"Pa, what're you doing here?"
Ben jumped a bit. He hadn't expected to be discovered by his youngest standing, as he was, outside of the schoolhouse in the shade of a large tree. He'd been waiting for Joseph to leave so he could talk to his teacher.
"Where did you come from, son?" he asked. The boy had come upon him from the rear, as if he had been in town instead of in the school.
Little Joe nodded toward the stack of books in his hands. "Dora asked me to go to the mercantile and see if these books had come in on the morning stage."
Ben was glancing at the readers. It took a moment.
His son grinned. "Mrs. Drummond. She told us to call her Dora. She said 'Mrs. Drummond' was her husband's mother and she was too young and nice to be that old and crabby."
So much for decorum.
Ben held out his hand. "Why don't you give me the books? I'll take them in."
Little Joe looked confused. "Dora…Mrs. Drummond sent me on the errand, Pa. She's counting on me. Don't you think I oughta…."
"Your brothers are at the mercantile. They're ordering supplies for the drive. I thought maybe you would like to help them."
The boy's wide green eyes lit up. "Really? You mean I can help?" Little Joe paused as if he was afraid to ask. Then he did. "Does that mean you're considering letting me go on the drive this year?"
Joseph would turn fourteen just about the time they set out. If he had been any other man's son, he would have already been on a drive. He had to admit that he…coddled the boy just a bit.
After losing Marie….
"Do you think I should?" he asked.
The boy opened his mouth to recite a number of reasons why he should, but then closed it and nodded. "I won't let you down if you do, Pa," he said. "I promise."
Ben placed a hand on his shoulder. "I know you wouldn't, son. It's just - "
"Joseph? Is that you?"
They both turned toward the schoolhouse. The sun was setting and it cast the façade into darkness. He could just see a slender figure moving into the doorway.
"Yes, Ma'am," his son answered.
"Do you have the books?"
Ben stepped in front of the boy. "He does, but I need Joseph to run an errand for me. I'll be bringing them in."
The woman shifted slightly as if trying to see. "Mister Cartwright, is it?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied as he took the books from his son. "Ben Cartwright. The school board sent me to check up on your progress."
That wasn't quite a lie, but it wasn't exactly the truth either.
"So, that's why you're here," Little Joe said. "Mrs. Drummond isn't in any kind of trouble, is she, Pa? She's just about the nicest teacher I ever had."
The tone in the boy's voice caught his attention. "Just the nicest?"
His son's smile was dreamy. "She's the prettiest too."
"I see," he said.
And he did.
The woman had her back to him when he entered the school. The light was fading fast and the room was cast in shadows. Mrs. Drummond had yet to light a lamp. Ben could see that she was a slender slip of a thing with a waist small enough for a man to circle with his hands. Her hair, he thought, was a rich blonde and she wore it in a twist on the top of her head, secured with an ivory comb. She was dressed respectfully in a high-necked white blouse and deep red skirt. A touch of gold glinted at her neck and flashed from her ears as she moved by the window.
"Thank you for coming, Mister Cartwright," she said as she reached for the lamp that sat on a low table before the window. "I presume this is in response to the note I sent through Mrs. Carrington."
"Yes. My eldest son gave it to me last night."
"Thank you for giving such prompt attention to the matter," she said as she struck a match. Its light cast her face even further into shadow. "I am very fond of Joseph. I wouldn't want to see him get hurt."
"His feelings you mean?"
She pivoted toward him. The lamp was in her hand now. He caught a glimpse of a lovely if slightly troubled face before it vanished into the dark.
"Of course," she replied after a moment. "What else would I mean?"
Ben cleared his throat. "Your note seemed to indicate you were concerned about Joseph's…attentions to you. That they might be, well, improper."
