Summary: When Joe returns home with a child that he claims is his, the story is not quite what anyone expects.
Word Count – 14,709
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 realise there is a Providence in Rhode Island, but for the purpose of my story, there is now one in Nevada too. Blame it on a foreigner who doesn’t know her geography!
Ben settled uncomfortably in his chair and tried to focus on the book he was reading. He had stared at the same page for over half an hour and it still made no more sense than it had at the start. Finally he gave up fighting his distraction and dropped the book down onto the table.
“Pa, why don’t we call it a day and head up to bed?”
Ben glanced up to see two of his sons watching him intently. It had been the same for far too many nights where the three of them had tried to pretend that tonight might be the night that Joe came home. Unseasonal late snows had blocked the northern pass and it was a reasonable assumption that Joe had holed up somewhere to wait it out, but with no telegraph line out that way, there was no way to be sure. Not for the first time, Ben knew that his son was in the hands of the Almighty. He just wished the Almighty might give him a hint as to when his son might come home.
“I think perhaps we all need to call it a day, Son.” Ben smiled as Adam tried to keep his face impassive. As much as his eldest son was trying to herd him to bed, he knew full well that Adam had stayed up many nights and slept in the same chair he now sat in, waiting for his wayward brother to come charging through the heavy front door, full of tales of adventure and wild explanations for his tardiness.
Hoss clambered to his feet and made an exaggerated showing of yawning and stretching the kinks out of his back. “Well I’m all done in, that’s for sure.”
Ben smiled at his middle son and nodded. He was grateful he had the two of them to share his worries and keep him from straying too far with those worries. After all, Joseph was not a child and he knew how to take care of himself. He would not have risked crossing that northern pass when the snowstorm came. Perhaps if it were a few years ago, he’d have more to worry about. His son had a reckless streak that still surfaced at the most inopportune moments, but for the most part, he’d matured into a young man with a good head on his shoulders.
He stood and stretched, in a poor imitation of his son’s efforts and nodded towards the stairs. The words on his lips died as the front door suddenly swung open and a howl of cold wind blew eddies of snow across the threshold. He moved without thought towards the door to push it closed again and stopped dead in his tracks.
“Joseph! What in heaven’s name are you … ?” The rest of the question hung in the air as he hurried towards the shadow stumbling into the room. His son held a bundled blanket in his arms and he pushed past his father’s grasp towards the fireplace.
“Gotta get him warmed up!” The words held an urgency tinged with fear and the three of them simply gaped as Joe settled himself on the edge of the hearth and peeled back the top of the blanket to reveal a small blonde head nestled against his shoulder.
It was almost as if the world had begun to move in slow motion and Ben stared at his youngest son. It was Hop Sing who broke the spell as he bustled towards Joe with a mug of coffee.
“Warm you too.” He nodded as he pressed the mug into Joe’s chilled hands and he smiled as the young man gulped the contents in one go.
“Got any warm milk out there?” He watched as Hop Sing scurried back towards the kitchen to meet his request. Joe’s family crowded closer as he continued to rub warmth into the child he held in his arms. The heat from the fire was beginning to seep into his back and the colour of his face had shifted from almost blue to a slightly more healthy pink.
Ben reached out a hand to touch the side of his son’s face and smiled as his usual cheeky grin surfaced.
“It’s good to be home, Pa! We’ve been on the road for too long.”
“It’s good to have you home, Son. It’s been too long for us too.”
Joe’s grin faded as he considered the concern in his father’s eyes. He’d tried to get word to them, but without telegraph lines and nothing getting through the pass, he’d had no way to do so.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I tried to let you know where I was, but there’s no lines and …”
His father clamped a hand on his shoulder and nodded. “I know. We knew you’d hole up somewhere and wait out the storms.”
“It’s where we holed up. Providence. A little one-horse town north-west of the pass. I’m not even sure it’s still on the map.”
Adam listened as his brother talked and he noted how Joe kept rubbing at the child’s back and arms as he spoke. So far, he’d said nothing of the child’s identity or how they came to be together. As he watched, the blonde curls began to fidget and Joe looked down to see if the child was awakening.
