Word count: 12,133
Children, obey your parents in the Lord:
For this is right.
Honor thy father and mother;
Which is the commandment with promise;
That it may be well with thee, and thou
Mayest live long on the earth.
Ep. 3: 1-3
(King James Version)
Sixteen year old Joe Cartwright stood with his backside to the window of his second floor bedroom and allowed the cool evening breeze to blow gently on his exposed exterior. His rear end still stung from the ‘necessary little talk’ that he had experienced with his father earlier in the evening. Joe was mad, mad at himself for getting caught, again, mad at his oldest brother Adam, for tattling, and mad at his father for causing this present discomfort. Joe rubbed the burning flesh and let his shirt drop down over the area in question as he turned from the window and moved to lay face down on his bed and began to cry.
It seemed that lately, nothing he did or did not do was right. He tried hard to please everyone he reasoned, but it was becoming such a chore that he was at his wits end. Pa was always telling him what to do and when to do it. Get up, go to bed, eat, don’t talk with your mouth full, do your chores, go to school, don’t be late just to name a few. But the list didn’t stop there it went on. Don’t get into trouble, do your home work, wash your hands, don’t argue with your brothers, watch your mouth, get your feet off the furniture, do as you are told, watch your tone of voice, mind your brother, the list was endless thought Joe. No matter what he did, he could never seem to please his father. In truth thought Joe, ‘I’m tired of trying, what’s the use? I usually get my butt warmed regardless.’
Joe reached for Bo, his special little bear that even at sixteen Joe cuddled when in need of comforting. “Bo, you are the only one who loves me for ‘me’ and not for what someone else expects me to be.” Joe hugged the little bear to him and thought of his mother, and wondered how different his life might have been had his mother been the one to have lived and his father the one who had died falling from a horse as his mother had. Joe shut his eyes tightly, instantly ashamed of himself for feeling as he had. ‘It’s just not fair, why can’t Pa treat me like an adult instead of a little boy?’ cried Joe to Bo.
When Ben Cartwright entered the bedroom of his youngest son, Joe had already fallen asleep on top of the covers, Bo held tightly in his arms and the remaining tears shining brightly in the soft glow of the lamplight. Ben’s heart fluttered at the sight, his young son, the joy of his life trying so hard to prove himself that more times than not he would find himself deep in some sort of trouble. Trouble that usually ended as it did this night, with a trip across his father’s lap. Ben had hated to do what he knew he had to be done this night. But when would the boy ever learn he asked himself as he gently began undressing the sleeping boy, preparing him for bed.
On Monday Joe had been on the receiving end of a spanking, given this time by Adam who had caught the boy up at the lake, doing exactly what he had been told not to do. He and his friends had slipped away and were playing, sliding, and chasing each other on the frozen ice. Joseph had been warned how dangerous that had been. The ice had already begun to melt in places and chances of breaking through and falling into the cold water were numerous at this time of year. But Joseph had failed or chosen to ignore the warnings and when Adam had happened by and spotted his brother, said brother was immediately brought home and turned over his older brother’s lap. Ben had been away on business and was not expected back until the next day and Adam felt that the improper behavior deserved to be addressed then and there rather than later and had proceeded to take action.
Ben removed Joe’s remaining clothing, the pants having been shed earlier in the evening, and slipped a clean nightshirt over the boy’s head. Joe, a sound sleeper had even not been aware of the tender care of his father. Ben raised the sleeping form up enough to pull the covers back and gently laid his son on the crisp cool sheets, and turned Joe on his side so as not to put pressure on the reddened backside. Ben reached for Bo taking a moment to examine his son’s little companion before sliding him under Joe’s arm and then covered both the sleeping boy and his bear. Ben bent over and kissed the forehead of his youngest and bid him good night.
“Good night Joseph, I love you,” Ben whispered softly, knowing that in slumber, his son would not be hearing his words of love.
Ben prepared for bed and when he crawled in he picked up the book he had been reading and found his place. After about ten minutes he laid the book aside, unable to concentrate on the pages and the words all running together; his mind kept returning to the behavior of his youngest son. He realized that Joseph was going through a time in his life where rebellion seemed to be the answer for everything. It didn’t seem that anything that he tried to do to teach his son lately, in regard to decision making, was making any headway. The more he tried, the more it appeared that Joseph fought against him. It looked as if it were a no-win situation for both of them.
After Monday’s incident at the lake, Ben had felt sure that Joe would not return to the dangerous games he and his friends had been playing on the ice. But late this afternoon while he had been finishing work on the ledgers, the front door had burst open and Adam had literally shoved his younger brother into the house.
“PA!” Adam called out while retaining a strong hold on his squirming brother.
Adam had decided to circle back around the lake, just on the pretext that he might find his younger brother there. Joe never had been one to heed warnings very well, and since he had not been seen since earlier in the morning, Adam’s suspicions were strong about where Joe might have taken off too. When Adam crested the small rise before reaching the lake, those suspicions were confirmed for there below playing on the ice was Joseph.
“Oh no, look Joe, you’re in big trouble now,” said Mitch as he stopped his sliding and pointed to the ridge above the lake.
Joe turned to where his friend had pointed and saw his older brother riding toward them. Joe’s first instinct was to run for his horse and without stopping to think of the consequences, that was the action he decided on. Before Joe had gotten halfway to his horse, Adam had jumped from his mount and raced after his brother, catching him by the arm and spinning him around.
“Just what in thunderation do you think you are doing? Didn’t you learn anything from our little talk the other night?” shouted Adam, his anger boiling over as he jerked the younger boy toward his horse.
“Leave me alone, you’re not my father, I don’t have to do what you say,” Little Joe shouted back, trying to sound braver than he really felt. Joe could plainly see that his older brother was very mad, the brown eyes seemingly to have turned black with anger.
“You are right there, little brother, I am not your father. You had better be glad of that for if I were, you would not sit for a month. Now get on your horse, and do it quickly.” Adam demanded, having finally succeeded in hauling the squirming boy to his horse.
The minute that Little Joe felt his arm being released from his brother’s strong hold, he bolted and began running from his captor. Adam had anticipation Joe’s move and grabbed him before he had gotten very far. Adam had to practically drag Joe back to the horses and this time he stopped beside his own horse rather than Joe’s.
“Now wise guy, you can ride double with me.” And with that Adam picked his brother up and placed him none too gently onto Sport’s saddle and climbed up behind the younger boy. Joe continued to fight Adam. “You might as well give it up little brother, its no use,” advised Adam. With Adam’s secure grip around Joe holding him securely in place, finally Joe stopped the struggle. Adam reached for Cochise’s reins and led the pinto home.
When the brothers reached the ranch, Hoss was in the yard and noticed the dark looks on each of this brother’s faces. Knowing that once again, the youngest member must be in some sort of trouble, he offered to care for the horses so that Adam could do what had to be done.