"Oh dear!" The woman crossed to her desk and placed the lamp on it. "Did it sound that dire? Forgive me if it did. Joseph has done nothing wrong." Mrs. Drummond sat down, just out of the circle of light. "In fact, he has been nothing but a gentleman. But you know how rumors begin." There was a tone in her voice indicating that she did. "He's been coming in early and leaving late and the other children have begun to talk. It is only a matter of time before they say something to their parents that might be misconstrued." Joe's teacher paused. "Mister Cartwright, will you please take a seat? You are making me nervous."
Ben started. "Forgive me," he said. "Where would you like these books?"
"Just place them on one of the tables."
He did so and then moved to take the chair she'd indicated, which was directly in front of her desk.
A moment later he laughed.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No," he replied with a smile. "It's just that I feel like I'm the one who's about to end up with his nose in the corner."
The young woman laughed as well - a lovely lilting sound. "From what your son has said, I have a feeling you might deserve it."
He sobered instantly. "What has Joseph told you?"
"I'm sorry. That was out of place." She hesitated. "It's just that I've spent a good deal of time with Joseph and he seems at ease to speak with me. He's told me all about his brothers and your fine house and…."
"Yes. Joseph loves and respects you, Mister Cartwright, but he also fears you."
Ben swallowed. "A boy should fear his father."
"I agree. If it is a healthy fear. What I am speaking of is a fear of a different kind. Joseph is afraid of failing to live up to your expectations."
"How old are you?" he asked, his jaw tight.
"Are you indicating that I don't know what I am talking about because I am young?" she countered quickly. "I can assure you I do."
"Just how old are you?"
Just about Hoss' age. Seven years older than his youngest son.
"I'm surprised, Mister Cartwright, to find you prone to hasty judgments. I would have expected more considering all I have been told."
He was trying very hard to control his temper. "Mrs. Drummond, you have held this position for how long now? A few weeks? And you claim to know my son better than I do?"
"This is not my first position, Mister Cartwright. I have been teaching for just under five years. I received my certificate when I was barely older than your son. I also had a father whom I loved dearly, and I might add, who loved me the same, who was extremely demanding and -"
Ben rose from his chair. "I am not demanding!"
He'd been about to blow. Drawing a deep breath, the rancher sought to calm himself. "Mrs. Drummond, you came highly recommended. I am not questioning your credentials. What I am questioning is your right to interfere in my son's -"
"Interfere?" she snapped. "Mister Cartwright, being an educator is more than just teaching children to read and write. It is investing yourself in them and always - always - looking out for their best interests. Joseph hungers for approval, sir, and in the end that will lead to nothing but trouble. He will seek it - look for it in all the wrong places. He…." The woman drew a breath and paused, as if she knew she had gone too far. "Forgive me. I have overstepped my bounds. Your son is a very special boy. I have grown quite fond of him and want only his best."
Ben still had not seen her clearly, but he knew what kind of a woman she was.
He puffed out a breath and then said, more calmly. "You are very passionate about your work."
"I am passionate about my students." She thought a moment. "Mister Cartwright -"
"Ben. Thank you. I have been told that I have a gift for teaching. Helping children to realize their full academic potential is very important to me, but that is not why I teach. My own childhood was…troubled. It is my desire to help others avoid the mistakes that I made."
He actually smiled this time. "You sound very old and wise."
"I feel very old some days," she admitted. "Ben, I know you are a very busy man. All I am asking is that you give Joseph a little more attention. He needs reassurance. He needs to know that he is important, not only to you but to your work." The woman paused. "But most of all, Joseph needs you to spend time with him."
Ben fell silent. It was as if someone had walked over his grave.
"Mister…Ben, are you all right?" Mrs. Drummond asked as she rounded the desk.
He nodded. "What you just said. My late wife. She said the same thing just before…."
The late afternoon light flooding in the open door struck Joseph's teacher fully for the first time. As Hop Sing had said, she was very young and very pretty, but there was something else she was that he had failed to mention.
No wonder Joseph was attracted to her.
Dora Drummond, with her blonde hair, small-boned form, and strong, forceful personality, was a dead ringer for Little Joe's mother.
