Summary: Little Joe’s hopes to leave school are dashed by Adam’s interference. Then the arrival of a tyrannical substitute schoolmaster’s brings trouble for the children and takes Little Joe’s relationship with his family to breaking point. But will something far darker in the man prove even more dangerous for Little Joe?
Word Count – 20,868 Rating MA – For adult themes. Child punishment, cruelty and spanking.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, 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.
A big thank you to my amazing Beta, Pat.
SCHOOLMASTER – PART I
Scanning the road in front, Ben narrowed his eyes against the driving rain. Terrified of missing Little Joe, their search was painfully slow. He prayed the boy had stayed on the road he’d cut through the Ponderosa and hadn’t taken off cross-country.
A gloved hand wiped the icy rain out of his eyes. Ben fought the panic rising in his chest. The idea of Joe wet through in this freezing weather tore at him from the inside.
His heart almost stopped when he heard. “Look, Pa, Red!”
Hiding out in the barn, Hoss avoided the current tempest raging inside the house.
For the past week, his younger brother had been arguing his right to leave school. Little Joe had finished eighth grade and wanted to work on the ranch full-time. Hoss sympathized. He’d left school at eighth grade, as did most kids. But his pa was set on Little Joe having the chance to follow older brother to college.
Hoss paused his raking to scrub his nose. Little Joe hadn’t taken the decision well. To say he was mad, didn’t do it justice. The stubborn little cuss hadn’t given in. Neither had Pa, thanks to Adam.
Older brother’s attitude to their brother since returning from college two years ago was something Hoss couldn’t always understand. He’d honed the knack of aggravating the kid and seemed set on riding him. Speak of the devil.
“Yeah, thought I’d leave them to it. Didn’t seem to be helping any.”
“Oh, got that, did ya?”
Adam gave his middle brother a hard look. Hoss had never been one for sarcasm. “Meaning?”
Hoss leaned on his rake, returning the look. “Well, it ain’t like you haven’t been stirring the pot.”
“If you mean, I happen to think younger brother could benefit from more schooling and I agree with Pa? Then yes, I’ve been stirring the pot.”
Hoss thrust out his chin. “What is it with you an’ Lil’l Joe anyway?” You don’t seem to wanna give him room to do nuthin’.”
“Room to be stubborn, disrespectful, and behave like a brat, you mean.”
“Aww c’mon Adam, he’s justa kid.”
“Exactly, he’s just a kid, but he thinks he knows it all and can abandon his schooling!” Hauling in a breath, he calmed himself. Why did he let Joe’s stubbornness get to him?
Not just stubborn, either. Coming home to a rude and argumentative eleven-year-old, Adam concluded the boy had been disastrously overindulged.
During a childhood spent traveling West he’d had to fight for an education. Joe’s wish to throw his away genuinely offended him. Determined Little Joe wouldn’t get his way he’d given their father his opinion; his strong opinion.
“You have to understand, schooling’s a privilege. Little Joe shouldn’t dismiss it.”
“So ifin’ you’d not been at college when I’d left school, would ya have said the same fer me?”
“I might, though I know it was different for you.”
“Coz I ain’t as smart?”
“No, of course not,” Adam replied, appalled Hoss could think that. “It was difficult for you because you were so grown up.”
Hoss’ easy grin broke out, “Yer mean, coz I was so big?”
“Well, you have to admit, there aren’t many bigger,” Adam joked to his six-foot-four, two-hundred and fifty pound sibling.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Looking out of the barn door, he asked, “D’ya think it’s safe to go back in yet?”
“Joseph Francis Cartwright,” stormed Ben Cartwright, at the end of his tether, “you will be attending school when it starts on Monday, and I will not hear another word about it! Is that clear, or do we have to continue this discussion upstairs in your room?”
Joe looked up and scowled. His father towered over him. Six foot, broad and muscular he could be an intimidating presence. But right now, Joe was mad and his temper more than made up for any lack of size.
Exasperation couldn’t stop the ache in Ben’s heart as the resemblance between fuming son and mother became more acute. Marie had had a temper, and he could see her now in those flaming green eyes. She’d also been unpredictable, and he wondered what his son would do?
Joe couldn’t believe the unfairness of it. He hated school just like Hoss. Why did he have to stay when Hoss hadn’t? Pa would’ve let me. If it weren’t for, I’m so smart Adam, stickin’ his nose in. It just ain’t fair! But he knew he’d lost, and he wasn’t about to invite a paddling.
Drawing himself up to his full height, he mustered his dignity. “All right, Pa.”
Ben watched as his son stalked regally up the stairs flinching at the slamming of his bedroom door. Ben shook his head. Why couldn’t the boy see this was in his best interest? He hoped that was the end of it.
The whole family suffered over the remaining days with Joe maintaining what he saw as dignified silence and everyone else as sulking. By Monday, a sigh of relief was drawn when he left for school.
The small building that sat on the edge of Eagle Station settlement served as both schoolhouse and church.
The citizens of this growing community had ambitions to build a town. Along with the schoolhouse, they boasted a mercantile, saloon, stables, and recently their pride and joy; a sheriff’s office.
The school provided the education for the children of the settlement, surrounding farms and ranches. Most walked to school, with a few, like Joe, riding. Joe considered himself fortunate, the walk for some at almost four miles took as long as his ride.
The schoolmarm in charge was Miss Abigail Jones. A young woman of indeterminate age and romantic nature. She brooked no nonsense from her classroom and could be ruthless with the dunce cap and her most dangerous weapon – letters home to parents.
Settling his horse for the day Joe was joined by Mitch, his best friend.
Mitch didn’t need to see the dejected look on his friends face to know his plans had failed. His being there was enough. “Howdy, Little Joe, couldn’t get yer Pa to change his mind then?”
“Nope, Pa’s stubborn as ever, thanks to Adam.”
Mitch didn’t miss the bitterness in the last remark and snorted. Things had been rough for his friend since Adam’s return. He was mightily glad Adam wasn’t his brother. He had a knack of making Mitch feel dumb.
Dropping a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder, he told him, “Don’t mind it too much, you’ve still got us.”
Little Joe sighed, he was grateful to Mitch, but it was hard to set aside his dream.
That year, he’d not only taken part in the four-week long fall roundup but, for the first time joined his family in the cattle drive to Sacramento. Working side by side with them as an equal had been fantastic. He’d believed it to be a landmark moment, proving to his Pa and brothers (especially Adam) that he was a man and worthy of their respect. The day after his fourteenth birthday he’d asked to start work on the ranch full time. Ben’s refusal had come as a shock and profoundly wounded Joe. He couldn’t help but see it as proof he still wasn’t considered grown up.
Tough as the blow had been Joe’s mood improved catching up with Mitch and his friends Jake, Sara and Seth. Unwittingly, the schoolmarm added balm to Joe’s wounded ego by telling the four older children they were expected to help teach the younger ones. Cheered by this extra responsibility, Joe vowed to assist as much as possible.
Winter term began in November. Near the end of that month, an emergency meeting of the School Board was called. Consisting of prominent members of the community, it managed all aspects of the school. They had to discuss Miss Jones’s request for three weeks absence before Christmas so she and her mother could visit her sister, who was about to have her baby. Could they get a replacement, or should they close the school?
Mercantile owner Amos Franks had the answer. He knew of a substitute teacher working in Genoa. He offered to carry the invitation of placement on his imminent business trip. Relieved at this simple solution, everyone agreed.
When he returned and confirmed the offers acceptance, Amos was enthusiastic about the man, “Azariah Jenkins is his name. I’m told he maintains a disciplined class and gets results.”
Grateful that the school would stay open, Ben let the last comment wash over him. Something he would come to regret.
At nine o’clock prompt, all the children were seated awaiting the arrival of the substitute schoolmaster. Joe nudged Mitch and winked at the muffled snickers coming from the younger boys. He suspected they’d prepared the traditional prank to be played on the hapless teacher.
Heads were turned, eyes fixed expectantly on the door.
Joe’s mouth dried when he appeared. Just shy of six feet, the man looked all sinew and bone as if he’d never had a decent meal. A stern countenance wasn’t softened by thinning, dark hair, slicked firmly down. The long face was dominated by a large, thin nose atop mirthless lips. But it was the cold eyes that sunk Joe’s hopes and told him this man couldn’t take a joke.
“My name is Mr. Jenkins. I will be your schoolmaster while Miss Jones is away.” He picked up the chalk to write his name on the blackboard. Having been soaked in water, it disintegrated into a squishy mess in his hand.
Not even a flicker of amusement crossed the teacher’s face as the ripple of giggles went around the room. The class collapsed into silence. Their little joke hadn’t been shared.
He drew a pristine handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his fingers with fastidious care. “Who is responsible for this?”
One small boy stood.
“J… Joey S… Simmons Sir,”
“Come here, Simmons.”
The quivering seven-year-old moved to stand in front of the teacher.
Joe was dismayed when the schoolmaster fetched a long thin cane. Miss Jones had never resorted to a paddle, let alone a cane.
“I will not tolerate dishonesty, sloth, tardiness, disrespect, or time wasting. Break my rules and you will be punished. Hold out your hand.”
The pathetic boy obeyed. Four sharp smacks were delivered to the palm.
The schoolmaster’s thin lips compressed to a slit. “Not an auspicious start. Let us begin again with the Lord’s Prayer. That will remind you of the Godliness you should be seeking.”
After prayer, the children watched in bemusement as Mr. Jenkins drew a line on the floor in front of his desk. “When I call your name, bring your reader and ‘toe the line’, where I will hear you. I will start with the Abecedarians and proceed through the grades.”
Joe’s hands tightened around his book. He hated how each child was ruthlessly picked apart for every slight mistake and mispronunciation. Miss Jones had them stand next to her, so corrections could be quietly made. This man seemed to revel in the act.
By the time reading and penmanship were over, they were dreading arithmetic. Each child sank into their seat. They hoped they wouldn’t be called to cipher the problems chalked on the board.
Relief rippled around the room when lunch was at last called. Fetching their pails, they moved back to their desks.
A bark from the schoolmaster froze them to the spot. “What are you doing? Meals are eaten outside.”
Startled, Joe looked out the window. The day was bright but bitterly cold, the ground iron hard. He cleared his throat, “Mr. Jenkins Sir, we normally eat inside in the winter.”
“Nonsense, fresh air is good for the soul. If you can take your amusement outside, you can eat there.”
The children reluctantly put on their coats.
His voice rang with pride as Joey told them, “It really hurt, but I didn’t cry.”
Mitch and Joe were dousing his hand from the outside water bucket.
Pleased to see the icy liquid diminish the red welts, Joe grinned. “You were a real brave boy.”
Watching Joey join his friends, Mitch commented, “Harsh, weren’t it?”
Joe chewed his bottom lip. If he were Hoss, he was sure his scalp would be itching. It always did when big brother sensed trouble and Joe sensed it now.
The afternoon brought disappointment for Joe and his friends. When asked if he wished them to help with the lower grades, Mr. Jenkins snapped, “I have no need for assistance from my students. You will do best to put your efforts into your own studies.”
It was a depressed class that filed out at the end of the day.
Saddling their horses, Mitch pulled a face, “Gonna be a long three weeks with frosty, misery drawers in charge.”
Joe laughed, but it was a half-hearted affair; Mitch was right.
Bursting through sending the door crashing back he found his pa seated at his desk.
Wincing, Ben looked up from his correspondence. “How was Mr. Jenkins’ first day?”
“I don’t like him, he’s real strict an’… ” He was interrupted by a snort from behind.
“Makes a change for you children to get a bit of discipline. Much as I admire Miss Jones’s teaching abilities, I sometimes think she’s a bit soft.”
Unaware that Adam was present, Joe scowled. Annoyed at his interruption, the devil in Joe prompted the retort, “She ain’t soft an’ she sure admires you.”
The stiffening of his brother’s features alerted Joe to the danger he was in. Scooting closer to his pa’s desk he continued, “It ain’t that though Pa…”
Ignoring his younger son’s unfortunate comment and its effect on his eldest, Ben interrupted, “Isn’t Little Joe, isn’t, I’m sure it’s only because it’s his first day that Mr. Jenkins was strict. He’s probably just a bit nervous. Once he settles in, it’ll be fine. Give the man a chance.”
Joe considered his pa’s words. Mr. Jenkins hadn’t seemed the nervous type, but Joe had a big heart and accepted the argument.
“Yeah, I expect you’re right.” Turning, he took a wide berth of Adam and thudded up the stairs to put his books away before starting his chores.
“Honestly, Pa, his cheek gets worse.”
Ben hid a smile responding slyly, “Well, Miss Jones does admire you.”
Seething at this reference to the family joke over the schoolmarm’s obvious crush on him, Adam rolled his eyes and left the room.
The following day Mr. Jenkins was already in the schoolroom when Joe and his friends arrived.
Before class commenced, the children had school chores to complete. The older children chopped and brought in firewood before lighting the pot-belly stove. The younger ones filled the water buckets and swept the floor. The presence of the censorious schoolmaster quashed the usual lighthearted chatter.
Prayer over Mr. Jenkins rose. “After assessing you all yesterday, I will be making changes to the grades.”
The children were stunned. How could he change what Miss Jones had assigned? Surprise turned to trepidation when he began calling names.