“Thanks Hoss, I owe you one. Joe, get down and if you know what is good for you, you had better stay put,” ordered Adam.
Joe dismounted and turned a pitiful look to his middle brother but said nothing. He knew that nothing he could say now would change the inevitable, he was sure to get a tanning tonight.
“What’s he done this time?” Hoss asked as Adam dismounted.
“What do you think? Found him back up at the lake playing on the ice, again,” Adam explained to Hoss.
Hoss turned sad eyes toward his younger brother and shook his head. “Won’t ya ever learn, Punkin?”
Joe just hung his head and looked at the ground. Adam took him by the arm and led him into the house, Joe doing his best to break the tight hold that Adam held on his arm.
Ben jumped from his chair at his desk and made his way into the great room where both his sons stood. Adam had a death like hold on his brother’s arm and Joseph was giving his older brother dark angry looks.
“What is the meaning of this? Adam, release your brother this minute,” demanded Ben, surprised at both of his son’s actions.
Joe thought this might be the time to make an escape and started to move to the stairs, hoping to get to his room before his father or brother could stop him.
“STOP!” bellowed Ben turning to glare at Joe, “Don’t you take another step.”
“Now Adam, would you mind explaining to me what in thunder is going on?” Ben asked in a voice heavy with anger. Joe watched the face of his father as his older brother began to explain to their father what he had witnessed and was not surprised to see the angry lines that furrowed into his brow.
“Pa, I don’t know what made me go back up to the lake, but I did. And want to know what, or should I say WHO, I found doing the exact same thing he got caught doing not more than three days ago?” said Adam, turning to look at his brother who had suddenly become very quiet. Joe had found a spot on the rug and was digging at it with the toe of his boot, trying to avoid making eye contact with either his father or his brother.
Ben placed both hands on his hips and turned toward his youngest. “Well Joseph? What do you have to say for yourself?” demanded Ben. “Look at me when I am talking to you!” he added when Joe refused to meet his father’s eyes.
Joe turned sorrowful eyes to meet his father’s and saw the raw anger that danced in the brown depths. He realized he was in deeper this time than ever before and tried to soften his father’s anger with a smile.
“That will not work on me this time young man. I asked you a direct question, and I expect an answer, NOW!” shouted Ben his voice seemingly to bounce off every wall in the room.
“I was up at the lake, just like old tattletale here said I was,” smarted off Joe, not caring how the tone of his voice sounded. He knew he would be having a ‘necessary talk’ soon enough upstairs, so he figured he had nothing to lose now.
Ben stepped closer to Joe, taking the younger boy by surprise and he felt his body tremble when his father spoke again. “Watch your mouth little boy, Hop Sing has a fresh batch of lye soap made and I will not hesitate to try it out on your mouth if your tone does not improve. Do you understand me, young man?”
Joe lowered his head in submission and spoke softly, “Yes sir.” Turning to Adam and meeting his brother’s angry eyes Joe, with angry eyes of his own spoke again, “I’m sorry Adam, for calling you a tattletale.” “There,” thought Joe, “I said it, but I don’t mean it.”
“But you aren’t sorry for disobeying Pa or me are you? You could care less about doing as you are told. What in God’s good name is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you know that you could very easily die if you fall through that ice into that freezing water?” stated Adam, his anger finally surfacing. “Don’t you have any idea just how that would make all of us feel or do you just not give a damn, Joe? Why can’t you stop to think about things before you do them? It’s as if you think of no one other than yourself. You are one selfish little boy!” stormed Adam; clinching his jaw and making the fine lines deepen on his handsome face.
Adam had been frightened the first day he had caught his brother playing on the ice, but to have found him a second time, in less than three days doing the same thing, had left him unnerved and he was now taking his anger out on the misbehaving lad.
Joe stood rooted to the spot, anger making every muscle in his body to tense. Just who did old nosy think he was, judging him as if God had given him the right fumed Little Joe silently? Joe watched as his brother walked to the other side of the room and sat in his favorite chair and thought about sticking his tongue out at him but decided instead to turn his eyes to meet his father’s face when he heard him clearing his throat.
“Joseph, you admit you were at the lake again this afternoon, and that you were out on the ice doing whatever it was you were doing, is that correct?” Ben asked, his voice taking on a softer tone that caused Joe’s heart to skip a beat. He knew that tone, ‘the calm before the storm,’ Hoss used to call it.
Joe swallowed before he spoke not wanting to look into the brown eyes that watched his every move. Knowing that he would receive another reprimand if he failed to answer, Joe spoke up. “I guess so, if that’s what Adam says.”
Ben’s blood began to boil and he had to refrain from grabbing the boy and laying him across his lap at this time. Ben took a deep breath and tried to calm the brewing storm that raged within him. He would have to wait for a while before dishing out Joe’s punishment; he was not one to strike one of his sons while in a full-blown state as he was now.
“Go to your room, I am ashamed of you. I want you out of my sight in five seconds, and DO NOT come out of that room. I will be up shortly; now get!” Ben said in a controlled voice that sounded shaky when he spoke.
Joe did as he had been ordered and ran to the safety of his room, taking the stairs two at a time. As soon as he entered his sanctuary, he slammed the door shut and flung his self onto this bed, the angry tears leaving their tracks down the front of his young face.
Ben turned on his side and closed his eyes, hoping that sleep would claim him. Even with his eyes tightly held shut, thoughts of the evening continued to plague Ben’s inter most thoughts.
Ben had knocked softly on Joe’s bedroom door before pushing it opened. Joe jumped from the bed and stood facing his father. He knew what was coming, and seeing the look on his father’s face, Joe knew that no excuse or no amount of pleading would change the older man’s mind.
Ben moved to sit in the chair that sat near the foot of the bed. “Joseph, come here please.”
Joe obediently moved to stand in front of his father and try as he might, he could not stop the tears from pooling in his eyes.
The tears were not unnoticed by the father, nor did the father allow those tears to ease the planned punishment of the child.
“Joseph, I am at a loss for words. Your actions have caused me a great deal of worry. Not just for your safety, but for your attitude as well. I do not know what is going on with you, but I would suggest you give it a great deal of thought from now on and see if you can do something about it. In the mean time, I am going to give you something to think about while you consider your actions of today and of the other day. Seems to me that you willingly choose to disobey not only me but Adam as well. Joseph, we care about you, but whether or not you realize that, I am not sure anymore. But rest assured we do. And because we do, I have to do this,” and with that Ben pointed to his lap, an indication that Joseph was to take the known position used when across his father’s knees.