“Hey there.” The tenderness in his brother’s voice really shouldn’t have surprised him, but Adam glanced across to see Hoss staring straight back at him.
“Are we there yet?”
Joe grinned as he nodded. It was a question he had asked many times as a child and he smiled at the tired face that looked up at him.
“Yes, we are there. Do you think you could drink some warm milk?” Joe had noticed Hop Sing hovering behind Adam with a mug in his hand and he waved it over. He didn’t wait for an answer before peeling the blanket back a little further so the child could grasp hold of the mug. He noted the gloves on his hands made the mug difficult to get hold of and he kept one hand holding the handle as he tipped it up. When it was finally drained, he held the mug out to his brother and smiled as Hoss took it without question. There were a hundred questions burning in his family’s eyes and he was ready to answer them once he took care of the child he refused to let go of.
“Then go back to sleep. I’ve got you. You’re safe here.”
Ben watched as his son blinked back a tear and rubbed at it with the back of his hand. The blonde head settled back against his shoulder and it was clear that the child was asleep again in minutes.
Safe here. Where had the child been that he had to be reassured that he was safe?
Finally assured that the child was warmed up and settled, Joe began to relax a little. He looked up at the array of faces before him and smiled. A weary smile that betrayed the fatigue he had pushed aside for many days.
“His name is Michael … and he’s my son.”
The look on his father’s face would have been almost comical if he had the energy to laugh. He could see the wheels turning and he held up a hand to forestall the inevitable questions.
“Easy, Pa. I’ll explain everything, but first … I’m starving!”
It was all the words that Hop Sing needed to hurry back to the kitchen and begin heating something, but Ben was glad he was already sitting on the table or his knees may have betrayed him. He knew his son had many charms when it came to women and judging by what he could see of the child, he was perhaps four or five. His son was only twenty-two, but even knowing what he knew of his youthful irresponsibility, his mind could not bring his heart to believe what he was hearing. If it was true, why had the mother waited this long to tell him? And where was she anyway?
As Hop Sing carried a bowl of stew back from the kitchen, Joe climbed to his feet and deposited the sleeping child onto the sofa. He tugged at the edges of the blanket and tucked them in around the child’s shoulders as he leaned forward to gently brush a stray curl off the boy’s face. The tenderness in the action made his father’s breath catch as he saw his own fathering mirrored in his son. It seemed hours before Joe settled himself back in front of the fireplace and began devouring the bowl of meat and thick gravy with biscuits, while Ben forced himself to hold his tongue. He would give his son the benefit of a listening ear at the very least before he let his thoughts loose.
Adam itched to ask questions, but he could see nobody was going to get anything until his brother had dealt with his hunger first. An air of exhaustion lingered over Joe and he frowned at the vestige of bruises that covered the side of his brother’s face. Hoss was hovering in the background and had drifted across to watch the child that Joe had left on the sofa. Adam smiled as he watched his middle brother. For all his size that seemed intimidating to those who didn’t know him, Hoss was the softest hearted of the lot of them.
As Joe spooned the last remains of the stew into his mouth, he sighed. It felt good to have actual food in his belly, rather than the rough trail food they’d managed on for the last week. He’d second-guessed his decision to head for home when snow had once again threatened, but as he looked around the room again, he was glad he’d pressed on. It had been the longest seven weeks of his life and the last four days had felt like a month.
Ben leaned forward to take the bowl from his son’s hands and he found himself reaching out to grasp at those hands once again. When Joe had eased off his gloves earlier, he’d noticed the split knuckles.
“Son, what happened to you?”
Joe almost smiled at his father’s restraint. He’d managed not to ask the question that was burning to be asked. Such a loaded question. What happened? The world was tipped on its head. That’s what happened! He felt his father’s fingers tighten almost imperceptibly and he smiled at the face he had looked to all his life to bring steadiness when things tilted sideways.
