Summary: Six vignettes and a poem giving glimpses of Ben Cartwright’s youngest.
Rating: General Word count: 2,412
Titles: “Wild Horses” “Complications” “Breathe” “Never Tell” “Turning Point” “Fire” “If Only”
(Theses vignettes are basically prequels.)
Ben’s Boys Series:
One ~~~ Wild Horse
The horse was wild, but it was also lame. It could snort, shake its head, even slowly and awkwardly back away, but it most definitely could not run or rear or leave behind the boy that was inching closer step by step.
“It’s all right, boy, it’s all right. Let me help ya. It’ll be all right. It’ll be just fine.” The words became a mantra, and it’s soothing, steady rhythm calmed the animal enough for the boy to move within an arm’s length. His hand brushed the stallion’s side lightly and then touched the black back in several gentle strokes. “Are ya gonna let me help you now, boy, are ya?”
The stallion shook his head sharply and snorted. Finally he bared his teeth, and the boy backed away slightly to avoid a bite.
“Ya should, you know. I can help you, really I can.” He fixed his eyes on the equine orbs and then dropped them away. The horse thrust his head forward, but the boy silently stood his ground. Then with exquisite care he closed the gap between himself and the animal. He eased himself to his knees, took in a deep breath, exhaled, and reached for the horse’s right foreleg. His hand made contact for only moments before the pain seared his shoulder. He curled in on himself as the stallion back away again. Their eyes met once more before the horse managed to turn and begin a slow departure.
The child rose to a sitting position his left hand clutching his shoulder. He sighed. You’ll be gone before I can bring you some help. He got to his feet, and sighed again. Pa or whoever’s up to the house in gonna make me see to this bite ‘fore they let me come back. His lips twisted. Pa’s gonna have a fit if I tell him. He chewed his lower lip. Hoss, I’ll just get Hoss without nobody else seeing. He’ll make me see to my shoulder, but he won’t tell Pa, and he’ll help me track you; ‘sides he’s the one who’ll be able to help ya most. Satisfied with his decision, Little Joe Cartwright smiled and called out, “We’ll be back. Don’t worry now!” The nine-year-old set off walking in the direction of his home and after a few minutes he was whistling softly to himself even though his hand still clutched the bleeding bite on his shoulder.
Two ~~~ Complications
The moment one learns English, complications set in.* This is true whether one learns it at Mother’s breast or later as a substitute for the mother tongue, but it is most true when one of the former and one of the later commence a discussion. If you add in excitable natures, quick tempers, natural stubbornness, and cross purposes; the result can be catastrophic. Such a upheaval was currently raging between one Hop Sing formerly of China and one thirteen-year-old Little Joe, who some referred to as the Little Prince of the Ponderosa. Of course, the last boy to refer to Little Joe that way in his presence had left Joe’s presence with a broken nose. The person immediately previous to that had gone unscathed, but then Adam was Joe’s brother, twelve years his senior, and had occasionally been referred to as Prince of the Ponderosa himself.
“You just don’t understand!” The boy’s foot stomped an exclamation point to his statement.
“Hop Sing understand just fine. Hop Sing know what father tell number three son before he go, so little boy best understand what he no can do.” The man used a shake of the wooden spoon in his hand for his exclamation point.
“No!” Hop Sing turned toward the stove. Little Joe indulged his frustration with a less than polite gesture toward the cook’s back, forgetting that Hop Sing took great pride in keeping all metal surfaces in his kitchen in a shiny state of reflectiveness. The exclamation that left Hop Sing’s throat was delivered in his mother tongue, but English was not needed to make Little Joe aware that Hop Sing had seen his disrespect.
Little Joe took a step back as Hop Sing turned to face him again. He swallowed convulsively as a stream of Cantonese flowed in his direction.
“Didn’t think Hop Sing know what that mean? Didn’t think I learned that on docks when step off boat. I learn that before I learn one word English.” Hop Sing’s voice had gone unusually flat and slow.
