Time Will Tell (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,184


 

Ben held the old timepiece in the palm of his left hand and fingered the gold case gently with his fingers.  His touch was much like a loving caress that one would use when embracing a child.  Ben smiled; his memory darted back through the years to the time when he had first been given the gold pocket watch.  His father had presented it to him on his twenty-first birthday, and Ben recalled the blessedness he had felt when he had opened the beautifully wrapped birthday gift.  Lovingly his finger traced the engraved C that covered the back of the golden case. Glancing up at his reflection in the mirror, Ben studied his face; it had been such a long time ago he told himself, but he remembered the day as if it had been yesterday. The memory of his father’s happy face stood out before him and suddenly Ben felt a pang of loss for his beloved father who was now long passed. Ben’s thoughts just as quickly returned to the present and he thought with happiness that now he was about to pass his prized treasure down to his oldest son, Adam, who was to be twenty-one in just a few days.

Ben closed the top piece of the watch and carefully laid the twenty-one jeweled gold timekeeper back on his dresser. He was unaware of the curious little boy who stood at his bedroom door and watched silently, his actions. Nine-year old Little Joe Cartwright had been standing for several minutes, unnoticed by his father, behind the partially opened door watching his father examine the treasure. Curiosity had held the little boy’s attention; though he knew it was wrong to spy, especially on his father, Little Joe had been unable to take his eyes off the shiny object that had seemed to put his father in a trance. Joe ached to ask Ben what it was that had captivated his parent so, but knew that to speak now would be admitting that he had been spying. Little Joe knew what would happen then, and he had no desire to have his fanny warmed by his father’s opened hand.  Just as silently as he had stood watching, Little Joe turned from the door of his father’s bedroom and hurried on down the hall to his own room. As he pushed the heavy door opened, Ben emerged from his own room and caught a glimpse of his youngest son just as Joe closed the door.

Ben slowly made his way down the hall to Joseph’s room and knocked softly on the door before entering. He stopped at the sight that forced his face into a broad grin. Joe stood on his tiptoes trying desperately to pour water into the basin, but was spilling more on the washstand than in the brightly colored bowl.

“Need some help, son?” Ben questioned as he stood behind his son and took the heavy pitcher from the tiny hands that struggled to hold the container upright.

“Hi ya Pa,” smiled Joe, looking up and into Ben’s smiling face as he allowed his father to take the water pitcher from his grasp. Ben’s dark chocolate eyes locked with the hazel colored eyes of his offspring and Ben was quick to note the shiny glow within their depths and the happy carefree expression on the cherub like face.

Ben poured just the needed amount of water that Joe would use to wash his face and hands and returned the pitcher to the wash table.

“Thanks, Pa,” beamed Little Joe as he plunged his dirty hands into the cold water and began rubbing the homemade lye soap into a lather.

Ben tousled the mass of unruly curls that adorned his little boy’s head. “Be sure to wash behind your ears, young man,” ordered Ben as he bent Joe’s head forward and inspected the area in question.

“Ouch,” said Joe as he squirmed away from his father. “I always wash ‘hind my ears, Pa!” stated Joe firmly as he glanced up at Ben and noted the doubtful expression on his father’s face. “Well, ‘most all the time,” the little boy smiled and batted his long lashes at his father.

Ben’s laughter could be heard throughout the upstairs and he knelt down and gathered the soapy boy into his arms. “I love you, Joseph,” smiled Ben as he kissed Joe’s brow.

Joe studied his father’s face for several long moments before speaking. “Are ya mad at me ‘bout somthin’, Pa?” he suddenly asked.

Ben’s smiled faded as he watched the expression on Joe’s face turn to one of worry and he brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen out of place.

“Have you done something that I should be angry at you for?” questioned Ben, wondering what had prompted this particular line of questioning.

Joe gulped, thinking back to the last few minutes when he had stood at his father’s bedroom door and spied on his parent.  Had his father seen him? Joe questioned himself.

“Hmm…no sir, I ain’t done nothin’, leastways Pa, nothin’ that I know of,” muttered Little Joe softly.

“Then I don’t reckon I’m mad at you. Why would you ask that, son?” Ben directed.

Joe shrugged his shoulders and tossed the wet towel that he had used to dry his hands and face onto the floor at his feet. As he turned to face his father, Joe noted the dismayed look that Ben cast first at him and then at the towel.

“Oh, sorry, Pa,” said Joe and quickly picked up the soiled linen and placed it on the washstand.

“Thank you, son.  Now, you didn’t answer my question, why would you think I was mad at you?” asked Ben.

Joe glanced down at the floor, his chin began to tremble and Ben gently tilted the angelic little face upward so that he could look into the troubled expression of his baby son’s face. “Joseph?  What’s wrong, son?”

“Nothin’, honest Pa. It’s just that you always tell me ya love me right before ya lay me across ya knees.” Joe fought to keep his tears from escaping his eyes, believing in his heart that his father knew of his secret.

Suddenly Ben began to laugh surprising the boy who stared at him with open mouth.

“Oh Joseph,” laughed Ben, pulling Joe into a tight embrace. “I’m sorry, son; I had no idea that you related my ‘I love yous,’ with getting a paddling. I will have to work at changing that. I do love you son, and I was just wanting to tell you so; I’m not mad at you for anything, Precious.”

Ben cuddled his son to his breast. Never had he associated his telling Joe that he loved him with the event that Joe had recalled. Ben vowed to himself that he would change that, use another tactic to assure his son of his love for him before having to do as Joe hinted, meaning to turn the boy across his lap for a much deserved punishment.

“Joseph, I am truly sorry if you thought I was angry with you and more sorry than you will ever know to think that my telling you I love you meant only one thing to you, a paddling. It doesn’t, son; when I tell you that I love you, I mean it, with all of my heart.  Do you understand?” smiled Ben, using his thumb to wipe away the lone tear that had slipped passed the dam that held the others in place.

Joe nodded his head up and down, glad to know that he wasn’t in trouble and more happy to realize that his father had not suspected him of spying. “I understand Papa, and I love you too.”

“Good. Now let’s go eat; I’m sure Hop Sing has supper about ready, and I don’t know about you, but I’m starved,” smiled Ben, taking Joe’s hand into his and leading the way into the hallway.

*****

Adam and Hoss were already sitting at the table by the time that Ben and Little Joe joined them.  Joe took his usual place, across from Hoss and smiled at his older and much larger brother. Hoss was his best friend; Adam was like another father to the youngest Cartwright and oft as not, Joe and his oldest brother were often locking horns with one another. Joe resented the fact that Adam had been given the right to be a stand-in for his parent during those times that Ben was away from home, but as Joe glanced up and saw Adam smiling at him, Joe’s heart lost its resentment and Joe returned the smile.  He loved his big brother unconditionally, in spite of himself, and Joe knew that he could always depend on Adam when his pa was not available. With those thoughts in mind, Joe wondered what he could give his brother for his upcoming birthday. He knew that his funds were limited, thus making his choices limited as well.  Lost in thought, he had not heard his brother speaking to him.

Adam reached over and placed his hand on Joe’s arm, startling the boy and bringing him back to the present.

Adam laughed, “Hey Joe, are you awake?”

Joe felt his face redden in embarrassment but smiled. “Course I am; I was just thinkin’ about your birthday next week, that’s all,” he stammered.

Adam’s eyes widened.  “Oh, you were, were you?” he teased.  “And have you decided what you are going to get me?”

Joe’s smile faded as he thought of the few pennies he had hidden in his dresser drawer upstairs in his room. The little fellow shook his head. “Naw, ain’t made up my mind yet,” he tried to cover his quivering lip by filling his mouth full. The thoughts that he might not be able to give his brother a proper gift bothered the young boy and he fought the urge not to cry.

“I haven’t made up my mind,” corrected Ben before either Adam or Joe could continue.

Little Joe looked at his father and smiled. “Me either, Pa. Maybe we otta go into town tomorrow and do some shopping,” suggested Joe, unaware that his father had been correcting his English.

Adam and Hoss laughed; Ben just shook his head but smiled at the boy.

“Joe, I think Pa was correcting ya; he didn’t mean that he didn’t know what to get Adam.  I think Pa’s already made his choice,” Hoss explained.

Joe looked disappointed at Hoss and then glanced at his father, his eyes filled with sadness. “Oh.” It was all he could say.

Ben suddenly realized his youngest son’s dilemma and the reason for the quivering lip.