As a one-room school taking children from five to sixteen, they were arranged by grades. At the front were the younger children learning their ABC’s moving back to the eighth graders and above.
Disgust filled Joe at the obvious pleasure Jenkins took in the children’s mortification. Everyone he moved went down a level.
Then he called Tom Wilkin’s name. Tom was eleven and big like Hoss. Unlike Hoss, Tom was what people called ‘slow’. Joe liked Tom. He was kind as well as large, like his favorite older brother. He was also incredibly embarrassed by his slowness. Miss Jones recognized this and let him sit with the fifth graders while giving his lower grade work. Joe held his breath. Where would the schoolmaster move him?
“Wilkins you will move to second grade.”
Joe gasped and watched the deep crimson stain suffuse the boy’s neck and face as he moved his place. His big frame looked ridiculous next to the little children. Joe could see Tom knew it. Fires of indignation began to burn deep in Joe’s eyes.
Huddled together trying to eat with frozen fingers, Joe repeated, “I’ll talk to him.”
“Ya can’t. He won’t like it.”
“We can’t let Tom sit there. I’ll just tell him why Miss Jones sat him where she did. He’ll understand once I explain.”
Joe saw the doubt in his friends’ eyes, but he was determined to speak up for Tom. Joe had seen the boy wiping away tears and heard him muttering about leaving.
Adamant, he assured them, “I’ll be fine.”
All eyes were on Joe, standing at the front of the class.
“I explained my rules yesterday. Cartwright has been insolent and is being punished. This is an example to you all.”
Arms outstretched, Joe held a piece of string in each hand. Two large and heavy books hung from the ends. After ten minutes his arms had begun their hideous aching, that had been twenty minutes ago. What had gone wrong?
Entering the empty classroom, he’d politely asked permission to speak. Respectfully he explained about Tom and why Miss Jones had sat him with the older children. He told the teacher how bad Tom was feeling and finished his plea asking Mr. Jenkins to reconsider his decision; the whole time imploring with eyes as well as words.
Seeing the teacher’s smile, Joe let go the breath he’d been holding and relaxed. Mr. Jenkins had understood. Then he looked into those eyes.
A face pinched with anger turned on him. “So, you thought you’d come in here and tell me my job? Presumptuous little pup. How dare you be so insolent!”
“No Sir, I didn’t mean…”
“You will be punished for such insolence.”
It was the longest hour of Joe’s life. He bit down hard on his lip fighting to keep his arms up; sweat running down his back. Reaching the point where he couldn’t take much more a repressed groan slipped out. The relief when he was told to stop was overwhelming.
Pain convulsed in waves up and down his arms. Instructed to complete the afternoons’ assignment and told he would be kept behind if he didn’t finish, Joe gritted his teeth and got stuck in. But with only thirty minutes left, by schools’ end, he was still working.
Left alone in the empty schoolroom, the presence of the schoolmaster standing directly behind him raised the hairs on the back of Joe’s neck. Doing his best not to be intimidated, he ploughed on until he finished. Long bony fingers reached over his shoulder and picked up the paper. Joe dared hardly breath as Jenkins read.
“You may go Cartwright. I expect there to be no repeat of today.”
Prudently keeping his eyes lowered, Joe replied, “Yes, Sir.”
Even kicking Red into a gallop didn’t stop Joe being late. Clattering into the yard, he hastily took care of his horse and began his chores; hampered by still aching arms. He did his best, but supper was on the table by the time he’d washed up.
Sliding into his seat, he mumbled, “Sorry I’m late, Pa.”
Any hopes there would no questions died.
Question one. “Why are you late?”
“Sorry, Pa, chores took longer than usual.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. Thanks to his arms, it was true.
“And, you were late back too,” Adam revealed.
Joe shot his brother a look of burning resentment. Trust Adam to have seen him and told.
Question two held a slight edge. “Really, why was that?”
Joe swallowed, replying in a small voice, “I got kept after school.”
Adams’ eyebrows rose in surprise. He’d assumed Joe had been messing about with his friends. He didn’t need Hoss’ look of reproach to tell him he should have kept his mouth shut.
Question three teetered on trouble. “Why were you kept behind?”
Joe swallowed harder. Keeping his head down, he confessed in an even smaller voice, “I, erm, didn’t manage to finish the afternoon’s assignment. I had to stay ‘till I did.”
“I hope you weren’t being lazy.”
“No Sir, I was tryin’ hard, really.”
“Hmm.” Joe didn’t have to look up to know his father’s dark eyes were boring into him. He could feel them scorching the top of his head “All right, but don’t be late again.”
Interrogation over, Joe’s resentment at Adam and wariness to escape further recriminations kept him silent throughout supper. Asked to be excused he gratefully scurried away.
After he’d gone, Ben grumbled, “I thought we’d gotten past this nonsense with school.”
Adam shrugged. “I expect he’s just flexing his muscles with the new schoolmaster,”
“What! He’d better not be giving the man any trouble?”
Hoss jumped in. “ ‘Course not, Pa, Lil’l Joe wouldn’t do that.”
For the second time, Adam received a reproachful look from Hoss.
Joe’s eyes flicked around the schoolroom. It was awful how the school had changed. This was only the schoolmaster’s third day. Yet a sense of fear hung over the room. Every child silent and on edge. Why would any teacher think this a good thing? The wild stories they’d heard about schools where brutal punishments went on didn’t seem so far-fetched now. Who’d have thought they’d all be yearning for the return of Miss Jones?
All morning Joe watched Jenkins take pleasure in wielding his cane. The helpless looks on his friend’s faces, reflecting his. There was nothing they could do. By arithmetic, he was desperate to stop the man’s cruelty. Called up to cipher a problem an idea occurred that sent a shiver through him. Could he do it?
Taking a deep breath, he gave and kept giving the wrong answer to the problems. Each stroke from the cane harder than the one before, giving away Jenkins’ growing anger. Joe could see the pulse throbbing in the man’s neck.
He fixed Joe with a glare. “What is ten minus two?”
The tension in the room was electric. The teacher’s eyes dared him to get the easy question wrong. Joe recognized the challenge. Taking hold of his courage, he replied, “Six, Sir.”
Pointing to his hand, Jenkins hissed, “Turn it over.”
Joe flipped his hand and received four strokes across his knuckles. A sharp breath escaped him; that really hurt.
“Now I’m warning you, boy, don’t test me.”
The classroom hung silent, riveted on the battle before them. Joe held the man’s gaze; hot green meeting ice grey.
“What is ten minus two?”
The hand holding the cane shook from anger. Swallowing hard Joe knew the next strokes would be the hardest yet. He wasn’t wrong. Teeth clenched to suppress his cry.
The question wasn’t repeated. Instead, Jenkins dismissed the others for lunch. Joe waited for the retribution to fall.
He was taken by surprise when the teacher sat at his desk and asked mildly, “Would you care to explain yourself? You obviously knew the answer. Why did you pretend to be ignorant?”
Thrown entirely off-balance Joe muttered defiantly, “I…I didn’t want you caning the other children.”
Under the man’s penetrating gaze, Joe shifted on his feet, suddenly unsure of himself.
“You don’t like the way I teach, is that it?”
His certainty wilted, but Joe struggled on. “It isn’t right to cane the little ones.”
“But you agree I do have that right?”
Joe’s innate honesty couldn’t let him deny it. Taking a resigned breath, he answered, “Yes, Sir.”
“Good, now Cartwright, if you were schoolmaster and a pupil undermined you as you did, what would you do?”
Swallowing hard, the reality of his actions hit Joe. Pa had taught him that his elders, and especially his teacher must be respected. He’d abused that in the worse possible way, which meant only one thing. His heart sank to his boots. “I’d punish him, Sir.”
“Then we are agreed.” Jenkins smiled. “Fetch me your lunch pail.”
It shocked Joe seeing his lunch dumped in the bin. Brought up to regard wasting food as wrong he had to force down his outrage.
When the heavy books were fetched, he groaned. But resigned himself to punishment.
Head hung low, Joe held out the note.
The rest of the day had been spent in unmitigated misery and ended with having to write lines on the board. Dismissing him, Mr. Jenkins handed him the dreaded note. Now he was late, tired, hurting and Pa would be madder than a hornet. To make it worse, he deserved it.
Ben’s anxiety over Joe’s whereabouts only heightened his anger as he read the carefully worded note.
Coming in, Hoss and Adam stopped short at the scene before them. Sensing trouble, they took off their coats and gun belts in silence.
“Is this true? You undermined and disrespected Mr. Jenkins?”
Feeling ashamed, Joe swallowed over the lump in his throat, “Yes, Sir.”
The note vibrated in Ben’s hand as he waved it in front of him. “Yes, Sir? Yes Sir? Did I bring you up to be insolent to a teacher?”
Joe jumped at the ferocity of the words. Stunned, he could only mumble, “I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Get your chores done. We’ll discuss this later.”
Joe fled up the stairs knowing what that meant.
Adam had never seen his father this angry with Joe, asked, “What is it?”
“Your younger brother has undermined the teacher in front of the whole class.”
Hoss frowned, perplexed, “Don’t sound like Lil’l Joe?”
Ben pointed to the stairs insisting, “You just heard him admit it.”
“Yeah, but Pa, he wouldn’t do that fer no reason.”
“Do you think it’s because he wants to leave school again?”
Ben fixed his eldest with a hard stare. He’d thought that trouble was over and done with. The idea it might be starting again infuriated him. “If it is, I’ll make sure he knows he won’t succeed with tactics like this.” Screwing up the note, he flung it into the fire before marching to the kitchen to ask Hop Sign to put supper back.
“Sure is mad,” Hoss reflected, worried for his younger brother. “Hope he calms down afore he has that necessary talk with Lil’l Joe.”
Adam sat down in his favorite chair and picked up the paper. He had little sympathy for his younger brother under the circumstances. Shrugging, he commented, “Sometimes I think little brother could benefit from a taste of Pa when he’s really mad. He’s been spoilt for too long.”
The hissing noise coming from Hoss caused Adam to look over his shoulder. Standing on the stair was Little Joe, who’d obviously heard every word.
“Oh Lord,” Adam murmured, as Joe ran out of the house. “Well I didn’t mean for him to hear, but it mightn’t be such a bad thing.”
He saw Hoss didn’t agree. Adam dug in, damned if he was going to apologize for telling the truth.
Joe hit the barn at a run stung by Adam’s words. He still had to face that necessary talk. There was nothing for it except to tell Pa everything. He quaked at his likely response.
Tantalizing smells from the kitchen reached his nostrils. All other concerns forgotten under his growing need for food, he pushed his groaning muscles to work faster. Finally finished he raced back to the house.
Dismay hit him when Ben got up saying, “Let’s go have that talk.”
Before he could stop himself, he blurted, “On, no, Pa! Can’t I eat…” he broke off seeing his face. I’ve done it again!
This additional piece of impertinence flamed Ben’s anger anew. Pointing the way with a rigid finger, he instructed, “Upstairs!”
Joe paced his room. Panic tightened his chest as he tried to prepare the explanation he would have to give. What he hadn’t prepared for was his father’s fury. Entering the room, Ben marched over and immediately put Joe over his knee and spanked him.
Setting his son on his feet, he told him, “I never want to receive a letter like that again. Teachers must be respected. You have five minutes to wash up, then come down to supper.”
He looked back as he opened the door. The boy wasn’t crying, but something on his face gave him pause.
For the first time in his life, Ben had broken his own rules. Punishing the boy while he was angry. Not hearing his son’s side of the story or having the necessary talk, so he understood why he was being punished. He almost went back – almost. He shook off his misgiving and closed the door.
Frozen to the spot, Joe’s world crashed around him. The man he loved and trusted most in the world, who was his rock and moral compass hadn’t asked for his explanation, hadn’t given him a chance to explain, hadn’t wanted to talk to him. It frightened him.
Joe had begun the next day intending to make up for his behavior. He quickly realized the schoolmaster had no such resolution.
Joe endured another morning of unrelenting punishment and no lunch. With repugnance, he watched the man inflict his increasing unpleasantness on the gloom-ridden class. But whatever morsel of remorse remained within him evaporated when little Katie Brown began struggling with her history recitation.
Joe’s heart went out to the little girl when she started to cry.
The schoolmaster loomed over the trembling child. “Tears are a wicked way to avoid work. Stop them at once or be punished.” Grabbing her wrist, he held out her hand. “Cease your disgraceful show of emotion when I count to three.”
When he reached ‘two’ the last of Joe’s resolve snapped. Springing out of his seat, he begged, “STOP! Can’t you see you’re scaring her?”
He didn’t need to hear the gasp, “Joe!” from Sara to know what he’d done, but it was too late to back down.
“What did you say?”
“Can’t you see you’re scaring her?”
“How dare you interrupt me, boy. You will apologize at once!”
“She can’t help cryin’ when she’s being frightened like that. If you wanna punish someone, punish me! Just leave her alone.”
“Are you refusing to apologize?”
Joe gritted his teeth. “Yes, Sir!”
Now there was no going back.
At the sight of the smug schoolmaster sitting in his home, his plan to tell Pa everything fractured.
His defiance swiftly brought painful but drawn out retribution ending in being made to stay behind and clean the classroom. He’d been overwhelmingly relieved when Mr. Jenkins hadn’t remained. Now he knew why.
He watched Pa stand, the rigid set of his jaw and shoulders telling him how mad he was.
