Summary: This story is the result of the September Writing Challenge. Joe was never a lover of school. So why is he so keen to go for once?
Word Count: 3926 Rated: K+
A Hard Act To Follow
It was the first week of April but before spring could make a permanent appearance winter decided on a mischievous whim to provide a final reminder of both its power and beauty by allowing an unexpected guest to settle on the low lying grazing lands of Nevada.
Starting in a quiet flurry but building up to more of a blizzard at its height, the heavy fall of snow came down for hours as the occupants of the Ponderosa slept; all oblivious to the change in the weather until they first stirred from their beds at the beginning of a new day.
In the warmth of the large ranch house, Ben and his sons were sat together, enjoying another of Hop Sing’s deliciously cooked breakfasts. But fifteen year old Little Joe seemed to have little appetite for once and was first to finish, so under his father’s watchful eye he scraped back his chair and left the table to walk over and look out through the window where the world outside had been surprisingly covered in a deep layer of white.
Totally out of character Joe sighed with disappointment at the sight; realising he and his family were well and truly housebound for the foreseeable future and there was no way he’d be able to make his way to school on horseback or by the use of a wagon any time soon in such difficult conditions.
There had been a time when having such a good excuse to stay away from the tedious daily routine of the schoolhouse and not having to take any lesson within its walls would have left Joe smiling with glee and with an unreserved burn of delight settling in his chest. For from an early age he’d always disliked the restricting discipline of school hours forced upon him, and often declared to anyone who’d listen he would be much more use concentrating his energies working alongside his father and brothers on the ranch he loved so much than sitting hours on end at a desk.
‘All this school work, it’s just a waste of time Pa,’ he’d often told his father during many heated discussions on the subject. ‘Who needs to study calculus just so they can brand a steer or round up a herd of horses?’
But to Joe’s dismay his verbal protestations had always fallen on deaf ears. As far as Ben was concerned even if his youngest never showed any sign of being academically gifted and constantly appeared to underachieve, he was adamant Joe would carry on at school until the very last day he was expected to attend, come hell or high water and whether he liked it or not.
Minutes passed and as his son’s gaze remained hypnotically fixed on the landscape outside Ben called out to him to return to the table. Half hesitating for a moment Joe finally obeyed and slumped down glum faced in his chair by Adam’s side.
Noticing his gloomy expression Ben studied him over the rim of his coffee cup for a few moments then placed his drink down and frowned questioningly. “I thought you’d be delighted to be missing a few days of schooling because of the snow Joe, so why the long face?” he asked, knowing all too well the feelings of his youngest on the subject of education. “Is there something bothering you? Aren’t you feeling well?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing’s bothering me Pa, and I’m feeling fine,” he murmured in a subdued tone then lapsed once again into a brooding silence.
A small smile touched Ben’s lips as he studied his son with fatherly concern. “Joseph, after fifteen years I can read you like a book and it’s obvious to us all you’re not your cheery self this morning. So come on, tell me what’s wrong.”
There was no immediate reaction to Ben’s query as though Joe was seemingly reluctant to answer then he heaved a heavy sigh as he met his father’s questioning gaze. “Well…the thing is Pa, I was really looking forward to going to school today so I could get to sit my final exam. I’ve been studying for it so hard and now….now it looks like all the time and effort I’ve put in is going to go to waste.”
In the silence that followed Hoss gaped at his little brother while Ben’s eyebrows rose in stunned surprise. Equally taken aback at the revelation Adam wiped his mouth on a napkin then stretched out long legs and folded his hands behind his head. “Reckon I must be hearing things. I could swear Little Joe just offered to go to school voluntarily and of his own free will,” he declared dryly, letting out a short chuckle of disbelief. “Anyone else hear the same?”
Ben nodded and pressed his youngest further. “Joseph did we hear you right? You want to attend lessons just so you don’t miss an exam?”
Joe gave a nervous swallow and nodded. “Yes Pa.”
Hoss grinned and let out a loud chortle. “Dadburn it Little Joe, if that don’t take the cake! I never thought the day would dawn when I’d hear you say them there words and no mistake!”
Joe gave his brother a dark look from across the table. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he snarled, showing no sense of fear as he automatically balled his left hand into a fist as though in preparation to jump up and throw over a punch at the big man.
