Summary: When Joe and Mitch befriend two orphaned boys and try to help them, Ben has no idea where this new friendship will lead his youngest son. It would actually prove to be Ben’s spur-of-the-moment decision that would lead to disaster. All parents have acted in haste and he just prays he has time to set things right again.
Word Count: 60,173
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
I should probably say at the start that I know Roy and Paul weren’t in the early episodes, but for the sake of my story, they are the best fit for the job, being Ben’s friends. Please also keep in mind, I’m not American, so my knowledge of pre-Civil War politics and geography is limited. Much like Joe’s probably was! I have also had a couple of comments that Ben is out of character in this tale – usually from people who didn’t read it to the end. Nevertheless, please keep in mind this a prequel story and not the Ben Cartwright we know and love in Season 14. Remember A Rose For Lotta!!!
Ben found his thoughts wandering once again even as he pushed his horse onwards. He was aware of two of his sons riding along on either side of him, but it had been some time since any of them had spoken much more than a handful of words.
He was a fool and with each mile of dirt that passed under his horse’s hooves, he prayed that the old adage would at least play out in his favour. He had certainly acted in haste and he hoped that he would be granted the time to repent at leisure. That and to beg his son’s forgiveness. The alternative was simply unthinkable. The clipped telegram had sent the three of them racing off towards Riversbend, but it did nothing to answer his multitude of questions.
Almost two months earlier:
“No! Please don’t!”
The defiant pleas were growing weaker as the sobs began to take over. The heavy leather belt slammed down on the back of his legs again and again and he gripped onto the edge of the table as tightly as he could. His chest heaved as the pain radiated up from his lower legs and it was all he could do to keep himself upright.
“That’ll learn ya, ya little runt! You wanna backtalk me again and next time I’ll double it!”
Matthew squeezed himself into the gap between the kitchen dresser and the half open door and prayed that he would not be next. They had been late coming home and Walter wasn’t none too happy about it.
“You was with that Cartwright kid, weren’t ya?”
Derek felt his knuckles were throbbing as he gripped onto the edge of the table and he tried to shake his head. “No, Sir.”
“Don’t you lie ta me, boy!” The sour smell of stale whiskey wafted across towards him and Derek flinched.
Derek tried to stand upright, but his legs almost betrayed him. No matter what it cost him in loss of skin, he would not give the man the satisfaction of sharing the truth with him. He’d only been near Joe because Matthew had followed the older boy after school and Joe had stopped to talk to him and share a bag of sweets. The few moments of joy on his brother’s face were worth keeping his tongue in check for. He would not allow the old drunk to lay a hand on Matthew if he could help it.
Finally Walter grabbed at the back of Derek’s collar and shoved him towards the doorway.
“I saw ya with him. Now don’t you go gettin’ any ideas in that thick skulla yours, boy! The likes o’ them Cartwrights ain’t gonna waste their breath on the likesa you ‘less there’s someit in it for them!” Walter grinned at the boy he was shouting at and laughed outright at the pain on his face. “Now, get outta my sight you little mutt! And git that little brotha of yours outta here too.”
As Derek grabbed his brother’s arm, the two of them ran for the door and barreled out into the darkness outside. They didn’t stop until they reached the outer wall of the derelict barn and hunkered down beneath the rain sluice. It would be another hour or so before it would be safe enough to head back inside. Walter would be sound asleep, slumped over a bottle of whiskey and the two boys would be free to ferret around for whatever scraps of food they could find before crawling into a single bunk together. With any kind of luck, it would be enough of a drinking binge for Walter to sleep through the morning and they would be well on their way to school before he woke up.
Joe leaned against the railing and watched as Derek and Matthew trudged towards the schoolhouse. He’d been afraid they might not show again after two days absence and was about to turn for the door when he spotted them coming. He couldn’t define what it was about the pair that drew his attention and he’d brushed off Mitch’s questions, partly because he couldn’t answer them for himself. There was just something that tugged at his sense of right and wrong that unsettled him when it came to the two new brothers who had shown up a couple of weeks earlier.
Matthew’s face lit up, but Derek couldn’t muster a smile. His movement was stilted and slow and Joe knew from bitter personal experience that the boy had most likely taken a tanning from his father. Derek barely nodded in Joe’s direction until he drew level with the older boy. Joe’s face had twisted into a suspicious frown and it was clear he would have asked a question if Miss Jones hadn’t chosen that moment to step onto the porch and ring the bell for the start of the day. Derek shook his head at Joe and the trio made their way towards the teacher without speaking. Joe didn’t miss the way Matthew licked his lips as he glanced at Joe’s loaded lunch pail. The seven-year-old was small for his age, but the clothes he wore were far too big for him and the cuffs were rolled up. Most of the younger children in the school wore hand-me-downs of some sort with Joe being one of the few exceptions. He knew it was because Hoss’s clothes would never sit the same way on his scrawny frame, but he’d heard whispers from time to time about how spoiled the Cartwright boys were to always have new clothes and never went without anything.