Little Joe recognized both the depth of the man’s anger, and the pain beneath it. “I’m… I’m sorry, really sorry. I don’t… I wouldn’t…”
“Would never do so to father, never do so to brother, never do so to man you respect. But Hop Sing just cook…”
“No, no, you know that’s not…”
“That what action say.” Hop Sing turned his back to the boy again. “Go to room, please.”
Little Joe felt the need to continue his apology, but he also felt the need to show his obedience. He hesitated, sighed, and said softly. “Yes, sir.”
Hop Sing heard the sir and drew in a slow breath. He understood the significance of that English word and how few whites, man or boy, would use that word to one of his race. Both the English and the Cantonese word for forgiveness entered his mind.
*Please note that the first line is a quote from Chromos by Felipe Alfau that was used as a challenge prompt.
“Breathe! Dear God, please let him breathe!” It was a prayer uttered by a desperate father, and it was answered. Ben Cartwright watched his son’s chest rise slightly with a fluttering and shallow intake of air. Then there was a cough, a gush of expelled water, a gasp, and more coughing as Ben held Little Joe, slapping his back and speaking soothingly into his ear. When the coughing subsided and Little Joe’s breathing grew steady, the boy relaxed against his father while the knot of terror slowly unwound in Ben’s heart. As he sent thanks heavenward, Ben gazed down into his son’s face and realized this was not the first time he had voiced that prayer.
Marie had been in labor for over thirteen hours. At first she had fought to suppress her screams; then she had been unable to keep them from ripping through the room. Now, exhausted and weak, she simply whimpered each time the pains came. Paul Martin had begun urging her to push, and Ben added his own soft encouragement as he held her supported against his chest. Suddenly, it was all over, and Paul held a small and far too still a form in his hands. As seconds passed, the silence seemed to grow and fill the room.
“Breathe! Dear God, please let him breathe!” A small whine was followed by a louder wail, and Paul placed a squalling infant into Marie’s eager arms.
Gazing down into his son’s face, Ben thanked God over and over.
“Pa. Pa. Adam’s here with the wagon. We best get him home and into bed.” Hoss bent over and reached to lift his little brother from his father’s arms.
Little Joe struggled upright with a petulant, “I’m fine. I don’t need nobody carrying me. I can ride.”
“In the wagon.” Ben’s pronouncement was an order. Hoss helped his brother to his feet but allowed Little Joe to stand on his own.
“But, Pa, “Joe whined.
“Better watch what comes out of your mouth, kid, or Pa might remember a butt that was ordered to stay off that rope swing,” Adam inserted as he grinned down at his brother.
“Yeah, but… Little Joe sputtered, “but I want to ride Cooch.”
“Joseph Francis Cartwright!” By the time his surname was bellowed, Little Joe was climbing into the back of the wagon.
As Ben climbed onto the wagon and settled beside his fifteen-year-old baby, he pulled Little Joe once more into his embrace and gloried in the feel of the boy’s breath against his cheek.
Four ~~~ Never Tell
“You better not never tell nobody but God.* In fact, unless God brings up the subject first, you better not even mention it to him!”
I swallowed. “It’s really not …”
“Little Joe!” I felt the fire in her eyes scorching my face.
“I won’t, never, no one.” I held up my finger and traced a cross on my chest. “I promise.” I had never broken a promise to her, even back when we were both young enough to think crossing your heart really did have the power to bind a person’s tongue. “But it’s really not… I mean, well, it’s not, ummm, with me and you it’s more like, umm, well, it’s not like I could think about you like…well, any different than always just because…”
“Shut up! Just shut up. Don’t never speak of it again.” She turned her back to me.