Ben pulled the covers up around his neck and sighed deeply. As painful as the punishment had been for his young son, it had also been painful for him. He had never taken any joy in having to place one of his sons across his lap. Regardless of how many times he had to perform this type of punishment it never got easier. There was no satisfaction what so ever for him in seeing the tears that fell from sad eyes that had suddenly shown remorse for previous actions, whether intended or unintended. Nor was there a good feeling in knowing that he had been the cause of those tears. Making one of his sons cry was not a welcomed feeling for Ben and it had always left him with a heavy heart. At long last, sleep claimed its victim and when the sun shone on the new day, Ben awoke, refreshed and ready to begin anew.
Joe woke the next morning in a sullen mood. As he turned over onto his back a soft moan escaped from him as his backside made contact with the mattress. Instantly his thoughts returned to the previous day and how he had come to earn the pain in his behind. Anger began anew as he thought of the way his oldest brother had hauled him home, treating him as if he had been a small disobedient child. The thought never entered his young mind that in truth, that was what he had actually been. Joe could see nothing past his anger at his brother or his father for their treatment of him and he allowed his feelings that had turned to resentment to surface.
“I wish I had never heard of Adam Cartwright, I can’t stand him. He is such a know-it-all,” thought Joe as he carefully crawled from his warm bed and began to dress for the day. “And Pa, he’s worse than Adam. Sometimes, I wish…” but Joe stopped. He didn’t really wish what he had been thinking, but he did wonder what it would be like to have someone else for a father.
The door to his room suddenly opened and Hoss greeted him with a warm smile. Never one to stay mad for long at his youngest brother, Hoss was quick to welcome him to the new day.
“Hey, Short Shanks, Pa sent me to tell ya to come down to breakfast. Better make it fast though if I were you.” Hoss delivered the message.
“I’m comin’ just give me a second,” replied Joe as he tucked his shirt into his pants and started out the door behind Hoss.
Ben who sat at the table sipping coffee watched as his two younger sons came down the stairs. Hoss was laughing, trying to talk to Joe but the younger boy made no attempt to be brought into Hoss’ good mood. Joe walked slowly and carefully as he took his place at the table without looking up at his father.
“Good morning, Joseph,” greeted Ben as he watched his son.
“Mornin’” Joe replied without taking his eyes from his plate. Joe had never noticed the pretty rose pattern on the dishes and sat quietly as he ran his finger around the outline of the pattern.
Adam joined them and Ben asked the blessing then started passing around the different dishes, heaped high with Hop Sing’s good cooking. Joe accepted each dish as it came his way but only placed a small amount of each onto his plate. This did not go unnoticed by either his father or his brothers.
“Joseph, I want you to eat a good breakfast, you are going to ride with Adam this morning to the upper pasture and check on the conditions of the fence there,” Ben stated as he helped himself to more hot coffee.
Joe glanced briefly at his father. “Yes sir,” was his only reply. Joe then turned to glance at Adam and Adam, who had been watching the actions of the younger Cartwright, smiled back. This angered Joe for he felt as if Adam were smirking at him rather than smiling but Joe kept his thoughts to himself. The last thing he wanted right now was to anger his father and risk another whipping, his butt was still sore and he wondered how he would manage a ride to the upper pasture.
A week had past and things had returned to near normal. Joe had been restricted to he yard and house except for the times that he had been ordered to work with one or the other of his brothers doing jobs that took them away from the designated areas. Ben had been careful in planning Joe’s work days, always sure to keep him in the company of one or the other of his sons. This way Ben felt sure that there would not be further incidents at the lake, a fact that brought a certain amount of comfort to the older man in regard to his baby son’s safety.
Joe had kept his resentments and disgust with his family well hidden but still they brewed deep within. He could not seem to rid the resentment of his brother or especially his father and those thoughts had begun to invade his sleep. At night he often was awaken from his slumber in a cold sweat that often left him shivering. Other nights he would wake from his nightmare after dreaming of falling through the frozen lake and into the icy water. It was these dreams that left him with a feeling of intense fear, as his father’s face could be seen disappearing under the ice masses and out of his reach. Joe, in his dream, was seen lying on the cold ice, trying desperately to cling to his father’s hand and haul him from sure death beneath the frozen surface of the ice. Other nights an unknown face invaded his dreams, and Joe struggled trying to put a name with the face but try as he might, he could not name the person who was so often caught in the middle of his nightmares.
It was shortly thereafter that Joe, Adam and Ben had been working the area around the lake. Early evening was descending upon them and Ben had called a halt to part of the work.
“Joseph, I want you to finish and get back to the house. Tell Hop Sing that Adam and I will be in shortly. Hoss should have gotten back from town with the supplies by now. You can help him unload them please, if he hasn’t finished by the time you get there,” Ben ordered.
“Yes sir,” Joe answered as he brushed off his trousers and started to his horse. Without so much as another word or a backward glance, Joe mounted and rode away.
Ben said nothing but watched his son until Joe had ridden out of his view before turning to complete what he had been doing. Joe’s bad mood had not improved over the week since the ‘necessary little talk’ and Ben was at a loss as to how he might get through to the boy. These thoughts were a constant in the father’s mind and were beginning to show on Ben’s face. Adam watched his father’s face and could see the sadness in the brown eyes.
“He’ll come around Pa, just give him time,” said Adam, coming to Joe’s defense.
Ben raised his head and smiled at his oldest. Life sure had taken on a strange twist since his green-eyed little boy had begun fighting him every time he had turned around. Ben was worried about Joe but tried to keep those thoughts hidden from his other two sons. He didn’t think it fair to them to always be devoting the majority of this time thinking about the younger of his boys. Adam and Hoss, both grown men now, had never given him much cause for worry but this younger one was making up for what the others had been lacking in. Ben smiled to himself…life was surely a challenge with Joseph around.
Joe had ridden about a mile when he heard the distressed cries for help in the distance. Nudging Cochise into a gallop, Joe pulled her to a sudden stop on a small rise over looking the lake. What Joe saw froze him momentarily to the spot; down below, in the icy water of the frozen lake was a small child clinging desperately to the ice. Joe kneed Cochise and in short time closed the distance between himself and the icy lake. Jumping from his horse and with no thoughts to his own safety, Little Joe fell to his hands and knees and began inching his way on the slippery ice to the small child.
“Hold on, I’m comin’,” called out Joe. Joe lowered himself to his stomach and began crawling slowly carefully listening for any sounds that might indicate that the ice was breaking. “I’m almost there, you’re going to be fine,” Joe told the boy when he reached the edge of the ice where the boy had been clinging to life.
When Joe was within reach of the child, he grabbed the small boy’s hands and pulled him from the icy water. It was then that Joe heard the cracking sound of the ice and told the boy to run. More scared than cold, the adrenaline flowing, the boy jumped to his feet and ran toward the shoreline not stopping to look back at his rescuer. When the child was safely on shore he continued to run and soon was gone from sight, fleeing now for the safety of his home and the waiting arms of his mother.