“Joe, if you need to do some shopping, I would be happy to take you into town in the morning,” Ben offered.

Immediately the young boy’s face brightened. “Would ya, Pa?  I ain’t got Adam no present yet, and it would be fun to shop for him.”  Joe chanced a glance in Adam’s direction and was surprised to see his brother smiling at him. The youngest Cartwright had not seen his father scrunch up his face at his poor use of the English language.

“I can’t wait to see what you come up with this year, little buddy,” Adam grinned and winked at Hoss.

“Yeah, Short Shanks, you’ll have to think hard to come up with somethin’ different than that sack of gum balls that ya got big brother last year,” giggled Hoss.

Adam couldn’t help but join in the laughter; it had been a standing joke between the two older brothers, for Joe had indeed bought his oldest brother a good size sack of his favorite gum balls, Joe’s favorites, that is. And somehow, Joe had managed to chew all of the colored ones, leaving only the black ones, before Adam’s special day.

Joe dropped his head; he had been so disappointed in himself last year, giving in to his craving and ending up enjoying most of what he had intended for his brother to enjoy.  He had vowed then not to let it happen ever again.

Adam watched as his baby brother’s eyes began to fill with tears and his heart softened toward the anxious lad.

“Hey, little buddy,” Adam said gently as he took a hold of Joe’s arm and pulled him from his chair and into his lap, wrapping his arms about the slender body in a warm embrace.

“Don’t feel so bad; I really did like the black gum balls the best anyway.  How did you know they were my favorite?” asked Adam, watching Joe’s expressions.

Joe sniffed his nose and cast worried eyes at his brother.  “Did ya really Adam? Like the black ones best, I mean?”

“Sure, Joe. Have I ever lied to you?” prompted Adam, glancing over at his father who sat silently, observing the interaction between his two sons.

Joe shook his head back and forth. “No, I don’t reckon ya have.”

Adam squeezed the tiny body. “Well, I haven’t, sport. I really do like black gum balls the best, so don’t let ole Hoss’ teasing get under your skin; what does he know anyway?”

Joe couldn’t stop the giggle and he turned to face his middle brother, watching as the color drained slowly from his face. “I know he begged me for some of the red and purple gum balls last year and I know he said if I didn’t give’em to him, he’d tell you what I got ya!”

Hoss’ head shot straight up and he glanced around the table at the three pairs of eyes that stared at him and the biggest of Ben’s sons suddenly felt very small.  He gulped and then swallowed a second time, his face scrunched up in worry, “Aw shucks, Pa, I wouldn’t have really told Adam what Joe got fur’em.”

The room filled with explosive laughter as Ben, Adam and Little Joe enjoyed the puzzled look on their father’s middle son’s face.

*****

The next morning Joe was up early so that he could be ready to go into town with his father. Slowly Joe pulled opened the drawer where his few pennies where hidden and counted them out, placing each one into the side pocket of his trousers. Twelve copper pennies, that was all. Joe sighed, determined to find something special for his older brother that would please and hopefully surprise him on his birthday. As Joe slipped quietly from his room and down the hall, anxious to join his family at the breakfast table, Joe’s steps were suddenly halted as he cast a quick glance into his father’s bedroom. Ben had left the door slightly a jar and from where he stood in the open doorway, Joe could see the bright shiny object that his father had been holding in his hands the day before.  Joe’s curiosity begged his inquisitive soul to steal inside and peek at what it was that had held Ben’s attention.

Joe took two tiny steps into the forbidden room but stopped suddenly when Ben’s loud roar reached his ears. “JOSEPH!” shouted Ben from the bottom of the steps.

Joe quickly rushed from the room and back into the hallway, “Comin’ Pa,” he called in return, running to the end of the hall.

“I was just about ready to come and get you; hurry up, son, if you still want to ride into town with me,” smiled Ben as Joe fell into step behind his father and followed him to the table.

Just as Ben was about to seat himself, a steady rapping at the front door forced him to answer the call rather than sitting back down to finish his coffee.

Ben pulled opened the heavy oak door and was surprised to find his foreman on his doorstep. “Hank, what are you doing here?  I thought you were up at the north pasture, rounding up those strays.”

Hank stepped just inside the room and removed his hat. “I was Mr. Cartwright, but there’s been an accident; Mr. Adam said that I should fetch ya.  He’s already sent Hoss into town for the doctor.”

Ben reached behind the door and grabbed his hat and then his sidearm, strapping the belt quickly around his waist. “What happened? Who got hurt?” Ben said in his rush to hurry.

“One of them new hands ya hired last week. Steer horned him; he’s hurt pretty badly,” explained Hank.

Ben started to close the door but the tiny voice behind him halted his steps. “Pa, what about me?  I thought ya promised to take me to town?” pleaded Little Joe.

Ben turned to face his tiny son and seeing the disappointment on the cherub like face; Ben knelt and pulled the boy into his arms.  Ben could see the tears already beginning to fill the hazel eyes and quickly smiled at the boy.

“Joe, I’m needed up at the north pasture. One of the hands has been hurt badly and Papa has to go see about him. I promise as soon as I get back, I will take you into town.  Is that okay with you, precious? Papa doesn’t mean to break my promise, but it is my duty to be sure that the men are cared for.”

Joe wiped the tears from his face with the sleeves of his shirt.  He was disappointed; he had looked forward to spending the day with his father, but he did understand about the accident and his father’s obligation to his hired men.

“Okay Pa, I’ll stay here with Hop Sing.  But ya promise to take me, as soon as ya get home?” conceded Joe.

Ben tightened his hug, “I promise, and Joseph, thank you son, for understanding.” Ben tousled the top of Joe’s mass of curls and stood to his feet.  “I’ll be back just as soon as I can; you be a good boy for Hop Sing, and son, please do as he says.”

Joe smiled up into the face of his father, “I will, Pa.  I’ll help him with his work so maybe he’ll have some extra time to bake us some cookies.”

“That would be nice Joe, thank you.”

Ben pivoted on his feet and was out of the door.  Seconds later, he and Hank were mounted up and off at a run for the north pasture.  Joe turned from the door, and went to find the family cook.

*****

Joe had helped the family servant all morning and was growing weary from the effort.  He had just about given up hope that his father would return before noon and his disappointment showed on his young face. The sad expression had not gone unnoticed to Hop Sing who was like a second mother to the youngest Cartwright, having tended to his every need during the time after Marie had died and Ben had been unable to move beyond his own grief.

Hop Sing entered the kitchen from the wash room and placed some folded laundry on the table in front of Little Joe. “Little Joe take Papa’s shirts to father’s room, yes please?”

Joe grinned at the little Chinaman and nodded his head, always happy to lend the beloved family servant a helping hand. Standing to his feet, Joe faced Hop Sing and bowed, “Yes sir, little boy pleased to be of service,” he said, playfully mocking Hop Sing’s accent.

Hop Sing laughed and returned the bow. “Little Joe hurry, and help Hop Sing bake cookies for hungry boys.”

Joe grabbed the shirts and all but ran from the kitchen. “I’ll be right back, Hoppy; don’t start without me,” he called over his shoulder.

Joe ran as fast as his legs would carry him, up the stairs and down the hall to his father’s room.  Flinging opened the door, Joe rushed to place the folded laundry on Ben’s bed.  As he turned to leave, his eyes once again found the shiny object on his father’s dresser. Casting wary eyes about him, Joe peeked around the door to be sure he was alone upstairs before returning to stand in front of Ben’s dresser. His bright eyes stared in wonder at the beautiful timepiece and his tiny fingers ached to touch the smoothness of the golden case. No longer able to resist the urge to hold the object in his hand, Joe’s fingers trembled as he carefully picked up the gold watch. Joe turned slightly meaning to sit on the bed as he satisfied his curiosity but in turning, the tip of his boot slipped under the edge of the braided rug and Joe stumbled, sending the golden treasure flying into the air. Joe heard the pocket watch as it tumbled to the floor, and the clinking sound caused the startled boy’s heart to momentarily stop its beating.

Joe caught himself before he fell to the floor but quickly dropped to his hands and knees, searching, desperately seeking the dropped object. Joe’s heart had begun to pound loudly and rapidly; his eyes filled with tears and he heard his own voice as he cried out in remorse of what he had just done.

“Oh no,” wept Joe silently as he ran his hand under the foot of his father’s bed until at last his fingers brushed against the coolness of the gold case.