Purposely ignoring the often threatened gesture from his volatile sibling Hoss continued. “Well it ain’t no secret you’ve never been one for schoolin’ or anythin’ associated with it since you was knee-high to a jack-rabbit little brother,” he answered with a wide smile covering his face. “I’ve lost count of the times one of us has had to all but hog-tie you on your pony so as to get you to your classes on time over the years. Ain’t that right Adam?”
Adam tried to stay po-faced and stern looking but there was no mistaking he was fighting a smile; a smile that sometimes contained the same impish glint in his eye more readily associated with the youngest Cartwright.
“You’re not wrong there Hoss. And call me Mr Sceptical if you want but I find it hard to believe our little brother is so keen to attend school just to take a test! I reckon there must be something else going on. Something serious,” he stated as he reached over and playfully ran a hand through Joe’s hair as if searching for painful, throbbing bumps on his skull. “You reckon we should have Doc Martin come here and check him over in case he’s been hit hard on the head and done some damage without realising it?”
Joe squirmed away from his brother’s touch and rolled his eyes. This was just what he didn’t need; his elder brother trying to be amusing first thing in the morning. “If you got any funnier you’d be dangerous Adam,” he answered with a sarcastic breath. “There’s nothing wrong with me. And there ain’t no law against a man wanting to wipe the slate clean and start anew, is there? I thought you’d all be pleased I was keen to do some learning at last, but it seems I can’t do right for doing wrong around here!”
Sensing Joe’s temper might rise even further if not checked Ben’s brown eyes stared at him in a kindly manner. “Calm down Joseph. Your brothers are only teasing you,” he said gently in a consolatory tone as he shot his eldest sons a quelling glance. “And if what you’re telling us is true I must say I’m relieved and delighted to hear you’ve finally turned over a new leaf at this late stage, even though you’ll be leaving school for good in a few weeks time.”
Under his father’s caring gaze Joe nodded and quickly gave an apologetic smile. “I realise it’s been a long while coming Pa, but you always did say I was a late developer, so better late than never I suppose.”
Ben’s expression then turned thoughtful. “Well all I can say is the appointment of our new school teacher last autumn has really proved to be a wise choice if this is an indication of what Miss Abigail Jones can achieve in such a short while. I’m certainly going to recommend to the school governors she be offered the post on a full time basis now!”
Joe nodded enthusiastically. “That would be great Pa. Miss Jones has really helped me with my studies since she arrived,” he admitted as he turned towards his brother; their brief altercation already forgotten. “You’d like her Adam. I told her how you’d been to college in Boston and she seemed quite impressed and looks forward to meeting you some day and learn all about life back East. And she’s always quoting Shakespeare at every chance she gets…just like you!”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Sounds just like my kind of woman,” he acknowledged thoughtfully. “Maybe I should call on her one day and we could sit in the parlour, sipping tea and reciting a sonnet or two!”
Although he wasn’t sure if his brother was joking or not Joe giggled at the thought, picturing the two of them together in his mind’s eye. He then turned his gaze towards Ben again. “Miss Jones also said after checking my past report cards and comparing them to the exam grades I’ve got this time that it was more like some sort of miracle had occurred, especially as….”
Suddenly Joe’s voice trailed and his cheeks flushed slightly, but his reddened face and reluctance to finish his sentence didn’t go unnoticed by his observant father.
“Go on Joseph. Especially as what?”
Now under close scrutiny from three interested pair of eyes, Joe’s shoulders slumped and he let out a long slow breath of regret. “I’d intended to keep it a secret from you all Pa, but…”
He paused for a moment then gave a sigh, though this time when he continued Joe couldn’t stop a slight note of excitement sounding in his voice. “But…well the thing is I’ve managed to get A grades in all my tests so far and I’m the top scoring student in my class this year. Miss Jones has even said there’s a good chance I’ll be delivering the Valedictorian at the graduation ceremony.”
Ben was speechless again, a look of total bemusement on his face. “You’ve had top grades this time and may be giving out the 1857 Valedictorian?” he repeated eventually, his voice then changing to one of mild irritation. “But I was talking to Miss Jones only last week in the Mercantile and she never mentioned anything. Why on earth didn’t she tell me then you’ve been doing so well?”
Joe looked sheepishly at his father. “Don’t blame Miss Jones Pa. I asked her not to tell any of you as I wanted it to be a surprise when I step on the stage to receive my diploma.”