He shrugged off the thought as they entered the classroom and Matthew reluctantly made his way forward to where the younger children sat and Derek settled himself in a middle row. Joe smiled at him as he dropped into a seat next to Mitch and he soon found himself buried under a pile of unsolvable arithmetic questions. He couldn’t wait for the school day to end and it had only just begun.
Derek, on the other hand, lapped up whatever scraps of schooling he could get. It had been several years since he’d sat in a classroom on a daily basis without having to fight for the privilege and he’d missed it. His agile brain enjoyed the challenges that each new subject brought his way and his reading level had been well beyond that of his peers. His father had brought him new books as he could afford to and he’d eagerly devoured each new offering from cover to cover, only to turn back and start it all over again, getting lost in the adventure anew.
He felt the weight of despair begin to settle over his shoulders and he tried to shake it off as if it were not there. His father would never again bring him a new book, or anything else for that matter. His father was lost at sea and would never come back for him as he’d promised.
The morning droned on, but eventually the class was let out into the midday sun. As Joe and Mitch made their way towards a group of older boys, both of them noted Derek and Matthew holding back on the porch. Neither boy had a lunch pail or satchel of any kind and Joe recalled the way Matthew had looked at his when he first arrived at school. He paused for a moment before turning back towards the stairs.
“Hey, you hungry?”
Matthew almost leaped off the stairs, but Derek hauled him back. Joe noted the look of embarrassment on Derek’s face and he hesitated, unsure of what to do next. It was Mitch who saved him by nudging at his elbow.
“You’ll be doin’ Joe a favour if you take some of this off his hands. He gets inta awful trouble with Hop Sing if he takes any of it home and his pa’s always complainin’ that he don’t eat enough. Just look at him! He’s all skin and bones, but even he can’t possibly eat all of what’s in there.”
Matthew looked up at Derek, pleading silently to be allowed to move again. Derek noted the quirk of a smile on Joe’s face as he nodded at Mitch’s ridiculous explanation. It was enough to allow him to save face and he grinned as Matthew began to wolf down a thick slab of bread and ham. Joe held out the other half of the sandwich in his direction and any resolve he had left suddenly evaporated.
Over the following week, the tentative friendship continued to develop, despite the fact that Derek was almost two years younger than both Mitch and Joe. Every day that they showed up to school, the two boys found themselves sharing in whatever had been packed into Joe’s lunch pail. Derek hated taking what he knew to be charity, but he could not ignore the constant ache that gnawed at his belly. He’d seen and heard enough to know that Joe Cartwright had more than enough to share around and unlike others they’d met along the way, he didn’t rub their faces in it while doing so.
There would be days where neither boy would turn up for school and each time they came back, Derek would be moving awkwardly. Any attempt to ask him about it would be met with an instant shutdown.
One lunch break, Joe stood in the yard and waited as Derek tried to evade his questions. The younger boy tried chewing slowly, but Joe would not be put off by that tactic. He knew it only too well and it never seemed to work on his father either.
“Come on, Derek. I thought we were friends!” Joe stood with his hands on his hips and waited for an answer. “My pa has tanned me plenty of times.”
“He’s not our pa!” Matthew blurted out before Derek kicked at his shin.
“Shut up!” he hissed at the smaller boy.
Joe frowned as he watched the two brothers growing more uncomfortable by the minute. His mind was racing with questions, but he noted Derek’s gaze shift to his feet. He knew that look too. It was the one he used when he wished he was a thousand miles away from whoever was interrogating him. He tried a different tack instead.
“Don’t matter. You wanna try some of this blueberry pie?” He held out the slab of pie like a peace offering and Matthew was almost drooling in anticipation. He broke it into pieces and Mitch noted that both he and Joe only got a sliver while both Derek and Matthew got the bulk of it. Derek had noticed it too, but kept quiet as he watched Matthew devouring his share. When the younger boy had finished, he silently handed over his piece and Matthew grinned at him as blueberry dribbled down his chin. The look on the boy’s face was worth the sacrifice.
Joe barreled into the kitchen after school and almost knocked into Hop Sing. He reached for the wooden canister where the cookies were kept and Hop Sing slapped at his hand.
“Aw c’mon, Hop Sing. I’m starving!”