Joe quickly pulled the watch from its hiding place and holding tightly to the object, raised up to his feet. He felt weak and his stomach hurt something fierce as he sat down on the edge of the bed. With hands that trembled almost beyond the frightened boy’s control, Joe pressed the tiny button that released the cover and opened the watch to reveal the facing of the treasured timepiece.

Joe’s hopes were shattered as he stared at the once beautiful watch that had first been his grandfather’s and then his father’s.  Tears dripped from the quivering chin as what he had done tore at the pieces of his shattered heart.

“Oh Papa,” cried out Joe. “What have I done?” he questioned himself.

Joe wiped away the tears and continued to stare at the face of the watch.  The miniature glass crystal that covered the face and hands was shattered. Joe could barely make out the time through the cracks of the glass. Joe felt his stomach churn and thought that he might vomit. The distraught boy swallowed several times, totally at a loss as what to do.  He sat for several long moments as worried and troublesome thoughts surged though him.

Joe knew his father would be furious with him. He also knew that his father’s bedroom was forbidden to any of them, unless invited. Joe could only imagine what his father would do when he found out that Joe had broken the rule, even if he had been instructed by Hop Sing to deliver clean laundry to his father’s room. When his father returned and found that his prized possession had been ruined because of a foolish boy’s curiosity, Joe was sure that Ben would take a strap to his backside.

His father’s disappointment in him worried Joe far more than the spanking he was sure he would get. It broke his heart to think that the man whom he loved more than any other person on the face of the earth would look upon his face with disgust and disapproval at him.  Joe felt the flow of fresh tears as he stood to his feet and placed the watch back on his father’s dresser and slowly slipped from the room. He wouldn’t tell his father; he would remain silent about what he had done, and unless asked, would not admit to breaking the timepiece.  Maybe, hoped Joe, his father would not even notice what had happened, or perhaps Ben would think that he himself had somehow broken the crystal.

Joe slowly slipped into his room and lay face down on his bed. His guilty conscience brought the onrush of tears that flooded his face and fell silently onto the sheet beneath him.  Joe cried until he could cry no more and soon afterwards, fell into a troubled slumber where his dreams were visions of broken timepieces, where his father ranted and raved at him for his lack of responsibility and where broken treasures swallowed him up into a dark sea of regret.

Joe woke to the gentle rubbing hand that caressed his back.  Turning over onto his back, Joe was surprised to see his father’s smiling face beaming down at him.  Joe rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sat up.

“Pa?”

“Yes sweetheart, it’s Papa.  Did you have to wait so long for me that you fell asleep?” smiled Ben.

Joe tried to think quickly, suddenly remembering his act of vandalism. Joe could barely look his father in the eye and he struggled not to cry.  His hand trembled as he swiped at his face.

“Joseph,” said Ben softly, seeing his son’s unnatural reactions. “Are you feeling poorly?”  Ben placed the back of his large but gentle hand first to his son’s cheek and then against the warm flesh of Joe’s brow. “You don’t feel warm; does your tummy hurt?”

Joe said nothing but nodded his head up and down in the hopes that Ben would allow him to remain in bed, thus freeing him from his obligation to accompany his father into town.  Joe doubted that he would be able to control his emotions if forced to spend the remainder of the day alone with this man whom he had betrayed.

“Did Hop Sing let you eat too many cookies?” smiled Ben, finger combing the wayward locks of Joe’s hair.

“I didn’t have cookies; it must have been the cake he let me have for lunch,” Joe said weakly as he rested his head against the softness of the pillows behind him. “Can I just stay in bed for a little while longer?  Please Pa?  I don’t think I could ride all the way into town right now,” he fibbed.

Ben watched the expression that darted in and out of the hazel eyes that tried so hard to keep from meeting his and wondered what had really initiated his son’s behavior. Ben gave up trying to figure it out when he saw the tiny bead of water that slowly slid from beneath the long lashes that covered the usual brightness which normally glowed from the hazel depths.

Ben pulled the cover back and allowed his son to slip underneath. “All right Joe, you rest for as long as you want to. I’ll be downstairs; I have some paper work to finish anyway.  We can go on our little shopping trip tomorrow, if you feel up to it.” Ben arranged the blankets about the tiny form and leaned down to place a kiss on Joe’s brow. He watched as Joe squeezed his eyes tightly shut and marveled at his son’s ability to avoid eye contact.

“Have a good rest son,” Ben called from the doorway before closing the door behind him.

Joe snuggled deeply into the softness of his bed and fought against the panic that racked his body.  His head had begun to ache and his stomach still hurt, he was worried sick about what he had done. In his young mind, he had commented the unforgivable, and the fear that his father would never forgive him gave him cause for fresh tears.  Joe buried his face in his pillow to muffle his sobs as he cried out his heartache and sorrow.

*****

“Joe…hey…little buddy,” Adam had placed himself on the edge of his brother’s bed and gently shook the sleeping boy. “Wake up, sleepy head,” urged Adam as he pulled back the covers and began tickling his youngest brother.

Joe began to giggle as soon as his brother’s long slender fingers found his most ticklish spots and Joe squirmed about on the bed. “Oh stop, please…” giggled Joe using his feet to push at his brother’s body in a futile attempt to distance himself from the probing fingers.

“Oh no you don’t,” laughed Adam as he wrapped the smaller and less likely boy into the folds of his arms. “Pa sent me up here to get you up, so up you go.” Adam stood to his feet, bringing Joe up into his arms as he did so. Using special care, he flipped Joe face down across his shoulder and swatted his little brother’s bare bottom and then hearing the boy’s laughter, dumped Joe back onto his bed, bouncing him as he did so.

“Hurry up and get dressed, Pa wants to talk to you about something,” ordered Adam with a gleam in his eye.

Joe’s laughter died quickly as dread began inching its way into his heart.  Pa had found out about the watch!

Adam noticed the sudden change in Joe’s mood and sat down, taking the boy into his arms. “Hey pal, what’s wrong?” he questioned.

Joe cast tear filled eyes up at his brother. “What does Pa want to talk to me about?  I didn’t do nuthin’,” muttered Joe as he nestled against his brother’s broad chest.

“Joe, he didn’t say, but if it makes you feel any better, Pa’s not mad about anything; in fact, he’s in a really good mood,” offered Adam in hopes of comforting his kid brother.

“He is?” asked Little Joe, pulling away from Adam’s embrace and looking into his older brother’s face to see his expression.

Adam laughed, “Really Joe; Pa’s excited about taking you to town to shop for…hm…my birthday present,” smiled Adam. “You amaze me, little brother; you are like fire and ice — hot one minute, cold the next. Now get dressed and get your little butt downstairs before Pa does get angry with you for delaying him.”

Adam stood to his feet and as he moved toward the door, he picked up Joe’s trousers and tossed them at his brother. “Make sure you get me plenty of black gum balls,” he teased.

Joe giggled, “What makes ya so sure I’m even gonna get ya gum balls this year?  I might get somethin’ else.”

Adam stopped, his hand resting on the doorknob and smiled back at the boy who stood half dressed in the middle of his bed. “I don’t know, but I will tell you this, whatever you decide on, I will treasure for the rest of my life, just because you gave it to me.”

Joe’s mouth popped opened. “Really?”

“Really,” laughed Adam as he stepped into the hallway, his face graced by the warm smile on his handsome face.

*****

“You sure are quiet this morning, son.  Is something bothering you?” questioned Ben, glancing down at his son who sat next to him in the wagon.

Joe could not bring himself to look up at his father; he feared what he might see on his father’s face and the disappointment he thought he would see in Ben’s dark eyes.

“No sir,” he said softly as he stared straight ahead.

“Are you worried about what to get Adam for his birthday?” Ben asked.

Joe could not resist glancing up at Ben. His father had seemed to be in a good mood, which meant to Joe that Ben had not noticed that his valued treasure had been broken.  Joe relaxed a little and forced himself to smile at his father.

“A little, I ain’t got much money; just twelve pennies, that’s all,” proclaimed Little Joe.  “Hoss says ya can’t buy much with that.”

Ben noted the ring of unhappiness that sounded in the boy’s voice and glanced down at Joe.

“Well, Hoss doesn’t know everything, son. I think if you look around closely at what’s in the mercantile, you might be able to find something that you can spend your money on,” encouraged Ben.

