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Just a Day Like Any Other

By Texas2002

Thank you to Mr. Dortort who created the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa and shared them. And thank you to Ms. Sullivan who gave them new life. This story is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone else involved in these marvelous shows.

 

Hoss Cartwright took a deep breath. He wasn’t looking forward to this either but at least he wasn’t in Little Joe’s boots. Resting his left hand on the outside of the front door, he asked, "Ready?"

Little Joe looked downright miserable by the soft light of the porch candles.

"We’re late enough as it is," Hoss reminded.

Sure enough when they entered the house Pa, Adam and Hop Sing had almost finished with dinner.

Pa’s hands gripped the sides of the table as he watched Hoss and Little Joe enter the room, looking guilty even though they were trying not to. "It’s about time you two showed up."

"Sorry, Pa." Hoss walked toward the wash basin.

Little Joe stood a few feet away from Pa. "It’s cause of me."

Adam looked up so quickly he almost spilled his coffee. Had Little Joe just admitted something was his fault?

Apparently Pa was surprised, too, because - if you knew what you were watching for - you could see the anger ebb out of him. He pushed his chair back slightly and tilted his head. "Because of you?"

Little Joe’s freckled face was solemn. "I made us late leaving town cause Hoss couldn’t find me."

Pa folded his arms across his chest. "Why couldn’t Hoss find you?"

"He was hiding," Hoss answered as he pulled out a chair so he could sit at the table. "Looks good, Hop Sing."

"Hiding," Pa repeated.

Adam sipped his coffee and marveled at Pa’s patience. Did he ever wish that, just once, one of them would tell him a story without him having to pull it out like so many cactus needles?

"You were late getting home because Hoss couldn’t find you because you were hiding," Pa summed up.

When Little Joe finally looked up, Pa crooked his finger at him. The youngster walked to Pa’s knees.

"Why were you hiding?" Pa asked.

Hoss started to answer but Pa held up a palm in his general direction.

Adam exchanged an understanding look with his blond brother and passed him the bread. It was second nature for both of them to protect Little Joe but sometimes Pa didn’t appreciate the interference.

"I didn’t want anyone to find me," Little Joe answered after a moment.

Adam looked down and fought a grin. This was going to take the rest of the evening.

"And why didn’t you want anyone to find you?" Pa asked, willing to play the game for now.

Little Joe squinted his eyes and licked his lower lip. "Cause Wendell and me didn’t mean anything by it."

At Wendell’s name, Pa’s broad shoulders slumped. "What did the two of you do this time?"

"We were having this contest -"

Much to Adam’s amusement, Pa ran his left hand over his face. "What kind of contest, Joseph?"

"I don’t know what you’d call it, Pa."

"Pick something."

Joe shifted from one boot to the other. "Well, see, we noticed those trees back behind the building where the town council meets bend real easy-"

Adam relaxed in his chair and rested his right elbow on the chair arm. He had a bad feeling about this.

"You can’t really climb ‘em cause they just whip this way and that," Little Joe continued. "So we started ‘sperimenting with them."

‘Sperimenting’ was Little Joe’s newest word. He’d liked the sound of it when Adam had read a story aloud from the newspaper about a new way of constructing railroad bridges back east. After he had asked Adam for a definition of experimenting, Joe had decided that most of what he did was ‘sperimenting.

For a brief moment, Pa looked like he didn’t want to hear anymore but then he rallied his strength. His chest heaved with a deep breath. "What kind of ‘speri - experiment?"

"I don’t know what you’d call it either, Pa."

Pa shifted in his chair and Little Joe hastened to speak. "Well see we started wondering how far the branches would bend and – well – then Wendell got this idea."

"Wendell."

Little Joe’s eyes widened and he nodded his head for emphasis as he spoke. "Honest, Pa, this was Wendell’s idea."

As Pa reached for his coffee, his eyes met Adam’s and they both fought not to smile. "I’m listening."

"Wendell took off his shirt and wadded it up real tight in a ball. We bent a branch back, put the shirt on it and let the branch go so we could see how far the shirt would fly."

Oh, Adam was getting a really bad feeling about this.

