Summary: Joe helps a friend of his father to know what it is to be a father.
Rated: K+ (2,330 words)
To Be A Father
Hey there Little Joe. Is your Pa home?”
Joe Cartwright nodded at his father’s friend, Andy Johnson, and opened the door a little wider to let the man in. “Pa!” he yelled as Andy entered and stood just inside the room, distractedly twisting his hat in his hands. “Pa, Mr. Johnson to see you!”
“Joseph, there is no need to shout,” Ben admonished the child, coming over from his desk to greet his friend with a handshake. “I’m not deaf.”
“Sorry sir,” Joe apologised breezily, obviously not the least put out by the reprimand. “I thought you were upstairs.”
Shaking his head in exasperation, Ben turned to Andy. “What brings you to the Ponderosa?” he asked curiously, ushering the man over to the hearth. “Not often we see you out here.”
“I just came to say goodbye,” Andy perched himself awkwardly on the arm of the couch and looked up at Ben. “You’ve been a good friend over the years, didn’t seem right leavin’ town without lettin’ you know.”
“Leaving!” Ben exclaimed in surprise, seating himself in the red leather armchair beside the fire. “When did this happen, Andy? You never said anything when I saw you last week.”
“I just decided,” Andy Johnson dropped his head as he spoke but not before Ben caught sight of the tears that glinted in the man’s dark blue eyes. “I gotta get away from here.”
“Joseph,” realising that something was very wrong with Andy, Ben looked over to where his youngest son was standing by the stairs, listening. “Don’t you have some homework to do?”
“I don’t have to do it right now,” Joe protested quickly. “I was going to get round to it this evening.”
“I think you should get started on it,” Ben told him, his voice quiet but firm, and with a resigned sigh, Joe headed up to his room.
“What’s the problem, Andy?” Ben asked his friend as Joe disappeared from view. “Anything I can help with?”
“No,” Andy shook his head slowly, brushing the tears from his eyes before he looked up. “It’s Mary, Ben, she’s found someone else.”
“She’s what?” Ben was aghast. He had known Andy and his wife Mary since the couple arrived in Virginia City twelve years ago. A carpenter by trade, Andy had set up a little business in the town, a business that had thrived over the years. Mary had been expecting their first child when they arrived and she and Andy had been delighted when it turned out to be twins. A boy and a girl who Mary had named, rather fancifully many felt, Laurence and Leticia. Larry and Tish, as the twins soon became known, were the same age as Little Joe and it was through the children that Ben had come to know the Johnson’s. Joe’s mother, Marie, had struck up a friendship with Mary Johnson when the twins and Joe were newborns.
“She’s found a new feller,” Andy told Ben now, running agitated fingers through his thinning brown hair. “She’s carryin’ his baby.”
“I can’t believe it!” Ben was astounded; he’d though the couple were happy enough together. “How long has this been going on?”
“‘Bout six months,” Andy said with a heavy sigh, “told me she were visitin’ poor sick old Ma. Peters and all the time she were with this…this…” Words failed him as tears sprang once more to his eyes.
“She’s sure the baby’s his?” Ben queried softly. “Couldn’t it be yours?”
“I cain’t father no more kids,” Andy confided with a touch of embarrassment. “You ‘member ‘bout eight years back…when Larry done got the mumps?”
“I sure do,” Ben told him fervently. Larry Johnson hadn’t been the only child who had suffered with the illness. Both Hoss, then aged nine, and three year old Little Joe had also contracted the disease and it had meant two weeks of caring for fractious, miserable boys for Ben and Marie.
“Well I got it as well,” Andy said, not quite meeting his friend’s eyes. “Sorta swelled up in other places, if you know what I mean,” he glanced down and Ben grimaced in understanding. “After that, we tried to have another baby and when nuthin’ happened Doc said the mumps had made me infer…infert…”
“Infertile,” Ben supplied the word and Andy nodded.
“I see,” Ben stared into the fire for a while, lost in thought. “Has Mary told you who the man is?” he asked eventually.