“I wanted to get him something really special, but I ain’t got enough money for a new bridle for Sport. I heard Adam saying the other day that he needed one,” Joe told his father sadly.

“New bridles can be very expensive Little Joe. I don’t think your brother would expect a young boy like you to be able to afford a gift like that.  I think that whatever you choose, Adam will be happy with it,” said Ben.

Joe sighed and leaned his head against his father. “I suppose so. That’s what he told me this morning, but I think he was just tryin’ to make me feel better.”

Ben smiled; it sounded like something that his older son would do, always trying to help one of his younger brothers in some small way.  Ben chanced a sideways glance down at Joe and wondered again about the boy’s reproachful mood.

“Joseph, I don’t believe that your older brother would have said it, if he hadn’t meant it,” abolished Ben gently.

Joe sat up straight and refused to look at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. I know Adam meant what he said, but I was only wishing I could do something special for him this year. I ain’t never got enough money to buy anything for any of you that really means somethin’.”

Ben pulled back on the reins, bringing the team of chestnut bays to a standstill in the middle of the road and turned to face his son.  Placing an arm gently about the slim shoulders that had begun to tremble, Ben used his other hand to lift Joe’s face upward.

“Son,” began Ben in a soft voice that rang with emotion, noting the sudden rush of tears that filled the boy’s eyes. “Every day that we have spent with you, since the very day you were born, you have given to me and your brothers something that no amount of money can buy. Money cannot buy love, or honor, nor can it purchase respect and loyalty.  Those are the things that you give to each of us — me, Adam and Hoss – every day, son.  You, yourself are a gift to all three of us. I know that sometimes your older brothers think of you as a pest, what with your practical jokes and the way that you are always getting underfoot, but never once have they wished that things were different. They both thrive on the hero-like worship you have for them, and they love the way you make them feel loved and needed. They love you Joseph, and they wouldn’t ever want those things to change; they could not even begin to imagine what life would have been like, had you never been born. You are the heart of our family, son. You keep us young, you keep us on our toes, you keep us loving each other and trusting one another, you…”

“Are a royal pain in the butt…that’s what Adam told me just yesterday,” smiled Little Joe.

Ben burst into laughter and tightened his hold about his son. “Sometimes Joseph, but not always,” smiled Ben.

“I’m sorry Pa,” Joe smiled in earnest this time, “I’m sure that I’ll find something for Adam if I look hard enough.”

“That’s the spirit Joe; once you’ve set your mind to something, follow through with it and you’re sure to be successful.”  Ben patted his son’s back and clicked to the team of horses, once more on their way.

Father and son rode in silence for several minutes before Joe spoke once again. “Pa?  What are you going to give Adam for his birthday?”

Ben kept his eyes on the road and continued clicking softly to the team of horses.  “I have something old to give to your brother, Little Joe. It’s something that my father gave to me on my twenty-first birthday and now I am going to pass it down to Adam. It is something that is very dear to my heart, something that means a great deal to me.”

Joe could not imagine what that something could be, and being naturally curious, he could not refrain from asking.

“What is it, Pa? Will ya tell me?  I promise not to tell Adam,” said Joe excitedly, watching his father’s face.

“I don’t know, son; it’s suppose to be a surprise. You see it was my grandfathers first, and on my papa’s twenty-first birthday, Grandfather gave it to him, and then Pa gave it to me like I’ve already told you. It’s been a tradition in my family now for many, many years. Someday, hopefully your brother will have a son and will continue the tradition and pass it on to his oldest son,” explained Ben.

“But what is it Pa?  Please, I won’t tell a soul, honest; you can trust me.”

Suddenly Little Joe gulped, remembering the broken watch that he had not told his father he had broken. Joe felt horrible; he hung his head, ashamed of his weakness yet, fearful enough still to keep silent about his mischief.

“Okay son, I’ll tell you my secret. It’s my gold pocket watch. I have kept it put away for years now.  I was always afraid it might get broken if I carried it everyday, so I kept it in my special box where I keep my most treasured items that have been given to me over the years.  Now, you have to promise not to tell a soul, not even Hoss, promise?” smiled Ben.

Joe was speechless; he was unable to find his voice, for the knot that had just appeared in his throat threatened to choke off his air supply. Suddenly his head felt dizzy, forcing him to lean against his father for support. The watch!  No! Screamed Little Joe’s heart…not his father’s golden engraved pocket watch! Surely the one his father was referring too could not be the one he had dropped and broken! Joe felt a new kind of dread fill his heart; the watch must have been very old if it had been his father’s grandfathers.  Joe felt the tears sting his eyes and he turned his head away from his father.

“Joseph?”

“I promise,” the reply sounded weak and insincere, even to Joe’s young ears.

Joe wiped away a lone tear that ran down his cheek.  His father was too busy trying to miss the ruts in the road to notice that his youngest son had become extremely quiet.  Joe’s hands had begun to shake and he feared that his father might see and ask him why, so Joe shoved both hands deeply into the pockets on his jacket.  For the rest of the ride into town Joe was silent, lost in his own world of misery and dread, afraid to tell his secret, afraid of the way in which his father would react. Just as soon as the wagon stopped, Joe jumped from his seat next to his father and darted for the mercantile.

“Joseph, slow down, please,” called out Ben as he climbed from the wagon.

Laughing, he placed a restraining hand on Joe’s shoulder, unaware of the apprehension that his youngest son was feeling.

“I have a couple of errands to do while you shop.  Now remember what I said, don’t touch anything breakable; I’d hate to see you using your pennies paying for something that you broke instead of on Adam’s birthday gift. I know how clumsy little boy’s hands can be at times, and I know you; you cannot resist inspecting everything within your reach. Keep your hands in your pockets until you make up your mind, and then you tell Mr. Cass and he will get the item for you. Do I make myself clear?”  Ben smiled at the expression on the boy’s face.

“I understand,” Joe said softly. “Boy, do I understand,” he muttered to himself and then glanced up at his father, afraid that Ben might have heard his statement. Ben had turned his head and was talking to Mr. Cass, probably explaining why he had brought his youngest son into the store and why he was leaving him to do his shopping.

“I’ll be back in a short while Joe.  Take your time and son, spend your money wisely,” advised Ben.  “So long son,” he called as he walked from the store.

*****

Joe stood rooted to the spot where his father had left him. He took several deep breaths and tried to steady his nerves and still his trembling hands. Mr. Cass appeared in the doorway of his little shop and smiled down at the youngest Cartwright.

“Well Little Joe, your father tells me you are here to shop for a birthday present for Adam.  I don’t think you’ll find anything out here on the sidewalk. Why don’t you come on inside?” suggested the shopkeeper with a wide grin on his wrinkled face.

Joe looked up into the kind face of the man and returned the smile.  He had always liked the kind old man and could not recall a time when Mr. Cass had not been the owner of the mercantile.  Mr. Cass had always been nice to the Cartwright family, and had also been kind enough to extend them credit when times had been hard and money had been short.

“I was just trying to dig my pennies out of my pocket,” explained Little Joe as he followed the gentleman into the store. “All I got is twelve of ’em. You got anything for that amount of money that might be nice for a gift?”

Mr. Cass placed his index finger to the tip of his chin as if thinking. “Well now, let me think,” he smiled.  “How about a nice big bag of gum balls?  I bet your brother would like those.”

Joe shook his head.  “No, I got him gum balls last year…I want something nice for him this year.”

Little Joe wandered over to the leather goods and stood admiring the new bridles.  His fingers rubbed at the softness of the leather and he pulled one leather strap over close to his nose and sniffed at the item.  “I love the smell of leather, don’t you Mr. Cass?” Joe asked as the man came to stand behind him.

“I do too, Little Joe,” answered Mr. Cass.

“Do I got enough money to buy one of these?”  Little Joe turned to look into the face of the kindly man.

The shop owner watched the expression on the little boy’s face and wished with all of his heart that he could somehow let the boy have one of the new bridles for the amount of money that the child held in the palm of his hand. Mr. Cass knelt down on one knee so that he could be eye level with the little boy who stood in front of him.

“Little Joe, I really wish I had one that I could sell to ya, but I don’t, not for the amount of money ya got there,” explained the storekeeper with a sigh.

Mr. Cass saw the disappointment that sparked the tears that had quickly filled the hazel eyes and suddenly an idea came into his head. “Hey,” Mr. Cass said with excitement, “come into the back with me. I just remembered that I have some used bridles in the back room.  I reworked most of them and they are almost as good as new. Would you like to take a look at one of them?”