"And how far did it go?" Pa asked easily.

Little Joe’s face lit up like a kerosene torch. "You should’ve seen it, Pa! It went flying way up there." His right arm shot into the air to emphasis his point. "It went clean past the building and across the street and – well -" he paused and shook his head "that’s when it happened."

"When what happened?" Pa put down his coffee mug.

"Well – see – we didn’t think about – well, Wendell’s shirt started coming unwadded and – well – it came flapping out of the air right in front of Mrs. Greene’s buggy."

Pa went so rigid that Adam flinched. "Is Margaret all right?"

"Oh, yes, sir, Pa," Little Joe was quick to answer. "But, well, see Pa when Mrs. Greene’s horse spooked it kind of upset some other horses."

"Joseph, I want a straight story."

The twelve year old frowned and his temper flared. "I’m telling you straight, Pa."

Pa spoke slowly. "I want it straighter."

Little Joe knew whose temper would win. He spilled the story in record time. "The shirt spooked Mrs. Greene’s horse and a couple others on the street. Some of ‘em broke loose and one ran into Miss Sterrett’s saloon and a fella in there started shooting in the air trying to scare it back out. And some of the other horses that got loose scared the stagecoach team."

"Who was hurt when that happened?" Pa asked.

Hoss looked up quickly, "Nobody, Pa."

He could tell Pa didn’t quite believe him. "No one?"

"No, sir. Not a one."

Pa eased back into his chair. "Joseph, I don’t know how you do it."

Little Joe leaned his small hands on Pa’s knees and pleaded, "I wasn’t trying, Pa."

"I know, son. That’s what worries me." He motioned vaguely with his left hand. "Wash up and eat your dinner before it gets any colder."

Little Joe tilted his head. "Is-is that all, Pa?"

Pa spoke through his hand. "Isn’t that enough?"

+++

"It’s not fair," Little Joe complained as he helped Adam carry in firewood the next morning. "Why won’t Pa let me go into town with him?"

"Because he has a council meeting and Hoss and I are staying here."

"What’s Hoss and you staying here got to do with me not going there?"

Adam stood from the fireplace and dusted his gloves. "You really need to ask that?" He smiled and motioned to the bucket Hop Sing put fireplace ashes in. "Empty that, please?"

Little Joe twisted his lips and picked up the bucket. It wasn’t like he’d meant to cause all that ruckus in town yesterday afternoon. Besides, he needed to go back to town. He’d lost way too many marbles to Wendell and he wanted to win them back.

Stupid chores. He hated this stuff. Riding was fun. Checking the cattle was fun. But this stuff wasn’t. Feed the chickens, gather the eggs, clear out the stalls, spread fresh hay, haul the water, pull weeds in the garden - it was all just dumb old chores.

He was walking along the front porch, heading for where they piled the ashes, when the thought occurred to him. Who said they had to put the ashes some place special? These were fine as dust. Bet you could just throw ‘em in the air and they’d disappear.

Standing on the edge of the porch, Little Joe heaved the bucket behind him and then, holding the handle, swung it forward – sending the ashes arcing into the breeze. Uh oh, they weren’t as fine as he’d thought.

"Jo-seph!!"

No more than 10 feet behind his little brother on the front porch, Adam closed one eye and turned sideways at Pa’s roar of anger. Across the way, where he was saddling Pa’s horse, Hoss hunched his shoulders and closed both eyes.

To Little Joe’s horror, Pa appeared around the corner of the house, covered in grayish-black from his neck to his knees. "What in Zeus do you think you are doing?!"

Adam stayed very still. Now was not the time to attract undue attention. Pa was slow to anger but when he finally got there his words could sear like a branding iron.

"I’m s-s-sorry, P-Pa."

Pa’s lower jaw ground to the left. "And what does that change?"

"N-n-nuthin’," Little Joe’s response came out as a squeak.

Dangit, Pa, Hoss thought. You’re scaring him half to death.

Pa leaned down for a closer look at Little Joe’s face. The youngster dropped the bucket at his feet and backed to the corner porch post.