Adam leaned forward in his chair, his face a picture of delight and pride as he slapped Joe lightly on the back. “Well I’m impressed at the change in you little brother, and proud of what you’ve accomplished, very proud. I’ve been telling Pa for years I could see you were a bright kid who showed enough potential to excel and succeed at anything you set your mind to, and by the sounds of it I’ve been proved right!”
If he’d just been declared the President of the United States, Joe couldn’t have been more delighted or pleased at that moment as he took in what his brother said. For Adam had never been one to bestow praise lightly and to hear him being considered in such high regard for once left the youngest Cartwright totally taken aback. In fact for a brief second Joe wondered if he’d understood correctly and turned towards his father for confirmation. “Is that right Pa?”
Ben smiled and nodded. “It certainly is Joe. In fact if it wasn’t for Adam constantly telling me to have faith in what you might achieve one day, I’d have probably been swayed by your constant nagging to pull you out of school early.”
Joe shot his brother a look of surprise. “Really Adam? So you’ve never thought of me as stupid and a no-hoper?”
Adam’s cheerful expression suddenly changed to be replaced by a dark frown. “Of course I haven’t Joe. In fact I’ve never consciously made a point of saying anything negative about your schooling to you over the years,” he said quietly, clearly upset by the accusation. “So why on earth would you think such a thing?”
Joe chewed uneasily at his bottom lip. “Well I know you never said anything to me about my poor results every time I brought my report cards home,” he acknowledged. “But it was so hard to judge what you were really thinking when you were looking at them, that I’m sure I used to see you staring at me sometimes, hardly believing a brother of yours could do so badly; like you were ashamed we were related. Not that I can blame you for thinking me a failure and an embarrassment to the Cartwright name Adam. I mean even I cringed when I saw how low the grades were sometimes.”
Feeling as though his heart was being torn out of his chest, Adam shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry if I ever gave that impression when I was looking at you Joe because such a thought never crossed my mind,” he affirmed. “You see I’ve always known there was a quick, intelligent brain somewhere beneath that thick skull of yours, and recognised it was just a matter of being patient and waiting for the time when you realised it yourself. So there didn’t seem much sense in me ranting and raving at you especially as I reckon Pa’s little sermons on the subject were quite sufficient at the time, don’t you?”
Joe quickly turned his gaze across to his father and nodded, recalling all too well the long lectures he’d endured in front of his Pa’s desk on many occasions. His gaze was met with a tender smile.
“But I can assure you, as God is my witness,” Adam continued as Joe looked back towards him. “Even if you hadn’t been destined to be the brightest kid in Nevada, I’d consider myself to be a lucky man. Lucky and proud to have you as my little brother however you turned out. And don’t you ever forget it!”
There was a moment of silence, the sort of comfortable silence that falls between brothers who also love and respect each other but don’t know how to describe their feelings adequately and put them into words. “I won’t Adam,” Joe admitted in a choked voice, and with no sense of shame tears welled. “And thanks….thanks a lot. You’ll never know who much that means to me.”
Ben pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose and fighting against the surprising sting of moisture in his own eyes Hoss finally broke the awkward silence and returned his attention to the food left on the table.
“Knowing I have a couple of genius brothers sure gives me an appetite,” he grinned, and with the use of his fork and a deft swipe of the hand expertly scooped half a dozen golden coloured pancakes onto his plate then took hold of a jug of syrup and poured it over the stack.
“So just what’s the subject of this here final exam that’s so all-fired important you do little brother?” he asked while sinking his fork into half of the pancakes and popping them all into his mouth.
Joe wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his damp cheek then sank back in his chair and watched Hoss chomp at his food. “We had to study and then answer questions on the Act of Constitution created by James Madison in 1787.”
Pushing his own empty plate away Ben cleared his throat as he poured out a fresh cup of coffee before viewing Joe with an arched brow. “That sounds like a hard assignment Joseph. I’m beginning to wonder if Miss Jones isn’t working you too hard.”
With a laugh Joe shook his head. “Oh she’s not doing that Pa. Miss Jones just says she likes to stretch our minds by giving us plenty of facts to absorb and remember.”
“Do all the students in your class have to do this exam?”
Joe nodded his head. “Yes Pa. Everyone has to do it, but I have to complete it today otherwise the marks couldn’t be counted towards my final assessment.”