“Mr. Jenkins tells me you were insolent today and refused to apologize. You will now.”
It wasn’t too late. If he could get his side across maybe Pa would understand. Rushing into speech, he implored, “Pa, whatever he told you…”
“Joseph, I don’t want to hear anything but an apology.”
“Pa, you’ve gotta listen!”
“No, I don’t! You will do as I bid you.”
“I won’t! I won’t say sorry – not to him!”
“How dare you! Go to your room!”
The wave of fury that rolled off his father seared him. It took all his courage to walk and not bolt up the stairs. At the top, he plastered himself against the wall out of sight and listened.
He couldn’t believe Pa hadn’t let him explain. The gloating face of the teacher had goaded him into his refusal and his legs shook at the memory of his defiance. But he had to know. Would Pa believe the lies Jenkins told?
“I’m sorry Mr. Jenkins, I don’t know what’s come over the boy. He didn’t want to return to school this year, but I thought he’d gotten over that.”
Azariah Jenkins’ agile, vindictive mind latched onto this confession. “Well, that would explain it. The constant disruption, culminating in today’s incident.”
Ben slumped down in his chair, hands clasped tight between his knees. He couldn’t understand all that the teacher had told him or Joe’s behavior. Yes, he’d been reluctant to go back to school, but the boy had turned all that around. Miss Jones had told him how hard Joe was working and how much help he’d been with the younger children. He spread his hands to the teacher. “But he’d settled down. Miss Jones was so pleased with him.”
“Ahh, I’m sure Joseph was loathed to behave in such a way toward her. But to me, a stranger, much easier, don’t you think? Until he got his wish to be expelled.”
“Expelled! You can’t mean… ?”
“No Mr. Cartwright, I don’t plan on letting him get his way. I’m sure I can turn him back to the right path. Can I rely on you to support whatever actions I deem necessary?”
Grateful for the teacher’s perseverance Ben offered him his hand, saying the fatal words, “Of course, I’m sure anything you decide will be appropriate. I’ll talk to Joseph.”
“Thank you. However, I trust a suitable punishment will also be in order?”
“Rest assured on that. Thank you, Mr. Jenkins, and I’m sorry you had to make the trip out here, especially in this weather.”
Joe stumbled to his room. Pa had believed the lies.
When his pa finally appeared the look on his face set Joe’s heart pounding. Any hopes of being heard blighted as the short, sharp punishment was immediately dealt out.
“You will apologize tomorrow.”
Joe fought his quivering lip. “No, I won’t.”
“I will not have a teacher disrespected. Do I need to punish you again?”
Betrayal and hurt battered Joe. All he’d done was protect a little girl, and no one cared. With shattering clarity, he realized Pa was wrong. At that moment he made an immense decision. He didn’t need and wasn’t going to ask for Pa’s help. He’d take on Jenkins by himself.
Ben watched his son. Watched the strange look that settled in his eyes. He didn’t understand it, but it sent a cold shiver through his heart.
“Yes, Sir, you will. You can punish me every day, but I’ve made my decision and I ain’t changin’ my mind. I’m fourteen, an’ old enough to take responsibility for it.”
Ben’s hand tightened on the doorknob. The boy before him was almost a stranger, but he was right. If Little Joe refused to budge, he couldn’t keep spanking him. He had no choice but let him have his way and take the consequences. “All right, but you’ve bitterly disappointed me. I’m ashamed of you.”
The devastating words burned his resentment deeper. The child in him whispered, When Pa finds out the truth, he’ll be sorry. The thought slithered into his mind. What if he isn’t? It terrified him more than anything endured so far, but he’d fixed his path, and he wasn’t straying from it.
“One thing’s fer sure he don’t like you, Little Joe.”
Mitch gave the grinning Seth a shove. “This ain’t funny. He’s really got it in for Joe. Did you tell your Pa?”
Joe turned away as he pulled off his saddle. The events of the last evening too raw in his mind to talk about he replied gruffly, “No, I didn’t, and I ain’t gonna.”
Mitch frowned as his friend marched passed him into the schoolroom. What was that all about?
“Children I have news. Since Cartwright has volunteered, he will be punished for all of your errors.”
Glancing up, Joe caught the satisfied smirk on the schoolmaster’s face. Jutting out his chin, he looked away. Fine, if that’s the game he wants to play.
“Meanwhile Cartwright you will be writing lines, ‘I will not sin’, using this pencil.”
Joe dropped the pencil at the stab of pain. Frowning, he rubbed the speck of blood bubbling on his finger. Looking closely, he recoiled at the razor-sharp pieces of glass pushed into the pencil’s length.
The schoolteacher hissed in his ear, “When you’re ready to apologize, return the pencil to me.”
Mitch whispered, “You can’t, Little Joe. It’ll cut your hands to pieces.”
Mitch groaned at the mulish look that descended on his friend. He knew it only too well. Picking up the pencil, Joe began to write.
Jenkins held out the note between two long fingers. “Care to apologize now?”
Curling a lip, Joe shook his head.
He watched Pa read the teacher’s missive. He didn’t care what was in it. He knew it was a lie and that’s all that mattered. Any faith in his father asking him about it had long since died. Even if Pa asked, I ain’t telling. He’d taken on this fight, and he would see it through.
Tapping the edge of the note on his desk, Ben studied Joe. To hear he’d cut himself showing off with his pocket knife baffled him. Hadn’t I taught him better than that?
“Get Hop Sing to take care of your hand before you do your chores. We can’t risk infection.”
Ben let his chin drop to rest on folded hands. Every day Joe’s behavior seemed to be getting worse. He was drifting away. How could that happen in less than a week?
It galled him beyond belief to have the schoolmaster come to his home and tell him how disruptive his son was being. Listening to the man’s thinly veiled hints that Ben’s lack of discipline was at the root of it, made it even worse. Little Joe had always been headstrong and spirited, he knew that. That’s what made Joe, Joe. But Ben believed he’d tempered that by installing good manners and respect for others in him; or so he thought. Was it possible he’d failed there after all? To see Little Joe being lazy, argumentative, disrespectful and downright disobedient was a shock and now he’d added childish showing off and stupidity to that list.
Why was he doing this? Surely, he must know that leaving school wasn’t going to happen? He would never allow Joe to be expelled. The very thought was repugnant.
Ben tightened his hands under his chin. Doubt coursed through him. Was he being unfair? Were things really that bad? Had he been too hard on Little Joe after all? Perhaps he needed to ease up a bit? If he could just get through to him.
His father was so lost in thought he wasn’t aware of him. Seeing the creased brow and eyes dark with worry, tightened Adam’s chest with annoyance. It wasn’t hard to guess the cause. Didn’t Pa have enough to deal with, without Joe’s foolishness?
“You, all right?”
Broken out of his abstraction, Ben looked up. “Yes, I’m fine, thanks.”
Ben sighed and handed his eldest the note.
Adam’s annoyance grew at this new piece of idiocy. He cut a look up from the note at his father. What he saw there made him determined to help. Pa was always there for him, maybe he could return the favor? “I could talk to him?”
Ben brightened. Maybe Adam could get through to Little Joe? Their turbulent relationship over the past two years forgotten as he recalled how Joe always looked up to his oldest brother. “Would you?”
It pained him to hear the gratitude in his father’s voice. “Sure, Pa, I’ll go speak to him now.”
Seeking out Hop Sing as instructed, Joe found him in the middle of his big pre-Christmas stores check. Hop Sing hated distraction during this job. Joe got his hand cleaned, rebandaged and then shooed out of the kitchen. Poor Joe didn’t even have time to wheedle a biscuit.
Adam found him raking straw. As he leaned against a post and watched his awkward efforts, no sympathy stirred within him. Joe’d brought the difficulties on himself.
Adam got straight to the point. “I want to talk to you about what’s going on.”
Unaware of his presence, Joe started and inwardly groaned. This was the last thing he needed. “Leave it Adam, ain’t none of your business.”
“If it affects the family, it is my business. Do you know how much this is upsetting Pa?”
Little Joe hunched a shoulder and turned his back on his brother. How could Adam say that? Of course, he did, but nobody cared whether he was hurting?
Adam’s lips pursed as his anger rose. His brother was infuriating. “Look, this business of you wanting to leave school. I thought we were past all that?”
“Leave school, what’re you talkin’ about? I don’t wanna leave school.”
“If you don’t, what’s this stupidity all about?”
Stung, Joe muttered, “It ain’t stupid.”
Hooked under his arm, Joe found himself hitched against his brother’s muscular body. Adam didn’t show his feelings often, but when roused a look took root in his eyes which warned everyone to watch out. That look was there now. Joe swallowed, and his eyes flared in alarm, but he refused to be scared.
“Don’t you sass me boy or I’ll put over my knee. You’re a Cartwright, and it’s time you started acting like one and not like the spoilt brat you are.” Giving Joe a dismissive push Adam adding with finality, “Understood?”
Turning, he began to walk away.
With suppressed deliberation, Joe released the rake. He’d had enough of older brother! Poking his nose in, bossing him, treating him like a child. Red mist descended and all his pent-up emotions centered on one person.
As he turned Joe’s fist connected with his jaw. Taken by surprise, Adam lurched back. His heel catching a hay bale sent him to the ground with a thud!
Joe sailed over the bale to land on Adam. Battered from above, Adam was soon livid. The punches weren’t hard or accurate, but they smart. Adam knew he could do real damage if he hit Little Joe but take this he wouldn’t!
Grabbing Joe’s arms, he tossed him like a sack of flour. Joe hit the ground, rolled, jumped up and headed back, fists still flying. Just before he reached Adam, a pair of strong but gentle arms caught Joe from behind.
“Whoa there Lil’ l Joe, that’s enough.”
“Let me go, Hoss! I’m gonna pummel him!”
“You quiet now, ya here. You ain’t pummeling nobody.”
Unable to reach Adam with his fists, Joe kicked out at him. Adam dodged back to avoid Joe’s flying feet and flung up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Dagnabbit Lil’ l Joe. You stop that now. You can’t fight Adam.”
Almost weeping from hysteria and unable to vent his infuriation physically Joe let rip verbally. “I don’t care! I hate him!”
Hoss held tight as Joe went limp, unsure he would stay on his feet if he let go.
Ben’s glared at his youngest. He hardly believed such words could pass one of his son’s lips. Any doubts on being too hard on Joe were crushed under the weight of them.
Horrified at doing the unforgivable Joe’s chin wobbled as he murmured, “I’m sorry Adam, Pa, I didn’t mean it.”
Adam’s eyes were on his brother. Shocked as he was, he had to admit he might’ve pushed Joe into the outburst. Keen to deflect some of the blame, he told Ben, “It’s partly my fault, I lost my temper too.”
“I didn’t hear you say you hate your brother.”
“I really didn’t mean it.”
“I should hope not. Get your chores done and go to your room. I don’t want to see you for the rest of the evening.”
Joe slumped even more. He knew what that meant, no supper. He managed to mumble, “Yes, sir.”
Dumping dishes on the table Hop Sing complained, “Lil’ l Joe growing boy. He need eat!”
Sympathizing with anyone going hungry, Hoss added, “Yeah Pa, he can’t go on not havin’ supper.”
Ben hated to punish his son this way. Everyone worked hard, and good food was essential. But he was running out of ideas and patience.
“What choice do I have? Besides, he still has breakfast and lunch. Missing a few meals won’t hurt him.”
Hoss wasn’t convinced. Missing supper was bad enough, but he’d never seen his little brother looking so forlorn. The nineteen-year-old took a breath and voiced his concerns. “Pa, I don’t know about all this. This jest ain’t like Little Joe. He’s not a bad kid and what this teacher’s been saying jest don’t sit right.”
“Joseph admitted he’d been disrespectful.”
“Yeah, but Pa he looks so unhappy.”
“It’s his decision not to apologize. He says he can take responsibility for that and he will.”
Recognizing the finality in his father’s voice and getting no support from Adam, Hoss fell silent.
Hop Sing dropped the dish of potatoes in front of Ben and growled, “Growing boy need every meal.”
Looking up, he found his cook still there glaring at him.
“I said no supper, and I mean, no supper.”
A string of Chinese erupted as the angry cook returned to the kitchen. Ben hunched a shoulder and tried to ignore him.
Brow crinkled, Doc Martin watched the children outside the schoolhouse. It was noon break, but instead of playing the children were sitting around huddled in groups.
The good doctor was troubled. Called out to Katie Brown that morning he’d found nothing wrong with the little girl until he suggested she could go to school. Her reaction startled him. Becoming hysterical she’d vomited. The day before he’d seen Mrs. Wilkins and she’d told him Tom had refused to go to school. He hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but…
He decided to talk to Ben about his qualms when he called on him later to discuss the boarding of Mr. Jenkins. It had been arranged for him to stay with the Iverson’s the following week, but Ira had fallen and broken a couple of ribs. Now Nancy didn’t feel able to offer a bed. He was being boarded with the Franks that week. They wondered if the Cartwrights would take him. He’d talk to Ben about the school then. Eyeing the storm clouds, the doctor shook-up his horse keen to get moving before the rain hit.
The schoolhouse had become a place of dread. Terrified of the schoolmaster who pervaded over it, constantly on edge, fearful and anxious not to do anything that would bring down the teacher’s retribution on Little Joe, the children all sat morbidly silent in their seats.