Adam held his breath. Stay still, Joe. Let Pa cool off. He’s almost there.

Pa looked away a moment and then back to the boy. "Would you care to tell me what you were doing?"

" ‘Sperimentin’?"

At the sound of Little Joe’s newest word, all three of them smiled.

"Experimenting." Pa said. "Would you mind leaving me out of your experiments in the future?"

"Yes, Pa." Little Joe looked up quickly. "I mean, No, Pa."

Pa’s smile spread across his face. "How were you conducting this experiment?"

Adam pulled his shoulders back. Careful Joe. He’s up to something.

"You mean what did I do?" Little Joe asked. When Pa nodded, he shrugged. "I threw ‘em."

"Threw them," Pa repeated. With a move as fast as a wildcat he grabbed Little Joe and before the boy knew what was about to happen Pa crossed to the horse trough. "Like this?" he asked and gently tossed his youngest son in to the cold water.

Little Joe made a big splash and then stood up, dripping like a washcloth. He’d figured he was in for a tanning for sure and instead Pa was playing with him. He’d never understand Pa if he lived a hundred years – but he sure did love him.

Pa helped him from the trough, smiling from under his hat brim, and then looked up as Adam approached.

His oldest son tried not to stare at the dirt on Ben’s shirt and pants. "I’m – uh - headed out to bring those cattle in. I thought if Little Joe could bring in the cattle without starting a stampede, he could come with me."

Good old Adam, Little Joe thought. He always knew when a fella needed to get away.

The ride was an easy one and the day was perfect – not so hot that you were sweating and not so cold that you needed a coat.

Little Joe hated coats. He hated scarves and mittens and extra socks and thick underwear and heavy blankets and all of that other stuff you had to use in winter. He liked warm weather when you could wear thinner clothes and go swimming and not take half an hour getting ready to go outside.

"I wish I’d seen that horse in Shelby’s saloon." Adam laughed, breaking into Little Joe’s thoughts.

"Pa didn’t think it was so funny," Joe lamented, his eyes sliding along the treeline.

"He will," Adam said.

Little Joe frowned at his oldest brother. "What d’ya mean?"

Adam repositioned himself in his saddle, resting his hands on the saddle horn. "Sometimes things that aren’t funny at the time look different later on." He glanced over at Little Joe and could tell from the puzzled look that his brother didn’t understand.

"You don’t think you’re the only Cartwright kid to ever get into mischief, do you?" he asked.

Finally Little Joe understood. He laughed in surprise. "You?"

Adam directed his horse to the right.

"You?" Little Joe repeated in disbelief. Then his eyes sparkled. "Like what?"

Adam laughed as he shook his head. "Oh no you don’t, little brother. The last thing you need is more ideas."

"Please?" Little Joe begged.

"No."

"Please?"

"No, Little Joe."

"Just one?" He got that puppy dog look on his face. "Please?"

Little Joe watched his brother’s expression fade from determined to doubting to relenting.

"All right," Adam agreed. He was pretty sure he knew one of his misadventures that Little Joe couldn’t duplicate. "But just one." He swung his slender body from the saddle and waited for Little Joe. They led their horses toward the towering pine trees.

Adam sat down on the grass in the shade and pulled his knees up. Nearby his horse settled in to enjoy grazing. "I was a little younger than you are now and we were living in New Orleans," he began.

"Were Ma and Pa married?" Little Joe’s expression was so eager that for a fleeting moment he reminded Adam of Hoss.

"Yeah. You were maybe a year old."

Adam broke off a stalk of grass and stuck it in the right side of his mouth. "Anyhow, remember Henri? Well, his mother used to tell him awful stories trying to scare him into behaving." Adam grinned with the memory. "Of course, all he did was remember them long enough to tell them to me."

Little Joe shrugged. "Course."

The kid was even more amusing when he acted grown up.

"So what’d ya do?" Little Joe prompted.

Adam pulled off his hat and rested it on his left knee. "Well, New Orleans has lots of stories about ghosts and pirates and witchcraft and voodoo."

"Voo who?"

"Voodoo, little brother. It’s like witchcraft but they use handmade dolls and feathers and they cast spells."