Joe’s expression changed and his tiny little face broke into a smile. “Sure I would,” beamed Little Joe happily.  “Ya reckon ya got one for twelve pennies?” he asked hopefully.

Cass stood to his feet and scratched his head, “Cain’t never tell son; I might just have one.  Lead the way.”

Joe took the lead and skipped happily toward the rear door. He never noticed that kind hearted Mr. Cass had slipped one of the new, less expensive bridles behind his back and when they stood together in the back room, Joe failed to see the storekeeper place the bridle in among the used ones.

“Let’s take a look over here, Little Joe, and see what we can find.”  Mr. Cass searched through the bridles that hung from different pegs along the back wall.  “Nope, don’t see any that might suit your pocketbook.”

Joe watched with expectation as Cass continued on his search. Finally Mr. Cass turned and faced Little Joe, a shiny leather bridle held high in the air.

“This looks like a nice one; what do you think?” he smiled and handled the new bridle to the little boy whose eyes glowed with happiness.

“It’s perfect Mr. Cass…hmm…how much is it?  It looks almost new!” Little Joe said in a whispered voice.  He could hardly believe his good fortune; now, if he only had enough pennies to purchase the bridle, he would have the perfect gift for this older brother.

“Let’s see now,” Cass hem-hawed around pretending to calculate the prize of the bridle.  “Looks like today is your lucky day, Little Joe; the price is fifteen cents, but since it’s for a birthday gift, I’ll make you a deal.  How’s about if’n I sell it to you for the amount you slipped back into your pocket?”

“You mean you’ll sell it to me for twelve cents?” Joe nearly shouted as he jumped up and down in glee.

Mr. Cass started laughing.  He knew in his heart that he had made the right decision by selling the new bridle for a used bridle price. “Sure enough; that is, if you still want it?”

“Want it?” shouted Joe, “you bet I want it. Thank you Mr. Cass, thank you.  Here’s my money.” Joe crammed his hand into his pocket and began digging for the pennies he had worked so hard to save.

By the time that Ben returned from his errand, Joe sat on the sidewalk digging the toe of his boot into the dirt.  Ben paused and watched, a smile creeping across his face as he watched his youngest son. Ben stepped closer and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  Joe stopped his toe digging and looked up. When he spied his father standing behind him, he jumped quickly to his feet. His father noted the happy glow on the young boy’s face and decided that Joe must have been able to make a selection on Adam’s birthday gift.

“Well, Little Joe, you certainly looked please with yourself.  Did you find something for Adam’s birthday?” asked Ben stooping down to Joe’s level.

Joe was dancing around in excitement. “I sure did, look Pa, I got Adam a new bridle for Sport. Mr. Cass had some used ones in the back room and he found this one. It was fifteen cents but he sold it to me for the twelve pennies I had in my pocket.  Ain’t it nice Pa?  Heh, Pa, heh?” Joe squealed.

Ben inspected the bridle and was just about to comment on the fact that this particular one could not possibly be a used bridle when Mr. Cass stepped out of the store and into the sunlight next to Ben.

“Hi, Ben,” smiled Mr. Cass.

Ben stood to his feet and faced the shopkeeper.  He didn’t say a word, just scrutinized the man’s face, studying Cass’ expression.

“I hope you don’t mind. I over-stocked anyway, and Little Joe was really worried about what to get his brother. Ben,” whispered Cass, “I couldn’t resist; you know how I feel about the boy there. Please, let him keep it.”

Ben’s lips made a tight straight line across his face. He wasn’t sure what to say to the gentleman who had remained his long time friend, other than thank you.

“Cass, I know the little scamp can twist a grown man’s heart around his little finger.  I hope he didn’t play on your sympathies?” whispered Ben.

“Not at all. He only asked if I had a bridle that I could sell for twelve cents. I found one in the back…well, sort of…anyway I made the deal with him.  So, since he was left alone, in my care, I felt it my right to sell what I want from my own store for whatever price I chose…it was a fair deal,” remarked Cass, determined that Ben would not force his son into returning the bridle.

Ben snickered, “Yes, it most certainly is your right, and if you choose to make such an outrageous deal with a nine year old, who am I to question your judgment, or your sanity for that matter?” laughed Ben.

“Then you don’t mind?”

“Do I have a choice?” responded Ben as he and Cass stepped back into the shop, leaving Joe alone on the sidewalk.

Cass laughed loudly, “For once, Mr. Cartwright, no, you do not have a choice. I did what I did, because…well, let’s just say because I remember what it’s like to be a boy with only pennies in my pocket and a desire in my heart.”

Ben shook the storekeeper’s hand and smiled. “Thank you Cass; you are a most remarkable man. I shall not be forgetting this.”

*****

Ben laughed as he listened to his young son’s babble. Joe was beside himself with happiness about his gift to his older brother. Ben glanced down and noted the blissful expression on Joe’s face and he smiled to himself. Mr. Cass was a jewel of a friend, a special man whose heart was filled with love for his fellowman…and their young sons, laughed Ben silently. He would have preferred that Little Joe purchase something within his price range for Adam instead of the expensive bridle that Cass had sold to the boy.  But seeing how pleased his baby son was, Ben could not fault the man for his generosity and he whispered a silent prayer of thanks for the dear man.

“Do ya, Pa?  Heh?” squeaked Little Joe.

Ben was drawn from his daydreams by the gentle tug on his shirtsleeve. “I’m sorry son; I must have been daydreaming. What did you ask me?”

Joe sighed. “I asked ya if’n ya thought that Adam would be pleased with my present?”  Little Joe looked into the face of his father and smiled.

Ben slipped his arm about the slender shoulders and returned the smile. “Joseph, I don’t think any young man could possibly like anything any better. Yes, I do believe Adam will be pleased. But what amazes me is that you managed to do this all on your own, and without breaking half the things in Mr. Cass’ store, like last year,” teased Ben.

Joe’s smile faded suddenly and was replaced with dread and fear. Joe had forgotten all about his father’s broken pocket watch, until now. He quickly turned his head in the opposite direction to avoid meeting his father’s dark eyes.

“Joe?  Is something wrong son?” quizzed Ben, aware of the unexplained change in the little boy’s expression and mannerisms.

“No,” whispered Joe, “I was just thinking about Adam’s party, that’s all Pa, honest.”

“Are you sure that’s all?  I have a feeling that something besides this upcoming party is bothering you. You have been unusually quiet for the last couple of days. Would you like to explain why?” Ben inquired, clicking to the team of bays to keep them at a steady trot.

Joe’s heart began to beat rapidly and he sucked in air to keep his head from spinning.  Pa knew; he had to know. Why else would he ask such a question?

“No, I…I ain’t got nothin’ eatin’ at me,” Little Joe stuttered as he told his little white lie.

When he glanced down, he saw his hands shaking and quickly snatched up the little brown bag that Mr. Cass had put the bridle in. Hopefully his father had not seen how he trembled, thought Little Joe.

Ben had noted the reaction; he saw the tiny hands grab for something to hold on to, and he witnessed the trembling chin and heard the quiver to his son’s voice. Something was bothering the lad, that, Ben was sure of, but for the life of him he could not imagine what it could be.

Joe remained silent until they reached the ranch house. As soon as the team stopped, Adam and Hoss emerged from the barn to help their father unload the supplies and care for the team. Little Joe jumped down and, without so much as a word to his brothers, ran into the house.

Adam stared after his little brother. “What’s eating at him?” he questioned, looking over at Ben who had also witnessed his son’s sudden departure.

“I wish I knew. He’s been on the verge of tears for the last couple of days. Have either of you said anything to hurt his feelings?” asked Ben.

“Nope, not me, Pa,” Hoss was quick to reply.

“I haven’t, unless he’s still upset about me teasing him about the gum balls,” smiled Adam, remembering his last birthday and the look on Little Joe’s face when he had been forced to hand his older brother the half filled bag of black gum balls.

“No, I don’t think that’s it.  It’s something more,” Ben said more to himself than to his sons.

“Have you asked him about it, Pa?” questioned Adam.

“On the way home, but he said there was nothing wrong. But he sure was about to cry about something. Maybe, I’ll go have a talk with him.You boys finish unloading the wagon, will you please?” Ben stated as he started toward the house.

“Sure thing Pa,” Hoss said, hoisting a sack of feed onto his broad shoulders.