Jenkins was pleased, the silence blissful. His father had taught him a silent child was a sinless one. Sin could not be allowed to grow and fester. Every Godfearing man’s duty should be to drive it out using any means necessary.
His father had purged the evil from him. He proudly carried on that calling and would do the same with these children, especially the evil child. When he looked at Joe, the fires of salvation burned hot within him. Wickedness pervaded beneath the boy’s angelic mask, and he longed to rip it out.
Jenkins’ turned to the window. All morning, dark clouds had been rolling down from the mountains. They now released their burdens. The rain pounding at the panes. Closing his eyes, Jenkins listened to the drops striking the glass. Cleansing, God-given rain. He eyes shot open. Smiling, he sent up his prayer. Thank you, Lord, for showing me the way.
“You will continue your punishment outside Cartwright. Your sin will be washed away by our Lord’s purifying rain.”
“You want me to stand outside?” Joe repeated, unsure he’d even heard the teacher right.
“Yes, I will leave the door open, so I can see you.”
A murmur of discontent ran through the class. The day was freezing and leaving the door open would make the whole room cold.
Placing down the heavy books he’d been holding Joe went to get his coat. The next words spun him around in alarm.
“Without your coat.”
“You can’t do that! He’ll freeze out there!”
“Silence! Sit down or do you wish me to punish Cartwright for your impudence first.”
Having leapt from his seat, Mitch stood, torn as to what to do. The idea of letting this happen appalled him. He looked at his friend for guidance. Seeing the clear signal Joe gave him, reluctantly he sat back down. For Mitch, it was the last straw. He’d had enough of this brute. He would talk to his pa, something had to be done.
Lashed by tiny knives, the rain-drenched Joe within minutes. Imagining Hop Sings expression at his soaking clothes, giggles escaped between chattering teeth. His abused muscles ached again, the uncontrolled shivering jarring at them.
Everything was numb. The heat from the stove made no impact on the shuddering, sagging figure forced to toe the line again in the empty schoolroom. Water dripped from hair and clothes leaving dark circles on the wood floor. As the man in front preached and ranted, Joe’s head bobbed. He wondered if the words that poured forth would ever stop. Finally, they did, and Joe was released.
His brain took a minute to realize that he could go. He dragged on his coat. Frozen fingers fumbled over the buttons until he gave up. What did it matter when his clothes were wet anyway? Pulling on scarf and hat, he went back out into the bitter air.
Behind, the schoolmaster smiled. The boy had been quiet and respectful throughout his sermon. The most attentive he’d been. Pleased at his day’s work, he gathered up his belongings to head back to his lodgings.
Arriving back, Ben ran straight into Hop Sing. Before he’d even taken off his rain slicker, the Chinaman pounced.
“Mr. Cartwright, I need talk about Little Joe. Hop Sing very worried.”
Sent to him again that morning to have his hand redressed Hop Sing had taken a good look at it.
“What this?” he’d demanded. “What you do?” Clucking in his throat as he’d turned the hand, aghast at the cuts on one side and the welts on the other.
“I’m gonna be late, Hop Sing, please, just bandage it,”
“No. Need show this to father.”
“I can’t! Pa’s already gone an’ I’m late. Please, Hop Sing.”
In all Joe’s young life, Hop Sing had never been proof against the boy’s begging, and that morning was no exception. Grumbling under his breath, he’d cleaned the hand and put on a fresh bandage.
“Show this to father when you come home,” he’d told the boy’s back as Joe raced out the door.
No fool, Hop Sing guessed there was more to this than met the eye and decided to talk to Mr. Cartwright about it himself.
The last thing Ben wanted was to hear about more trouble with his youngest son. At least not without a cup of coffee first. He reluctantly asked, “What’s he done now?”
“Boy not done anything, he not home yet. I want talk about hand.”
They were interrupted by a knock at the door. Hop Sing making no move to answer it, Ben went himself.
“Paul, come in, good to see you. Join me in a cup of coffee?”
Ben turned expectantly to his cook. Glowering back at him, Hop Sing stood his ground.
After a moment, Ben prompted, “Could we have some coffee Hop Sing?”
The frown deepened on Hop Sing’s face torn between his sense of duty and need to talk to Ben. Duty won, reluctantly he went to the kitchen muttering under his breath.
Amused, Paul asked, “Problem?”
“Oh, something about Little Joe,” Ben told his friend, as he showed him to a chair.
“Actually, Ben, the school’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Oh, is something wrong?”
Warming his hands at the roaring fire, Paul considered the question. “That’s just it, Ben, I’m not sure.” Paul scratched his nose, mulling over what to say, how to explain his disquiet. “It’s just that some things have happened, that have me wondering.”
The door opened. Ben and Paul watched as Adam and Hoss rushed in.
“That dadburned rain’s more like ice. It cuts right through ya.”
They listened as Ben asked Paul to continue, “What’s worrying you about the school?”
“Well, I might just be being foolish but…”
Drawn by his obvious concern, all three were now giving Paul their full attention.
“I got called to Katie Brown’s house this morning. Ben, I couldn’t find a darn thing wrong with that child until I mentioned going back to school. Now that little girl loves school, but she got so upset at the idea she threw up. Then there’s Tom Wilkins, I saw his ma yesterday. He’s left school altogether.”
“What’re you getting at Paul?”
Paul ran his hand down his chin. “The children weren’t playing.” Seeing the trio of puzzled faces, he explained, “When I watched them outside at break no one, not one child, was running or playing.”
That sixth sense that warned Ben of trouble began to scratch. Was there more to what was happening with Little Joe than he realized?
“Where is Joe?”
Catching Adam’s eyes, Ben saw he was thinking the same. “He’s not home yet.”
All eyes went to the clock.
“Dadburnit Pa, it’s pitch-black an’ freezin’ out there. That darn teacher ain’t got no business keeping anyone back in weather like this.”
Bring in the coffee tray Hop Sing saw his moment. “And there is Little Joe’s hand, it cut up bad. How’d he do that?”
Worry crept into Ben’s voice as he explained, “He was playing with his knife, showing off.”
Hop Sing shook a vehement head. “That not right. Many, many little cuts, not big cut from knife.”
Ben’s gut began to tie itself in knots, and the sixth sense was hammering. His mind made up to look for Little Joe, another knock sounded. This time Hop Sing answered the door.
Jack Devlin, Mitch’s father, rushed in asking urgently, “Ben is Little Joe home?”
A premonition of doom clutched his heart at the expression of the man’s face.
“I think he may be in trouble. Mitch came home today and told me what’s been goin’ on at school. That so-called teacher has been caning them kids.” Pulling off his hat, he’d stepped toward Ben. “But Ben, Mitch tells me he’s got it in for Little Joe. He had him standing outside in the rain.” Jack broke off and swallowed, dismayed at what he had to tell this father. “Mitch says he was out there for half an hour before school ended – without a coat.”
Paul was at his shoulder. “We have to find him, Ben. In this weather, soaked through, hypothermia could easily set in.”
Ben stared at his friend. He had to force his mind to think, force himself to breathe. He knew only too well the dangers of getting wet in these conditions. They had to move quickly.
“Hoss, go saddle both our horses.”
“I’m coming too.”
“No, Adam, I need you to stay in case he makes it home. Let’s get some blankets. We’ll put them in Paul’s buggy.”
Paul turned to Hop Sing. “Boil plenty of water for hot water bottles and put on some broth. We’ll need to warm him inside, as well as out.”
Nodding the little cook dashed off. Left alone, Paul and Jake Devlin looked bleakly at each other.
“What kind of man does that to kids, Doc?”
Paul shook his head, bewildered. “I don’t know. Not a good one, I know that much.”
Ben and Adam reappearing with the blankets the men bundled on their coats.
Unbearable cold imprisoned his consciousness. Deadened fingers and numbed legs failed to give his horse guidance, and he sagged further in his saddle. Beneath him, Red plodded along, instinct drawing him back to his warm stable.
When he slipped from his saddle and hit the ground, he barely felt it. Face lying in the icy mud, he welcomed the dark that sucked him down. Unaware the cold was taking him inexorably toward death.
Scanning the road in front Ben narrowed his eyes against the driving rain. Terrified of missing Little Joe their search was painfully slow. He prayed the boy had stayed on the road he’d cut through the Ponderosa and hadn’t taken off cross-country.
A gloved hand wiped the icy rain out of his eyes. Ben fought the panic rising in his chest. The idea of Joe wet through in this freezing weather tore at him from the inside.
His heart almost stopped when he heard. “Look Pa, Red!”
He let the warmth from the great fire flood his body, sucking in its heat like a sponge.
Socks hung from the mantle, ready for St Nicholas to fill. Sudden doubt and confusion swept him. It wasn’t Christmas yet, was it?
That familiar swishing sound drew his attention. He saw the golden hair and warm eyes, but why was everything else fuzzy? Her embrace wrapped him in her scent. He adored how Mama smelt, like spring flowers, even in winter. Soft lips brushed his forehead. The beautiful voice swelled his heart with joy. “I love you so much, my little one.”
“I love you too.” When her outline began to fade, he started to panic. “Wait, where are you going? You can’t leave me, Mama?” Desperation flooded his voice, “Come back, don’t leave me!” She was gone, and Joe found himself alone and desolate, surrounded only by blackness and cold pulling him down.
Hoss threw himself off Chubb. Heart in his throat, he scanned the ground begging, Please, let Red have done what I’d trained him to do; stay close to Little Joe. He cried out as he spotted him. “Pa!”
Running to join him, Ben dropped to one knee and yanked off a glove to put a hand on Little Joe’s chest. He was ice cold.
“Pa, is he?”
Ben heard the fear in Hoss’ question. His voice shook as he answered, “He’s breathing, though barely.”
Having climbed down from his buggy, Paul joined them. After feeling Joe’s pulse, he told them grimly, “As I feared, hypothermia. Wrap him in the blankets. We need to move fast if we’re going to save him.”
His friend’s words knifed his heart. Save him? Dear Lord, how can I face losing him?
Bundled up in every blanket they’d brought, Joe was loaded into the back of the buggy.
Encircling him within sturdy arms, Ben clutched his youngest. It scared him that he couldn’t feel Joe breathing through the mass of blankets. How could he lose his boy? Wasn’t it enough to have his mother taken from him? He pulled Joe tighter still, letting his closeness quiet his pounding heart. Ben bent his head over Joe’s and sent up a silent prayer for strength; for his son to survive, and for him to accept His will.
Reaching home, Adam came running. Taking the bundle in his strong arms, he carried him inside. He looked down at the face peeking through the blankets. Joe’s grey skin and blue-tinged lips sent fear racing up his spine.
Paul stayed downstairs just long enough to ask Hop Sing to bring up the hot water bottles, while Ben and Hoss followed on Adam’s heels to Joe’s room.
They wasted no time stripping the unconscious boy of his soaking, frozen clothes and began to dry him off. Anxiety taking over Ben started to rub vigorously. Paul stopped him. “Gently, Ben, we have to warm him up slowly.”
Once Paul was satisfied Joe was thoroughly dry, and they’d put enough warmth back into his skin, they got him into his nightshirt and into bed. The stone water bottles Hop Sing had brought up were handed to Paul, who lay them down Joe’s torso, between a blanket and his skin.
Once all the water bottles were in place and Joe securely bundled in more blankets, Paul turned his attention to Joe’s hand. Removing the existing bandage, he drew a breath. “You say you were told this was a knife wound?” He shook his head in response to Ben’s nod. “Hop Sing’s right, this wasn’t caused by a knife.”
Lifting it, Ben saw Joe’s lacerated hand.
Adam’s hand tightened on the bedpost. “It wasn’t a knife. Jenkins made Little Joe use a pencil spiked with sharpened pieces of glass.”
Blue eyes, hot with anger rested on the ravaged, raw hand. “What kinda man is this teacher anyways, to do that?”
Ben’s hands knotted into fists. “Some kind of sadist.”
Paul grimaced at the welts and cut knuckles. “Look at this. This definitely looks like the work of a cane.”
Ben’s eyes burned at the sight of this new insult to his son’s body.
“This was inflicted over several days, and the caning was sustained.”
Horrified, Ben gently took Joe’s hand from the doctor. His throat constricted at the sight of the small, red, jagged cuts and inflamed lines. How could I have let this happen?
“Jake told me everything. So, I think I can explain. Joe interfered when Jenkins went to cane Katie Brown. That’s what he wouldn’t apologize for.”
Adam paused. He recognized the sick look on his father’s face. He’d felt the same way when he’d heard the truth.
“From then on, he was caned for any mistakes the other children made.”
“Dear Lord.” Ben turned to Joe, lying cocooned in the blankets.
His mind slipped back to the day Little Joe was born, and he was handed that remarkable, tiny bundle wrapped in a blanket. Clearly, he saw the small waving hand that had taken tight hold of his finger and his heart. He’d made the same promise that day he’d made all his children. To protect him and keep him safe. How I’ve failed him.
“It’s not your fault, Pa, you couldn’t have known.”
Resting gentle fingers on Joe’s head he shook his head at Adam, his voice heavy with remorse, “I’m his father. It’s my job to know. I just didn’t give him a chance to tell me.”
Paul, still cleaning Joe’s hand, looked up. “We need to ensure that man isn’t allowed near the children again. Why would he think this acceptable?”
