THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT INTENDED TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT
Young Joe Cartwright and his friend Orrin Jacobs settled down by the still waters of the lake, relaxing in the sunshine. Beside them Johnny Chapman looked up with a grin, he’d already started fishing while he waited for the other two boys to join him. The three eleven year olds were enjoying a rare Tuesday afternoon of freedom, normally they would have been in school at this time of day but their teacher, Miss Jones, had been feeling unwell and, with no replacement available, had reluctantly dismissed her pupils early. Joe and Orrin had ridden out to the Ponderosa and, finding nobody home, had collected fishing poles and headed down to the lake to join Johnny for an afternoon’s fishing.
“Hope Miss Jones is still ill tomorrow.” Johnny said as he pulled his line in and gently unhooked the wriggling, silver-scaled trout that was attached to the end of it. “This is much better than school.”
“Sure is.” Joe agreed, poking his finger into the small tub of squirming pink worms that Johnny had brought to use as bait, looking for the fattest, juiciest one. “Don’t you think so, Orrin?”
“I guess.” Orrin answered miserably, not looking up from where he was threading a worm onto his line. “Beats goin’ home anyway.”
“What’s wrong with going home?” Joe asked curiously. “Thought you liked it fine since your Pa got married again.”
“That’s the trouble, Sue Anne’s gonna have a baby!” The disgusted tone of Orrin’s voice as he made this announcement caused both of his friends to stare at him in surprise.
“Don’t you want a baby brother or sister?” Asked Johnny, looking up from admiring his catch to study Orrin’s unhappy looking face. “Be nice to be a big brother and get to tell someone what to do the way Jakey does you.”
“Won’t be a brother or sister will it?” Orrin stated abruptly, gazing out at the smooth waters of the lake, the spring sunshine glinting on its calm surface.
“How come?” Joe looked at him with a puzzled frown, not understanding what the other boy meant. “Babies only come in two sorts.”
“I don’t mean that.” Throwing down his fishing pole, Orrin picked up a flat pebble from the edge of the water. With a deft touch he set the stone skimming across the surface and grinned slightly as he counted five bounces.
“Then what do you mean?” Johnny asked, his eyes on the ripples that were spreading out from the spot that the stone had submerged. “And don’t skim stones, it’ll scare the fish.”
“I mean it’ll only be a half brother or sister.” Orrin explained. “Half of it belongs to Sue Anne, might even turn out to look like her.”
“It’ll still be your family.” Joe said, impaling a worm on his hook and casting the line into the water. “My brothers had different mothers than me.”
“Did they?” Johnny looked at Joe with interest. “I guess that’s why you don’t look much like them.”
“I ‘spose not.” Half watching his line, hoping for a fish to bite, Joe considered Johnny’s words. “You know those pictures on my Pa’s desk?” He asked and his friends nodded. “That’s my Ma, Hoss’ and Adam’s Ma’s.”
“So you know what I mean?” Orrin picked up his pole again and came to sit beside Joe. “You and your half-brothers are real different. You don’t look alike or act alike, you don’t even get on with Adam. It’s not like with me and Jakey, he’s my real brother, blood brother.”
“I get on fine with Hoss.” Joe pointed out, a little unsettled by Orrin’s way of thinking. “And it’s all right with Adam most of the time, he’s just a bit bossy is all. Anyway my Pa says we’re real brothers, even though we got different Ma’s.”
“But ‘spose my Pa likes this baby more than he likes me and Jakey?” Orrin asked disconsolately. “Sometimes I think he loves Sue Ann more than he did Ma.”
“It’ll be fine.” Johnny put in, casting his line again and obviously growing bored of his friend’s conversation. “Let’s just fish, guys.”
“Which of you does your Pa like best?” Ignoring Johnny, Orrin bent closer to whisper in Joe’s ear. “Which of your Ma’s did he love most?”
Joe was saved from replying when a tug on his line sent him excitedly to his feet and pulling in a fish, but as the boys headed for home that evening he found himself thinking of Orrin’s question. In all his eleven years he’d never really thought of Hoss or Adam as just being half brothers, though of course he knew they were. He wondered if Orrin could possibly be right, did Pa like one of them more than the others because he’d loved their mother the most?
Engrossed in his bookkeeping that evening, Ben was surprised when Joe came to stand quietly beside him and watch as he added the columns of figures. After fifteen minutes or so the boy’s unnatural silence began to niggle at Ben and he laid his pen aside and closed the book.
“Those trout you caught made a mighty fine supper.” He remarked after a while, as his young son remained silent. “And I’m sure Hoss and Adam enjoyed them as much as I did.”
“Mmmm…” Joe barely acknowledged the words, his attention now fixed on the three portraits in silver frames that stood atop his father’s desk.
“Did the other boys catch as many fish as you?” Ben asked, trying to get some response from his son.
“’Bout the same…” Joe shrugged and reached out a hand towards his mother’s portrait, stopping before he picked it up and turning an enquiring look on his father, who nodded his permission. “Mama sure was pretty.” He observed, holding the picture and studying it closely. “Wasn’t she, Pa?”
