Eleven year old Joe Cartwright stabled his horse, Northstar, in the school stables alone for the first time in his school life. His brother Hoss had finished school to work full time on the ranch. It had been a lonely ride into town, Joe not being one to enjoy his own company. Over the past couple of months he had become quite lonely, finding himself excluded from his two older brother's activities. It was as if he was invisible around his family and he found himself melting into the background. Even his father had been extra busy this summer, bidding for timber contracts and overseeing the construction of a timber mill had taken up a lot of his time.
When Hoss finished school, Joe looked forward to his new independence, but the novelty wore off quickly as he found himself alone around the ranch, left to do his chores and occupy himself for the remaining hours of the day. He missed his brother Hoss, because they were more than brothers, they were best friends. He felt a pang in his heart, everything was changing, and he felt left out. Not meaning to pay no attention to his little brother, Hoss was busy learning his new responsibilities around the ranch.
Joe had watched with a touch of jealousy his brothers Adam and Hoss working closely together on the ranch. He knew he was wrong feeling this way but as Hoss spent less time with his little brother it seemed to Joe that Hoss was spending more time with his older brother. They no longer played endless games of checkers in the evening as Hoss would be included in Pa and Adams' discussions about the running of the ranch. Joe would quite often slip away unnoticed to the barn and pour his heart out to his horse as he gave him some extra grooming. Half the time Hoss went to bed without even knowing that his little brother was in the barn. Joe wished he was older and bigger so that he could join his brothers and work with them on the ranch.
Joe gave his horse a good rub down and slowly walked across the schoolyard searching for the familiar faces of his friends Seth and Sarah. He sat down on the front steps of the school house and waited for his friends. A few parents brought their anxious children who were starting school for the first time. He remembered back to his first day, his hands being held by his Pa and Hoss as he proudly walked up to the school house. Spending the day with his big brother was so exciting to him. Joe sighed; things were much simpler back then. The bell rang and Joe frowned, his friends having not turned up. 'Great!' He thought, he slowly trudged up the school steps dreading the thought of being alone at school as well.
Since it was a new year the students were put in new seats. Joe found himself seated alone since the only other students his age were Seth and Sarah. His teacher mentioned that another student would be starting in a few weeks but was laid up with a broken leg from falling out of a tree. Joe worked silently and found himself longing to be older and bigger. School as far as he was concerned was not important. Breaking horses and herding cows were more important.
"Joseph!" Miss Santos startled Joe out of his daydreaming. "I hope this isn't going to be a regular occurrence this year young man." The teacher looked down at her student sternly waiting for him to answer.
"No ma-am." Joe answered quietly. He hated the fact that he had been singled out by the teacher and that all eyes were on him. He bowed his head and continued with his arithmetic not looking up again until the bell rang for end of school. Joe gathered his books and rose to leave.
"Joseph! Come here please. I have a note for your father and brother." Miss Santos held out an envelope for Joe to take.
"I'm sorry I...I...I was distracted earlier Miss Santos. I promise I'll work harder." Joe knew if he brought home a note on the first day of school that his father would be furious with him. He had been lectured by both his father and older brother Adam on the importance of an education many times. Joe sighed and accepted the envelope resigning to the fact that he would probably be restricted to the yard for the rest of the school year.
"I certainly hope so young man." Joe put the envelope in the inside pocket of his jacket with trepidation. "Oh! Could you please give this envelope to the Sheriff?" She held out a similar envelope for Joe. He took it and wondered why the sheriff needed to know he was daydreaming in class. 'She must be really mad at me.' He thought as he put the envelope in his pocket.
Joe walked to the barn to saddle his horse. His breathing was rapid and his heart was racing. Thoughts of spending time in jail raced through his head. Tears pooled in his eyes as he thought about sleeping in jail away from his family. He wiped away the tears, angry with himself for being so weak. He hated how he so easily cried but then thought of his brother Hoss, who just as easily openly cried but no-one thought anything of it. He assumed it was because his brother was so big and no one questioned his strength. He however, being much smaller, came off looking weak.