“Well, I made it to the Harrison’s. They’ve got some brood mares we really should consider buying, Pa.” Joe watched as his father frowned at him. The quality of brood mares was not the kind of information he was waiting for. Joe hid a tired smile and continued on as he noticed his brothers had settled into chairs on either side of them.
“I got caught on the way back by a snowstorm that just blew up outta nowhere. The road was blocked and I was forced to backtrack and head west. Found myself in a tiny place called Providence. Apparently it was a thriving mining town once, but I think God might have left there a few years ago now ’cause I couldn’t see much evidence of him there anymore.”
Ben scratched at his chin as he considered the comment. He’d heard tell of a place called Providence, but knew he’d never been there. It was clearly one of many towns that had sprung up around the prosperity of an ore strike and had petered out when the ore ran out. He didn’t care, he was just grateful his son had found a place to shelter when he needed it. Spring snowstorms had killed many travelers caught unaware on the open roads and he shuddered to think what could have happened.
Joe’s eyes seemed to be lost somewhere and Ben rubbed a thumb across his son’s wrist, noting more bruises.
“I found the hotel … if you could call it a hotel. More like a rat trap with a coupla beds. I checked in and waited for the snow to pass. Each day I’d check to see if the pass was clear and each day I’d walk around the town trying not to die of boredom!”
Adam grinned at the look on his brother’s face. Joe had always craved action and the idea of his brother holed up in a town with nothing to do almost made him laugh. Joe never did well with cabin fever.
“One afternoon I was out walking when I heard this noise. It was coming from one of the alleyways and when I got there … ” Joe’s fists clenched as he pulled free of his father’s hands. “He was beating him!” The words were low and angry. As Joe looked up to his father’s face, his eyes blazed with anger. “He was beating a child!”
Nobody missed it as Joe instinctively looked towards the child sleeping on the sofa and none of them were in any doubt about who was being beaten.
The shopkeeper raised his hand to strike again and Joe grasped at it from behind, squeezing the man’s knuckles in a painful grip.
“Leave him be! He’s just a child!”
“He’s a thief!”
The merchant twisted his hand free of Joe’s grasp and pointed to the half-eaten apple on the ground.
Joe’s nostrils flared as rage filtered up from his gut. An apple! This was all about an apple! He reached into his pocket and pulled a coin free. As he flung it toward the merchant, he reached forward to scoop the terrified boy into his arms.
“Consider it paid for! And so help me … if I see you lay another finger on him … or any other child for that matter … I’ll kill you!”
The merchant scrambled to find the coin that had been tossed his way. It more than covered the cost of the apple and he was desperate enough to degrade himself scrabbling in the mud. Business was slow enough without the snows blocking travelers from passing through. He glared at the stranger who had just stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, but as he pocketed the coin, he figured it wasn’t worth the trouble of doing anything else.
Joe carried the child around the corner and headed away from the mercantile before sitting down on the edge of a porch. The child clung to his neck and he could feel deep heaving sobs against his chest as tears soaked into his shirt front. The boy was wearing an oversized shirt that had been rolled up at the sleeves, but it wasn’t enough against the chilled air. He waited patiently until the sobs slowed down and the child finally looked up to see the face of his rescuer.
Joe reached out a hand to trace a finger over the edge of the boy’s chin as he inspected the bruises on the reddened face. His gut churned with anger as he recalled what he had stopped, but he forced himself to school his face into a calm mask.
“I’m Joe. What’s your name?” The child blinked at him as the last of the tears eased up.
“Mama told me not to talk to folks I don’t know.”
Joe smiled at the earnest little face and he nodded as if considering the idea. “My pa told me the same thing when I was your age. Good advice.”
The child sniffled as he shifted against Joe’s grasp. It had taken a little more coaxing before he discovered the child’s name and once Michael decided the stranger was trustworthy, he seemed to decide he could spill the rest of his secrets.
Ben watched as his son’s face scrunched into a frown again.
“They were living in the livery behind the hotel, Pa!”
“Michael and his mother. Hannah. Sleeping in the straw in a draughty old building that leaked something fierce!”