Ben grunted in agreement, but his words to the schoolmaster came back to haunt him with a sickening jolt; guilt piled on guilt.
A moan from the bed brought his attention back to Joe.
“Little Joe?” He stroked two fingers down Joe’s cheek, now pink and flushed. “Joe, can you hear me? It’s Pa, time to wake up.”
Joe stirred, and his eyelashes fluttered. “Mama?” he mumbled, “Don’t go, don’t leave me.”
Stricken eyes flashed to Adam and Hoss.
“He’s going to be a little confused at first,” Paul reassured them seeing the looks on their faces.
Joe hadn’t called for his mother in years. It was always he Joe called for now. Had he broken his son’s trust in him? Ben nodded at Paul’s words tamping down his fear and went back to calling for Joe to wake up and was finally rewarded.
Joe quavered, “Pa?”
“I’m here, you’re gonna be all right.”
“I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry I disappointed you… let you down.”
Ben took his son’s face between his hands. “No, Joe, I’m sorry. I know the truth now, and I was wrong. You haven’t disappointed me. I let you down.”
Tears of exhaustion welled and fell. “I’m real tired, Pa.”
“Keep him awake, Ben, we need to get something warm inside him,” Paul instructed firmly. “Can someone go down and ask Hop Sing for the broth?”
Shaken to the bone, Hoss was only too grateful for something to do and gladly nipped out the door.
“You have to stay awake, Little Joe. Don’t go to sleep, y’hear me?”
Long lashes fluttered closed. “Sleepy.”
Ben gave Joe’s chin a shake. “No, Son, stay awake. C’ mon for Pa, wake up now.”
Lashes fluttering open again, the eyes beneath were large and fearful. “It is time to get up? I don’t wanna, Pa. I don’t wanna go to school. Don’t make me Pa, he hurts me.”
The hand that brushed his face shook. Tears shone in Ben’s eyes. “Don’t worry son, Mr. Jenkins will never hurt you again. I promise.”
Adam went to the window. The sight and sound of his little brother almost unmanned him. How, could this have happened? He remembered how Little Joe used to follow him, telling him everything. If he’d been a better brother since his return from college, maybe he would’ve felt able to confide in him about this? It was a bitter pill for Adam to swallow. Clearing his throat of emotion, he went back to the bed.
The door opened, and Hop Sing and Hoss returned. Hop Sing carried a bowl in his hands, which he handed to Ben.
“Just right, Lil’ l Joe can drink this up.”
Adam lifted Joe so Hoss could place another pillow behind him. Propped up to drink comfortably, Ben offered him the broth.
“Drink this, it’s good, warm broth. C’ mon now,” he urged, as Joe turned his head away, “drink it up for Pa.”
“Don’t… wanna… tired.”
“Joseph, wake up and drink this for Pa.” Becoming alarmed as seeing Joe’s head begin to loll, Ben said sharply, “Joseph, wake up!”
Years of obeying that tone did the trick. Opening his eyes, he muttered querulously, “All right.”
Ben put the bowl to Joe’s lips. The broth felt warm in Joe’s mouth, the soft silkiness slipped easily down his throat. His stomach welcomed the liquid for heat and sustenance. Realizing he was hungry, having eaten nothing since that morning, he began to gulp the broth down.
Concerned that he would make himself sick, Ben removed the bowl. “Slow down, Son. Take it easy, not so fast now.”
“No,” Joe complained. His eyes sought Ben’s, as he begged, “Don’t throw it away, please Pa, I’m hungry. Don’t throw it away, let me have it, please?”
The bowl stilled, suspended in his hands, as Ben stared at Joe, bewildered.
Shocked, Hoss asked, “What’s he talking about Pa? You ain’t never throwed food away?”
“I don’t know.” Ben gave the bowl back to Joe, who began drinking again. Gently he removed it, letting Joe have another break, before allowing him to finish.
Replete, Joe sighed and leaned back on the pillows.
“Little Joe, who threw food away?”
“Mr. Jenkins, my lunch.”
“That son of a … “
“Hoss!” Ben interrupted. He didn’t care for bad language in his house, but he couldn’t blame him. He felt the same way.
Stroking Joe’s mud matted hair, he murmured, “No wonder he’s hungry.” With no supper either, Ben thought bitterly. Lashing himself for his own cruelty and stupidity.
Joe stirred and continued to talk, unaware the effect his words were having. “I fooled him today though, ate some… on the way to school… coz, I was so… hungry.”
Tears returned to Ben’s eyes. Adam and Hoss turned their backs. Adam went back to the window, while Hoss leaned on the base of the bed, his head lowered.
“My poor boy,” Ben whispered. If regrets were boulders, he’d be buried under a ton of them.
Paul, tucking Joe’s hand back under the blanket, checked his pulse, chest, and temperature. Finally, he looked satisfied. “I think we can let him rest now. Let’s all go downstairs and talk.”
“But I… “
“Ben, Little Joe’s not going to miss you for ten minutes.”
Briefly looking at the swaddled face in the blankets and seeing him sleeping, Ben gave in.
Paul considered his old friend over his coffee cup. Ben looked weighed down, and not just with worry, something else was going on.
“We were lucky,” he told them all bracingly, “we caught Little Joe in time. We need to keep him warm and drinking, but he should be all right. He’ll be extremely lethargic for the next few days, don’t be concerned at that. Our biggest worry is pneumonia. We’ll need to watch for any signs of that.” Three strained faces looked back at him. “Now, what are we gonna do about that so-called teacher?”
“Jake told me he’s gonna ride in early tomorrow, before church, and see Amos, the Reverend and the Sheriff. They’ll hold him until this can be looked into.”
Ben grunted and put down his cup. “Paul, I can’t thank you enough for this. I’m going back up to Little Joe now.”
Watching him go, Paul commented, “He’s taking this hard.”
Adam nodded, but it was Hoss who answered him. The fury he felt at the schoolmaster reverberating in his voice, “Pa blames hisself. That man came to our home an’ told him a pack of lies. That Lil’ l Joe were behavin’ badly.” Hoss tightened his hands over his knees and shook his head. “Pa was real mad at Lil’l Joe an’ punished him. An’ it were all lies.”
Adam could see the pain in those crystal blue eyes. “We didn’t know that.”
Hoss jumped up and began to pace, his frustration ripping at him, “Aww Adam, we should’ve. We should’ve known that it weren’t like Lil’l Joe.”
“As I recall, you told us that. I’m the one who failed him. I had a chance to let him tell me, and I let my temper get in the way.” His eyes travelled to the stairs, thinking of the two people in the bedroom. “If I feel bad, just think how Pa must be feeling.”
Ben, caressed his son’s cheek. His skin felt much warmer now. The blue tinge gone from his lips, leaving them pink again. The vision of Little Joe lying on the road in the mud came back, making him shudder. He raised his head and sent up a prayer of thanks for his deliverance.
Eyes resting of that beloved face, he murmured, “I’m so sorry. Why didn’t I give you a chance? I was so wrong. I hope you can forgive me?”
No reply came from the sleeping figure. Keeping a hand resting on Joe’s arm, Ben settled in for his vigil.
Azariah Jenkins could see Amos and his wife talking with another animated man and the Parson.
Skulking at his window, he’d positioned himself so he could see them, but they couldn’t see him. Mary Amos, glancing up with a horrified expression on her face, was unaware they were being watched.
The schoolmaster had an acute sense for trouble. He knew how blind parents were to the wickedness of their children. The way they objected to his methods. The questions that were asked when a boy went missing. He was good at moving on. He’d had to do it a lot.
He saw the three men walk off in the direction of the sheriff’s office and took the hint. Gathering his things with practiced speed, he left.
By the time the others returned, the room was empty, and Jenkins’ horse had gone from the stables. He was nowhere to be found.
Apart from being woken to drink some broth and water, Joe slept late into the next day. When he did open his eyes, it was to see his father reading by his bed. What was Pa doing there? In fact, he couldn’t understand what he was doing in bed. He’d just left school, hadn’t he? Puzzled, he turned his head to look at the window. The black clouds had gone, the sky blue and clear.
Joe turned to find chocolate brown eyes smiling at him.
“I don’t understand. What happened?”
“Don’t you remember?”
Joe thought for a moment. “I remember leaving school.”
“You were wet and cold. You collapsed on the way home.”
“I did?” Joe queried, mild surprise in his voice. His eyes flicked to the window again. “Time to get up.”
Ben put a hand on his arm. “You stay put. You won’t be going anywhere for a few days.”
Feebly trying to push back the blankets, Joe fretted, “No, Pa, I can’t. It’s important, I have to get to school.”
Catching his hands, Ben stopped him. “It’s all right. For one thing, it’s Sunday, and for another, no one will be going to school tomorrow. Mr. Jenkins is being removed as Schoolmaster.”
“Yes, removed, no teacher has a right to behave as he did.”
Incredulity swathed Joe’s face. Ben flushed, uneasily aware his own words would have fueled Joe’s belief in the man’s right to bully and torture.
His hands wrapped tightly around Joe’s. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t give you a chance to talk and tell me what was happening. Can you forgive me?”
Joe felt those steady, strong hands. How he’d missed them, the warmth, love and security of them. Remorse and shame swept over him. What a fool he’d been. Prideful and stubborn, choosing to fight Jenkins by himself. How could he ever have believed Pa wouldn’t have helped him?
Joe desperately wanted to pour out these thoughts. Let Pa know he’d been wrong, but exhausted and weak, his emotions, raw and close to the surface wouldn’t allow him to get the words out. Tear swimming in his eyes, he only managed, “Oh Pa, I’m sorry.”
“I told you, you’ve nothing to be sorry about. It’s my fault.” He reached down and lifted Joe’s injured hand. “I would have objected to the caning, but this, this… torture! If I could go back and undo what I did, I would.”
Mesmerized, Joe gazed into his father’s eyes. Pa had only looked so sad once before. The emotions he was finding hard to control, rose up. He averted his face, not wanting his father to see.
Two gentle hands brought his face back ‘round. “Don’t you ever feel you can’t show your feelings. Especially to me. I’m proud of you son. Proud of how you stood up to that man and protected the other children.”
Tears spilled over as the face crumpled. He let his son’s head rest on his chest. Kissing the top of it, he told him, “I love you, Joseph.”
** End of Part I **
SCHOOLMASTER – PART II
“What do you mean, he’s gone?”
The sheriff looked Ben in the eye. “By the time I got to his room, he’d skedaddled.”
Ben slammed a fist into the palm of the other. “How did this happen?”
Amos turned his hat in his hands. An angry Ben Cartwright wasn’t someone he cared to rile further. “We don’t know Ben. He must’ve realized something was up.”
Both men received a look that if it could kill, they’d be ordering their pine boxes.
The sheriff went on, “I carried out a search of the area but couldn’t find no sign of him. I’ve sent messengers out to the neighboring towns letting them know to watch out, ain’t nothin’ more I can do right now.”
Amos chipped in, “As head of the School Board I’ve also written to the Education Board letting them know what’s happened. I’ve asked them to withdraw Mr. Jenkins teaching certificate and send out the necessary notifications.”
Hoss muttered something, which only ‘shut,’ ‘door’ and ‘bolted’ could be made out.
Ben rolled his eyes at him but said nothing. He was felt frustrated too. “I’m prepared to sign a complaint, can a warrant be issued?”
“That’s jest fine, Ben. You make out a complaint, I’ll happily write up a warrant.”
“What’s happenin’ ‘bout school?”
Pleased to give some good news, Amos told Hoss, “All the children were sent home this morning. We’ve let everyone know that school will be closed until after Christmas when Miss Jones returns. They’ll get a nice long holiday.”
“After what them poor mites have been through, that’s the least they deserve.”
Amos flushed. “We’d best be going now. I’m glad to hear Little Joe’s all right.”
Pleased to escape the intimidating presence of the three disapproving Cartwright, Amos rushed out. Sheriff Coffee, however, was not a man who let himself be intimidated.
“I’ll keep lookin’ and meantime I’ll process that warrant. We’ll get him.”
Taking the man’s hand, he regretted his previous bad temper. Roy Coffee was a good sheriff. Ben knew he would do his best. “Thanks, Roy.”
“Sure hope you catch him.”
“Me too, Hoss.”
Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs. “Little Joe back in bed. Feel better after bath. Nice and clean.”
“Good, I’ll take him up some food.”
Tray in hand, Ben walked down the hall. Then he heard the cough. Halting, he held his breath. There was another, then another. He hurried into the room.
“You okay son?”
Relieved, he found Joe’s head cool, under his hand he could feel Joe’s brow crease.
“Aww, I’m fine. I just coughed is all.”
Ben tutted as his cheeky youngster. “I’ve brought you some soup, nice and hot.”
He continued to fuss around the room while Joe ate. Seeing no reason to burden Joe, he made no mention of Jenkins.
The cough continued. Paul arrived in the afternoon to find an anxious Ben waiting for him.
“Yes, he has a cough, and there is a slight temperature, but,” Paul told him firmly, “his lungs are clear and provided we keep him warm, give him plenty of good hot food and liquids there’s no case to worry.”
Ben relaxed before his eyes. Adam and Hoss stood either side of their younger brother. Like a pair of guard dogs, Paul couldn’t help thinking.
“I need to be going.” He gave Joe a conspiratorial wink. “I’ve got other, much sicker, patients to see.”