Joe walked Northstar to the Sheriff's office and tied him to the hitching post. He walked timidly into the office and found Sherriff Coffee sitting at his desk going through some paperwork. The Sheriff looked up and smiled.
"Little Joe! What brings you here?" Sheriff Coffee asked and continued smiling at Joe. He nervously handed the envelope to the Sheriff. Sheriff Coffee couldn't help but notice the shaking hands holding out the envelope.
"This is from Miss Santos. She asked me to give it to you." Joe cringed at his shaky voice. He was so nervous he felt like he was going to faint.
"Thank you son. Everything alright at home? Pa and brothers well?" Joe watched the Sheriff put the envelope on his desk.
"I said everything alright at home son? Pa and brothers well?" Sheriff Coffee looked at Joe expectantly. He noticed how anxious the boy was.
"Aaahh yes sir. Everyone and everything's fine. Bye." Joe hurried out of the office and jumped onto his horse startling Northstar. Joe rubbed the horse's neck to settle him down and galloped down the main street like his life depended on it, distancing himself as quickly and as far as possible from the Sheriff's office. He wanted to get home before the Sheriff read the note and arrested him.
When Joe finally reached the house he slowly walked his horse, careful not to annoy his father by riding too fast into the yard. He groomed and fed his horse, gathered his books and walked into the house. It was very quiet in the house so Joe quickly left the envelope on his Pa's desk and went straight up to his room. He had no homework so he thought about reading a book. Unable to concentrate, he found himself nodding off, so decided to go and do the few chores he was responsible for. Those chores included ensuring the wood boxes were full and the kindling box for Hop Sing's stove was full. He was also supposed to chop the kindling and since it was only half full he decided to chop some more. He started chopping, his mind was so pre occupied that he forgot to put on his gloves. When he finished he realised his error and looked at his hands. They were covered in splinters. He picked out the larger ones but was unable to remove the smaller ones. They weren't that sore so he left them thinking they would come out in his next bath.
With all his chores done Little Joe went quietly up to his room and lay down on his bed. He was asleep within seconds of his head resting on the pillow. Adam entered his little brother's room and smiled at how young and angelic he looked when he was asleep. He regretted not remembering that it was his brother's first day back at school, in fact when he thought harder about it he came to the conclusion that no-one had remembered. This made him think about the whole summer and soon realised that he had spent very little time with his youngest brother. A pang of regret tore at his heart. He vowed to make more time for his brother starting with this Sunday and maybe going fishing with him.
Adam shook his sleeping brother. Joe slowly opened his eyes and wondered if it was morning already. His older brother was smiling at him. "Wake up sleepy head, it's time for supper." Adam told his brother.
Joe rubbed his eyes and winced, his hands stung. Some of the places that he had removed splinters were sore. "I'll just wash up Adam and be right down." Joe told his brother not wanting him to see his hands.
"Don't take too long, suppers on the table." Adam said and watched his brother pour water into a bowl.
"Yes Adam." Joe said quietly. Adam frowned at the quiet boy and again felt a pang of regret. His brother must have been very lonely he thought, since neither he nor Hoss had spent any time with him over the summer. He left the room and made his way down to the main room thinking about how he could make it up to him. His father called him over to his desk.
"I have a letter from Little Joe's teacher."
Joe was just about to step on the stairs when he heard his father's voice. He stopped and kept out of sight and listened.
"Sheriff Coffee has been notified. I'm afraid it has to be done. We have no choice." Joe heard his father say and felt his heart start to race. His stomach knotted and Joe's hands started to shake.
"Yes I can see that. We need to act fast otherwise things like discipline and control could be lost." Adam told his father.
Joe felt his cheeks redden and wondered if his father was going to take him to the Sheriff before supper. He sniffled and looked down the hallway as if for the last time. He didn't know how long he would be in jail so he decided to return to his room. He picked up his mother's picture and ran his finger lovingly over the outline of her face. A tear dropped on the glass giving the picture the appearance that his mother was crying. Joe gasped and felt guilty for being a disappointment to his mother.