*****

Little Joe had run straight for the stairs.  He had to distance himself from the prying eyes of his family and try to avoid any probing questions that he might not be able to answer.  He knew that his father could read him like a book and Joe was sure that had Ben pushed ahead with his questioning, Joe would surely break down and confess his transgressions.  The fear of getting his behind warmed by his beloved father forced him into delaying his confession for as long as possible.  Joe rushed down the hall, but stopped at his father’s bedroom door, the watch seemingly to lure him into the room.  He had to know; he had to find out for sure if his father knew of the broken watch.

Silently he eased opened the door that separated him from his father’s bedroom. Joe peeked back over his shoulder to be sure that he was alone in the upstairs hallway before slipping into Ben’s room. He pushed the door almost shut and hurried over to the large dresser. Joe’s eyes sought to find the treasured timepiece, but it was not to be found.  Panic began coursing its way through the diminutive body as Joe began moving items around in his frantic search for the pocket watch. His heart rate increased to such intensity that Joe was afraid that someone might be able to hear the thump, thump that echoed deep within his pint-size little chest.

Alarm invaded his thoughts as he ran from the room, slamming the door behind him. Joe flung himself across his bed, unable to stop the onslaught of tears that ran unchecked down his rosy cheeks. The pillow in which he had buried his face deeply into muffled his sobs.  Joe did not hear the sound of the gentle knocking at his door, nor did he know when his father entered his room; he only knew that his heart was broken.

“Joseph,” Ben said softly as he sat on the edge of the bed and placed his hand gently on his son’s back.  Ben could feel the trembling that coursed its way throughout the young boy’s body and concern for his son rose to a new height.

When Joe refused to turn over, Ben gently raised the boy from the bed and placed him onto his lap, holding him closely. Joe immediately buried his face into his father’s chest, wrapping his arms tightly around his father and sobbed out his despair.

“Can’t you tell Papa what has you so upset, sweetheart?” encouraged Ben, rubbing his hand up and down the tiny back, offering comfort to the weeping boy as best he could.

Joe shook his head but refused to look at his father.

“Are you feeling poorly, son?”

“My tummy hurts,” muttered Joe as he sniffed his nose and wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Well now, that’s nothing to cry about. Why don’t you crawl into bed and I’ll have Hop Sing fix you something to make it stop?” smiled Ben as he placed Joe back onto his bed.

Joe’s chin still quivered; he wanted to tell his father what he had done, but seeing Ben’s face and the way in which the dark eyes filled with love, Joe hadn’t the heart to sacrifice the love he felt his father giving to him now.

“We don’t want that tummy of yours to be hurting tomorrow. Adam’s party, remember?” smiled Ben.

Joe nodded his head, “I remember…I…think it will be better by then.” Joe forced himself to smile.

“Good. You rest son and I’ll be right back.”  Ben stood to his feet and pulled the cover up around Joe’s chin. The concerned father leaned down and placed a kiss on his son’s brow.  “I love you, Joe,” he whispered.

The enduring words brought fresh tears to the hazel colored eyes but Joe quickly wiped them away.  “I love you too, Pa,” he said in a wee little voice.

Ben smiled, still concerned about whatever it was that was troubling his son.  He didn’t really doubt Joe when the boy had said that his tummy hurt, but Ben was sure that was not the cause for his son’s unhappiness. Ben shook his head; Joe often had a tummy ache when he was in trouble or when he had done something that he knew he should not have done. Ben tried to think back over the last few days; his youngest son had not been in trouble, nor had he done anything that he shouldn’t have. In fact, reasoned Ben, Little Joe had been a near perfect child over the last several days. Even that began to plague the older Cartwright; compliance was not the norm for Joseph, surmised Ben. Something wasn’t right.

*****

By the time that Ben returned with Hop Sing’s remedy cure broth, Joe was fast asleep.  Ben set the tray down on the table next to the bed and debated with himself as to whether or not he should wake the boy or let him sleep. Little Joe looked so peaceful, so young and so innocent, that Ben had a hard time making up his mind. He lowered himself onto the edge of the bed and watched as Joe’s eyes darted about in some unknown flight of fancy.  Ben smiled, leaning over and kissing the little boy’s cheek. When his lips brushed against the soft flesh, he could feel the dampness left by the tears that had wet the boy’s face.  Ben rearranged a displaced lock of hair and smiled at the sight of the youngest Cartwright.

“Sleep tight, handsome prince, God bless,” whispered Ben, his decision made; he would let Little Joe sleep. Ben stood to his feet, his heart swelled with love for his little urchin and he smiled again, thinking how blessed he was.

*****

The morning darkness faded away with the sunrise. The heavy dew that moistened the tips of the trees and bushes, grasses and wildflowers, dried quickly as the sun warmed the earth. About the house, men scurried from one room to the other, often tripping over one another in their haste to prepare for the afternoon event.

Joe opened the door and stepped into the hallway and was nearly knocked to his feet as Adam stumbled over the unseen child. Joe groaned as he felt his body slammed into the wall. Adam dropped his bundle of laundry and with hands flaying about in mid-air, groped for a handhold to break his fall.

Joe slid down the wall, Adam landed face down across the legs of his youngest brother, and the clean towels lay scattered up and down the long hall. Dark eyes met hazel eyes, and suddenly the upstairs was filled with laughter, as the two brothers lay sprawled in the floor, giggling.

Ben rounded the corner, just in time to witness the event and stood with hands on hips, a mock scowl across his bronzed face. “How many times must I remind you two not to horse play, in the house?  You must go outside for that!”

Adam glanced up at his father, spying the smile on Ben’s face and started laughing all over again. He pointed to Little Joe who watched, not sure if his father was angry with them or not.

“It was his fault,” groaned Adam, getting to his feet.

“No it wasn’t,” snapped Little Joe, also getting to his feet and glaring at his older brother, not realizing that Adam was teasing him.

Adam wrapped his arm about Joe’s neck, holding him in a headlock.  “I was only teasing Little Buddy; sorry Pa, we had a major collision. We’ll clean up the mess, won’t we sport?” laughed Adam, releasing his little brother.

Joe giggled, “Yeah, don’t worry none Pa, me and Adam will pick up the towels.”

“Adam and I will pick up the towels,” Ben corrected.

“Hey, thanks Pa,” squealed Little Joe as he turned and raced down the stairs.

“Joseph!” shouted Ben, staring in shock at his son’s retreating back.

Joe was already gone by the time that his father had realized that Joe had misunderstood his words. Adam laughed out loud and slipped his arm about his father’s shoulder.

“I’ll pick them up Pa; it was my fault anyway, I should have been watching where I was going,” Adam said and began gathering the clean linens from the floor.

“That little scamp…how on earth are we ever going to tame that wild spirit of his?” groaned Ben as he helped Adam to pick up the scattered towels.

“I don’t know Pa; do you really want too?” smiled Adam.

Ben stopped and glanced down the hall where Joe had disappeared. “No, not really. I love the little rascal just as he is.”

“Yeah, me too. It’s hard to stay angry with him, even when he is at his worse,” Adam confessed.

“It’s those eyes,” offered Ben.

“It’s that quivering chin,” supplied Adam.

“It’s that crooked little smile,” laughed Ben.

“It’s that infectious giggle,” added Adam.

“It’s…it’s…”stammered Ben.

“It’s his charm…you know Pa, we could go on and on and on if we wanted too.”

“Yes, but we both know that when it comes to your little brother, we are both clay in the hands of the potter.”

“We aren’t by ourselves; don’t leave out Hoss. He’s worse than the two of us put together!”  Adam laughed and Ben could not help but to join in. Quickly, the pair finished cleaning up the mess in the hallway and went their separate ways, the sounds of their soft laughter fading away.

*****

The guest began arriving at the appropriate hour. Everything was ready, the Chinese lanterns had been hung and lit, the cake decorated, including twenty-one tiny candles that Hop Sing had managed to find. Joe had helped Hoss move the furniture to the side of the room thus giving extra space for couples to dance. The fiddler and his entourage arrived early and began setting up in the corner near the bottom of the steps where everyone would be able to see and hear them better.