Ben left to see the doctor out.
The little man in the bed piped up, “Told you I was fine.”
Adam and Hoss grinned at each other. The kid was so exhausted he could barely keep his eyes open. Ruffling his hair, Hoss began to tuck him in, while Adam drew the curtains.
Azariah Jenkins watched Ben and his two eldest ride away. The ranch house was vulnerable.
Even as he escaped the sheriff four days ago, he wasn’t deserting his mission. Joseph Cartwright consumed him. Of all the sinful children he’d cleansed this one appeared most in his dreams, filling him with impure, evil thoughts.
The duty burned into him since boyhood, to prevent this child from corrupting another, was clear.
Waiting until he was sure no one would be returning, he urged his horse forward and closed in on his quarry. Slipping through the silent, great room of the ranch house he headed for the bedrooms.
Joe sighed and cocked one eye open. How long had he slept since Pa checked on him after breakfast? His cheek got snuggled further down into his pillow. It didn’t matter, he wouldn’t be allowed up anyway. Hearing his door open, a smile crossed his lips. Hop Sing coming to check on him, or, maybe he was bringing him lunch? Opening one eye, he expected to see the homely face of his friend; instead, he looked into the eyes of Mr. Jenkins.
Sudden hands around his throat silenced the scream that ripped through him. Thrashing and bucking he dug fingernails deep into flesh desperately trying to break the iron grip. Frantic for a weapon an arm was flung out, sending glass and jug flying. Still, the hands continued their relentless squeezing. The truth exploded in his brain. This man was killing him! He made no sound but screamed anyway. For help, his brothers, Pa. Chest jolting as lungs spasmed in their final desperate gasp for air; a tear slipped from his eye. Blackness rushed up, engulfing him.
As soon as the boy went limp Jenkins released his grip. He waited for a tense moment, watching to see if the boy still breathed. Joe’s chest rose and fell. A thin smile stretched Jenkins’ lips. He picked the unconscious boy up. Throwing him over his shoulder, he left with his prize.
Hop Sing had finished the pie for lunch and popped it in the oven. Keen to check of Joe, he came from the kitchen into the main room just as Jenkins hit the bottom stair.
Startled, they stared at each other before Hop Sing yelled, “What you do here?”
“Don’t interfere, heathen! I must cleanse this boy of his sin. He is the Devil’s spawn!”
“He no devil spawn. He, Little Joe!” Black eyes sparking, Hop Sing launched himself at the intruder.
Jenkins flung Joe straight at Hop Sing. Grabbing a statuette he swung it with deadly force at Hop Sing’s head. Tumbling as he grabbed Joe, the cook barely had time to fling up an arm as it smashed down on him.
Jenkins gathered up Joe. Without a backward glance, he left. Behind him, Hop Sing laid unconscious, blood pooling under his head.
“I’m sure starving. Hope Hop Sing’s got somethin’…” Pitching up so abruptly that Adam walked into his back, Hoss cried, “Hop Sing!”
Seeing their cook struggling to get up, Hoss ran to him. Blood trickled down the man’s face, and he clutched his right arm.
Adam and Ben turned to each other. “Joe!”
Despite being the older man, Ben beat Adam to Joe’s room and burst through the open door only to stop dead.
Everywhere he looked devastation gave testament to the struggle that has taken place. The wrecked bed, strewn blankets, shattered glass all confirmed his worst fears. Someone had stolen his son.
Anguished eyes locked with Adam’s before they turned and raced back downstairs.
Having helped Hop Sing into a chair and grabbed a napkin to place against the head wound, Hoss looked up as his family charged back down. He froze at the looks on their faces, forcing the question out, “Lil’l Joe?”
“It was the bad man, the teacher. He took Little Joe, boy was unconscious.”
He’d known it. As soon as he saw the empty bed, Ben knew who was responsible, but it didn’t stop the sick lurch his stomach gave. “Adam saddle fresh horses, quick.”
“He’s gotta nasty club to the head, an’ I think his arm is broke.”
Ignoring Hoss’s ministration, Hop Sing told Ben, “Mr. Cartwright, that man he not right. Told me Little Joe is spawn of Devil.”
Ben grabbed the top of the chair, his knuckles white. How much worse can this get? “Hoss go send one of the hands to fetch Doc Martin and let the sheriff know. Then get Charlie in here, and Hoss, see what’s burning in the kitchen.”
“You get Little Joe back?”
“Yes, we’ll get him back.”
“So sorry that I let him take boy.”
Ben gave his friend’s good shoulder a squeeze. “He could’ve killed you.”
“Hop Sing rather be dead than miserable body alive and Little Joe gone.”
“Well, I wouldn’t! What would the boys or I do without you? I’ll get him back Hop Sing if it’s the last thing I do.”
Hop Sing looked happier, then his eyes darkened again. “Little Joe still in nightclothes. Did bad man take boy’s coat?”
Ben’s eyes shot to the coat hooks. The coat was still there! All Joe had on was his nightshirt, long johns and socks. Dear God, protect my boy.
Jenkins reined in, irritated at the boy’s shivering. If only he’d thought to bring along his coat. Reaching behind, he untied the blanket and bedroll and wrapped them around the slim figure.
Feeling the blanket, Joe sighed and leaned into the chest behind him soaking up the warmth. He struggled to regain consciousness. The pain radiating from his throat made him grimace. Wooziness swept over him. Fighting it back, he struggled to open his eyes. Why was he out in the cold?
The pain made it hard to talk, but he managed to croak, “Pa?”
“No, boy, not your father, but don’t worry, I’m here to help you.” With a sickening thud, the memory of what happened hit Joe. His body quivered. Nausea rose in his gullet as the arms around him tightened. “We’re almost there.”
Hoss hunkered down to check the ground for tracks. Blue eyes darkened as he looked at the land ahead of them. “They’re headin’ into the hills.”
Adam and Hoss heard the fear as Ben barked, “If he gets into the hard country, we might never find them. Come on, we need to close that gap!”
Panic washed over Joe as he realized they’d moved into hard country. The rocks wouldn’t leave a trail for even Hoss to follow. Just as he began to despair, the horse stopped.
In the gathering dusk of the early winter’s evening, he made out the entrance to a cave. Hauled from the saddle Joe’s numb legs crumpled. Jenkins dragged him inside the cave and tossed him against one wall. Grabbing his wrists, he roughly bound Jo’s hands before disappearing outside again.
Joe looked around. There was a small fire ready to be lit in front of him. Against the opposite wall, bags were stacked, and the back wall was taken up with a large rough cross made from branches tied together. Seeing it filled Joe with desolation.
Re-entering the cave with his saddle and saddlebags, Joe warily watched as Jenkins settled his belongings and lit the fire. Joe was at least grateful for that.
Through the cave mouth, he saw the light fading. Dread at being trapped alone with this man spread over him, and he pulled himself back into a tight ball, hoping he might be forgotten.
Hoss jerked a resigned thumb and informed them, “This is where he turned off. Can’t track them from here.”
Ben shifted, turning in his saddle. Despite making good time, the sun was dropping, and it would be dark soon. Every minute Joe spent with a man not in his right mind haunted him. They needed to find him and fast.
“We’d better split up. Give the signal shots if you find them.”
Dividing, the three men rode off into the dusk.
He should have known it was a forlorn hope, staying unnoticed. After what seemed no time at all to Joe, Jenkins swooped down and forced him onto his knees in front of the makeshift cross.
“We must pray boy. Pray together to rid the wickedness in you.”
Joe squirmed, fighting the grip on his shoulders. The fingers dug in deep as the schoolmaster recited endless prayers. Joe let them wash over him. He was tired, incredibly tired, and cold to the bone. The only thing keeping him upright was the anger that began to boil inside him. Anger at being taken from his home dragged through the cold and brought to this miserable cave to pray with this crazy man.
The cruel hand tightened its grip on his shoulder. “Pray with me boy… pray!”
His anger made Joe fearless. Twisting to face Jenkins, he rasped, “I ain’t praying with you. I’m not wicked, you are!”
“Evil child! Your evil must be cast out!”
Fury pulsed through the man, blinding him as he struck. Slapping Joe across his cheeks, first one side then the other he exulted in sending the boy’s face snapping to-and-fro.
Explosions of pain erupted as the barrage of slaps kept coming. Never had Joe experienced anything like this. Under the onslaught, the budding young man retreated replaced by the terrified child who could only beg, “Stop… please… stop!”
He froze as the words penetrated his rage. Releasing the boy, he staggered back against the wall. His face covered his hands as he slid to the floor. They were his words.
No longer in the cave, the walls transformed to the root cellar of his childhood home being beaten again as he pleaded for mercy. He was to blame, but he still begged, “Please, Papa, please stop, I didn’t mean it.”
His father’s words rang again in his ears. “You tempted me down the evil path boy, now the sin must be taken from you.”
Like the flesh from his back, his sin had been stripped from him. He’d arisen stronger and closer to God as a result. Now, like his father, he was being tempted. He knew this boy must be cleansed as he had been.
Released, Joe curled into a ball covering his head to protect his stinging face. Desperately he tried to stem the sobs that racked him. His whole being yearned for his family to come, to stop this, to take him home, for him to be safe again.
The muffled sobs from the boy dragged his mind back. Shuffling forward on his knees, he pulled Joe onto his. The red cheeks, already starting to darken accused him of his cruelty.
“I’m sorry child. I didn’t want to do that, but you pushed me to it.”
The words barely permeated the ringing in Joe’s head. Feeling the teacher’s hand upon him, Joe flinched and tried to pull away.
“Why are the most sinful the most beautiful?”
Joe tried to grasp the man’s words. He couldn’t understand them. What was beautiful?
Blinking hard to shake off his confusion and dizziness Joe’s vision cleared. The schoolmaster’s face came into focus and terror laid its firm grip on him.
The moment he and Mitch sneaked a peek into the saloon flashed back to him. Scantily dressed ladies had draped the bar. Men leered at them, a hunger in their eyes unlike anything he’d seen before – but he saw it again now. His throat constricted the sob rising in it. He was in the worst kind of trouble.
“I don’t want to hurt you, but you must see the wickedness within you.”
Jenkins’ hand brushed his face; the fingers burned Joe’s flesh. Revulsion and fear choked him, and he snapped his head back. “Don’t touch me.”
The howl that emanated from the man petrified Joe. Chilling and pitiful, it sounded barely human, and his face hit the dirt as the teacher’s arm crushed him down. It was a nightmare and Joe begged to wake up. The hard fingers pressing down his back through his nightshirt brought the bile rising to his throat. Tears he couldn’t hold back spilled from eyes squeezed shut.
He wailed at the weakness of the flesh. This evil child corrupted him just like the others, but now he’d pay the price. He ran his hand down the boy’s back. Forgiveness would come afterwards. Once he removed the source of temptation, it would be granted; as it always had before.
Joe’s life force burned hot from the moment he’d been born three weeks premature. Battered and bruised, though it was, it rekindled now and urged him into action. He had to get this man off him. Shifting to free his arms, he swung his elbow back. It slammed into Jenkins’ throat, and the schoolmaster fell back, choking.
Rolling away, Joe scrabbled for the cave entrance.
Stumbling forward, he’d trying to locate Jenkins’ horse, but the black night left him blind. The strangled bellow of his name was a hand at his back pushing him on. Heart hammering, he fled into the blackness. His only thought to distance himself from the fiend behind him.
His exhaustion soon took him from a run to a stagger. Fearful the schoolmaster might be right behind, he stopped and half-turned to check; thereby saving his life. Instead of pitching over the side of the gully, his foot slipped. The rest followed, sliding into the void.
Dismounting, Adam tied off his horse. Too dark to see, he had no desire to risk the animal breaking a leg on the loose rock. He spotted a dim light. It could be only one thing, a campfire. Stealthily he crept toward it.
The flickering light came from the entrance to a cave. Drawing nearer, he heard a word bellowed from inside, “Cartwright!”
Adam’s fists clenched. He was in the right place, about to come face to face with the bastard who tortured and kidnapped his little brother. His hands flexed in anticipation. Slipping noiselessly forward, coming ever closer to the cave entrance, another sound tore through the air. A scream, primal, terrified and young! Dear God, Joe!
Adam tore through the dark heedless of the danger until his rational mind retook control, forcing him to stop, to quieten, to listen. “Joe?”
Hearing the voice, relief washed over him, making him feel sick. Wane and frightened, sure, but it meant he was alive. “Adam?” It came again.
“I’m here, where are you, fella?” Silent thanks were sent up when the moon appeared. Adam dropped on his belly to peer over the edge of the gully. “Joe?”
“Down here… I fell.” the pitiful voice told him needlessly.
Sucking in a breath at seeing a shape clinging on precariously, Adam stretched out, managing to lay his hand over Joe’s frozen one. “I’m here, Joe, I’m here.”
Pitched high with fear Joe’s voice begged, “Don’t go, don’t leave me.”
Adam tightened his hand over the small one beneath, “I won’t, don’t worry.”
“Promise, Adam, promise?”
His heart wept to hear the desperate need in those words. “Yes, I promise. Reach up to me, buddy, and I’ll pull you out.”
The head, pressed hard against the rock wall, shook. “Can’t, hands are… tied. If I… let, go… I’ll fall.”
Adam cursed. The kid was terrified and freezing. How long could he hold on? He had to get help but was afraid the signal shots would bring Jenkins down on them first.