"LITTLE JOE! SUPPER!"
Joe jumped at the sound of his father's voice and quickly replaced the picture. He left his room and hurried down the stairs. He looked across to the dining table and tried to gauge his father's mood. "Hurry up young man and sit down." He told him in a stern voice. Joe slipped into his chair quietly and bowed his head. He could feel his body tremble as he thought this would be the last time he would be eating supper with his family. His next meal would be in a cold cell, probably bread and water, he thought. His stomach did flip flops and he found it hard to see as tears clouded his eyes. He rubbed the pooling tears away, not allowing himself to appear weak.
Hop Sing placed a plate in front of Joe and noticed that the boy was upset. He had been worried for some time about the boy. "It's your favourite, you eat up." He told the boy affectionately.
"Thank you Hop Sing." Joe replied quietly.
"No...Hop Sing thank you...You fill up kindle and make sure I have plenty next to stove." Hop Sing patted Joe's shoulder. Joe looked at the cook and smiled. Hop Sing was like a second father to him having helped him with many problems over the years since his mother died and when Adam was away at college. It was a wonderful meal and Joe couldn't help but think that Hop Sing had gone all out, knowing that this was his last meal at home for a while.
Joe made sure he ate an acceptable amount of food, especially for Hop Sing's sake. He listened to his father and brothers talk about things that needed doing around the ranch. He would miss their conversations even though he was not included in them. "Let's have coffee by the fire...then we'll be on our way." Joe felt his heart race at his father's statement. He continued to sit at the table trying very hard to get his emotions under control. He needed to be brave and take his punishment like a man. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Everything alright Joe?" Adam asked his little brother with concern.
"Yes Adam...I'm not quite finished my pie." Joe nearly choked on his words as he tried to maintain control of his emotions. He didn't look at his brother not wanting to show him how distressed he was.
Adam heard the despair in his brother's voice and again felt guilty for having not spent time with his little brother. He sat down in the chair next to Joe and poured himself a cup of coffee. He wanted to keep his brother company and hoped that it would help cheer him up. Joe chanced a glance at his brother and wondered if he too was thinking about it being the last time for a while he would share a meal with him.
"Come and join us by the fire Adam." Hoss called to his brother.
"No thanks. I'm going to keep our little brother company."
Joe bowed his head and chewed his food. The lump in his throat was making it hard to swallow. He blinked rapidly as tears pooled in his eyes. He had to sniffle and hoped that Adam didn't see the tears that had escaped his eyes.
Ben put down his cup and stood. "It's time to head into town. We can't put this off any longer."
Adam stood and put his hand on his little brother's shoulder. He felt him tremble and saw the tears falling onto the table. "Joe! What's the matter?"
Joe wrapped his arms around his big brother's waist and buried his head into his stomach sobbing uncontrollably.
"I don't want to go to jail Adam...I'm so sorry for not paying attention in school...I promise I'll try harder...It's just that I was all alone...Seth and Sarah weren't at school I was thinking about them and..." Joe cried harder almost collapsing as his legs began to lose their strength. Adam looked at his father despairingly.
Ben ran over to his youngest son and took him from Adam. He held him close to his chest and felt his son tremble in his arms. "Ssshhh...ssshhhh...It's alright Little Joe...Calm down...sshhh." Joe calmed down in his father's strong arms and felt himself lowered onto the settee. He was sitting on his father's knee and when he felt his father's hands on either side of his face he looked into the loving eyes of his father. "Now, what's this about going to jail?"
Joe told his family how he had delivered a note to the Sheriff and thought that Miss Santos was so angry with him that she wanted him to go to jail for not paying attention in class. Adam could hear the loneliness in his brother's voice as he told his family how scared he was about spending the next few days in jail.
"Those notes had nothing to do with you Joe. Miss Santos is requesting a second teacher because there are too many students for her to handle. Sheriff Coffee is on the school board, that's why she asked you to give him the note." Joe sniffled and suddenly realised how silly he had been but his family weren't laughing at him. He looked at his father and saw the concern in his eyes. "We haven't been paying too much attention to you lately have we?"