“Help!” screamed Little Joe as the coldness of the water soaked into his clothing. The ice on which he had been lying had broken causing him to fall into the icy water. Joe struggled trying to grab for a hold on the ice that was nearest to him but the under current was pulling him down. He briefly wondered how the small child had managed to hang on and realized that because of the boy’s small size, he had been able to hold himself high enough on the ice’s surface to free his lower body from the swift under pull of the water. Not so for Joe, he was fighting for his life and pictures of his family flowed before his eyes.
“Help!” Joe screamed again, panic beginning to take control of his thoughts. The cold water was numbing his body, his fingers becoming stiff and making holding on to the ice nearly impossible. His legs felt heavy and his boots had filled with water adding more weight that pulled him downward. Joe tried kicking but that prove useless and the effort caused him to tire quickly.
Ben and Adam crested the rise at the same time and saw the struggling boy in the water, as Joe had done minutes before. Ben gave a swift kick to his horse and was at the water’s edge moments later with Adam closely behind him.
“Hold on son, I’ll get you, just hold on!” yelled Ben as he cautiously began making his way out onto the ice.
“Pa!” Adam yelled. “Let me go”
Ben did not stop as he moved carefully toward his struggling son. “No, I will get him, you wait here,” he ordered.
Joe had seen his father approaching and tried to calm himself by taking deep gulps of the cold air to fill his lungs, as he continued trying to keep his head above the water. The water lapped around him and for a brief second he lost his hold on the ice and was pulled under the water.
“JOSEPH!” screamed Ben, hurrying to reach the spot where he had last seen his youngest son. As Ben approached the spot, Joe’s curly head suddenly appeared popping out of the water.
“Give me your hand son,” Ben ordered in a calm voice, trying not to scare his already frightened son. “Joseph, give me your hand, now,” he called out.
Joe, who was struggling to maintain his newly found grip on the ice, met his father’s reassuring eyes and extended his free arm out to his father. Instantly the older man grabbed his arm and he felt his body being hauled onto the surface of the ice.
Automatically Ben folded his arms around his son and briefly held him tightly. Joe looked with sad eyes into his father’s and began crying tears of relief that he had been pulled from sure death. Ben wiped at his son’s tears and urged him forward to the shore.
“Careful Joe, go slowly. See Adam? Crawl to him. You go first and I will follow,” instructed Ben.
Joe began making his way to his brother who waited at the water’s edge holding a blanket he had taken from his bedroll on his horse. Joe was nearly to the bank of the lake when he heard the cracking sound again. As he turned his head, the last thing that he saw was his father being dumped into the depths of the frozen lake.
“PA!” screamed Joe as he turned around to make his way back to his father. His nightmares had suddenly become a reality to him and panic tightened around his heart as he watched his father disappear from his sight.
“Joe,” called out Adam, “Come back.”
“No Adam, I’m okay, I’m lighter than you are, I’ll get him,” Joe called to his brother, the tears running from his green eyes. Panic continued to squeeze at his heart as Joe searched in vain for this father who had not yet reappeared after falling head first into the water. Joe crawled from spot to spot screaming out for his father.
“Pa! Pa! Where are you?” cried Joe. “Oh please God, help me find him, please, please, God,” shouted Joe as he looked up to heaven. “Don’t let him die, please God, help me.” Joe shouted as he laid his head on the ice, despair beginning to consume him.
“JOE! OVER TO YOUR RIGHT!” yelled Adam from the shoreline.
Joe raised his head quickly and saw his father hanging on to a large chunk of ice near to where he lay. Quickly he made his way to his father and grabbed the back of Ben’s shirt and pulled with all the strength his young body could muster. After a short struggle he managed to pull Ben from the water and crawling slowly was able to get his father to land and safety where Adam grabbed their father and instantly wrapped him in the blanket.
Adam checked for a pulse and finding a strong one gave a sigh of relief. Turning to Joe, a look of dark fury on his face, he began yelling at the youngster who sat crying and shivering on the ground next to their father.
“What the hell were you doing out on that damn ice again?” demanded Adam. “See what you’ve done? Pa nearly died because of your thoughtlessness,” he continued. “I ought to beat the crap out of you right here and now.”
Joe, stunned at his brother’s reactions, sat in silence, the tears streaming from his eyes, worry making the creasing furrows to appear on his young face. “I’m sorry,” was all he could manage. Joe in his fright had forgotten all about the young boy who had been the reason for his venture out onto the ice.
“Let’s get him home and warm him up,” Adam said, the disgust ringing in his voice when he spoke to Joe. Ben stirred then and opened his eyes.
“J…J…Joseph?” whispered Ben, shivering from the cold.
“He’s okay, Pa. He’s right here,” comforted Adam as he jerked Joe forward into their father’s view so that he could be seen.
“T…Thank G…God,” Ben softly said and reached a hand out to his youngest son.
“I’m s…sorry Pa, I’m…so s…orry,” Joe cried through chattering teeth as he laid his head on to his father’s chest and wept.
“Shh…we’re a…ll right n…ow, son. Let’s get…home, I’m a…bout fro…zen,” smiled Ben as he coughed and sputtered and somehow found strength enough to sit up. “Adam, do…you have…another blanket? Your brother…is freezing to…death.”
Adam looked at Joe and for the first time realized that Joe was trembling from the cold and that his lips had taken on a bluish tint. Hurrying to his horse, he momentarily returned to his brother’s side and wrapped the blanket tightly around the shivering boy.
“I’m sorry Joe, I didn’t realize. I was so worried about Pa,” offered Adam, his anger at his brother lessening now that the worst was over and both father and brother were safe.
Adam helped Joe to his horse first and made sure that the boy remained covered with the blanket. Not that it would supply much warmth; it had gotten damp from the water that it had absorbed from his wet clothing. When Adam was certain the Joe was securely in place in the saddle and was able to stay mounted he returned to his father and helped him on to his horse.
As soon as he reached the house, Hoss who had arrived home earlier rushed from the house to greet his family. When Hoss saw his father and younger brother, the smiled faded from his face and was replaced with a look of concern as he turned to Adam.
“They’re okay, they just took a little swim in the frozen lake, compliments of our younger brother there,” Adam said, the sarcasm dripping from his voice as he nodded in the direction of their younger brother.
Hoss turned his attention to Joe and noted the slumped figure fighting to remain upright in his saddle. As Hoss moved to Joe’s side, the boy slid from his saddle and when his cold stiff legs buckled under his weight, Hoss was there to catch him. Easily, Hoss gathered the smaller boy into his strong arms and carried him to his room where he gently laid him on the bed. Adam remained behind helping Ben into the house and up the stairs to his room.