It wasn’t the first time that Joe had seen the evidence of life turning cruel or for those who had fallen on hard times, but Ben sensed something about this story was different. Somehow his son had found himself caught up in a stranger’s need. He listened as Joe explained how he had finally convinced Hannah to go with him to the hotel. His son had been quick to assure him he’d planned to pay for another room for the woman and her son, but there weren’t any. He had to stop himself from frowning as his impetuous son explained how he’d taken a young woman to his own room and settled her and her small son in his own bed.
“I slept on the floor, Pa!”
Adam watched as Hoss’ cheeks coloured at the thought, but Joe seemed oblivious to them both. Once again, his eyes drifted off somewhere and it wasn’t until Ben nudged his hand again that Joe stumbled on with the story.
Hannah had been wary of the stranger who seemed intent on dragging them both to his room, but something about the way her son responded to him had piqued her curiosity. After all, beggars couldn’t be choosers and if it meant her son would have a night in a warm room, she wasn’t going to object too loudly. She would just have to keep her wits about her if their benefactor thought he was going to exact any kind of payment from her.
“It took a while before she figured I didn’t have some kind of hidden agenda, but eventually Hannah seemed to begin to trust me.” Joe smiled up at his father’s expression and knew exactly what was going on in his head. Joe hadn’t always proven himself worthy of trust and the scenario he was describing wasn’t exactly painting a wholesome picture.
“They were hungry and cold and I couldn’t have slept in that bed for one minute, knowing they were stuck in that livery stable.”
“Course not!” All eyes turned to Hoss as he nodded in agreement. “Wouldn’t ‘ave been right at all.” Ben looked at his middle son and smiled in spite of himself. It was a well-known family joke that it was Hoss who brought home the strays and waifs. Maybe something of his brother’s kindness was rubbing off on his younger brother. That still didn’t explain how Joe had arrived home with the boy in tow and his mother was nowhere to be seen.
Joe leaned forward and rubbed at his shoulder muscles as he considered how to continue. The warmth of the fire was finally seeping into his bones and driving out the chill that had seemed to be embedded there. It was nothing compared to the chill that had hit him at the doctor’s words.
“Pa … when you were traveling with Adam and Hoss … were there ever times when you didn’t have something you desperately needed?”
Ben shifted uncomfortably as he considered the question. There had been many nights that he had gone to bed with no food in his stomach because there was not enough to share. He would not deprive his growing sons of the nourishment they needed if he had failed to supply enough for them both. He found his voice stuck in his throat as Adam’s hand slipped onto his shoulder.
“Pa often went without food so we could eat.” Hoss looked up at his brother’s words and frowned. He had no idea of any such thing, but the fact his father didn’t rush to disagree was all the proof he needed.
Adam smiled as he nodded. “You thought I didn’t know, but I knew. Why do you think I was so eager to learn to trap?”
Without speaking, Ben grasped his eldest son’s hand and squeezed it against his shoulder. Of course Adam hadn’t missed a thing! He never did. He looked back to see Joe watching the scene play out. He nodded to himself as if it somehow confirmed what he already knew. A parent would sacrifice many things for the love of a child.
As if on cue, Michael began to fidget and cough in his sleep and Joe was on his feet instantaneously. Ben found himself almost shoved aside as his son reached for the child behind him. He was surprised at the look of fear that spread across Joe’s features as he gently pulled the boy into his lap. As Michael coughed himself awake, Joe was rubbing at his back and talking calming words over his head. It was only a few minutes before the little boy settled and his head dropped against Joe’s chest once again. For some reason, the look did not shift from Joe’s face. It seemed so incongruous that he saw fear on the face that seemed to laugh in the face of fear. Something was not adding up and he reached a hand out to grasp his son’s shoulder.
“I shouldn’t have brought him this soon. It’s too soon!”
“Too soon for what, Joe?”
Once again, his son’s eyes were elsewhere and he frowned in frustration.