"It's alright Pa...I know how busy the ranch keeps you and Adam and now Hoss." Joe bowed his head and tried to hide his unhappiness. Ben squeezed his eyes shut, knowing his son had been suffering all afternoon over the misunderstanding.
Ben placed his fingers under his son's chin and lifted his head to look into his eyes. "I'm sorry Little Joe...we all are..." He looked at Adam and Hoss. "If you're worried about something come to me. No matter what I'm doing I'll listen. Alright?" He told his son gently.
"Yes Pa...I'm sorry." Tears threatened to fall again and Joe felt himself pulled into a tight hug. Hoss was wiping away tears and Adam was blinking away the moisture that had pooled in his eyes.
"We have to go. Off to bed young man. I'll look in on you when I get back." He kissed the forehead of his youngest son. Adam gave his brother a tight hug and said goodnight to him. Joe watched them leave and turned to climb the stairs. He felt a big hand on his shoulder.
"How about...a game of checkers before bed?" Hoss asked his brother. Joe smiled broadly. Hoss felt his heart beat a little faster; he suddenly realised he had not seen his little brother's smile for some time. He knew the whole family would have to give Little Joe more attention.
After the game of checkers he followed his brother upstairs and listened to him read before saying goodnight.
Joe sighed into the darkness and listened out for his father's return. He worried when his father was away from the ranch, something he had done since his mother died. He loved his brothers but he worshipped his father. He knew now he should have told his father how he was feeling, but didn't want his father to think he was acting like a little kid. He chuckled to himself, he had cried like a baby in both his father's and brother's arms. He was so relieved to not be going to jail. His eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep feeling no longer alone in a house full of family.
Ben and Adam arrived home quite late and headed straight to bed. Ben looked in on his son as promised and found Joe sprawled out on his bed, covers hanging off to one side. When he pulled the covers up he noticed red welts in his son's hands. He looked at them closely and saw that there were splinters in his fingers that looked quite sore. Adam came up behind his father and looked over his shoulder.
"What's wrong Pa?"
"Joe's got some splinters in his hands. He mustn't have been able to get them out. Dear God have I neglected my son so much that he couldn't even come to me to remove splinters from his hands?" Ben said worriedly.
"Don't be so hard on yourself Pa. Joe probably didn't say anything because he knew he should have been wearing his gloves. You know how forgetful he is?" Adam told his father trying to stop him from feeling so guilty.
"That's just it Adam. Have I been that hard on him that he was too scared to come to me for help? I don't want him to feel that way." Ben sighed and left the room to get his tweezers. Some of the splinters were quite deep and Adam had to hold the lamp up close for Ben to dig them out. Joe's hands were red and bleeding from some of the deeper holes. They soaked his hands in warm soapy water and dried them. Two of Joe's fingers were swollen. They dabbed alcohol on the holes and cuts and wrapped Joe's hands.
Ben felt his son's forehead and frowned. "He has a fever." He told Adam. Adam left the room and returned with a bowl of cool water and a cloth. They wiped the beads of sweat from Joe's face and placed the cloth over his forehead. Joe moaned and almost woke up but Ben spoke softly to his son telling him to go back to sleep. His fever broke around one am and Ben watched his son drift off into a deep sleep. Satisfied his son was going to be fine he left and fell into bed and was asleep in seconds.
Joe woke the next morning to throbbing hands. He looked at them and saw that they were wrapped in bandages. It didn't take long to remember the splinters. His door opened and Adam walked into the room.
"How do your hands feel?" Adam asked his little brother.
"They're sore Adam. What happened to them?" Joe asked his brother.
"Pa noticed they were really red and saw the splinters in them."
"Oh! I forgot about them. When I chopped the kindle I got some splinters. I got most of them out but some were too deep. I forgot to tell you." Joe looked at his brother not understanding the seriousness of the situation.