“Joseph?” Ben said as he turned to catch a glimpse into his son’s bedroom as Adam ushered him past the door.
“He’s fine Pa, Hoss is getting him undressed and into bed. Now I want you to do the same, come on,” Adam ordered his father as Ben looked up and smiled at his oldest.
“Yes sir,” Ben replied, making a smile to appear on Adam’s face and causing the cheeks to dimple.
Hop Sing had suddenly appeared at the bedroom door, a glass of brandy in each of his hands. “Mister Cartlight, drink this, will warm body. Hop Sing take glass to Lil’ Joe to do the same. Send for doctor, will be here soon.” Hop Sing told Adam and handed one glass of the brandy to him before hurrying down the hall to Little Joe’s room.
Hoss had just finished putting Joe in bed when Hop Sing entered. “Lil’ Joe drink, warm body,” he instructed and waited for Joe to down the liquid. Joe smiled weakly and handed the glass back to his friend.
“Thanks, Hop Sing. Can I have another?” asked Joe, a smile spreading across his tired face.
Hop Sing returned the smile all the while shaking his head no. “I not think so little boy. You sleep now; doctor be here soon. He make sure you okay.” And with that the little oriental left the two brothers alone.
Hoss moved to the bedside and pulled the covers high around Joe, making sure that he was warm enough. “You try to get some shut-eye Punkin. I’ll stay right here till Doc Martin gets here, ya hear?” Hoss said softly and moved the chair so that it was next to the bed.
“Hoss?” Joe called.
“Yeah Joe?” answered Hoss.
“Pa? Is he gonna be okay?” Joe wanted to know as thoughts of the late afternoon causing the fear to resurface.
Hoss moved closer to his younger brother. “Don’t ya worry none, ShortShanks; Pa is fine. A little cold is all but he’s gonna be all right, I promise.”
Hoss wanted to reassure the boy, tears had risen into the green eyes as he had asked about their father and Hoss didn’t think that upsetting the boy would help matters any. As far as he could tell, both his father and brother had only suffered from the cold water and hopefully neither of them would come down with colds from having done so.
It was late into the evening before Paul Martin arrived at the family home to check out his two patients. Ben had insisted that the doctor check out his son before giving him the once over. Hoss waited in Joe’s room with the doctor while the physician did a complete examination of the boy.
“Ben will be please to know that Joseph is fine.” Paul told Hoss and turned again to face Little Joe. “However young man, I want you to remain in this bed for the next couple of days. Is that clear? I want you to get plenty of rest.”
Joe smiled weakly, “I understand doc. But when can I talk to Pa? I need to tell him something.” Joe dropped his head and was silent for a second. “It’s sorta important,” he said and the doctor noted the tears that had suddenly pooled in the boy’s eyes.
Paul Martin, who for many years had been not just the family doctor, but friend as well as the man who had brought Joe into this world moved to sit on the bed next to the boy.
“Joseph, what is wrong son? Do you want to tell me about it?” he said in a caring voice. Joe shook his head no, the tears falling from his eyes. Paul gently raised the quivering chin so that the boy was eye to eye with him and spoke softly. “Joseph, I promise, your father will be fine.”
“It’s not that Doc, you don’t understand,” cried Joe not caring now if the doctor saw his tears.
“Then why don’t you help me to understand?” Paul encouraged his young patient.
Joe looked sadly at the doctor and wiped the tears from his face. “It was my fault. Pa almost died because of me. If you don’t believe me, ask Adam, he made sure I was aware of it.” Joe turned his head into his soft pillow and covered his head with his arms and cried.
Paul cast sorrowful eyes at Hoss who had been witness to his brother’s confession and exchanged worried glances.
“I’ll talk to your father about this Hoss. Try not to worry, the boy will be fine and I am sure Ben will be also.” Paul patted Hoss on his shoulder as he walked from the room and went in to see his long time friend.
Ben was sitting up in bed waiting for the doctor. “Paul, how is Joseph?” concern clearly showing on his face. Adam greeted the doctor and stepped aside to make room for the man to sit on his father’s bedside.
“He going to be fine Ben. Somewhat upset though,” he added and looked up at Adam who had remained in the room.
“Upset? Did he say about what?” Ben inquired, noticing the dark look that his friend had given to his oldest son.
“Seems to think it was his fault that you were nearly killed out there,” Paul told Ben.
Ben opened his mouth to speak but Adam beat him to it. “Well, it was!”
“Adam!” reprimanded his father.
Adam moved to stand on the other side of his father’s bed, the anger he had felt earlier toward his younger brother coming to the surface again. “It was his fault; he was supposed to be going home, not to the lake to play. Can’t you see Pa, that boy refuses to do as he is told. He blatantly disobeyed you again! And you sit there defending him. Pa, I swear, I think you are getting as bad as Hoss!”
Ben straightened himself in the bed and turned angry eyes at his son. “Adam, I am not defending him. I have no idea why the boy was at the lake, much less why he was out on the ice again. I cannot possibly know the answer to that until I speak with him. Until then, you will keep your thoughts to yourself. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir, very clear,” Adam answered and turned and left the room without another word to his father or the doctor.
Doctor Martin checked Ben out and gave him the same report for himself as he had given in regard to his younger patient. “A couple days rest in bed Ben, and you should be fine. If you or Joseph have any signs of cough, runny nose or fever, just send word to me.”
“Thanks for coming Paul. I appreciate it.” Ben reached for Paul’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Think I can slip in later to see Joseph? I promise; I won’t stay long, I just want to make sure he is okay. He saved my life you know,” smiled Ben.
Paul turned to Hoss who had come in to check on his father. “Hoss, Ben wants to visit Joe in a little while; will you make sure he doesn’t stay too long? I want both of my patients to get plenty of rest.”
Hoss smiled at the doctor and his father. “Sure Doc, I’ll put him back to bed myself if need be. Pa, Little Joe’s sleepin’ right now. Adam’s in with him.”
Adam had gone into his brother’s room. He had every intention of finding out just why the boy had been back on the ice after having been caught twice already. The boy was stubborn and rebellious lately, and Adam had grown tired of the mood swings. When Adam gently pushed the door opened and walked in, he found the boy sleeping soundly, traces of unshed tears remaining on the young face. Adam sat down in the chair that had been placed close to the bed and watched his brother sleep. The boy’s breathing seemed to be normal, no signs of a labored effort were apparent and Adam sighed in relief. No matter how mad he became with the youngest member of the family, the love that he felt for the boy never decreased in its intensity. Perhaps Pa was right; maybe Joe did have a good reason for being at the lake. But what reason did the boy have to be out on the ice, a dangerous place to be. They had all tried to warn him of the consequences if he were to fall into the icy water, and just this day, that every thing had happened. Thank God that he and his father had been rescued and were going to be okay, thought Adam.
