped and quickly hung his hat on the peg behind the door, pausing to take a deep breath before turning to face his father.
“I can explain…” started Joe.
“I just bet you can young man. Do you realize how late it is? I have been worried sick about you, we all have,” stated Ben.
Joe’s eyes scanned the room; Adam was seated at the end of the table and had turned to watch his younger brother’s entrance. Hoss stood with hands shoved into his pockets, in front of the massive fireplace, his head hung low as he peered from beneath lowered lashes at Joe who looked as if he had been caught with his hand in Hop Sing’s cookie jar.
“I guess I lost track of time…I’m sorry, Pa…honest,” Joe stammered, a strange sense of fear beginning to cause his stomach to hurt.
Instinctively, Joe placed his arm across the front of his tummy in hopes of squelching the nausea that caused his stomach to rumble. He could do nothing to stop the groan that slipped passed his lips as his stomach reacted to his fear. Joe glanced up at Ben, noting the way in which his father studied his face. Joe felt himself shiver and when Ben reached out his hand to place it on his son’s shoulder, Joe lost contact with the present world and drew back; the fear of being struck his first thought.
“Joseph?” Ben said, his voice suddenly soft, with a ring of worry added to it.
“Don’t hit me! I didn’t do nuthin’,” Joe suddenly cried, tears filling his eyes as he withdrew another step. Joe held both arms and hands up, placing them between himself and his father. His eyes were dark, and they darted about the room, seeking an escape from the man whom Joe believed was about to strike him.
By this time, both Adam and Hoss had moved to stand slightly behind their father, concern for what appeared to be happening showing on their faces.
“Joseph, I’m not going to hit you son.” Ben’s voice had dropped an octave and was suddenly filled with love and compassion. He quickly glanced at Adam and then Hoss, turning his attention back to Joe who had moved far enough back from Ben that his back was pressed against the front door.
Adam took a step closer to his father and whisper softly into his ear. “That’s almost the same thing he said to me, earlier.”
Ben cut his dark eyes around to face Adam, “Did you strike the boy?”
“Of course not, Pa,” Adam defended himself.
“Joe, come here, please,” Ben asked, taking a small step nearer to Joe who had his face turned away from his father.
Ben’s heart beat rapidly in fear of what had changed his usually vibrant son into the whimpering little boy who refused to look at him. Ben’s throat was thick with emotion as he centered in on his son. When Ben was close enough to place his hand on Joe’s shoulder, he was stunned when Joe covered his face and began crying hysterically and dropped to the floor, his hands moving to protect his head as he lay in a fetal position at his father’s feet.
Ben’s eyes filled with tears as he stooped down to take the weeping boy into his arms. As he slipped his arms about Joe, Joe began fraying his arms, knocking his father’s arms away so that Ben could not touch him. Ben’s heart broke into a million pieces.
“Joseph…Joseph,” Ben repeated over and over in a gentle, soft voice.
“Don’t hit me…please don’t…it hurts…it hurts…PA! Help me!” screamed Joe jumping to his feet.
Joe tried to dart passed his father but Ben’s outstretched arms prevented him from doing so. Ben’s arms closed tightly around his son holding Joe close to his heart. At first Joe fought to free himself, but with Ben’s soft words and gentle touch, Joe’s struggle soon ended. Joe buried his face into the soft leather of his father’s vest as Ben scooped the weakened boy up into his arms and carried him upstairs to his room, Adam and Hoss following closely behind.
Ben lowered the sobbing boy to the bed but Joe refused to relinquish his grasp he held on his father. “He’s going to kill him…ya gotta stop him…please Pa, make him stop!” whimpered Joe.
“Who, son? Who’s going to kill someone?” Ben asked, believing that Joe had yet to return to the real world.
“Help me get these clothes off of him, Adam,” Ben instructed as he gently laid Joe’s head back against the soft pillows.
Adam hurried to do his father’s bidding, beginning with his brother’s boots and then loosening his brother’s belt, tugged gently at Joe’s trousers. Joe tossed his head about on the pillow and pressed his lips firmly together, smothering the scream that tried to escape from deep within.
“OH! Please…it hurts…it hurts…” Joe pulled away from Ben’s protecting embrace as he thrashed from side to side trying to remove himself from the pain that stung his backside.
“What hurts son, what are you talking about?” Ben had become fearful for his son’s state of mind and he turned to Hoss and nearly shouted at him.
“Hoss, go for the doctor…” began Ben but stopped as the sound of Adam’s voice reached his ears.