"They were infected Joe. You can lose fingers and hands if the infection goes by unchecked. That's why we tell you to wear your gloves." Adam told his brother kindly not wanting to upset him after the misunderstanding from the previous night.
"I'm sorry...I'll make sure I wear them in future." Joe chewed his bottom lip and looked at his brother trying to work out if he was really mad at him but he was smiling affectionately at him.
"Come on...time for breakfast and school." Joe nodded and jumped out of bed. Adam helped his brother wash away the sleep in his eyes and helped him do up his buttons. They walked downstairs together.
"Good morning Pa. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the splinters." Joe told his father.
"How are your hands? Are they sore?"
"Just a little." The truth was that they were throbbing and were making him feel sick, but Joe didn't want his father to think that he couldn't take a little pain so he endured it without complaint. He only ate a small amount of breakfast before standing to leave for school.
"Joe...Your hands are really hurting aren't they? Do you feel sick?" Ben looked at his son and waited for him to admit the truth about his hands. "It's alright you know...to admit they're sore."
Joe looked at his father and knew he wouldn't think any less of him if he told him the truth. "They're throbbing and I feel sick to my stomach." His Pa smiled and placed a hand on his face.
"Let's take you in to see Paul. Hmmm?" Ben placed his hand on his son's thin shoulder and guided him towards the door. "We'll see you boys when we get back." The buckboard was already waiting in the yard.
Joe looked at his father. "How did you know?"
"They were pretty bad last night Joe. You had a fever. I didn't think they would heal overnight. Call it...father's intuition." He told his son smiling at the confused look on his son's face. "You'll know what I mean when you're a father." Joe looked at his father horrified at the idea. Ben laughed out loud.
Doc Martin carefully disinfected Joe's hands and put some ointment on the redder cuts. He wrapped Joe's hands and told him to keep them dry for the next couple of days.
"Thanks Doctor Martin." Joe looked at his hands and frowned. He wouldn't be able to write with the bandages on his hands.
"He should rest today and should be fine to go back to school tomorrow." Doc Martin told his long time friend.
"Thank you Paul." Ben shook his hand and placed his hand on his son's back and guided him out of the doctor's office. "Well Joseph, we need to get a few supplies and pick up the mail and I need to go to the bank." Joe looked up at his father and smiled.
"I can get the mail while you go to the bank. That will save some time." Joe told his father feeling good to be included in his father's doings.
"Good idea son. I'll meet you at the Mercantile."
"Yes sir." Joe walked towards the mail office. Ben watched his son and saw a spring that had been missing for some weeks, in his step.
Joe collected the mail and was looking at the small collection of envelopes as he walked out onto the boardwalk. He bumped into a tall man wearing a suit. He had a rather large pointy nose and used it to guide his eyes. He pulled his lips together and had a look of disgust on his face as he looked down on the small curly haired boy.
"I'm sorry mister...Excuse me." Joe didn't like the way the man was looking at him so he tried to make a quick exit. He felt his arm grabbed and he was swung around.
"Why aren't you in school boy?" The tall man asked Joe sternly.
Joe didn't think it was any of this man's business but knew his father would not be happy with him if he was rude to the stranger. "I...I...I"
"Well spit it out. I haven't got all day." The tall man told Joe as he held onto Joe's arm tightly.
"I'm off today. I have sore hands." Joe held his bandaged hands in front of him. "I can't write."
"Your fingers are free. You could write."
"Oh no sir. I write with this hand and my fingers are still swollen." Joe held up his left hand that was heavily bandaged.
Sheriff Coffee approached the growing crowd and found a tall man holding onto Joe's arm tightly waving his finger at the boy. "What seems to be the trouble here?" He looked at Joe and could see that the boy looked distressed.
The man saw the badge and quickly let go of the boy. "He should be in school."
Sheriff Coffee smiled and saw Joe's bandaged hands. "What happened to your hands Joe?"
"I had some splinters in them and a couple of them got infected. Pa took me to see Doc Martin. I was collecting the mail and I'm meeting him at the Mercantile." Joe told the Sheriff nervously. He deliberately didn't mention bumping into the man, not wanting to get into trouble.