Later that evening, Ben left his bed, the need to see his baby had grown to portions. Ben slipped into his house shoes and robe and quietly made his way to Joe’s room. When he entered, the lamp was burning low and Hoss sat sleeping in the chair. Not wanting to wake either of his sons, Ben carefully sat on the bed next to his youngest.
Ben brushed back a dark curl that had fallen out of place and leaned forward placing a kiss on the boy’s forehead. Joe stirred slightly and opened his eyes.
“Pa?” he softly whispered.
“Shh…Joseph, I didn’t mean to wake you. I just wanted to check to make sure you were all right,” Pa said as he fingered the soft covers on the bed.
Joe stretched and met his father’s stare. “I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble but…” began Joe but was stopped by his father’s hand as he gently covered the boy’s mouth, stopping any further chance of explaining his reasons for being on the ice.
“We will discuss it in the morning. Right now, I want you to go back to sleep. Now close your eyes,” Ben ordered and kissed his son’s cheek, which had returned to its natural body temperature.
Joe did as ordered and closed his eyes. “I love ya, Pa,” he whispered as sleep once again claimed him.
“I love you too sweetheart,” replied Ben rising from the bed to return to his own.
Ben woke somewhat later than he usually did and feeling fine, climbed from his warm bed and dressed. He had no intentions of spending two days locked in his room; there was just too much that needed to be done than to waste time being confined to a bed. Besides, he reasoned if he began to cough or felt like a fever was beginning, he would return to the confines of that bed and wait for the doctor’s return. As Ben made his way down the stairs, there was a knocking at the door.
“Wonder who that could be, this early?” he said aloud as Hoss and Adam came around the corner from the kitchen. Ben quickly opened the door and was surprised to find a young man and woman and a small boy about eight years old standing on his porch.
“Hello,” greeted the man, “We are sorry to bother you this early in the morning.”
“Not at all, will you come in please?” offered Ben, opening the door wide and stepping back as the couple and their son entered.
“My name is James Williams, this is my wife Jessie and our son, Alex,” said the man as he introduced his family.
“I’m Ben Cartwright, and these are my sons, Adam and Hoss,” Ben said, taking the man’s offered hand. Adam and Hoss nodded their heads in welcome.
“Mr. Cartwright, my family and I were camped up at the lake late yesterday afternoon. We are passing through on our way to Placerville. Young Alex here wondered from camp, unknown to us of course. It wasn’t until much later that he explained to us what had happened to him. You see we had warned him about going down to the lake. That ice is dangerous you know,” explained James.
Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing looks with their father.
“Yes, I agree,” smiled Ben, knowingly.
“As I was saying, we warned Alex to stay away from the lake, but like most boys his age, he didn’t listen to us and went there anyway. As Alex explained it to us, he was playing on the ice when he fell in. He hadn’t been in the water long when he began yelling for help and not minutes later a young man, said to be your son probably according to the doctor in town who check our Alex out. Anyway Mr. Cartwright, this young man somehow managed to make his way out onto the ice and pull our son from the cold water. For some reason unknown to Alex, the other boy told him to run and Alex took off for our camp. It wasn’t until we arrived at the doctor’s office much later that we found out that your son had also fallen into the cold water,” James explained to Ben and his sons as to why they were there.
“We thought that we should check on him; that is the least we could do. Doctor Martin told us that he was fine but we felt it our duty to come here and thank him for saving our son. If your son had not come along when he did, we would have lost ours, and probably not have been able to recover his body until spring.” James took a deep breath and wiped the tears that had suddenly appeared in his eyes. He placed a loving arm around this young wife and squeezed her tightly.
Ben quickly looked at Hoss and Adam who had been standing silently as the young stranger shared with them how their brother had risked his own life to save the smaller boy.
Ben’s eyes hesitated slightly when they connected with the dark eyes of Adam’s. Ben noticed the tears that shown in their depths. A movement from the stairs caught his eye and his attention was drawn from the face of his oldest.
“That’s him Papa, that’s the boy who saved me,” cried Alex pointing at Joe who moved slowly down the stairs.
All eyes turned to watch the youngest Cartwright and no one spoke until he stood next to his father who quickly placed his arm around his son’s slim shoulders.
“This is Joseph,” smiled Ben as he introduced him to the Williams.
“Joseph, this is James Williams, his wife Jessie, and I think you’ve already met young Alex,” Ben said.
“Joseph, how can we ever thank you for what you have done for us?” cried the happy mother.
Joe moved forward, suddenly becoming shy at all of the attention. “It wasn’t nothing, I’m just glad Alex here is okay,” smiled Joe as he kneeled down to face the little boy. Alex surprised Joe by wrapping both of his small arms around his neck and hugging him tightly. Joe raised up, bringing the child with him in his arms.
“This is thanks enough,” he smiled at the child’s parents.
The Williams were invited to stay for breakfast and heartily agreed. Breakfast was a delight for all and after much small talk the young couple said their thanks and bid the Cartwrights a fond farewell. Each parent thanked Joe again for his daring rescue and Jessie placed a kiss on Joe’s cheek, causing him to blush.
As soon as the young family had moved out of sight, Ben turned to Joe. “Okay, young man, back to bed with you,” he ordered. “The doctor said two days bed rest…now get.” Ben swatted the retreating backside in an affection of love as Joe turned toward the stairs.
“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll make sure he’s all tucked in,” said Adam who had risen from the table to follow Joe upstairs.
Joe turned, surprised to see his brother following after him.
“We need to talk,” Adam stated softly to Joe. ‘Yes,’ thought Adam, ‘I will talk, you will listen.’
Joe smiled at Adam, not sure of his reasons for wanting to talk. When he reached the landing, mid-way on the stairs, he turned and called out to his father who had been watching him.
“What about you Pa? I thought Doc said we were both to stay in bed for two days?” smiled Joe, knowing that for the first time ever, he had the upper hand on his father.
Hoss and Adam burst out laughing.
“Don’t ya worry about Pa, Little Brother, I dun promised Doc Martin I’d keep Pa in bed myself if’n I had to, even if’n it takes both these hands,” laughed Hoss who held up his large strong hands for all to see.
“Okay, okay! You boys win. Come on Hoss,” laughed Ben moving to follow Adam and Joe up the stairs. “You can tuck me in.”
After Adam was sure that Joe was resting comfortably, he sat on the edge of the bed next to his brother. Joe watched the expression on his oldest brother’s face and knew that Adam had something he wanted to say to him but was having trouble starting.
Adam smiled at Joe; the boy was irresistible, that was for sure thought Adam. He suddenly realized how very close he had come to loosing not just his father but this brave young lad who watched him with such intense green eyes.
“I’m proud of you little buddy. You scared ten years off my life, but I’m proud of you for what you did. And Joe, I love you,” said Adam as he fingered the soft curls that massed the boy’s head.