"Hi, Little Joe."
Adam had sent him back into the store to get something they'd left behind. Joe was in the middle of reaching for it when that soft voice made him turn. When he did, his hand brushed the fabric of Cora Lee Carrington's finely boned ivory dress -
And her breast.
He went white as a sheet.
She just laughed.
"Cora, I'm…. Gosh, I'm sorry." A blush replaced the pallor. "I didn't mean to. I…."
Cora leaned in so close he could smell the sugar-water in her hair. "It's okay, Little Joe. I was hoping you would."
Joe's gaze went to the young man standing outside the mercantile talking to his brothers. Cora was a month or two older than him. Her brother Jenson was a few months older than Hoss. Their pa was the one who had just opened a mine outside of the settlement. He called it the 'Corabelle'.
Pa didn't like him.
But then, Pa didn't like Cora much either.
"You know, Little Joe, you're just about the handsomest boy in school. All the girls say so." She moved a little closer, so her hand was brushing his. "They say you're the best kisser too. Is that true?"
Now he wasn't going to deny he'd kissed a few girls. And he wouldn't be surprised if he was the best kisser, even though he really didn't have much of anything to compare himself to. But he wasn't about to kiss Cora.
Not with Jenson around.
"I gotta go, Cora. My brothers are waiting," Joe said as he reached for the package on the counter behind her.
"They aren't paying any attention. I told Jenson to keep them busy."
Joe glanced out the window. Sure enough, his brothers were moving way - with Jenson. "You what? Why?"
"So I could talk to you, silly," Cora responded as she walked her gloved fingers up his chest to his chin.
"But your brother doesn't like me." The nineteen-year-old had made that clear enough a few days before when he warned him to stay away from his sister.
"Oh, it isn't that Jen doesn't like you. He just doesn't trust you." Cora leaned in and lowered her voice. This time her leg beneath her skirts brushed his thigh. "He's a man, after all. Just like you."
Being a man was all that mattered, really. Joe wanted it so bad he could taste it. Hoss and Adam were men and he wanted to be just like them. He wanted to rope and ride and work the drives and be able to pull his own weight on the ranch. That was the part of being a man he understood.
What was happening with his body at this moment was the part that scared the wits out of him.
"Hey there, Little Joe! You got that package yet?"
Joe let out a long breath. He'd never heard anything as sweet as his brother's voice.
"Sure…sure do, Hoss," he squeaked as he made a grab for it. Once it was in hand, Joe tipped his hat to Cora and slipped around her. "I gotta go."
As he came abreast Hoss, the big man said, "Miss Cora, I plumb near forgot. Your brother told me to tell you he's waitin' at the livery for you."
Cora didn't look too happy about it. "Is that so? Well, you can tell him he can wait until I am good and ready!"
Hoss smiled. "Jenson said you'd say that, so he gave me another message for you."
"Yeah, he said you was to come, ready or not, otherwise he'd be by to pick you up - and none too gently."
And Joe thought he'd gone white before!
"Oh, very well," Cora pouted. "I was ready anyhow." Joe moved out of the way as the flirtatious girl started for the door. She glanced at Hoss and then turned and gave him a teasing smile. "See you later, Little Joe. It was fun 'running' into you."
Hoss watched her go and then looked down at him. "You got anything you want to tell me?"
He was holding his hat in front of him - just in case.
"No. I just want to go home."
His brother nodded. "Adam went to get Pa."
"What? You mean Pa's not back yet?" Panic set in. "Hoss, you don't think he's yelling at Mrs. Drummond, do you? I mean, you know how Pa can get. Maybe I oughta…."
"You oughta take it easy, little brother. Pa's on the school board. They's probably just disscussin' her job." Hoss pinned him with his crystal blue eyes. "There ain't any other thing they'd be talkin' about, is there?"
"Why are you lookin' at me like that? I haven't done anything wrong!"
"That's why I'm looking at you that way, little brother. To make sure you don't."