“Yes, she was.” Ben replied simply, following his son’s gaze and smiling tenderly at the likeness of his third wife.
Gently, Joe touched the glass that covered the portrait and Ben waited patiently. It was obvious that the boy had more to say but his father knew that he shouldn’t press. Joe would get round to what he wanted to ask in his own time.
Looking up at last, Joe turned his attention to the other two pictures. “They were pretty too.” He said softly. Ben nodded in reply, wondering where this was leading.
“Not as pretty as Mama, though.” The boy declared, putting Marie’s portrait carefully back in its place. “Were they?” He asked, looking at his father almost anxiously.
“They were all beautiful.” Ben told him, looking at his wives faces. “And all very special.”
“Really?” Joe bit his lip in thought, a frown creasing his brow. “Did you love them all, Pa?”
Ben looked at the boy sharply, the question taking him by surprise. “Of course I did.”
“But was one of them your favourite?” Joe pressed, Orrin’s question nagging at him. “I mean they were all so…” He looked at the faces of the three women. “So different.”
Pushing his chair back and getting to his feet, Ben put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Come over and sit by the fire, son.” He said quietly. “And tell me what this is all about.”
Settling himself down on the couch beside his father, Joe related what he and Orrin had talked about on their fishing trip while Ben listened intently, nodding his understanding.
“So do you agree with Orrin, do you think I have a favourite son?” He asked eventually as Joe finished his story. “Is that it?”
“I don’t know.” Joe confessed, looking down at his hands and avoiding his father’s gaze. “Do you, Pa?”
Ben shook his head firmly. “No.”
“But what about our Ma’s.” Joe persisted. “Did you love one of them more than the others?”
Ben shook his head again. “No.” He repeated. “I loved each of them with all of my heart.”
“Are you sure?” Joe asked uncertainly. “I mean, surely you couldn’t have…”
“And why not?” Ben asked him, putting an arm around the boy and pulling him closer. “Let me ask you a question, Joseph, do you have favourites?”
“Well, my Mama is my favourite.” The boy responded, confused as to what his father meant. “And I know she would be even if I knew Adam and Hoss’ mothers.”
“That’s understandable.” Ben said, chuckling a little at Joe’s logic. “Though you realise if Adam and Hoss’ Mama’s hadn’t died you wouldn’t have been around to know them.”
“So did you only marry Mama because Hoss’ mother died?” Joe sounded disappointed at the thought. “Not because you loved her more?”
“Oh, Joe.” Ben sighed, trying to find the words to explain how he felt. “It’s not as simple as that. I loved Adam’s mother, Elizabeth, very much. She was a lot like Adam, you know, she loved books and music. She was intelligent and beautiful…”
Joe looked up at his father, noting the faraway expression in Ben’s eyes. “So how come you stopped loving her and started to love Hoss’ Ma?”
“I never stopped loving her.” Ben denied quickly. “Just as I’ve never stopped loving Inger or your Mama, there’s room in my heart for them all.” He looked down at the boy, thinking for a moment before asking. “You wanted to know if I have a favourite son, do you have a favourite brother?”
“Hoss!” The boy avowed swiftly. “He’s my favourite.”
“Truly?” Ben asked quietly, his dark brown eyes searching the child’s face. “You love Hoss more than Adam?”
“Well…” Joe fell silent, thinking. Hoss was his best friend, his playmate, the brother he had the most fun with. On the other hand…Adam could be bossy but he showed him how to do things, helped him with his schoolwork and could always be relied on to help with any problems he had. To be without either of his brothers was unthinkable. Looking up at his father, Joe shook his head vigorously. “I love them both.” He declared with certainty.
“Even though they’re so different?” Ben probed gently, hoping Joe would understand what he was trying to say.
“Yes.” Joe nodded, and grinned widely. “I guess that means you can love all three of us just the same, no favourites.”
Ben smiled his agreement and tousled the boy’s hair. “No favourites.” He agreed. “You’re all three my sons and I love you all very much.”
“And it was the same with our Ma’s.” Joe said triumphantly. “You loved them all the same.”
“Exactly.” Ben told him. “Can you understand that?”
“Yes, sir!” The boy declared. “I’m gonna tell Orrin not to worry. His Pa will love him and Jakey and the new baby all the same and I just bet Orrin will love the new baby as well. He might only be his half-brother but he’ll still be a real brother won’t he?”
“Yes, Joseph.” Ben pulled his son to him in a hug. “Orrin will be a real brother to the baby, just as your brothers are to you. And…” He added with a smile. “Isn’t it about time you went out and helped them with the evening chores?”
“I guess.” Joe acknowledged, getting to his feet and going to put on his jacket. He glanced back at his father as he reached the door, thankful that he had talked to him and that Orrin had been wrong. Fears laid to rest, Joe ran happily off to join his brothers.
© Kathleen Pitts 2002
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