“It’s not like there was any other choice.” There really had not been. “I couldn’t let you freeze to death.” She did not answer; she moved forward and threw herself face down on the bunk built against the back wall. I just stood there until I realized she was crying. The last time I had seen her cry, we were ten. I went and knelt beside the bunk. My hand went to rub her back, but before my fingers met the blanket she held around her, my hand froze, and I brought it back to my side. “I’ll marry you.” We both knew what had her crying, and actually there was no reason to wait for her pa’s shotgun to enter the equation. This way she could truthfully state in front of the town biddies that I had proposed on bended knee. She slapped me then across the face, not for the first time, but still it caught me by surprise. I ended up sitting on my behind staring open-mouthed and rubbing my cheek. She slumped against the wall. I wrapped my arms around my raised knees. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“No, you saved me.”
“Lord knows why!” She looked at me then and sighed.
“You really can’t tell anyone.” There was no anger left in her voice or in her eyes. Her teeth sunk into her lower lip. “I’m sorry, Little Joe.”
“I know.” I thought I did understand, but she gave me that half-smile that had always meant I never would.
“We’ll have to go home separately. Have different stories for where we’ve been.” She sounded tired.
“Your clothes won’t be dry for a good while. We’ve got plenty of time to get our stories straight.”
“Your pa can always tell when you’re lying. Hoss and Adam too.”
“I’m not a kid anymore. They can’t make me tell.” I could see she thought they could, but she knew they would understand.
She drew the blanket tighter. “No, we’re not kids anymore. Things are different now.” The melancholy was in her voice and in my heart because we both knew it was true.
*Please note that the first line is a quote from The Color Purple by Alice Walker that was used as a challenge prompt.
Five~~~ Turning Point
Little Joe sat and watched the turning point flash around and around. Just seconds before he had held his breath as it spun and came to rest with it gleaming tip directed at Delissa. She had sucked in a breath that she had yet to release, and her cornflower blue eyes had widened to the size of saucers. Then a quick flick and the point was turning again. A small bead of sweat formed on Little Joe’s upper lip as he prayed the point into position. Then it stopped. Lying there on the hard packed earth the steel tip pointed directly at him. His stomach flipped nervously, but a deep smile spread across his face. A blush rose in Delissa ‘s cheeks as Little Joe rose onto his knees and leaned toward her. Placing his hands on her waist, Little Joe pulled her closer. Her eyes closed as he placed his lips against hers. Of all the girls playing this kissing game, she was the one that Little Joe had hoped would be his match. Releasing Delissa and settling once again on the ground, Joe decided that he must have been a good boy of late because God had just answered his prayer.
Ready. Aim. Fire! Little Joe braced himself as the finger pulled back the trigger. The gun recoiled, and Little Joe felt Delissa’s body thrown back against him. He brought his right arm around her waist and kept both of them on their feet. At the same time he deftly caught the pistol dropping from her hand and slid it back into the holster on his hip.
“Good shot,” he declared softly into her ear as he buried his head in her curls.
“I hit it! I hit it!!” Her body trembled with excitement, and she twisted in his arms bringing her face to his. Throwing her arms around his neck, she leaned her head back to gaze into his eyes. “I told you I could learn to fire a gun.”
His eyes twinkled. “No thanks for your teacher?”
“Is this thank you enough?” she asked pressing her lips to his.
Little Joe kissed her slowly then released her.
Delissa opened her eyes. “Let’s do it again!” Little Joe reached for her, but she stepped back sliding the pistol from his hip. Turning her back to him, she held the gun with both hands and waited for him to take his place behind her. Little Joe reached his arms around her raising the gun with his hands on her wrists.
Ready. Aim. Fire!
Seven~~~ If Only
If only he had listened to me
How headstrong can one boy be
One day I pray
He’ll learn when to obey
If only he’d listened to me
If only he’d listened to Pa
The kid has one fatal flaw
Emotion rules his head
He could well be dead
If only he’d listened to Pa
Iffin only he’d listened to Pa
Knew he wouldn’t by the set of his jaw
He has too much pride
And defiance inside
Iffin only he’d listened to Pa
If only I had listened to Pa
Allowed him to lay down the law
Followed his lead
Given experience due heed
If only I had listened to Pa