Hoss didn't know whether to bust a gut laughin' or shed a tear at the look on Little Joe's face. It was obvious little brother thought the man who had just arrived and was standin' in the doorway was Pa and the poor kid had near fainted dead away with embarrassment.
The fact that it was older brother, Adam, didn't help much.
"Pa's on his way," Adam said as his stepped into the mercantile, his eyes on Joe. "Are you two ready?"
"I was ready yesterday!" Little Joe exclaimed as he started to work his way past.
Adam's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Did you get that package?"
Joe glanced at the crook of his arm where it was anchored. "Are you blind? Of course, I got it!"
Older brother blinked. "Well, pardon me for asking."
"Here! Take it if it's so dang important!" little brother said, thrusting it at him. "I got other things to do."
As Joe bolted out the door, Adam let his feelings out in a whistle. "What's up with him?" he asked.
Hoss failed to hide his blushes. 'Up' with him was sure enough the problem.
"Cora Carrington," he said.
Adam's look darkened. They both knew the Carrington girl for what she was, a flirt - and trouble with a capital 'T'.
"Working her wiles, eh?" older brother asked as he came alongside him.
Hoss pushed his hat back with two fingers. "She's workin' somethin' all right. When I came in, she was mighty close to little brother and that boy's cheeks were - "
"Red as a fire engine. I noticed." Adam folded his arms. "I guess we knew this day would come."
The big man blinked. "What day?"
"Joe, well, you know…." He paused. "Becoming a…man."
Hoss glanced out the window. Little Joe was in the back of the wagon, propped up against the feed sacks with his hat pulled down over his eyes. Most like he was pretending to be asleep to avoid talkin' to Pa who was just pullin' up alongside it on Buck. The boy's golden-brown curls were peekin' out from under the flat black brim and blowin' in the breeze. All of a sudden the big man was filled with a kind of sadness - a melancholy, the doc would have said, like he'd lost somethin' precious.
"I know," Adam said softly as he placed a hand on his shoulder. "I felt the same way about you, you big lug."
Hoss stated. "Me? What do you mean, me?"
"Emily Sue Sallinger. Or don't you remember?"
He thought a moment and then blushed right up to his eyebrows. "Oh."
"How old were you? Fifteen?"
"I don't remember how old I was, but I can tell you I remember right well the talkin' to I got. That was the last time I ever tried somethin' like that."
"And the last time you and Pa visited the woodshed, if I remember correctly."
Hoss let out a little sigh. "I was near as tall as Pa but that didn't matter none."
Adam looked out the door, into the fading light. "I don't think Joe's headed for the woodshed, but I think - unless I am sadly mistaken - that it's time for 'that' talk."
The big man nodded. "You think that Cora's been puttin' ideas in little brother's head? Maybe that's why he's, well, thinkin' about Mrs. Drummond?"
"From what I understand, Dora Drummond is an attractive young woman. I don't think Cora has to put any ideas in Joe's head. I'm sure they are already there."
Hoss nodded. "You think Pa's feelin' like me - like his baby's gone and grown up all of a sudden?"
Adam moved into the doorway. He didn't answer for a moment but stared at their father and brother who were talkin'. Apparently Little Joe's playin' possum didn't work.
"I imagine that's among the things Pa is feeling," Adam replied.
"What else do you think he's feelin'?"
Big brother looked over his shoulder and grinned.
Just as he was heading for the staircase and the safety of his bed, the words came that Joe had been dreading.
"Joseph, son, I think we need to talk."
That was the last thing he wanted to do!
As his foot touched the bottom step, Joe managed a huge yawn. "I'm awful tired, Pa. Can't it wait until tomorrow?"
His father was standing at the end of the dining table looking at him. Just…looking at him.
"It could. But I don't think it should."
What did a feller say to that?
"Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Pa replied as he moved to the settee and sat down - and then patted the fabric beside him. "No. I just feel it's time for a heart to heart, father to son."