“You always starving, but you no grow. Eat more food than Number Two son!” As Hop Sing relented and allowed Joe to swipe a handful from the canister, he tried to hold back a grin. It was good to see his youngest boy finally developing an appetite. Most nights, Joe would devour whatever was put before him instead of arguing with his father as he used to do. If he had known the truth of the matter, that Joe was going without lunch most days, Hop Sing would have thrown a fit.
“Pa, can I ask you something?”
Ben put down the papers he was reading and looked across the desk at his youngest son. Joe fidgeted in front of him and he groaned inwardly at what possible trouble his boy could be in. It had been several weeks since he’d had a note home from school so he figured he was probably overdue for something.
“Of course you can.”
Joe swallowed hard and tried to look up to meet his father’s eyes as was expected of him. The subject matter had been churning through his mind for weeks and it had set off an uncomfortable train of thought.
“Pa, if something happened to you … is …”
Ben felt a lump form in his throat at the beginning of the question and knew exactly where his son was going. He just didn’t know why. Joe’s insecurities over losing his father were well known in the family, but it had been a long time since it had raised its head and he’d hoped his son had outgrown it. Apparently not.
“Joseph?” Ben waited as his son continued to fidget before finally looking up at him again. “What do you want to know?”
“If something happened, would Adam be old enough to take care of me or …”
“Or what, Son?”
“Or would I have to go to an orphanage. Since I’d be … you know … an orphan?”
Ben stood up and walked around the desk towards his son. Joe was staring at him, almost holding his breath in anticipation of the answer. “Let’s sit down over there.” Ben guided him towards the sofa and settled Joe before him, before seating himself on the table in front of his boy.
“Joe, I can’t guarantee nothing will ever happen to me, but Adam is old enough to take legal custody of you and Hoss. You would not be sent anywhere.”
Joe chewed at his lip, in a giveaway sign that he was troubled. Ben reached for his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. When the boy didn’t respond, he tried again.
“Joe? Do you understand me?”
“But what if Adam didn’t want to?”
It was a question that startled the father and he had never considered that Joe could even think such a thing.
“Why wouldn’t Adam want to take care of you and your brother? He loves you both very much.”
When Joe didn’t answer, Ben reached a finger under his chin and forced him to look up. Unshed tears shone in his eyes and Ben felt his chest constrict. Joe had been through his share of fears at losing his father, but this was new. Something had gotten into his head and Ben was determined to find out what it was.
“Hoss can do everything that Adam needs him to. He could run the ranch with Hoss’s help. I can’t do much of nothin’, ‘cept cause him grief.”
Ben almost smiled at the description, but the look of distress on his son’s face was far too raw. Adam’s words from the night before had come about after an argument between his eldest and youngest. While Adam had overreacted, Joe had made sure to push him to his limit. Both of his sons had needed time to cool off and he thought things were settled between them. Perhaps not.
“Joe, you are capable of a great many things. Your skills with the horses are growing and with time, you will be a great asset to this ranch.”
“Adam don’t think so!”
Ben sighed. It wasn’t so far from the truth. Since Adam had come home, he’d found Joe more of a nuisance than a help. The boy’s eagerness to show his older brother what he could do didn’t always go to plan. If it weren’t for Hoss running like a balm between the two of them, Ben wasn’t sure what would have happened.
“Your brother hasn’t been around to see you growing up and he sometimes forgets that you are not still a little boy.”
“I’m almost fourteen!” Joe’s indignant cry brought a flicker of a smile to his father’s face and he nodded.
Suddenly Joe sobered and looked up at his father again.
“Pa, how old do I havta be to be in charge of myself?”
“You have a ways to go yet, Son.”
“How old, Pa?” The tone was insistent and Ben barely held back a frown.
“The law says you are a man at twenty-one.”
Joe scowled at the revelation. “But that’s years away!”
“And that’s why you have a family who have legal responsibility for you until you get there.”
Ben was still no closer to understanding why this line of questioning had even come up so he prodded gently again.
“Joe, why are you so worried about all of this?”
“What if Adam wasn’t around neither? Could Hoss take care of me instead?”
Ben felt his insides churning at the direction things were going. “Hoss isn’t old enough yet. But you don’t need to worry about these things, Joe. I have a will and Hiram would see to it that you are all taken care of if anything ever happened to me.”
“I wouldn’t get sent to no orphanage?” Joe’s look was almost pleading with him to deny the thought.
“No Joe. Nobody would send you to an orphanage.” Ben shook his head emphatically as he answered. What did his son know of orphanages? There were no orphans in Virginia City as far as he was aware. At least not ones that were under their majority.
Joe heaved a deep sigh as he nodded slowly. From what Derek had told him of orphanages, it wasn’t the kind of place he ever wanted to see inside. Orphanages could send you to live with people who hated you and beat you. And orphans had no rights to argue back.