Joe was sent to his room to clean up and dress for the birthday party. When he heard the first of the invited guest arrive, he sat down on the edge of his bed, lost in thought and worry. It wouldn’t be long now before he would have to make his confession to his father. He wondered what Ben would do. Joe had decided that he would wait until Adam had opened his gift that his father presented to him and then, when Adam asked about the broken crystal, he would explain to his father what had happened. Joe had it all planned in his mind; if he waited until the house was full of guests, his father surely would not rant and rave in front of company, thus giving the boy a few extra moments to plead his case.

Joe felt the sting of tears and he quickly brushed them away. He felt horrible about what happened and he cringed when he thought of how proud his father had sounded the day before when he had told Joe about the watch that had been passed down from one generation to the other. It all ended here, thought Little Joe; the watch would be ruined, destroyed, all because of him and his uncontrollable curiosity. The tiny beads of water rolled slowly down his face as he moved to stand in front of the mirror. He gazed at his reflection, disgusted with himself for his lack of courage to face the consequences of his actions. Joe vaguely remembered his father telling him something about how it took a big man to admit he made a mistake and a bigger man that was willing to face the consequences. Well, thought Joe, I ain’t no man; I’m just a little boy…with a guilty conscience. Joe swiped at the tears, turned from the mirror and proceeded out the door and down the stairs. Remembering his gift, Joe darted back to his room, grabbed his carelessly wrapped present and ran down from the room.

Joe watched the happy faces; everyone seemed to be having a good time – everyone, that is, but himself.  Joe sat in the corner of the room unnoticed by the guest, not caring that the others were indulging themselves in the beautiful bounty of food that Hop Sing had worked so hard to prepare. His stomach hurt again; he felt flushed one minute, freezing the next. The palms of his hands were damp from sweat, as was his brow.  For a brief moment, Joe thought he might vomit, he was so distraught.  He was lost in thoughts, anxiety claimed every inch of his being; his hands trembled, and his eyes filled with tears.  Not caring that anyone might see, Joe buried his face in the palms of his hands and wept silently.

From across the crowded room, Ben had been watching his youngest son. Joe had made himself scarce and, for the first thirty minutes of the party, Ben had not been able to locate the boy. After scanning the room several times, a motion in the far corner of the study drew his attention from his guest. Ben had spotted Little Joe; the boy seemed to almost cower in his hidden corner. As Ben moved toward his child, he was stopped by more arriving guest. He had no other choice than to stop and speak; he was after all, the host of this celebration, Adam being the honoree. Ben kept his eyes trained on the tiny boy and watched the range of emotions that filtered across the young face. When he spied Joe bury his face into the palms of his hands and witnessed how the slender shoulders began to shake and tremble, Ben excused himself from his guest and quickly made his way to his distraught son.

“Joe,” whispered Ben, resting his hand on one shoulder of his son. “What’s wrong precious?”

Joe glanced up, saw the concern in his father’s eyes and flung his body into his father’s arms, surprising Ben and nearly causing him to sit in the floor.

Ben immediately gathered the weeping child into the folds of his arms and pulled Joe tightly against his chest.

“Oh Pa, I’m…so…sorry…I …didn’t mean…to do it…honest,” sobbed Little Joe as he buried his face against Ben’s dinner jacket.

“Do what Precious, what are you talking about?” Ben asked, holding on to Joe who had moved to wrap his arms about his father’s neck.

“I…broke…” he began but was cut off when Hoss began to call the crowd to attention.

“If everyone will gather ‘round, brother Adam is going to open his gifts. Come on Pa,” announced Hoss in a loud voice.

The guest began circling the honoree in anticipation of seeing Adam’s excited face when he opened his gifts.

“Joe,” whispered Ben, “let’s watch Adam open his presents, and then we can have a little talk, okay?”

Joe raised his head from his father’s shoulder and watched as everyone closed in on his brother.  It was too late now; his fate had been sealed.

“All right, Pa,” sniffed Little Joe as he unwrapped his arms and slid to the floor.  Without looking back at his father Little Joe wormed his way through the crowd to stand in front of his oldest brother.

Adam opened first one gift and then another, taking his time to savor each gratuity and to thank the bearer. When all but three presents remained, Ben stepped forward and smiled.

“Happy birthday, son.  Before you open these, I just want to tell you how proud I am of you.  I hope this special day will always remain a pleasant memory for you.”  Ben leaned forward and gave his oldest son a quick hug, being sure not to linger any longer than necessary lest he cause the boy to blush.

“Thanks Pa; it’s not everyday that a man turns twenty-one. I will always think back on today as one of the best days of my life,” stated Adam, his face turning a shade pink.

“Here big brother, this’ons from me,” smiled Hoss has he handed his brother a neatly wrapped package. “Hop Sing wrapped it for me; you know how I am, what with these big ole things,” he laughed, holding his huge hands out for Adam and everyone else to see.

Adam laughed and tore away the paper. When he opened the box, he gasped for inside was a beautifully hand-crafted holster made of the finest leather available. Adam’s eyes sought his brother’s face, “How?  I mean, this must have cost you a fortune!” he exclaimed in shock.

Hoss felt his own face blushing, “Aw shucks Adam, it tweren’t that much; ‘sides, I been savin’ now for nearly a year.”

Adam pulled the holster from the box and examined it carefully. “It’s beautiful Hoss; thank you,” he said as he slipped his arms about the big boy.  “Thank you so much,” he whispered a second time.

Adam set the holster aside and glanced toward his father and Joe.  Joe stood rooted to the spot but with a gentle hand on his back and a slight nudge forward, Joe stepped up to the table and pick up his gift.

“Happy birthday, Adam,” muttered Joe as he held out his hand, the gift gripped tightly within the folds of his fingers.

Adam noted the unhappy expression on his brother’s face and knelt down face to face.  He could see the tears that threatened to spill forth and could plainly tell that the boy had been crying.

“Hey, buddy,” Adam said softly as he pulled Joe closer to him, “are you all right?” he asked.

Joe nodded his head and pulled back his hand, turning back to bury his face against his father. Adam looked up at Ben, exchanged worried glances and began to unfold the brown paper that withheld the box’s little secret that his brother had given to him.

His eyes opened wide as he pulled the bridle from the box and held it up for all to see.  “Little Joe,” exclaimed the older brother, “please, come here buddy.”

Joe turned back to Adam and took a step nearer.  He did not pull back this time as his brother pulled him into a hug. “Little Joe, how did you know I needed this?” Adam asked.

“I heard ya tell Hoss the other day that you needed a new bridle for Sport,” explained Little Joe, smiling at last. “Do ya like it?”

“Do I like it?  Of course I like it…but Joe, it must have cost you dearly?” hinted Adam.

“I got a really good deal from Mr. Cass…it’s only a used one, but it looks almost new,” Little Joe told his brother.

Adam’s eyes darted to his father’s face and his doubt about the bridle was confirmed.  It was a new bridle. Adam wondered just what kind of a deal his little brother had made with the storekeeper but decided to keep his thoughts until later.

“It certain does look almost new,” Adam smiled at his brother. “Thank you Joe; it is the perfect gift. I will cherish it always, and Sport will wear it proudly.”  Adam squeezed Joe tightly until the boy was forced to squirm out of his brother’s embrace.

“Adam,” said Ben, his voice growing husky with emotion.  Ben stood in front of his oldest son, his small package held in his hand. “I don’t have something new to give you for your birthday, but I do have something that is very dear to my heart.  It is something that I have cherished for many years now, something that once belonged to my grandfather. Grandfather pasted it down to my father on his twenty-first birthday and then Papa passed it to me on my twenty-first year. I am honored now, to pass it on to you.  I hope you will always cherish it as I have and perhaps someday, you can pass it on to your son.  Happy birthday, Adam.”  Ben embraced his son, clinging longer this time.  He was surprised when Adam slipped his arms about his shoulders and clung to him in return.

Joe watched the exchange between his father and his brother with a sinking heart.  His fear was in his throat and he took a step backward from the guest who still circled his brother.

“Thank you Pa, for whatever this is. I know, without having to look, I will certainly treasure this always, if for no other reason but that you gave it to me,” smiled Adam as he fought to control his emotions.

“Hurry up, Adam; open it,” someone called out.

Joe had distanced himself from the crowd and had found his way back to his dark corner, unobserved by the others. He turned his back to the small group of people, hiding his tears. But he listened as Adam tore the wrapping paper that had been neatly tied with a golden ribbon.

The room fell silent as Adam slowly and expectantly lifted the lid from the box. Suddenly loud gasps filled the room; all eyes were on the expression of the handsome young man as Adam slowly pulled the watch from the box and held it in the palm of his hand.