The good Lord help him! The last time they'd had a 'heart to heart' he'd ended up apologizin' to just about everyone in the settlement except the town drunk.
"I did do something wrong," he moaned as he took a seat.
His father frowned. "Joseph, no. Not wrong. Perhaps…inappropriate."
That puzzled him mightily…for about five seconds.
Joe's temper flared. "Hoss told you, didn't he? Dang him! Can't a fellow have a little privacy?"
"Joseph!" his father said sternly. "Mind your tongue - and your manners. Your brother didn't tell me anything." Pa paused and then added with that 'look'. "Should he have?"
Now he'd done it.
"Would you like to?"
Joe wriggled his nose and swallowed. "No…sir."
"Let me put it another way. Should you?"
His shoulders slumped. "I don't understand, Pa."
"You don't understand what?"
How should he put it? How could he put it and not go to Hell?
Joe looked down at his fingers, which were working as quickly as his brain. "Me. I don't understand…me. It used to be, well, if a girl like Cora well…you know…." He glanced at his father who didn't look mad - yet. "If a girl like Cora told me I was handsome and brushed up against me…where she did…I'd want to pop her in the nose. But now, well…" He could feel the color rising in his cheeks. Joe drew in a big sigh and let it out as he met his father's stare. "Poppin' her in the nose ain't…isn't…exactly what I want to do."
Pa remained silent a moment before saying, "You and I have discussed the birds and bees before."
"I know where babies come from, if that's what you mean." It was hard not to when you lived on a ranch where you bred cattle and horses. Joe thought for a second and then added, "You mean that's why I…?" Panic set it. "I don't want to be a pa!"
His father laughed. "I don't want you to be a 'pa' either - for a very long time - but God's first command to man was to be fruitful and multiply." At his look, his father added, "What I am saying, son, is that man is created with certain instincts."
"How come I didn't have them before?"
"Have you noticed any other changes?
He knew what his pa was talking about. Adam and Hoss had mentioned it to him. "I haven't grown any taller."
It was a disappointment to him.
"You will, son." His father smiled. "You may not have noticed, but your shoulders are a little broader and your voice is a shade deeper."
Maybe. But there was another more important thing he'd noticed hadn't grown.
"I don't have any whiskers."
"Your mother was very fair. That will come later."
"Adam said he had whiskers at five."
His pa laughed. "Well, not quite that early. Your brother takes after me in that. Hoss was nearly seventeen before he began to shave."
Joe opened his mouth, but hesitated. Something else had begun to grow but he didn't know if he should mention it. It wasn't…proper. And he'd begun to have problems that he couldn't always keep under his hat.
"Pa, today when Cora…well…when she touched me…there…I…." Joe swallowed. "Am I going to Hell?"
His father looked at him with sympathy and then circled his shoulders with his arm. "Joseph, you did nothing wrong. You have no control over your body and its reactions. What you do have control over is your thoughts and actions. Have you…done anything with Cora?"
Joe whistled. "That hussy? No way." Then he winced. "Sorry, Pa."
"Apology accepted - and expected. I have taught you better than that. You are to show respect to women at all times, no matter their behavior. Is that understood?"
His father released him. "Which brings me to the matter that I came discuss. Joseph, look at me."
"We need to talk about Mrs. Drummond."
Ben watched his boy wither before him. He wasn't sure exactly what Joseph's body language was telling him, but he had a feeling it was not what he wanted to hear.
"What about Dora…Mrs. Drummond?" Joe asked.
"I understand you have been arriving at school early and staying late to assist her."
Joe's aspect brightened. "Yes, sir! You taught us to be helpful and, bein' new and all, Dora…." His son winced. "Mrs. Drummond's needed a lot of help."
"You desire to help, son, is admirable. I am not disputing that. It's your…motivation that I am concerned about."
"You mean…why I'm doing it?"
"Because you'd want me to." Joe paused. "You would want me to, wouldn't you?"
This was getting difficult.