“Steve Wilson,” Andy stated flatly. “You know him, Ben. Big shot in town, owns that real grand house out on the Carson City road. Got servants and all.”
“I know him,” Ben affirmed. Steve Wilson was a bit of an enigma in Virginia City. A tall, dark haired, good-looking man, he’d arrived from San Francisco some ten months previously and seemed to be independently wealthy. He’d purchased the house Andy had mentioned and moved in, but he didn’t seem to work and didn’t mix a lot with the townsfolk. “He’s a fair bit younger than Mary, isn’t he?”
“‘Bout seven or eight years,” Andy gave a bitter little laugh as he said it. “I think Mary’s flattered that a younger man finds her attractive. I just ain’t good enough any more, Ben. I’m too old, too fat, losin’ my hair and not too wealthy either. Wilson’s what she wants now.”
“I’m sure there’s more to it than your weight and your looks,” Ben protested. “I can’t believe Mary would be that shallow.”
“Oh, she is,” Andy shut his eyes as tears threatened again. “Cain’t seem to stop cryin’,” he apologised, dabbing at the moisture with his fingertips. “Ain’t shed a tear since I was a young ‘un and now I cain’t stop.”
Waving the apology aside, Ben felt in his pocket for a handkerchief, which he handed to the distraught man. “What does Mary intend doing?” he asked sombrely.
“She’s gonna live with him,” Andy scrubbed at his eyes before offering the handkerchief back.
“Keep it,” Ben said, and watched as Andy screwed the cloth into a tight ball between his hands. “Isn’t Mary worried about the scandal that this will cause?”
“Don’t reckon she is,” Andy said miserably. “Says she loves him and that she’ll do anythin’ to be with him. I even offered to stand by her, bring the baby up as my own, but she turned me down flat.”
“And the children?” Ben asked softly. “Tish and Larry. What happens to them?”
“They’ll stay with Mary, of course. I can’t take them away from her.”
“You could, you know, the law will be on your side in this.”
“Yep, I know,” Andy’s mouth twisted in despair. “But how could I do that to them? They love their Ma and, anyway, everyone knows that men ain’t meant to bring up young ‘uns. I don’t mean you, Ben,” he added hastily, seeing Ben frown at his words. “You done a fine job with your boys, though it ain’t as if you had any choice.”
“I did as it happens,” Ben informed him quietly. “Adam’s grandfather, Captain Stoddard, offered to help me arrange for him to be brought up by a couple he knew in Boston and one of the women in the wagon train wanted to take Hoss after Inger was killed.” He smiled softly, thinking about his two eldest sons. “I’m so glad I never accepted either offer.”
“Thing is,” Andy continued, as Ben fell silent. “I cain’t stay here. I’ve decided to leave, go back east.”
“Back east?” Ben looked at his friend in surprise. “Leave Tish and Larry completely?”
“I cain’t face seein’ them all with Steve Wilson,” Andy confessed unhappily. “I just cain’t do it, Ben. I cain’t bear to see Mary growin’ heavy with his child. Loving him when I still love her,” he lowered his head into his hands, shoulders shaking as he sobbed quietly. “It’s too hard.”
“Hard on you, I agree,” Ben said sympathetically. “But think of your children. How will they feel? They’ll have to deal with all the upheaval, the scandal. They don’t deserve to lose their father as well.”
“They’ll have Wilson,” Andy responded quickly. “Best if they start out as a new family. Forget all about me.”
“No!” Ben protested. “They’re your children, Andy. How can you even think of abandoning them?”
“I have to.” Getting heavily to his feet, Andy held out his hand. “I just came to say goodbye, Ben, and thanks for bein’ such a good friend over the years.”
Standing up, Ben grasped the man’s hand. “I wish you’d take a little more time and think this over,” he said, as Andy shook hands and turned towards the door. “I really do think you’re making a mistake.”
“Mr. Johnson?” the nervous young voice caught both men by surprise and they looked round to see Joe at the top of the stairs. “Can I talk to you?”
“Joseph!” Ben frowned at his youngest in annoyance. “Have you been eavesdropping on our conversation?”