“Oh…Pa,” Little Joe heard Adam gasp.

Joe could not stand the suspense any longer.  He rose and stepped again to the edge of the circle.

“It’s beautiful,” exclaimed Adam, turning the timepiece over in his hand and examining the golden watch. His finger traced the engraved that covered the back of the case.

Joe’s heart thumped within his chest; he glanced at his father and was surprised to see Ben watching him. Tears blinded his vision as he stood immobile and watched as Adam mashed the miniature button that released the cover on the top.

“Pa!” whispered Adam.

Joe pinched his eyes tightly together, freeing his tears from their prison.  His chin quivered as he waited with dread the angry words he knew his father would shout at him.

“I don’t know what to say, Pa…it’s exquisite…it’s…it’s…priceless.  Thank you, Pa,” murmured Adam, fighting to hide his tears from the onlookers.  “I will treasure it forever.”

Something wasn’t right, the watch…it was suppose to be broken!  Joe stepped up to his older brother, tears dripping from the end of his chin.  His reserve was shattered, his nerves shot as he snatched the watch from his brother’s hands.

“JOE!” shouted Adam, as he made a grab to reclaim the watch.

Joe turned his back to the older brother preventing Adam from taking the watch from him.  Quickly, Joe opened the case and stared in shock at the watch’s face.  The glass crystal was in perfect shape. Joe’s mouth dropped opened in shock, his hands trembled, and had it not been for his father gently removing the treasured item from his hand, Joe might have dropped the watch a second time.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Ben in an angry voice, handing the priceless watch back to its new owner.

Joe started to dart passed his father; he was crushed, but Ben’s quick response stopped his son from fleeing.  Ben scooped the weeping boy up into his arms and Joe buried his face against his father’s neck.

“Oh Papa…” he sobbed, “I’m…sorry…I…should…have…told…you,” wept Little Joe.

Ben glanced at Adam and Hoss,  and then excused himself from the room, carrying the distraught child in his arms and to his room. Once Ben had sat down in the old rocker that had been Marie’s and had long ago been placed in their bedroom, he held the weeping boy in his loving arms and allowed the boy to cry himself out.  At long last, Joe sniffed his nose, but kept his head resting against his father’s beating heart.

The guests had long since left, bidding a happy birthday to the oldest Cartwright son.  When the last of his guest had said their good-byes, Adam hurried to his father’s room where he slipped silently into the bedroom and stood to the side.

“Is he all right, Pa?” asked Adam, the concern for his baby brother’s welfare foremost on his mind.

Ben nodded his head, offering a small smile to the young man. Gently he pulled Joe into an upright position and using his handkerchief, wiped dry the tiny little face.

“Joseph,” Ben said in a soft, caring voice. “Would you please explain to your brother and I what happened a little while ago?”

Joe gulped, giving a swift glance up at Adam.  “I’m sorry Adam, I didn’t mean to grab the watch away from you…it’s just that…that…” Joe sighed.

“It’s what, son?” directed Ben as he watched the small boy’s face for signs that he might break down once more.

“Pa, I didn’t mean to…to…break…it…honest Pa, honest…ya just gotta believe me…it was an accident…honest Pa, please, don’t be mad at me…please,” cried Joe, burying his face in his father’s shirt as he cried.

“What’s he talking about, Pa?” Adam asked in bewilderment.

“I have no earthly idea,” he told Adam. “Joseph, what are you talking about son?  Please tell me what you are referring to, I don’t understand.”

“Oh Pa…I only meant to look at it…I didn’t break it on purpose…” began Joe.

“Joseph…What were you looking at and what is it that you broke?” questioned Ben, becoming slightly frustrated with his youngest.

Joe looked long into Ben’s dark eyes and studied his face.  His father really did not have a clue as to what he was talking about.  Joe sighed deeply.

“Pa…your watch…I broke it,” said Joe softly.

“Broke it? When? How?” his father asked, trying hard to put the pieces of the puzzle into one.

“The other day, when you were supposed to take me to town.  I saw it on your dresser when Hop Sing asked me to bring your clean shirts to your room. It…it…was so pretty; I couldn’t help but to pick it up…and when I did…I dropped it.  I’m sorry…honest Pa, honest Adam…I didn’t do it on purpose,” pleaded Joe, his eyes filling once more with unshed tears.

“Go on, please,” encouraged Ben, glancing up at Adam.

“When…I opened…it…it was broken…the glass…I mean.  I wanted to tell ya…honest Pa…” exclaimed Joe.

“Why didn’t you, son?” Ben asked softly, not wanting to upset Joe who had finally stopped crying.

“I…I…” Joe gulped, “I was afraid too.”  Joe dropped his head; his chin began to quiver again.

Ben placed his fingers under the droopy chin and gently raised his son’s head.  “Stop crying, Joe.” Ben waited until his son had his emotions under control before speaking again.

“Now, tell me this, little boy; are we so far apart that you are afraid to admit to me when you have done something that you know you are not allowed to do?  Joseph, are you actually afraid of me?”

Joe wished more than any thing to be able to turn his face from his father; but Ben held firmly to the quivering chin.  “No sir, I’m just afraid of your…hand, that’s all.”

Ben stifled his laughter as Adam began coughing.  “My hand, son?” asked Ben, knowing what Joseph was referring too.

“Yes sir, I…I…knew I was in for a good one…when you found out…so…so…I just waited.”

Ben couldn’t stop the smile that toyed with his lips. “Son, you should have come to me just as soon as I got back home. All you had to do was to explain that you saw the watch on my dresser and wanted to look at it. You would have saved yourself a great deal of heartache if you had just been honest about what you did…you see Joseph…”

“But Pa, you would’ve yelled at me!” exclaimed Little Joe.

“Little Brother, Pa’s yelling at you would not have been nearly as bad as what you have put yourself through,” smiled Adam, tousling Joe’s curls.

“Your brother’s right, son. You see, precious, you didn’t break the crystal in the watch…it was already broken,” Ben explained and then snickered when he saw the shock that registered on the cherub little face.

“WHAT!” shouted Joe as he squirmed on Ben’s lap.

“That’s right, Joseph. I had the watch laid out so that I could take it into town and have the glass replaced before giving it to Adam for his birthday.  I dropped the watch years ago and broke the glass, just as I had been afraid I’d do; that’s why I had it put up…you didn’t break anything, sweetheart.”

Joe was speechless; mixed emotions flooded his soul…he was relieved, angry with himself for not speaking up, but most of all, happy to know that his father still love him.

“Oh Pa…I wish…I mean…I…didn’t know what to do; I’m sorry,” Little Joe leaned forward and rested his head on Ben’s chest where he could hear his father’s heart beat.

“Let this be a lesson to you young man…remember what I said about touching things that do not belong to you…and son, please…never be afraid to come to me when you have a problem.”

“I won’t, Pa, never again…and I really am sorry…about everything,” said Joe, raising up to look into his father’s loving eyes.

“All right, see that it never happens again, understood?” issued Ben, standing Joe on the floor.

“Yes sir!” confirmed Little Joe.  Joe smiled at his father and without warning to Ben, wrapped his arms about his parent’s neck.  “I love ya, Pa.”

“I love you too, Little Joe,” replied Ben.  “Now scoot, downstairs with you, there might still be some of that birthday cake left.”

“All right!” shouted Joe, his relief evident to his father and older brother.  Joe skipped from the room.

Adam and Ben exchanged looks and suddenly burst out laughing.  “That has got to be the luckiest little scamp in the entire world,” laughed Adam.

“No, in the entire universe…no one can get into more trouble doing nothing and come out smelling like a rose, except Little Joe Cartwright!” acclaimed Ben with a hearty laugh.

“Pa, he must surely have a multitude of guardian angels watching over him,” Adam grinned and moved towards the bedroom door.

“It takes a multitude, son, trust me…an entire multitude!”

Adam placed his arm across his father’s shoulder, “Pa, this has been the best birthday ever; thank you…for the watch…but…well Pa…there’s something else I will treasure forever…something that you have already given to me…several years ago.”

Ben stopped, pondered the statement and then turned with a blank look on his face toward Adam. “What in the world could it be?” he questioned.

“Pa…I want to thank you for…for…well, for giving me my baby brother. I could never even begin to think about how dull my life would have been without him. Thanks Pa, that was the best gift ever,” beamed Adam.

***End***

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