“I’m sorry for doubting you and for talking to you the way I did,” he confessed.
Joe’s eyes never strayed from those of his brother’s.
“From now on, I promise to give you the benefit of doubt before jumping down your throat,” promised Adam who noticed the change of expression that had suddenly flashed through the green-eyes.
“Promise?” asked Joe, his smile seeming to be a mite too quick to suite Adam’s way of thinking. However, he knew he was suddenly caught in a trap of his own making. Laughter escaped even though Adam had tried to stop it and knowing that his little brother was now one up one him, he confirmed that promise. “I promise little buddy, I promise.”
Joe laughed also and rubbed his hands together and Adam saw the plans running around in his baby brother’s head as clearly as if he were watching a play on stage and he groaned loudly.
“In that case, big brother, I forgive you.” Joe put on his most angelic face and smiled at Adam.
By Saturday everything had pretty much returned to normal. Both Ben and Little Joe had been given a clean bill of health and were released from their confinement by Doctor Martin.
Joe had spent his free hours lying in bed reflecting on his life and how he had been acting toward his family before having helped young Alex. Joe remembered his feelings of resentment he had felt at Adam and his especially those aimed at his father. He remembered how his father had yelled at him stating how ashamed that Pa had been of him and it ate away at Little Joe’s conscience. He wanted desperately to tell them he was sorry for his words and actions but wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject. His shame came between himself and his clear thinking and Joe forgot that all he really needed to do was to face his father and simply say the words, ‘I am sorry’. But simplicity was not Joe Cartwright’s way of doing anything. A harder road must first be traveled in order to arrive at exactly the same destination as the simple road.
Joe racked his brain for a plan as he waited in the wagon that Saturday morning for Adam and Hoss to finish collecting supplies. Suddenly from out of now where, Joe heard his name being called.
“Joseph? How are you this fine day?” greeted the pastor from the church that he and his family attended.
“Hello sir, I’m fine,” Joe returned the greeting and suddenly realized that the answer to his problems had just greeted him good day. “Preacher, I do have a slight problem. Do you think we could talk? Privately, I mean?” Joe asked.
“Certainly Joe, want to walk over to the church with me? We can talk privately there,” answered the man, always ready with a listening ear to hear the problems of one of his flock.
“Great,” Joe said as he jumped down from the wagon. “I’ll be right with you.” Joe ran into the mercantile and told his brothers that he was going to help the preacher over at the church for a few minutes and he would be back shortly. Joe hurried to join the preacher and together they walked to the church. Once inside and sitting alone with the man of God, Joe suddenly became very shy.
The preacher sensing Joe’s hesitance began talking of minor everyday things slowly leading the conversation around to the incident on the lake.
At last Joe realized what had happened and began pouring his heart out. He explained everything he had been feeling, the bad as well as the good feelings. He repeated with shame the things he had said to his father and brothers. All the while that Joe talked, God’s servant sat in silence and listened to Joe’s confessions. By the time Joe had finished riding himself of his burden, his tears were running unshielded down his face. Gently the preacher placed a caring arm around the shoulders of the repentant child.
Joe looked up at the man and saw the kindness in the hazel eyes. He then presented his plan to the kind preacher and at last asked, “So, do you think its okay to do that?” Joe asked hopefully.
“I would be honored young man. And I think your father will be also,” the preacher agreed to Joe’s plan, giving Joe the final go ahead.
When Joe walked from the church into the bright afternoon sun, his step was lighter; the expression on his face softer, the worry lines gone and his guilt removed. Adam and Hoss sat waiting for Joe’s return and noticed the change in the way that their younger brother carried himself.
“Wonder what that’s all about?” Adam questioned, watching Joe from under the rim of his hat that rested low over his brow and remembering the look that had been on Joe’s face just a day or two ago. Adam briefly wondered if his brother was up to no good, again.
Hoss who was leaning back and enjoying the short rest only shrugged his heavy shoulders. “Beats me big brother, I’m sure one of us will likely as not find out soon ‘nough.
Sunday morning the sun shone brightly as the Cartwright men dressed for the day. Ben and Adam, already at the table, were sipping coffee, waiting for the younger boys to hurry down.
“Guess I will have to go get them myself,” laughed Ben. Ben began to rise from his chair when both Hoss and Joe appeared on the stairs. “You two better hurry or we’ll be late, again. Now come eat,” instructed their father fringing a frown and sitting back down in his chair.
Hoss and Joe hurried to take their places and began serving themselves. Adam watched his youngest brother, glad to see that he had fully recovered from his ordeal and had since returned to his former self. Adam also noticed that his youngest brother had seemed as if he had taken more time than usual with his grooming this morning. Smiling to himself, Adam thought that the boy looked rather handsome.
“Little Joe?” asked Adam, trying to conceal his smile.
“What?” answered Joe, who had just stuffed his mouth full with half a pancake.
“You sparking some sweet young thing today?” Adam teased.
Joe nearly choked on his milk that he had just taken a gulp of to wash down the pancake. “What? You must be crazy!” he said at last.
Ben, who had been watching the exchange between his oldest and youngest sons, could not resist joining in the fun. “He must be Adam, he looks mighty handsome don’t you think?”
“He sure is, why I’d have to say, he’s just about ‘pretty’ this morning,” Adam continued with his teasing.
Joe glanced at his brother and then at his father and saw the smiles that they were trying to hide and realized they had been teasing him. “Funny.” He said, frowning and then bursting into his notorious laughter.
“Let’s go boys,” laughed Ben, rising from the table and going to gather his things from the sideboard. All three sons promptly followed.
Ben walked to his usual pew where he and his sons always sat. Glancing around, Ben wondered at the size of the congregation this morning; somehow it seemed larger than normal. Ben stood to the side and allowed his sons to enter the pew, Hoss taking the lead, followed by Adam, Joseph and ending with himself on the center aisle end.
Joe turned anxious eyes around taking in the crowd. He saw his two best friends, Mitch and Seth, each sitting with their families and returned the smiles that they cast in his direction. Joe felt the gentle nudge of his father’s elbow and turned to meet his father’s eyes. Ben smiled down at him and nodded his head toward the front. Joe saw the preacher approach the pulpit and open his bible as he turned his attention to the words the man spoke.
“I would like to read to you this morning from the book of Matthew, chapter 15, beginning with verse four: “for God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother: and, He that curseth his father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, it is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me: And honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of god of none effect by your tradition.”
Finished with the scripture readings the preacher asked that all heads be bowed for a moment of prayer and in a soft voice the man began to pray.