“Joe?” Adam moved over behind his brother and noted how tightly he gripped the edge of the blanket wrapped around the boy. It took a few more minutes before Joe got his thoughts under control and he looked down at the mop of blonde hair against his shoulder.
“We almost lost him. The doctor made it sound like Hannah had failed as a mother and I …” His lip quivered as he spoke and his father could not decide if it was from fear or anger. Or both.
The doctor had only come because Joe had dragged him out of the saloon. He’d waved money in his face and demanded he do his job. As he’d dragged the man up the stairs to the first floor room, they could both hear the coughing from behind the closed door. Joe clenched a fist into the blanket as he recalled the man’s parting shot at Hannah. If she’d been a better wife and mother, her husband wouldn’t be dead and her boy wouldn’t be dying.
“He was a miserable excuse for a man, but he was the only doc the town had. If we didn’t need him so bad, I would have thrown him out there and then!”
Joe closed his eyes as he remembered the distraught look on Hannah’s face as she struggled to hold herself together for the sake of her son. She had blamed herself for her son going without sufficient clothing or food or shelter to keep him safe and Joe had been helpless to make her see that she had done her best with what she had. He listened as the doctor gave a list of instructions, even as Hannah had buried her face into her son’s pillow. She had taken the doctor’s words to heart and believed her boy was dying and it was all her fault.
“I sent the clerk to get the medicine the doc prescribed. We spent four days trying to get his fever under control.” Joe scrubbed a hand across his eyes as he remembered the agony of watching the child in his arms hover between this world and the next. Tears trickled down his cheeks as he recounted the doctor’s infrequent and almost pointless visits. Each time he came, his breath reeked of whiskey and Joe had finally shoved him from the room and told him not to bother returning.
Finally, one night, he’d reached a hand across the boy’s face and found the skin beneath his fingers felt cooler. He gently prodded at Hannah’s arm as she slept on his bedroll and her exhausted face lifted up; fear gripping her features.
“He’s gone?” She barely breathed the words as Joe cupped her face in his hands.
“No. His fever’s broken!”
Hannah stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language.
“He … he’s …”
A hand reached out to pull her to her feet and Joe led her across the room. As she slid down onto the bed, she tentatively reached out a finger to brush her son’s cheek. He still snuffled as he slept, but his cheeks were definitely cooler. Tears dribbled down her cheeks as she turned to face the man behind her. He gently pulled her towards him and embraced her as she felt her knees giving out.
“He’s going to be just fine.” The certainty of his words seeped into her soul and she smiled up at him while wiping the tears away.
Joe looked at his father and smiled as he slipped over the next part of the story. His father and brothers did not need to know that relief and the flickerings of hope had easily morphed into a response that threatened to steal his breath, even as he recalled it again in his mind. He tasted the salt of her tears as he kissed her cheek. Her arms had tightened around his neck and he found himself lost in her as he kissed her more urgently. He had no idea when an act of charity had been left behind and his heart had run away on him, but he didn’t care. As he gave way to his feelings and allowed himself to dream of possibilities, he wondered if Hannah felt the same way. For a moment he pulled back and looked down at her, as if trying to gauge something in her eyes. Her hands slipped from behind his neck and reached around to cup the sides of his face. No words were needed to explain what he saw there and he leaned forward to kiss her again.
The sound of his father’s voice jolted him back to the present and he shook himself back to focus once again. The feel of Hannah in his arms was almost a physical ache and he leaned down to brush a kiss against Michael’s curls. Nobody in the room had missed the look of anguish that crossed his face as Joe tried to continue on, but nobody spoke.
“Somehow, in spite of the doc’s pathetic doctoring, Michael got better. I asked Hannah to come with me instead of staying there in that awful place. She agreed and we knew we’d haveta wait ’til the snow cleared before heading out.”
“But what of her family? Her husband?” Ben watched as Joe flinched at the questions. There was clearly a bigger story behind the picture his son was painting and he walked a fine line between interfering and trying to understand.
Joe’s eyes dropped to the floor as he remembered those precious few weeks. It had been wonderful to see Michael getting stronger and he’d relished having them both so close. As they sat together each night, staring into the fire and dreaming of the future, she had let her guard down enough to share her story with him.