"Yes, I would, but only if your motives were pure."
That made the boy frown. Joe wrinkled his nose and his dark eyebrows followed, forming a 'v' at the center - before they leapt for his hairline.
"Pa…you don't think…. I mean, you don't think I…." His son's face had gone beet-red. "I mean I wouldn't…. I couldn't!" Joseph paused and then added quite dramatically. "Pa, for gosh sakes, I'm only thirteen!"
Like he didn't know it.
Ben waited a moment and then asked quietly. "So your feelings for Mrs. Drummond are just that of a school boy toward a gifted teacher?"
He gave him credit. Joe thought a moment before replying. "Well…I never felt this way about Miss Jones, but then she's mean." His son's eyes flicked to his face. "Sorry Pa, but it's true. Cora…Mrs. Drummond is really nice."
"She's also very pretty."
Joe swallowed. "She sure is," he admitted, a little dreamily. "You know, Pa…. There's something about her. I don't know what it is. I just…." The boy drew in a breath and let it out slowly. "I just want to be around her."
"Do you know why?"
Joe shrugged. "Cause she's nice I guess." Then he grinned. "And pretty."
Ben rose to his feet. "Come with me, son."
The boy didn't move. He stared at him. "We're not going to the woodshed, are we?"
The rancher sighed. "No. I just want you to come over to my desk with me."
"Oh. Sure thing, Pa."
Ben led the way to his desk. The top of it was bare at the moment, which was rather unusual. A melancholy had seized him of late and he had removed Marie's picture - along with the ones of his first wives - from it. That beautiful face, with its gracious loving smile, and those green eyes with their spirit and fire had simply become too hard to look at. As Joseph watched he sat down and opened the drawer and pulled the elegant silver frame from it and returned it to its place of honor.
"Come here, son," he said gently.
Little Joe came around the back of his chair. He halted just to the left of it. While Joseph had a miniature portrait of his mother in his own room, its very nature limited the likeness to Marie. The tabletop one he had showed her in her full glory.
"Pa…." his son breathed.
It took a moment for Ben to compose himself, after which he replied, "I know, son. The likeness is startling." Shifting back in his chair, he studied his son a moment and then added, "Joseph, please, take a seat on the corner of the desk and listen to me."
As his son complied, the older man went on. "First of all, son - and I want you to hear this - I love you, but more than that, I trust you. I know you will conduct yourself in a manner becoming a Cartwright where your teacher - or any young lady - is concerned."
Ben's eyes flicked to Marie's portrait and back to her son. "Secondly, I want you to think long and hard about just why you want to spend so much time with Mrs. Drummond. She may look like your mother, Joseph, but she is not your mother. It is unfair to your teacher to impose your feelings for your mother on her. Do you understand?"
"I…don't think that's what I'm doing, Pa."
"Just so it isn't," he said, rising.
Ben turned toward his youngest. The boy was so young, but stood on the threshold of manhood. He had taught him everything he knew, but each man had to make his own choices - had to choose his own path. He worried more about Marie's boy than he did his others. Like his mother, Joseph was impulsive and a bit reckless, with a devil-may-care nature that had the power to make his knees go to jelly. But at the same time Little Joe was loyal and true, with a heart for justice and a hatred of injustice. Of all his boys Joseph was, at one and the same time, the most selfish and the most selfless. But more than any of these qualities, Joseph had another that gave him pause.
The boy loved deeply - so deeply he left himself wide open to a hurt that might, one day, be his ruin.
Ben stirred. "Yes, son?"
"Can I still help Mrs. Drummond if she asks me?"
The older man drew in a breath and held it. What should his answer be?
A knock on the door extricated him from having to make it at that moment.
"I'll get it!" Little Joe called and was off before he had time to say a word.
Ben followed more slowly. He heard his son talking and then saw Joseph's face as he turned into the room. It was a mixture of apprehension and surprise.
Standing in the doorway with her traveling suit on was the subject of their conversation.