Joe nodded guiltily. “I’m sorry, Pa.” he apologised, doing his best to sound penitent. “I know I shouldn’t have and I guess you’re probably gonna punish me for it, but I really need to speak to Mr. Johnson.”
“Well you’re right in that I will be punishing you,” Ben told him sternly. “And as for talking to Mr. Johnson, that’s up to him,” he looked over at Andy. “What do you think?”
“Sure you can speak to me, Little Joe,” Andy smiled up at the boy. “What’s the problem?”
Coming slowly downstairs, Joe went to stand beside his father, looking over at Andy. “Are you really going away?” he asked softly. “Really leaving Larry and Tish?”
“You have to understand that I don’t want to,” Andy explained, sitting back down on the arm of the couch. “You’re a little too young to understand…”
“I might be too young to understand why Mrs. Johnson wants to live with Mr. Wilson,” Joe interrupted, drawing a warning glance from Ben. “But I do know how the twins will feel.”
“They’ll be upset, I know,” Andy began. “But they need their moth…”
“They need you both!” Joe jumped in quickly. “Larry and Tish, they’re always telling me about you Mr. Johnson. What a great Pa you are, how much fun they have with you. They really love you.”
“I know that,” Andy’s eyes filled with tears once more at the child’s words. “But I just cain’t…”
“Please, Mr. Johnson,” Joe begged, tears in his own eyes now. “I lost my Mama, so I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. My Mama died, she didn’t have the choice of staying with me but you can choose. You can stay with your kids if you want.”
“Joe, I don’t really think you can compare Mr. Johnson leaving with your Mama dying,” Ben put a hand on his son’s shoulder and gave the boy a comforting pat. “Larry and Tish will still have a Pa.”
“It is the same,” Joe insisted looking from his father to Andy. “Fact is for the twins it’ll be worse. Least I know my Mama didn’t want to leave me, can’t come back and see me. Larry and Tish might not see their Pa again and they’ll know it was his choice to go.”
“I love my kids, Little Joe,” Andy said angrily, standing up again. “I didn’t want this to happen…”
“The twins didn’t ask for this to happen either,” Joe said quietly. “They love their Ma and they love you. They don’t want to lose either of you.”
“I think Joe’s right,” Ben put in, smiling down at his son. “If you leave them now I don’t think you’ll ever forgive yourself. It’ll be hard seeing them with Steve, seeing the new baby, but I think it’ll be harder never seeing your children again.”
“I guess…” Andy looked down at the floor, then up at Ben. “Perhaps you’re right, perhaps I’m deciding this too quickly. Guess I should take a while, see how things go.”
“I think that’s a pretty good idea,” Ben told him. “And just remember, Andy, you’ve got friends in Virginia City and here on the Ponderosa. If you need to talk, need any help, I’m always here.”
“Thanks, Ben,” Andy managed a watery smile as he reached for his hat and put it on. “I ain’t sayin’ I’ll stay but I will give it some more thought, and some more time and I think…” he looked down at Joe. “I’ll have a talk with the twins and see how they feel.”
“I hope you reach the decision that’s right for you and for them,” Ben told him, leaving Joe’s side and going to show his friend to the door. “Let me know what happens.”
“I will,” Andy assured him, shaking hands again before leaving.
“You gonna punish me now, Pa?” Joe asked with trepidation as Ben closed the door behind Andy. “I am sorry, honest.”
“I think we might let the punishment be doing that homework you were sent to do.” Ben told him with a twinkle in his dark brown eyes. “What you did was wrong, Joseph, but I think you may just have got through to Mr. Johnson where I couldn’t.”
“You think he’ll stay?” Joe sat down on the edge of the table, relieved to be let off so lightly. “I sure hope so.”
“I don’t know, son,” Ben came to sit beside Joe, putting his arm around the boy in a hug. “But if he does I think you’ll have had a lot to do with it. Now get along and do that homework.”
As Joe headed upstairs Ben watched him go, hoping that Andy would stay in town to watch his children grow and that Tish and Larry would always know their father.
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