“Good God Almighty, will you look at this, Pa?” Adam yelled in a deep voice.
He had forced Joe onto his side and the bruises and blisters that branded Joe’s buttocks were in plain view to all three older Cartwrights. No one spoke; they were too stunned by what they were seeing. Their minds refused to accept what their eyes were telling them. The sight of the blackened flesh that marred the youngest Cartwright made them all sick to their stomachs.
Hoss gagged; tears billowed within the depths of his blue eyes, and Adam clinched both fists together so tightly that his knuckles turned white. His jaw twitched in unspoken anger and silently he vowed revenge on the person or persons who had done this to his little buddy.
Ben found his voice, his fingers gently touched the spoiled flesh and he heard Joe wince softly and turned to see his son’s eyes on his face. The tears rolled onto the white pillowcase and left tiny circles of dampness next to where Joe’s head rested.
Ben’s temper was smoldering and like his oldest son, he had to clinch his jaw to keep from venting his rage. How dare someone do this to one of his sons. His thoughts were interrupted when he felt the touch of Joe’s hand on his arm.
“Son, who did this to you?” Ben questioned, in a calm voice that belied the turmoil he really felt. “Who was it Joseph?”
Hoss, who had not left to fetch the doctor yet, had moved to glance over Adam’s shoulder to get a better view of what had caused his father’s anger. Hoss felt the same anger boiling within him self and as he placed his large beefy hand on Ben’s shoulder he could feel the tremors that washed over his father.
“Tell us who did this to ya, young’on, and I’ll see that they never do it to you or anyone else again,” promised Hoss.
Joe grabbed his father’s hand and shook his head back and forth. “I can’t…I can’t…”
“You have to son…I want to know…who did this to you?”
Joe’s tears continued to flow, his feeling of despair showing on his young face, fear clouded his logical thinking and he felt torn between wanting to protect his friend and helping his friend escape the abuse that he knew Cal was being forced to suffer.
“Pa…please…I can’t tell you…please don’t make me,” wept Joe.
Ben took a deep breath and when Adam handed him Joe’s nightshirt, he slipped it gently over the boy’s head, giving Joe time to cover himself.
“Hoss, go for the doctor, please, Joe needs something for this pain and to calm him down,” Ben ordered.
“Yes sir,” replied Hoss as he turned toward the door.
“And Hoss, bring Roy Coffey back with you,” added Ben and then glanced up at the big man. Hoss acknowledged his father by nodding his head.
“Adam, find Hop Sing and see if he has any salve or ointment for these blisters.”
“Sure thing, Pa. I’ll be right back,” said Adam as he slipped out of the room.
Ben turned his attention back to his youngest son. Joe had turned his head, trying desperately to hide his fear from his father. Ben gently placed his hands on either side of the boy’s face and carefully cupped the trembling chin.
“Look at me son,” Ben began softly. “I know something has been tearing you up inside for days now. It might help if we talked about it.”
“I don’t know if I can, Pa…I’m…scared,” Joe whispered.
“You don’t have to be afraid. I promise Joe, no one will ever do this to you again, ever. You still trust me, don’t you son?” encouraged Ben with a smile.
“You don’t understand Pa…”
“No, I don’t understand Joseph, why don’t you try to explain it to me? You said something about someone killing someone…who are you afraid of, son?”
Joe studied his father’s face; he saw the love and understanding that shone in the chocolate eyes that held such compassion and Joe’s resolve shattered into a zillion pieces.
“Oh Pa,” cried Joe as he raised up, ignoring the discomfort his body suffered, and flung himself into Ben’s waiting arms. “I wanted to tell you, but I was so afraid, not for just me, but for Cal, too.”
Ben held Joe against his breast and allowed Joe to continue with his confession. “Mr. Grant whipped us, with a thick wooden paddle, yesterday…”
“Chester Grant?” stammered Ben in shock. He had always liked the man, he had no idea that the man might have a dark side and could do anything such as Joe was claiming; yet he believed his son.
“Yes sir, both of us, me and Cal…and Pa…we didn’t do nuthin’, honest…we were just in the barn. I helped Cal finish his chores so that we could go fishing; we were supposed to go today. We were just talking when Mr. Grant and his brother, Dave, came into the barn. Mr. Grant was mad…madder than anyone I’d ever seen before. And he was shouting and yelling at us…he can shout louder than you Pa…”
Ben hid his smile from his son. “What else, Joe?”