"How about I walk with you over to the Mercantile? I need to talk to your Pa about something." Sheriff Coffee put his arm around the boy's shoulder and walked him towards the Mercantile. The tall man huffed and walked in the opposite direction. Joe was glad the Sheriff came when he did. He didn't like the way the man was holding and questioning him.
Ben watched his son and the Sheriff cross the street. Joe looked a little scared. Ben frowned and wondered if Joe had got himself into trouble.
"Hello Ben. Can I have a word?" The Sheriff asked happily.
"Everything alright Roy?" Ben nodded towards his son.
"Oh yes. We ran into each other outside the mail office. I needed to have a word with you so I thought I'd keep Joe here company." He squeezed Joe's shoulder affectionately. "Thanks for the company Little Joe."
Joe looked up at the Sheriff and smiled.
"How about you go inside and get yourself...and Hoss...some candy." Ben told his son.
Joe's face lit up. "Thanks Pa! Bye Sheriff!" He skipped into the store and went straight to the counter that had a line of glass jars filled with candy. When his Pa entered the store, Joe had finished ordering his candy. His father paid the store keeper and they climbed onto the backboard.
"I got you some lemon drops Pa." Joe held the bag out to his Pa.
"Thank you son." Ben took one and popped it into his mouth. Joe took a gum drop and put it in his mouth.
"Thanks for the candy Pa." Joe smiled up at the most important person besides his brothers in his life.
Ben smiled at his son and thought how he had not seen that smiling face for some time. "You're welcome son. How do your hands feel?"
"A little sore but my tummy feels better." Joe absentmindedly rubbed his arm. The tall man had held it very tightly and it was hurting where he had gripped it.
The trip home was pleasant. Ben told his son about his plans for the ranch. They were going to open up some new pasture land so some trees needed to be cut down.
"I wish I could help." Joe said forlornly. Ben thought about his son's statement.
"You can help back at the house with the unloading. Not all the logs will be heavy. There will be some smaller ones." He saw his son smile happily. Ben realised that he needed to try to include his youngest son in some of the ranches activities but he also knew that he had to keep his son safe. Unloading a wagon with all the men around him was a given.
Joe returned to school the next day with a light bandage on his left hand. Seth and Sarah were still absent from school which meant Joe sat alone in the class room. He sat with some of the older kids who were friends with his brother Hoss at lunch but found them too rough so he soon left the group and sat down watching the younger kids play marbles. As he sat on the bottom step of the school house he didn't see the tall figure watching him from afar. Joe smiled at Timmy Waters as he clearly was the better player and won most of the challenges.
"Hey Timmy! Can I see that blue marble of yours?" Joe asked the younger boy.
"Sure Joe." Timmy gave the marble to Joe. He held it up to the sun and studied it.
"I used to have a marble like this. Won me a lot of challenges too." Joe told the boy.
"Really? What colour was it Joe?" Timmy asked Joe. All the younger kids looked up to Joe; he was completely oblivious to their admirations.
"Mine was a red one. It was a real beaut. I'll bring it in and show you it tomorrow." A shadow suddenly covered the two boys.
"Hold it right there!" Joe looked up into the angry eyes of the tall man that he bumped into the day before.
Miss Santos made her way down the steps after hearing the raised male voice. "What seems to be the problem?" She asked the tall man. Joe and Timmy looked at the man with wide eyes not understanding why the man was so angry.
"This boy here just took this poor little boy's marble. Bullying is an unacceptable behaviour in the school yard young man." He pointed his accusing finger at Joe.
Joe stood with his mouth open not understanding what the man was talking about. Timmy was looking just as dumbfounded as Joe.
"Joe, what's he talking about?" Miss Santos asked him but Joe was too scared to talk. The man that towered over him caused both he and Timmy to take backward steps.
"Ask him to open his hand?" The man pointed to Joe's left hand.
Joe immediately opened his hands revealing the marble. "I was just looking at it Miss Santos. I was gonna give it back. Honest." Joe swallowed hard and suddenly had visions of Sheriff Coffee arresting him. The anxieties from the past few days were causing Joe to think irrationally.