“Our most gracious heavenly Father, we come to you this Lord’s Day to give honor to Thy name. We praise you for all that you have done, for your Son, Jesus Christ; we praise you for your love and for your forgiving grace. Thank you most gracious One for our families, our homes, health, and our friends. May your presence be felt here today and Lord, if there be but one who seeks your forgiveness this morning, I pray your mercy upon their heart and soul. In Christ’s name, Amen.”
“Amen,” said several of the men in attendance.
The preached wiped his brow with his handkerchief and continued to speak. “I had a very interesting and I might add, enlightening conversation with a young man from this congregation earlier this week. We spoke of certain things that had happened to him and his family, namely his father over the course of the last few weeks. This young man asked me if he might be given a chance to speak to you this morning. After hearing what he had to say to me and why he wished to stand at the pulpit, I agreed,” said the preacher as he swept the room with his eyes. Seeing he had everyone’s attention, he turned and smiled in Joe’s direction.
“Joseph Cartwright, would you like to come ahead now?” the preacher asked.
Silence suddenly filled the room as all eyes turned in the direction of the Cartwright family pew. Joe felt his father’s eyes upon him and met the questions he saw there with a slight smile.
Slowly Joe rose from his spot on the pew and made his way to the front of the church. Ben glanced at Adam and Hoss but both older sons raised their eyebrows and shoulders in answer to their father’s unasked question.
Joe cleared his throat, bringing everybody’s attention to himself and back to the front of the room. Joe swallowed and took a deep breath before beginning.
“Morning’,” he started softly and several heads were seen returning the greeting.
“Guess ya never figured to see me on this side of a pulpit did ya?” smiled Joe shyly. Everyone laughed and nodded their heads in agreement. Nearly everyone who was in attendance either knew or knew of Joe Cartwright and his family.
“Well to be honest, neither did I. But I wanted to say something, not to just all of you, but to my Pa mostly, and to my brothers,” said Joe as he turned to face his family. Ben smiled, the questions clearly see by Little Joe, in the brown eyes that watched him. Joe looked deeply into their depths and saw the unconditional love that radiated from them. It was from this source that Joe drew his courage to continue.
“This morning the preacher read to us about honor, how we are to honor our fathers and mothers. As most of you already know, my ma died a long time ago. But I still have my pa. He’s been both ma and pa to me ever since I can remember. He’s cared for me when I was sick or hurt. He’s tried to teach me right from wrong and he’s tried to teach me how to make my own decisions. From that he’s trying to teach me to take responsibility for those decisions, be it right or wrong,” Joe informed his audience. “I have fought him over this for years. I caused him a ton or worry. He says that I’m the reason his hair is so white,” smiled Little Joe and then continued.
“Pa has taught me that there is more to becoming a man than learning how to break wild horses or mucking out stalls. He says there is more to it than cattle drives or roundups and roping a steer for branding. Even learning how to use a side arm don’t make ya a man.” Joe paused in his speech and searched the eyes of his audience and then returned his eyes to his family and smiled at the sight. The three Cartwrights sitting in the family pew appeared to have grown taller, straighter somehow than when he had first began speaking.
“Want to know what makes a man out of a boy?” Joe asked and watched as heads bobbed up and down.
“Honesty, integrity, respect, loyalty and honor.” Joe stopped suddenly as if a new thought had made it’s was into his thinking. “Which brings us back to today’s sermon. Did ya ever stop to think about the fact that if we cannot honor our earthly father, how could we ever be able to honor our heavenly father?” Joe searched the faces again and saw that many were pondering his words. It was obvious to anyone who chanced to glance around the room that the handsome young speaker held a captivated audience.
“I have to admit, I haven’t been a very good son, nor brother for that matter,” said Joe, turning to face his father. Keeping eye contact with his father, least he faltered, for the words were beginning to come harder for him now, he continued.
“I have failed to honor my father; therefore I have also failed to honor my heavenly father. I have said things, and done things that have brought dishonor and shame to the man who gave me life. I have spoken rudely to him, I have been defiant, rebellious and sadly, I have often cursed the fact that this man,” Joe pointed to his father and all eyes followed the direction his finger indicated, “Ben Cartwright, was even my father.”
Joe’s eyes suddenly spilled the tears he had fought so hard to control as he admitted his shame and lowered his head, no longer able to look into his father’s eyes. Ben fought the urge to run to his son and gather the boy into his arms. As he was just about to give in to that urge, Joe began speaking again.
Joe wiped the dripping tears and raised his head once again, avoiding his father’s penetrating dark eyes. “I am just a kid, still a boy. I know that now. I learned the hard way that I still have a long way to go and many more lessons to learn before I am a man. That one lesson nearly cost me the life of the man that I love more than any other person on earth, my Pa.” Joe looked at Ben, and Ben smiling in return, made no move to mask the tears that streamed from his eyes.
Joe returned his attention to the people before him. “As far as I am concerned, I know I could never have a better parent than I do now. And I just wanted my Pa to know how I felt.”
“Pa,” said Joe softly as he turned his entire body in Ben’s direction. Everyone sat motionless in silence, each waiting for Joe’s next words.
Ben straightened in his seat, nodding for his son to continue.
“I know that in the past, I have told you many times that I was sorry for whatever it was that I had said or done. And I know or maybe I just assumed that you would and did forgive me. Most of the time I really did mean it.” Several snickers could be heard throughout the room, easing the tension that everyone was feeling.
“Pa, I wanted to stand here, at God’s pulpit and in His house, to tell you that I am sorry for not honoring you. I figured if I apologized in here, in church, you would really believe me this time. I am ashamed of how I have been acting,” Joe sobbed, uncertain as to what the town folks thought of him and not really caring if they approved or disapproved of his public cry of apologies to his family.
“Adam, Hoss, I want to tell you that I am sorry too, for being such a rotten brother. I think you guys are super, I couldn’t ask for better brothers. I love ya, all of you.” Joe’s tears ran unchecked down his cheeks and he made no move to wipe them away. Adam lowered his head to conceal his own tears, pride in his baby brother swelling within his chest. Hoss grinned and called out to his younger brother.
“I love ya too, Punkin,” and then blushed when shouts of Amen filled the air.
Joe stepped from around the pulpit and moved to the center aisle and faced his father who had risen from his seat as Joe moved toward him. Meeting his father’s eyes as tears of remorse and shame slid from his quivering chin and on to his best Sunday shirt, he cried, “I’m sorry Pa, and I love you more than anything.”
Ben gently cupped the quivering chin with tender care, leaned forward and kissed his youngest son’s forehead.
“And I love you son. And just so you’ll be sure, in front of all of these witnesses I want you to know that I except your apology and you are forgiven all,” Ben smiled down into the green eyes which had become darker now from the tears and emotions that had surfaced.
Ben gathered Joe into a firm embrace and there in God’s house and before the good people of Virginia City, a father was honored and a son was forgiven…as well it should be.