Adam rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “In that case it seems such a shame if you miss it,” he said in a resolute voice as an idea suddenly came to him. “Tell you what Joe. I seem to recall there’s an old horse-drawn sleigh rusting away in pieces somewhere under that lean-too out the back. Why don’t I go find it and put it together? Shouldn’t take too long then I’m sure once the runners are greased up it’ll be just the thing to get you to school in the snow…maybe a little late but at least it would get you there in time.”
Joe’s eyes flashed excitedly at the prospect. “You’d do all that…for me?” he asked incredulously.
Adam nodded, smiling his slow sweet smile. “Of course I would little brother if it means you get to pass another test. What do you say?”
Joe chewed at his lower lip as though sorting out something in his mind. Then he shook his head resolutely, trying to act with as much blasé indifference as he could manage as he stared his brother in the eye. “Thanks for the offer Adam, but you don’t need to go to such bother. I’ve already done enough to be first in my class so missing this one exam isn’t really that important.”
Adam nodded happily. “Very well Joe, if you’re sure. But the offer stands if you change your mind.”
Joe managed a small smile of thanks. “I’m sure,” he said then gave a wry chuckle. “Besides, I reckon I’ve done more than enough school work lately to last me a lifetime so having an extra day at home gives me a chance to catch up with my chores in the barn.”
He turned his gaze quickly towards his father. “May I be excused from the table Pa? I’d like to make a start right away if it’s all right with you. I’ve been putting off polishing the tack for weeks and this spare time gives me the perfect opportunity to get it finished.”
Ben nodded. “Good thinking son. Just make sure you wrap up warm before you go out into that snow. Don’t want you catching a cold.”
“I will Pa,” Joe promised, then giving them all a final grin, pushed back his chair and within a minute after pulling on his winter coat and wrapping a scarf around his neck, had disappeared outside to make his way across the yard.
As the sound of the door closing echoed in the large room Ben looked at both Adam and Hoss and gave deep sigh. “I just don’t know what to think boys. After all these years I never thought it possible Joseph would pass all his exams and graduate. And to know he’s even going to give out the Valedictorian address!” Ben shook his head. “Well let’s just say if I have many more shocks like that I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t suffer a heart attack!”
Biting back a smile Adam laid a sympathetic hand gently on his father’s arm. “Pa something tells me little brother is going to be full of all sorts of revelations in the future, some a lot worse than this! So I reckon were all going to have to get used to the idea, whether we like it or not!”
Hoss’ vivid blue eyes glazed slightly at the prospect. “Reckon you’re right Adam,” he agreed, murmuring wistfully under his breath; the whisper just audible to his father and brother. “And heaven help us all!”
As he busied himself in the warmth of the barn Joe’s mind wandered back a few days as he recalled when Miss Jones had pulled him aside to show him a folder containing the names and final grades of every student to graduate in the school since its opening years before. And excitedly she’d pointed out the one pupil who still held the top honour for the highest marks ever gained; Joe following her finely manicured finger to where she singled out a name he recognised so well – Adam Cartwright.
It was then Miss Jones told Joe his grades totalled together were now only a few lower than his brother had obtained all those years ago. She also hinted if Joe managed to do well in the final assignment the extra credits awarded would mean he’d overtake his brother’s long held record and his name would be the one placed at the top of the school’s roll of honour.
Ever since Adam returned from College it was clear to all he cast a long intellectual shadow and Joe soon realised he’d always be a hard act to follow. So rapidly Joe came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth the effort to even try; as a result giving up all thoughts of emulating or improving on any of his elder brother’s scholarly achievements.
But of course circumstances had now changed and with growing confidence and self-belief courtesy of Miss Jones urging him on, the highly competitive Joe jumped at the chance to better his brother’s score and studied hard for hours until he knew his final subject backwards, forewords and all ways in-between.
Then the snow had fallen and Joe’s final chance for scholastic glory had gone.
But Joe acknowledged as it turned out the weather’s untimely intervention had not been such a bad thing and success in the exam just didn’t seem to be quite so important anymore.
For as he reflected back on the praise Adam had lavished on him at breakfast and his generous offer to fix up the sleigh Joe had been more than happy to turn down the opportunity to make it to school for his final test and subsequently overtake his brother’s score. For as far as Joe was concerned, just knowing Adam believed in him was sufficient to leave him content and proud to be thought of as the second best student ever behind his elder brother.
And satisfyingly and surprisingly to the quickly maturing youngest Cartwright, for now that was more than enough.