“Well, we tried to tell him that we didn’t do nuthin’, but he wouldn’t listen. He slapped Cal across the face and then grabbed that board with the holes in it and threw Cal across his lap and began beating him with it. I tried to get away, but Dave grabbed me and then Mr. Grant made Dave tie my hands behind my back…”
“HE WHAT?” yelled Ben, moving Joe’s head so that he could see his son’s face.
Joe’s eyes filled with tears once again and Ben softened his voice. “No wonder you were so out of sorts…what else?”
“After Mr. Grant finished with Cal, he turned on me…” Joe sniffed his nose; Ben could feel Joe’s body shiver as Joe returned his head to his father’s chest.
“He…beat me…and then told me to get out and to never come back.”
Joe was silent for several minutes. Ben could not find words to express himself right away. His heart thumped loudly and rapidly within the walls of his chest and he had to swallow several times to maintain control of both his anger at Chester Grant and his sorrow for what his son had been made to endure.
“Yes Joseph?” whispered Ben.
“It’s not the first time that Mr. Grant has beaten Cal. He’s done it before, I’ve seen the bruises and the black eyes…but Cal made me promise not to tell anyone, especially you. He said that if anyone found out about his father, Mr. Grant would kill him. I’m sorry Pa…I guess I was wrong, not to tell I mean.”
Ben raised Joe’s head, “Yes son, you were. But I understand why you thought you couldn’t tell. I’m not sure that if it had been me, I might not have told either.” Ben cupped Joe’s chin, bringing his head closer and placed a kiss on Joe’s brow.
“That’s not all Pa…there’s more,” muttered Joe, facing his father. He knew the truth had to come out, if for no other reason, because Joe felt sure that his father would do something to help Cal.
“Go on,” prodded Ben.
“Today, after I ran off from Hoss and Adam…I went to the Grant ranch. I was hoping to get a chance to talk to Cal, but before I could…Mr. Grant came out. He was trying to drag Cal out with him but Cal was fighting him and then Mr. Grant hit him in the face with his fist. Cal fell back into the house and when old man Grant shut the door, I ran up on the porch and peeked in the window. He was hitting Cal with a leather strap, Pa…it was awful…he hit him again and again and again. Cal was crying and begging his Pa to stop, but Chester acted like he could not even hear him and he kept on hitting him and then he kicked him.” Joe stopped to take a deep breath.
“I thought about going in to and helping Cal but I was too scared. I had just about decided to go ahead and do it when Dave caught me on the porch. I was so scared…I thought he was going to hit me…or worse, take me inside to Mr. Grant and let him beat me again. I begged him to stop Cal’s father…”
“And did he? Did he help the boy?” asked Ben.
“No, he said he couldn’t…but really he wouldn’t Pa. Know why?” said Joe, moving into a more comfortable position.
“Why wouldn’t he?” Ben moved from the side of the bed to the chair next to the bed.
“He told me that Mr. Grant used to beat him when he was young, just like he beats Cal now. Why Pa…why would a man beat his own son and brother like that? What’s wrong with him?” sniffed Joe.
Ben sighed and stood to his feet, stretching the tension free from his back before sitting back down on the bed. Ben took Joe’s hand into his own.
“I can’t say for sure, son. Some men are just plain ole mean like that. But others…well it’s like a sickness. They really don’t mean to hurt their loved one like that…they just can’t help themselves. It’s something that they can’t control…I really don’t know what causes a man to be so abusive like Chester; the doctors don’t understand it either. Most people think that an abusive person is just bad, mean…and that they are fully aware of what they are doing. I don’t know I can’t be sure of how I really feel about people like that. What I am sure about is how sorry I am that it happened to Cal…and to you.”
“I’m sorry too Pa, for not telling you sooner. But now what will happen? Will Mr. Grant have to go to jail? And what about Cal?”
“Shh…Joe, don’t worry about that right now. You need to try to get some rest, I’ll talk to Roy when he gets here and I’ll make sure that Cal will be okay. Now, here’s Hop Sing, let him see about these blisters,” smiled Ben as he stood to his feet to make room for the little man.
Later, after Paul Martin had tended to Joe’s wounds, and Joe lay sleeping peacefully, Ben met with the physician and the sheriff downstairs in the great room. Roy warmed his hands over the fire and the physician sipped a brandy while he relaxed in Ben’s chair.
“Are you telling me that Chester Grant nearly killed his own son?” asked Ben, who still could not believe his ears.