“Joe, Pa and Hoss are nearby. I’m gonna go get them.”
“Nooo! Don’t leave me. You promised, don’t leave me again.”
“Joe, I need help to get you out of there.” Under his hand, Adam could feel Joe’s trembling.
“Why, why do you promise not to leave, then go anyway?”
“You promised… you’d never leave after… mama died, but you… did. Now you’re… leaving me again.”
Adam sucked in a breath. All this time the boy had been storing that up? A quiver ran through Joe. Adam’s hand tightened, his fear cranking up a notch. “All right, I won’t go, I’m staying.”
Firing the three signal shots, he prayed that Pa and Hoss would arrive first. Leaning out, he laid both hands over his brothers. Joe’s convulsive shaking had him fearing for his brother’s precarious hold. For a second, Adam contemplated trying to pull him up but couldn’t take the risk; it would be a last resort.
A movement behind had him looking back, hoping to see Pa and Hoss. His stomach contracted. The figure moving toward him was neither.
“Where’s the boy? I must have him. Give him to me!”
Adam did the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. Remove his hands from Joes. His rage mounted as he faced the creature before him.
“You’re not getting anywhere near my brother,” he snarled and launched at the man.
The world had narrowed to that freezing rockface and those two strong hands covering his, anchoring him to the promise of safety, then – they were gone!
Hearing Adam shout he inched his head up and saw only vacant space. Jenkins was there and Adam was gone. A sob broke as he realized what he was hearing – a fight! Adam was fighting Mr. Jenkins.
He pressed his face harder into the rock, sucking security from it. Adam would beat him. Adam could beat anyone, couldn’t he? Doubt crept into his tired, strained, traumatized mind. Clenched tight, tears spilled from his eyes. There was no end to his ordeal. Except one, and all he had to do was let go…
Adam took Jenkins full in the chest, rolling with him to the ground. The man, lit with the fire of a fanatic, was strong. But Adam drew his strength from love, and the fierce determination to protect his younger brother.
Smashing a fist into the man face, it connected with a satisfying crunch. Breaking apart, both men jumped to their feet, circling each other. Jenkins rushed in with a screech. Adam’s punch felled him.
Ben and Hoss came running up. Waving a hand at Jenkins, he told them, “Keep him down!”
His hand flashed out to his brother’s. “JOE!”
The trembling, thankful voice floated up to him. “Adam, you’re okay.”
Adam laughed in relief. For one horrifying moment, it felt like Joe was letting go. He tightened his grip. “Yeah, fella, I’m fine. Pa and Hoss are here, we’ll have you up in a moment.”
Joe again lay in bed, swathed in blankets, lined with hot water bottles.
Together, Hoss and Adam made short work of getting Joe out of the gully. Handed to Ben, he’d collapsed into his arms.
The ride back was grim thanks to Jenkins. The continual shrieking that he must be allowed to purge Joe of his sin only ended when Ben instructed Adam to gag him. Cradling Joe in front of him, he’d felt him shudder and bury his face deeper into his chest every time Jenkins’ screeched.
They’d found Roy and Paul waiting for them. Ben was more than glad to hand Jenkins over to the waiting sheriff and put Little Joe in Paul’s experienced hands.
He tightened his hold around Joe’s arm through the blankets. Roy Coffee had already ridden off with his prisoner by the time Ben got his son to his room, which was fortunate. If he’d seen Joe’s face first, he might have killed the man.
“Dragging the boy out in his nightshirt in this weather was the worst thing that man could have done,” Paul seethed. “If it wasn’t hard enough treating patients, without monsters like Jenkins doing this! He’s definitely got a fever now, and his cough is worse.”
“What about pneumonia?”
Paul caught the apprehension and drew a breath. The shocking nature of what had occurred had shaken him into expressing uncharacteristic heat. The family didn’t need to be worried any more than necessary. He went on in a calmer tone, “Let’s take care of that fever, and then we’ll see.”
Joe’s temperature climbed. Back in his familiar role, Ben bathed his head and spoke reassuring words, but as he listened, another fear grew.
Crying out over and over, Joe’s words horrified him. “Can’t… can’t let him touch me. Pa, don’t let him touch me, please Pa, don’t let him. I can’t let me touch me, Pa!”
Ben was a man of the world. An ex-sailor, he knew of the frailties of men and the sick appetites of others. Could his innocent boy have been exposed to such iniquity? Bile burned rising in his throat as unconsciously his hand tensed around his sons. He had to know.
Morning found Joe’s fever no worse, but no better.
Bathing Joe’s neck, Hoss discovered the now visible finger imprints on Joe’s throat. “Look at this!”
Leaning over, Ben and Adam were horrified to see the virulent bruises.
“Dear God, he strangled him. That bastard straggled my little boy.”
Instinctively, the three men reached for each other. Hands rested on shoulders, gaining silent support from the physical contact.
Ben lowered his eyes to his hands, tightly clenched between his knees. They were downstairs so he could tell them what he’d heard during the night. But he was finding it hard to get the words out.
“What is it, what did Joe say?”
“He was calling out for… that man, not to touch him.”
“Dadburnit, Pa, I ain’t surprised. That man really hurt him.”
Ben eyes flashed a look at Hoss before dropping back to his hands, which clenched even tighter. “It wasn’t that kind of touching, Hoss.”
Hoss’ face scrunched in puzzlement. “Well, what kind was…? Oh, Lord!”
A realization hit Adam. “Good grief then that’s why…” Leaning forward, he told them, “I don’t believe things went that far. I’m not saying that swine didn’t try, but when I got back to Joe after leaving him, for a moment, it felt like he was letting go.”
Ben sucked in a breath, horrified.
Keen eyes fixed on his shaken father, he insisted, “The cold was affecting his thinking. I truly believe he’d never think of such a thing otherwise.”
Hoss’ eyes slipped to the stairs. Thinking of the boy laying up there covered in bruises his hands balled into fists. Hoss had never hated anyone before, but he sure did now.
To everyone’s relief, Joe’s fever broke during the early hours of the following day. Everyone took turns with Joe, although Ben insisted on taking the lion’s share as night. Used to this, Adam and Hoss didn’t argue. When Hoss took over at midnight, exhaustion was catching up, and Ben went gratefully to his bed.
When the fever broke, Hoss contemplated calling his father but decided against it. Little Joe was in natural sleep. He also reckoned Pa could do with the rest.
At five o’clock, Ben hurried into the room. He’d slept longer than he’d meant. Finding Hoss dozing in the chair he gave him a gentle shake, whispering, “Sorry son, I should have come back sooner.”
“Aww, I’m okay, Pa, fever’s broke.”
Hoss was right. The sheen of sweat that had glazed Joe’s skin was gone, and he was slumbering peacefully.
“Well, that’s good to see.” He smiled at Hoss. “Why not grab yourself some breakfast and then get some sleep.”
Hoss stretched and grinned, “Okay, I’ll make enough for everyone.”
As he stood, Joe awoke. Hearing the hushed voices, Joe shifted, sighed and fluttered open his eyes.
Ben took the just vacated chair and wrapped his hands in a comforting grasp around Joe’s. “How’re you feeling son?”
“Fine, Pa,” Joe croaked.
Hoss was immediately there with a glass of water. Joe quenched his thirst and smiled his thanks at his big brother.
“Good to see ya awake, Punkin.”
“Did I hear correctly, is our invalid awake?” All eyes turned to the door where Adam, arms crossed, leaned on the doorframe. “How’ya doing, fella?”
Little Joe managed a grin and rasped, “I’m fine, Adam.”
Amused, Adam cocked an eyebrow at his father. “Hear that? He’s fine.”
Ben chuckled and, although they didn’t need it, rearranged the blankets on Joe’s bed. “Well, he will be, with care and,“ he added, eyeballing his youngest, “lots of rest.”
Little Joe nestled down into his pillow for once content to let his family fuss around him.
“You two go get your breakfast and check on Hop Sing. I’ve no doubt he’s trying to make it, even with a broken arm. Send up a tray for Little Joe and me. I think we’ll have breakfast up here together.”
Unable to resist, Hoss ruffled his brother’s hair before leaving.
Ben hesitated to raise the subject of the schoolmaster. Little Joe looked so battered and tired. The rasp in his voice another painful reminder of the treatment he’d suffered. But Ben had to know what that monster had done.
Taking Joe’ hand between his, he asked, “Can you tell me what happened out there with Jenkins?”
Shadows cross the expressive eyes, distress, pain, reluctance. His pa’s thumb caressed the back of his hand in gentle circles. Still, he wasn’t sure he wanted to return there, to remember what happened.
Ben said nothing, waiting patiently, watching the turmoil working through his son. Finally, Joe drew a huge, shuddering breath. Making up his mind, he began. Ben kept his face passive. Underneath he raged hearing all that Jenkins had done.
When Joe reached the part where everything changed, he faltered. “He… he looked at me… different. I was so scared.”
Ben felt the knife in his gut turn. When he seemed disinclined to continue, Ben squeezed Joe’s hand and urged softly, “Go on.”
“He threw me down and t… touched me. I didn’t like it. I hit him and ran. I didn’t let him touch me, I wouldn’t have! I’d’ve died Pa before I let him do that!”
Ben pulled his son into him and held tighter than ever before. Relief overwhelmed him, but his son’s words also troubled him.
Gently he pushed the boy away and looked straight into his eyes. “You listen to me, very carefully. It wouldn’t have mattered what that man did so long as you were alive and home. Whatever might’ve happened we would’ve dealt with it, do you understand? But we couldn’t have done that if you hadn’t been alive to come back to us.” He paused, making sure Joe was taking in his words. “Your being alive is all that matters. Promise me, Little Joe, promise me, that you’ll never think of dying again. That you will always fight, fight to stay alive. Fight to come back to us, because we need you. I need you very much.”
Joe stared at his father, letting the words engulf him. “I promise.”
Snatched up and enveloped in that crushing embrace, he lay blissfully content to stay there, until something Ben said pricked his curiosity. “Pa, did you say Hop Sing’s broken his arm?”
Ben smiled into the curls.
“How is he?”
“Sleeping again.” Ben handed the tray of empty plates off to Hoss, smiling his thanks.
Adam waited until Hoss returned from the kitchen before asking, “And?”
“You were right; it didn’t get that far.”
Hoss sat down, unsure his legs could hold him. Adam’s head slumped back against his chair as he gazed at the ceiling.
Allowing his sons time to come to terms with their emotions, Ben wandered to his desk where he found an envelope. “What’s this?”
“Sheriff Coffee left it the night he arrested Jenkins. Not sure what it is. Said something about finding a pile of them at the schoolhouse and thought you’d want to see.”
He opened the envelope as he came back to the fire. Holding the six sheaves of paper, he gazed at the familiar lopsided writing. “I will not sin,” he read, his voice flat.
Running his fingers down the paper, they lingered over the rusty spots that scattered the pages.
Enraged, Hoss asked, “Is that?”
Ben nodded. “Your little brother’s blood.” With a swift motion, he tore the pages in two, then again and again until there was nothing left but tiny shreds, which he tossed into the fire. His chest heaved. “If I ever get my hands on that man, I’ll kill him.”
Adam walked soft-footed in Joe’s room. It had been two days since they’d brought him home. He’d spent those mostly asleep; his exhausted body giving into nature’s way of repairing itself. Paul assured them he was out of danger, although his cough would probably linger for a couple more weeks.
Time to deal with what had been said on the edge of that gully.
Adam had been doing a lot of thinking. Not one to avoid unpleasant truths, he recognized that Little Joe’s behavior toward him since he’d returned from college had wounded him, and he reacted to that. His brother’s words were a revelation. Making him realize that Joe’s actions had also been driven by hurt; hurt that Adam had left him. Unfair and childish, maybe, but Joe was a child and responded like one. That was not true for him and yet, he was forced to admit, he’d behaved like one. He owed Joe an apology.
Looking down at him and the bruises on his throat and cheeks turning yellow-green, Adam’s jaw tightened. The depth of anger he felt that someone could hurt a member of his family alarmed him. He always considered himself a rational man, but he sided with Pa when it came to Jenkins.
Little Joe was fast asleep. His talk would have to wait. Turning away, he stopped as he heard Joe stir.
Adam placed strong but gentle fingers on his shoulder, “Sorry fella, did I wake you?”
His older brother’s rich voice brought a sleepy smile to his face. “Nah, I was wakin’ up, anyways.”
Adam helped rearrange the pillows for Joe to sit up before drawing up a chair.
“I want to talk to you about what you said about my leaving you.”
Joe flushed. He felt guilty about that outburst and hoped Adam wouldn’t remember. Ducking his head, he replied, “I didn’t mean to say all that, I’m sorry.”
Adam wasn’t to be put off. “Joe, you know why I left back then, don’t you?”
“Yeah, to go to college.”
“That’s right, which was very important to me, and you know that I’d already put it off a couple of years, right?”
Joe’s head dropped even further. He nodded and murmured, “Coz of ma.”
“Yes, because of Marie. Because we all needed to be together.”
Adam broke off and thought for a long moment. Curious, Joe snuck a peek at him. He looked terribly serious.