“She’d been married off by her pa when she was just fifteen. Her mother died when she was twelve and he took to drinking.” Joe frowned as he recalled Hannah describing the beatings she had endured at her father’s hands. Joe had taken many strappings from his father over the years, but never could he imagine his father laying a hand on him in such a fashion. “She was almost relieved when he told her he’d made a match for her, but the man she was married off to was no better. He regularly beat her and she thought a couple of times he mighta killed her if somebody hadn’t intervened.”
“Some fellas have no business gettin’ hitched!” Hoss growled at his brother’s description of an abusive husband and he found his fists clenching of their own accord.
“It wasn’t until he took to beating Michael that she found the courage to run away.” Without realising, Joe had tightened his arms around the little boy who still lay sleeping against his chest. The merchant who had taken out his anger on the boy was bad enough, but what kind of father did that to his own child?
“That’s a tough call for a young woman with no family to go to. Where did she go?” Adam leaned forward in his chair and watched as his younger brother struggled to keep his emotions in check.
“She got as far as Providence before he caught up with her. Seems the good folks of that godforsaken town thought a husband’s rights took priority over a wife and child’s and the sheriff turned a blind eye when he beat her again. The doc told her she should have gone home and been a good wife!” The fury in his voice was barely contained as Joe remembered Hannah whispering the pieces of her sordid tale. He had held her in his arms while she trembled from fearful memories and he had kissed away the tears that rolled out each time. He wanted to hunt down the men who had caused her such pain, but he was denied the satisfaction as they were dead already. All except the doctor! He still drank himself stupid most nights at the saloon and Joe found his hand wandering to his holster each time he saw the man.
“It wasn’t until one night that her husband had one drink too many and got himself killed in a gunfight that Hannah knew she had really escaped. Only by then, nobody in the town seemed willing to help her. Her money eventually ran out and they were staying in the livery, trying to hold out until the weather broke so they could leave. She planned to walk to the next town and start over.”
Ben scratched at the back of his neck as he tried to recall the map of that area. The nearest town was over fifty miles away as far as he could remember. He looked up to see that Joe was struggling to stay awake and he suggested leaving the rest of the story until the morning.
“No, Pa! I owe it to her. You need to know the woman I knew.” The vehement response caught him by surprise and he reached a hand across to his son once again.
“I’m sorry, Son. Go on.”
“I asked her to marry me, Pa.” Ben sucked in a sharp breath at the anguish that crossed his son’s face once again. He was afraid she had turned him down after her bitter experience of marriage, but Joe stared at him and tried to smile. “She said yes. Pa … you would have loved her.” Once again tears trickled down his cheek as Joe tried to rein in his emotions.
She said yes! He couldn’t believe it when she nodded at his awkward confession of love and tangled marriage proposal. He couldn’t understand why the words that usually flowed like honey were suddenly so hard to say. On the long trek home across the pass, he’d had many hours to contemplate that question. Maybe because for the first time in his life, it wasn’t just a game. He had lost his heart to a woman whose heart had been broken many times over. The fact she had entrusted it to him to put it back together was a responsibility he looked forward to honouring.
Ben felt his chest tightening into a knot as he watched his son’s face. Something had clearly gone terribly wrong.
Joe felt a flutter of fingers against his cheek as she traced her hand down his face, as if committing his features to memory. He had grasped her fingers in his and kissed her fingertips, one at a time. As the ghost of those slender fingers trailed down his face, he knew that it was him who was committing her face to memory. The face that had looked at him with such trust and love was the face he chose to remember.
Adam watched as Joe seemed to wilt before their eyes and he felt completely useless. His brother was totally exhausted; that much was abundantly clear.
“Son,” Ben reached a hand across and shook Joe’s arm. As much as he didn’t want the answer, he knew his son needed to rest and he would not do so until he was finished. “What happened to her?”
Joe swallowed hard and looked around at the four faces watching him. He was finally back where he belonged and yet he felt empty as if his heart had been hollowed out and left to dry.