"I gave it to Joe Miss Santos. Joe was just looking at it. Honest. He didn't take it from me." Timmy looked at the tall man and scowled.
"Here you go Timmy. Like I said I'll bring in my marble tomorrow for you to see." Joe looked at the two adults.
"Seems there has been a misunderstanding." Miss Santos told the tall man.
"I hope it was just that Madam and not some kind of intimidation of the younger children. Good day Madam." The man left the school yard eyeing the children suspiciously.
Miss Santos looked at Joe and could see he was upset with the man's accusations. "Would you ring the bell please Joe?"
"Yes Miss Santos." Joe climbed the stairs and pulled the rope. He looked in the direction that the tall man walked and saw him turn and watch him. Joe was unnerved by his glares. He swallowed hard and ran into the building almost knocking over some of the smaller children. Miss Santos frowned at Joe and caused him more worry. He wondered if Miss Santos believed the man.
Joe spent the remaining afternoon concentrating on his work. His neck was aching from being bowed for so long, but he ignored it not wanting to look at the teacher in case he saw her displeasure with him. When it was time to go he was a nervous wreck. He ran to the stable and quickly saddled his horse. Miss Santos watched Joe lead his horse out and jump in the saddle and gallop home.
She was worried about the young Cartwright boy. He seemed to have withdrawn into himself and was very nervous and quiet. She knew he would be missing his big brother but it seemed to her that the boy was unhappy. She decided to mention it to his father or older brother at the next meeting.
When Joe rode into the yard he noticed that the yard and house appeared very quiet. He led his horse into the barn and saw that none of his brother's horses were stabled and neither was his father's horse. Home alone again he thought. Joe sighed and told his horse all his worries. He trudged across the yard into the house with the worries of the world on his shoulders. Hop Sing put some milk and cookies on the table for him.
"Come have a snack and tell Hop Sing all about day." Joe looked up at him and smiled.
"Thank you Hop Sing." He sat down and drank his milk.
"Did something bad happen today?" Hop Sing asked Joe wondering why the boy looked so sad.
Joe shrugged his shoulders. "A man scared me. He told Miss Santos that I was a bully but I'm not Hop Sing! I think Miss Santos believed him." Joe's eyes were filling up with tears, all the anxieties of the day causing him to lose control of his emotions.
"Who this man? What was he doing in the school yard?" Hop Sing asked concerned.
"I don't know. I bumped into him yesterday when I was collecting the mail and he wanted to know why I wasn't in school." Joe shrugged his shoulders. "I don't like the way he looks at me Hop Sing. He scares me."
"You stay away from man. If he in school yard again, you go stand with teacher and keep safe." Joe nodded and felt a little better having told Hop Sing about the man.
"I better go do my chores." Joe left the house and cleaned out the stalls in the barn as best he could. He changed all the water in the stalls and made sure there was fresh oats in there for the horses when they returned. He checked the wood boxes and then went upstairs to do his homework.
Joe didn't see the man again until on the Sunday at church. He saw him watching him when he was standing by the large oak tree out the front of the church. He was waiting for his father to finish talking to the doctor. He walked over in the direction of his father and when he reached him he stood beside his father and slipped his hand into his father's hand. Ben looked down at his youngest son surprised that he wanted to hold hands in public. Joe had resisted doing a lot of childish actions in public trying to appear grownup.
Joe looked back to where the man had been standing but he was gone. He decided to stay close to his Pa taking Hop Sing's advice. Doc Martin looked down at Joe and noticed how nervous the boy was.
"How's the hands Joe?" He smiled at the boy reassuringly.
"They're all better Doctor Martin." Joe showed the doctor his free hand. Ben went to let go of his son's other hand but Joe held onto it tighter.
"Where are Adam and Hoss?" The doctor asked not noticing Joe's grip on his father's hand.
"Oh they're up at the timber yard. We had a few problems this week so they're trying to get everything back on schedule...I'll see you later Paul."