“That’s right Ben, the man all but beat the boy to death. Grant’s brother came riding into town tonight with the lad. The boy was unconscious. He had some busted ribs, his face was black and blue, but then so was the rest of him…and that wasn’t all, his arm was broken. Dave said that Chester had just gone crazy and when he tried to stop his brother, Chester turned on him and started to beat him. Somehow they got to fighting and when the old man pulled a gun out and pointed it at Dave, Cal made a dive at his father, and when the gun was dropped, Dave grabbed it. He said he yelled at Chester, who had started beating on Cal again, that’s when the boy’s arm got busted up. As I was saying, Chester threw a butcher knife at him and when Dave tried to duck, the gun went off, killing Chester,” Roy explained to the small group of men.
“Well I’ll be,” muttered Hoss.
“What will happen to Dave?” Adam inquired.
“Nothing, it was an accident, and besides, he was only trying to protect himself and his nephew,” Roy explained.
“What about Cal? Where will he go, now that his father is dead?” Ben wanted to know.
Roy smiled for the first time that evening. “Well Ben, when the boy gets well, he won’t be going any place. He and his uncle are going to stay right here and keep the ranch going. Seems like Dave isn’t such a bad person after all, he was just abused, like Cal and he was afraid of Chester. He loves his nephew and wants to keep the boy with him, if the courts will let him.”
“You think they will agree?” Adam asked. “I mean, there’s no reason for them not to, is there?”
“I would think they would agree, but you have to remember, Dave has known for a very long time that his brother was abusing Cal…he should have reported it to the authorities. He could be held responsible for not doing so. By his silence, he put the boy in grave danger, the court might frown on that,” the sheriff told them.
“I think I might be able to explain to them why Dave was afraid to speak up, should it end up in court,” smiled the physician. “All we have to do is to show them the bruises and the scars that Dave has, and let’s remember that Dave almost got himself killed protecting the boy, in the end.”
“And,” started Roy, “ when Cal came to, he told Paul and I that Dave had always taken care of him. After his father would beat him, there were times that old man Grant would lock the boy in his room or in a closet. Cal said that Dave would always wait until his brother would go to sleep and then sneak into Cal and tend his wounds. So, I think with the boy telling the judge his side of the story and what we have to say, Dave and Cal have a good chance to live a normal life, right here in Virginia City.”
All five men exchanged smiles. “That’s great, and we can all speak up in behalf of Dave,” added Hoss with a bright smile.
A week later, Ben stood before the judge. Adam, Hoss, Paul Martin and the sheriff stood with him and each man gave the judge his thoughts as to what kind of father Dave would be for Cal. Cal and Joe sat behind the line of men and waited, with baited breath, for the judge’s decision.
After much deliberation, the judge ruled Dave Grant a fitting father and granted him full and legal custody of his nephew. Cal whooped for joy, flinging himself into his uncle’s arms.
“Thank you Mr. Cartwright, Adam, Hoss, for everything,” beamed Dave, his arm slung across his nephew’s shoulder. “I can promise you, I will be the best father Virginia City has ever seen.”
Ben glanced at Joe and saw that his son was watching his every move. Suddenly, Joe moved to the door and without a word to anyone, slipped outside. Ben, anxious, followed the boy out into the bright sunshine. Joe was standing with his back to his father, his face pressed against the side of his saddle. Ben placed both of his hands on the slim shoulders and Joe turned to look into his father’s eyes, smiling.
“What is it Joe? What are you having trouble saying?” quizzed Ben softly, so that those passing on the street could not overhear them.
Joe blinked away his tears and smiled up at his father. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, I know I have the best father in the whole wide world.”
Ben pulled Joe into an embrace and held him for several long moments before releasing him. “Thank you son, just hearing you say it, means more to me than you will ever know.”
Before Joe could tell his father what he really wanted him to know, the others had come outside and now stood in a circle around them. Ben glanced down at his youngest son, saw the pride and happiness that emitted from his shining eyes, and knew without having to ask, what Joe was feeling deep down inside.
“I love you too,” mouthed Ben when he was sure that no one would see, and then smiled when he saw that Joe had understood his words.
Joe’s face broke into a wide, happy smile as he turned to swing himself up into his saddle and then glanced back at his father. Ben had turned his attention to the others, and Joe took that moment to brush at the tears that had filled his eyes. He was right, he thought as he watched Ben walk among the others; he did have the best father in the whole wide world. With those thoughts in his heart and mind, Joe’s chest swelled in pride for the man who had given him life.