“The weather finally cleared and I rented a buckboard to bring us home. We’d stopped at the mercantile for supplies and Michael was sitting on the hitching rail, waiting for me. It happened so fast. I’m … I’m not even sure what started it.” Joe rubbed a hand across his eyes as he tried to focus and force out the rest of the story. “Somebody started making comments about …” Joe faltered at the words that he would not repeat. He would not allow the derogatory words to come out of his own mouth about the woman who had done nothing to deserve them. He knew that taking her to his room in the first place had been used to attack her reputation, but he would not have done anything differently, knowing what he now knew.
Once again, Ben found his son’s arm flailing wildly and he reached a steadying hand to grasp hold of it.
“I had my gun in my hand before I knew what was happening. I just wanted them to stop. To shut their mouths and stop! I guess one of them thought I was going to shoot because suddenly somebody fired at me. I didn’t know who it was, but Hannah … she … Pa she saved my life.” The words trailed away as Joe’s eyes searched the floor. How could he explain how she had pushed him out of harm’s way and taken the bullet that was aimed at his back?
“They called the doc out of the saloon and it seemed to sober him up real quick when saw her. He said there was nothing he could do, except make her comfortable.”
Hoss shifted in his seat and tried to hold in the emotion that threatened to overtake him. He could feel the grief rolling off his little brother in waves, but more than that, he couldn’t contain the relief that he wasn’t hearing of his brother’s murder from a noaccount sheriff in a town that seemed to throw away strangers like they had no value.
Joe kept his head down as he tried to compose himself. “I married her, Pa. I asked the preacher to come and marry us. For two hours, she was my wife. It was all I could give her.”
“No, Son. You gave her so much more than that. You gave her dignity and respect. You gave her love that she had possibly never known. And you gave her son a father.”
Ben pulled his son forward as he wrapped his arms around him and the boy he still clung to. He felt his son’s tears soaking into his shoulder as he shook violently. Not surprisingly, Michael awoke as he found himself sandwiched between the two men.
“Joe?” The edge of fear was unmistakable as the boy tried to free himself from the blankets around him. “I want Mama!”
It had been several days since he had spoken that out aloud, but exhaustion combined with being awoken from a deep sleep and the child resorted to the thing he wanted most.
Ben ached as he watched history replaying before his eyes and he struggled to breathe as Joe wrapped the child into his arms. “I know. I want her too.”
“You left her behind! You left Mama behind!”
Joe felt his heart tearing in two as he stroked the child’s hair and tried to bring comfort in the only way he knew how. “Your mama is in Heaven, remember?”
Adam turned back toward the fire as he heard his own words being repeated. How many times had he sat with Little Joe in his arms while the child sobbed and begged for his mother to come back? He forced himself to turn back, offering silent support as his brother once again surprised him.
“Your mama is with my mama, remember how I told you that? My mama is taking real good care of her. I promise.”
Ben watched as his youngest son, the least responsible of them all, shouldered the greatest responsibility any man could. Somewhere in the last seven weeks his son had proven himself to be the man his father always knew he would be. He listened as he talked of the joys of Heaven through the veil of his own grief. He watched as Joe pushed aside his own fatigue to ensure a small boy had all the answers and comfort he needed. Joe had described the town of Providence as godforsaken and perhaps there was a grain of truth in that description, but as he raised his eyes upward in a silent nod of thanks, he knew that Providence had smiled on his family once again. His son had been returned to him in one piece and he had brought an extra blessing with him. Ben looked around the room at the faces that made up his family and he smiled. He did not begin to understand a lot of things about the world, but he trusted that the Almighty knew what he was doing and someday he would have his answers.
For now, he was content with having his son back.
Other Stories by this Author
- Joe Cartwright – Magician! (by Questfan)
- The Wrangler (by Questfan)
- Lost and Found (by Questfan)
- Hole in the Barn Door aka Pieces of the Whole (by Questfan)
- Fall Leaf aka The Greatest Gift (by Questfan)