“I didn’t get to go to school like you and Hoss because Pa and I were travelling. Pa had to be my teacher and sometimes others we’d meet on the trail. For a while, it was ma, Inger, but mostly, it was just Pa. I had to get my education where I could. Reading everything I got my hands on. There was no school when we first settled on the Ponderosa, and we were busy building up the ranch and looking after Hoss. Even so, I studied every chance I got and worked hard. Do you know why?”
Joe shook his curly head. Intently listening to his brother who’d never talked to him this way before.
“Education, Joe, is important to me. It dispels ignorance and helps us to understand people and the world we live in. It’s a big fascinating world out there, and education is the key to opening doors into it. When Pa married your ma, she understood how I felt. She helped me study and made Pa give me time to do it.” Adam grinned, remembering how Maria scolded Pa, insisting he mustn’t neglect his schooling anymore. “It was my dream to get that education and go to college. I had to work for it, fight for it. That’s why it was so important to me and why I had to leave.”
Awed, Joe sat silent for a long moment. “Is that why you wanted me to stay in school?”
Joe flared with indignation, “Why didn’t ya just tell me that? I would have understood.”
Adam laughed, “Guess I should have, shouldn’t I?” Suddenly serious, he leaned forward to place a hand on Joe’s knee. “I’m sorry that I didn’t, and for being so hard on you.”
Joe’s eyes widened. He’d never seen Adam like this. The guilt in the hazel eyes and the tension in his shoulders. He knew what he needed to do. Joe shook his head and grinned, “Ain’t that a big brother’s job?”
Adam relaxed and gave Joe’s chin a mock punch. “That’s right.”
Joe giggled. Tilting his head, he looked speculatively at his older brother. Adam lips quirked, he looked so much younger than his fourteen years with his hair all tousled and his face a patchwork of spectacular colors.
“I’ll go to school an’ get my education, but I don’t think I wanna leave the Ponderosa to see the world. Do you? Is that what you want? You gonna leave again?”
Adam took a breath, taken aback by the question. It was a fair one and deserved an honest answer.
“One day, maybe. It is an amazing world, and I do want to see it. So, I guess, yes, one day. But I’ll make you a promise. I won’t leave again until you’re ready to take my place. That good enough?”
Chest swelling with pride at the idea that Adam thought he could take his place, Joe nodded. “Good enough.”
Adam stuck out his hand. Joe solemnly took it. “Deal,” they chorused as they shook on it.
Ben slipped away from the door where he’d been listening in fascination to the conversation. He hadn’t wanted to disturb a moment that was obviously important to them. In doing so, he’d discovered how his eldest really felt. Ben often wondered if Adam would be content to stay on the Ponderosa. Now he knew. One day, he might have to say goodbye to let him fulfil his own dreams.
But, Ben reflected, dreams changed, and the love of a good woman, marriage and children could take a man in a whole different direction. Adam just needed to find the right one. Marriage was a wonderful state, and part of Adam craved that; so, he was hopeful. If Adam didn’t, well, from the promise he’d just made, that day wouldn’t be for a long while yet. Until then, he’d make the most of having Adam there, and his family together.
“Salt Lake City, you’ve sent him to Salt Lake City?”
“I had to Ben. It’s the only place that’s got a Probate Court that can handle a criminal case like this.”
“Why couldn’t you send him to Sacramento?”
Roy drew a breath. Ben knew the answer to that question as well as he, but he replied anyway, “Coz we ain’t under their jurisdiction. You know that.”
Ben sat down again, frustrated. They were in the living room sat around the fire. Roy rode out to let them know what was happening.
Despite his protest, he understood. This was one of the problems with settling new territory. It took time for structure, such as the law and courts to catch up with the settlers.
“I sent Jenkins off the day after we brought him in, with three good men. As it is, they won’t get to Salt Lake ‘till after Christmas. Once the trial dates been set, their gonna come back and let us know. When it’s time, we can all go.”
“Will all the children be giving evidence?”
“No, Adam. I’m getting statements from them on what went on in the schoolhouse. But Joe will be needed to testify on the kidnapping.”
“All right, that’s fine, but nobody’s to breathe a word of this to Little Joe. I’ll not have Christmas spoilt by having this hanging over his head.” Receiving agreement from his two sons, Ben relaxed. “Roy, you’ll stay for dinner?”
Roy, aware that Hop Sing was out of commission due to his injury, politely declined.
With only a few days left until Christmas, preparations picked up apace. The trip was made to select and bring home the Christmas tree. Ben wasn’t going to deprive Little Joe of this annual custom with his brothers, but he almost drove his sons to distraction checking that Joe was sufficiently wrapped up against the cold.
Joe was getting back his strength slowly. Watching him help decorate the tree, Ben saw how he quickly tired. He suspected Joe was having nightmares, something the boy had always been prone too since his mother’s passing. Insisting that he take naps during the day, Ben hoped to counter the effect, trusting they would soon pass.
Two days before Christmas, Roy rode out to the Ponderosa again.
Ben welcomed the sheriff and sat him down in front of the fire with a warming cup of coffee. Adam laid aside his book and Hoss, putting down the rifle he was cleaning, sauntered over to join the sheriff on the sofa. Joe was upstairs, taking one of his enforced naps.
Roy fixed Ben with a solemn look, “I got some news, Ben. The three men I sent out with Jenkins rode back in late yesterday. Jenkins tried to escape. Clubbed one of the men an’ got his gun. Took pot shots at the other two.”
“What? Are they, all right?”
Roy nodded, “Yeah, he jest grazed one of ‘em. He’ll be fine.”
Adam sat forward, “You said Jenkins tried to escape.”
“That’s right after he scattered the deputies, he took off. Tried to send his horse up the side of a hill where a horse ain’t got no business goin’. My man Wilson yelled at him to turn back; that he couldn’t make it.” Roy shook his head. “Wilson’s a tough man, but he told me he ain’t never gonna forget the scream when Jenkins fell.”
Silence reigned as the impact of the sheriff’s words sank in.
“You mean, he’s dead?” Hoss asked finally.
“Yep, man and horse, both dead. He broke both their necks. That’s what I come to tell ya. Won’t be no trial now… ”
The strangled sound that came from the stairs brought all their heads around. Little Joe stood there, clutching the bannister. His large horrified eyes the only thing alive in his white face. Ben, Adam and Hoss began to move even before his legs started to fold.
Scooped up by his father and carried to the sofa, he mumbled breathlessly, “I’m all right.”
Ignoring his feeble protests, Ben took the brandy glass being proffered by Adam and instructed Joe to drink a mouthful. Joe took a gulp, coughed, grimaced, but his color began to return.
The shock easing back, Joe was able to turn to the sheriff. “He’s really dead, Sir?”
“Yes, son, he is. I ain’t happy about it. I prefer my prisoners to be handed over alive. It’s his own fault he ain’t,” Roy told him, feeling the lad needed to hear it. After all, he’d been through enough. “So, like I said, there’s ain’t gonna be no trail.”
After declining the offer of dinner, the sheriff headed back to Eagle Station.
“You okay son?”
With effort, Joe pulled himself out of his distraction. “Yeah, I guess.”
Ben sat next to Joe. The big fire that had absorbed Joe’s attention crackled before them. Gently rubbing his back before slipping his arm around his shoulders, Ben hugged Joe close. “Well, it’s all over now. You can forget about that man.”
The haunted look in Joe’s eyes perturbed Ben.
All Joe could do was mutter, “Sure, Pa.”
It was a quiet dinner. Ben fretted seeing Joe get more subdued as the day went on. By evening, he realized Joe was a long way from putting what happened behind him. Christmas was a special time of year for them. He was damned if he was going to let that wretched man take the joy of it away from Little Joe. Resolving to have a long talk with him tomorrow Ben reached to turn down his lamp.
The scream startled him and told him that his youngest had suffered a nightmare. Changing his plans, he decided to have that chat now. He ran slap into Adam and Hoss in the hall and waved them back to their rooms. Silently, he opened Joe’s door.
Sitting up in bed, knees drawn up to his chest and arms wrapped tight around them, Joe buried his face into his blankets. He hated the nightmares. The remnants clung like cobwebs causing his breath to quicken. Trying to think of something, anything, else, he fought it off. He just hoped he hadn’t cried out and disturbed anyone.
The soft light from the lamp alerted him to someone’s presence. When he saw Ben he launched into speech, hoping to stop any fuss. “Sorry, did I wake you?” He lay back down, putting his back to Ben. “You can go back to bed; I’m okay, jest a silly dream.”
Smirking at his son’s tactics, Ben drew up a chair. “Having quite a few of those lately, aren’t you?” Warmth and understanding resonated in the deep richness of his voice. “Can you tell me about it?”
Recognizing the signs that Pa was staying, Joe sighed and pushed himself up the bed. He shut his eyes. The cobwebs coalesced, letting his mind re-embrace the dream.
Running, he’s running hard. Someone’s chasing him, he’s climbing to get away. Scrambling, stumbling over rocks, his hands bleeding from where he was tearing them. Then he sees him… Jenkins! His heart is hammering now, and he’s struggling to breathe as he comes face to face with his tormentor.
Jenkins’ words are ringing, “Evil Cartwright. You’ve evil inside you, boy!”
He’s climbing higher now. It’s too high, terrifying him. Then, he misses his footing. He’s falling into emptiness and hits the ground with a sickening sound. But, he’s standing, unharmed. Looking down, lying at his feet is Jenkins. His body all crushed, broken and covered with blood – so much blood!
Joe’s chest began to heave. Concerned, Ben put a hand on his shoulder and sharply called his name. Joe startled out of the nightmare. Under his hand, Ben felt Joe shudder.
Urging gently, he asked, “Can you tell me?”
Joe hung on to the hand that anchored him back in the real world. “Mr. Jenkins told me that… that I had evil in me.”
Ben tamped down his anger. Jenkins was gone, and those emotions did no good. All that mattered now was helping Joe. He sought for the right words. “He was a sick man. Nothing he said was true.”
“But… but, isn’t it wrong to be glad someone’s dead?”
Light began to dawn for Ben.
“I was glad, Pa, glad when sheriff Coffee told us he was dead. Don’t that make me evil?”
My poor boy. After everything, he could still think poorly of himself for being glad a monster had left the world.
“No, son, it doesn’t. That man kidnapped and tortured you. After what he did, anyone would be relieved he’s dead. I know I am. I think the Lord, in his mercy, would understand.”
Joe searched his father’s face. Pa had never lied to him and truth was all he saw there now. The weight that crushed his chest lifted. With a quivering lip, he choked, “Thanks Pa.”
Ben gathered Joe up into his arms. “There was only one evil man in all this son, and it surely wasn’t you.”
He held his son tighter when he felt the sobs start and didn’t let go until they ended. Setting him back against the pillow, he wiped Joe’s face and planted a kiss on top of his curls. “Now, get some sleep.”
The smile Joe gave filled his heart with happiness. He stayed for a while, watching Joe drift off to sleep, and allowing the sound of Joe’s steady breathing to ease his own nerves.
As soon as he reached his bedroom door, Adam and Hoss appeared.
In a penetrating whisper, Hoss asked, “He okay, Pa?”.
Nodding, he waved them both into his room and explained what had been bothering Joe.
“To think of him worritin’ like that, over that man dyin’. Why Lil’l Joe ain’t got an evil bone in him.”
Adam crossed his arms to contain his fury. “Grief Pa, Little Joe’s just a kid, Jenkins was a grown man. When I think what he did. He got off lightly dying like that. He should’ve gone to prison for a lot of years.”
The three looked at each other, agreement flowing between them.
“But the kid shouldn’t feel bad for being glad he’s gone.”
“He knows that now, I think.”
Adam flicked a look at Hoss and added, “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure he knows it from us too.”
“Thanks, now get some sleep.”
Ben wasn’t sure exactly when Adam and Hoss spoke to Little Joe the next day, but he knew it had an effect.
Christmas was all Ben could have hoped; joyful and merry and unmarred by Jenkins’ shadow. Special thanks were given that day.
Everyone found a reason to ride into Eagle Station the morning school started. Not fooled, Joe didn’t complain about this extra piece of fussing.
Watching him bounce off on his pony to meet his friends, Hoss grinned at his father. “Did ya hear about the cookies he helped Hop Sing bake as a welcome back gift fer Miss Jones?”
Adam leaned across and tapped his arm. “Hoss, take a look.”
Every child entering the schoolhouse was carrying some token for the Schoolmarm. Ben pointed and smiled as he spotted Katie Brown and Tom Wilkins.
“I think Miss Jones is going to have the most well-behaved class in Utah this morning.”
Adam and Hoss laughed. “She’d better make the most of it. Don’t reckon lil’l brother will let that last too long.”
Ben pushed his hands down onto his saddle horn and stretched. “Well, I don’t know about that. I think Miss Jones may have a willing pupil there.” He grinned back at the intrigued looks. “Your brother and I had a long chat. I’ve agreed that if he works hard and passes his exam in the spring, he can start as the newest full-time hand on the Ponderosa.”
“Hot diggity, Pa, that’s great!”
“You okay with that, Son?”
Adam lips quirked. “Little Joe knows what he wants. His dreams aren’t mine. He’ll make top hand in no time.”
Hoss guffawed, “Jest wait, he’ll be askin’ fer higher wages afore you know it.”
Ben gulped at the prospect. “We’ll just see about that.”
Laughing, the three men turned their horses from the bustling schoolhouse. Content to ride away.
*** End ***
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