Joe walked beside his father and continued to hold onto his hand tightly. Ben looked down at his son and saw him looking around anxiously as if looking for someone. They climbed into the buggy and headed back to the Ponderosa. Joe sighed and relaxed. He lent against his father and almost fell asleep.
Ben looked down at his son. He needed to go up to the timber yard but hated leaving his son all alone on the ranch. "I'm sorry I'll have to leave you alone for the rest of the day son. I need to join your brothers and help with the timber contract."
"That's alright Pa. I might go fishing and catch us supper." Joe told his father and tried not to sound disappointed. He understood that he couldn't go with his father because of the dangers. Men had been badly hurt from falling trees. "You will be home for supper won't you Pa?"
"Yes son. I'll make sure we are all home for supper. Make sure you catch plenty of fish. We'll be hungry."
"I will Pa. You can count on me." Ben patted his son's knee and smiled at his enthusiasm. He still needed to talk to his son about the church yard but would leave that till after supper. He didn't want to spoil the moment and besides the boy seemed quite happy now.
Joe made his way down to his favourite fishing hole. Hop Sing had unearthed some juicy worms for him. He sat down on the cool earth, removed his boots and rolled up his pants and dangled his feet in the water. Ripples cascaded out to the centre of the lake. He felt all the tensions of the morning melt away with the tranquillity of the lake. It wasn't long before he had his first bite and over the next couple of hours Joe had enough fish to feed not only his family but the bunk house also.
Joe walked back to the house bare footed and left his trousers rolled up. He frowned at the strange horses that were tied to the hitching posts. He looked proudly at his fish and thought if they had guests for dinner there would be plenty.
Joe opened the front door, dropped his boots and held up his fish for all to see. The room suddenly became silent as Joe stood in the doorway. He didn't recognise all the faces, his smile faded as some of the guest frowned at his appearance.
"Joe, well look at all the fish you caught." Ben put his cup down and quickly walked over to his son who seemed to be frozen to the spot. "Hop Sing!" Ben called to his cook who came out and took the fish from Joe.
"Plenty to go round. Little Joe did good. Fish like Hop Sing's worms." Hop Sing quickly took the dripping fish into the kitchen.
"Joe you better go clean up. We have guests' son." Joe looked up at his Pa and gave a weak smile.
"Yes sir." He bent down and picked up his boots and walked across the room to the stairs. He felt everyone's eyes on him. He ran to his room and shut the door.
"Oh he's so gorgeous Ben. I think he may have been a little embarrassed." Mrs Humphrey said. "Maybe you should check on the poor dear."
"I will Pa." Adam put down his cup. He had some feelings of guilt having not taken his little brother fishing like he had promised earlier in the week. He had been caught up with the timber yard problems and had stayed with Hoss overnight. He came back with his father for the meeting. Ben had forgotten about it but Adam had reminded him when he turned up after church.
The meeting was quickly completed and while Ben was seeing everyone off Adam made his way up to Joe's room. He knocked softly and entered the room. Joe was sitting on his bed looking down at his boots that he held in his hands. He didn't look up when Adam entered the room.
Adam sat down next to his brother and heard him sigh. "Is Pa mad at me?"
"Now why would you think that Joe?" Adam asked his little brother.
Joe looked at his brother with sad eyes. "I embarrassed him in front of all his guests."
Adam chuckled and ruffled Joe's hair. "Nah! I would say it was great timing. Pa and me were trying to end the meeting and your sudden appearance with supper reminded everyone how late it was getting."
Joe smiled and started to get changed for supper. He chatted with his brother about the one that got away and as usual exaggerated how big it was. Adam smiled inwardly listening to his brother's tale.
Everyone enjoyed supper and made sure they praised Joe for his fine catch. It was after supper whilst sitting in front of the open fireplace that Adam and Ben told Joe about the appointment of a new school teacher. They all had no idea that sitting together as a family happily discussing news and changes would become a rare occurrence. Joe's world would be turned upside down and hard lessons for all would be learned.