Little Joe’s mouth was slightly open. He nodded once.

"It’s the kind of thing that you can only get there. You can’t do it on your own," Adam added as a precaution. "In fact, you have to get it from voodoo experts."

He watched his brother’s eyes widen until they were mostly pupil.

Adam had to tread lightly here. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Little Joe’s feelings. "When Ma and Pa first got married I was used to it being Pa and Hoss and me. Deep down inside I really liked Ma – I mean she was so kind who wouldn’t - but I wanted to be on my own and the way I saw it I only had to answer to Pa."

Little Joe nodded that he understood, whether he did or not. He leaned closer, his arms wrapped around his pulled-up legs. "What’d you do?" His tone was that of a conspirator.

Adam looked from the sides of his eyes and wondered if his face looked as ashamed as he felt when he thought about it. "I got a voodoo doll. It was made out of cloth and wood and beads and all kinds of things and even had some feathers tied to it."

"Wow!" Little Joe said softly.

"I had to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and follow Henri to a spooky house outside town. It was right by a graveyard. Remember how all the graves there are above ground? We took a shortcut through there."

"Golly, were you scared?"

"I couldn’t have spit to save my life." Adam chewed on the grass stem. "Anyhow, I went to the place and paid a lady for a voodoo doll. She asked me what spell to put on it. I told her Ma’s name – I didn’t tell her it was my ma – and I wanted her to get sick at her stomach for a couple of days but not die. I figured that way I could have at least a few days where she wasn’t keeping a close eye on me. That way Henri and I could sneak over to the river and do some things I knew she wouldn’t allow. So the voodoo lady waved some feathers and I gave her my money and then Henri and I went back home."

"Gosh," Little Joe said. "Did it work?"

Adam’s blue eyes rolled. "Little Joe, voodoo is just -" He changed his tactics. There was a better way to teach the lesson. "The next day I put the voodoo doll in the back corner of Ma and Pa’s armoire. And the next morning she was sick with a stomachache."

"It did work!"

"That’s what I thought, too." Adam looked down and took the grass from between his teeth. "But after she’d been sick three days I got worried. Tante Jeanette came over to take care of Ma and you. Pa looked so bad after working all day and then being up most of the night that I got really scared. So I decided to get rid of the spell."

Little Joe’s eyes were glued to Adam. "How?"

"I decided I’d take the doll back to the lady and ask her to take the spell off it."

"That oughta work," the youngster agreed with his brother’s sound reasoning.

"I had to sneak into Ma and Pa’s room to get the doll out of the armoire. I don’t know how much you remember about that place but the furniture was really big so I had to climb in to get to the back. I was sprawled on my stomach, and I just had my hand around the doll, when Pa lifted me out by the back of my shirt and pants."

Little Joe hunched his shoulders. "Uh oh."

Adam gave a small sideways nod. "I was in up to my eyeballs, Little Joe. Pa took me down to the kitchen and asked me what the doll was and how I’d gotten it. You know how he does – he made me tell him the whole story."

"About sneakin’ out and everything?"

"Yeah."

"Bet he wasn’t too happy ‘bout that."

Adam’s lips twisted. Talk about understatement. "No."

"So, what happened?"

Adam shifted slightly. "After I’d admitted what I’d done, he took off his belt and tanned my tail."

"What’s funny about that?" Little Joe demanded as if he’d been cheated of a good story.

His older brother raised one eyebrow. "Let me finish?" He gave Little Joe time to settle down. "The next night, Pa and I sat in the living room and talked about voodoo. Well, he sat down. I stood at his knees. Anyhow, he explained to me that voodoo might be like a religion to some people but as far as he was concerned it was make believe. It turned out Ma had an influenza that settles in the stomach and my voodoo doll didn’t have a thing to do with it. And then came the really hard part."

"What?"

"He asked me why I wanted Ma sick." Adam spared his brother a look. "You know how he feels about wishing bad things on people."

Little Joe narrowed his eyes. "It can get ya in trouble."

"You should never wish bad things on someone, Joe." Adam stared ahead, and for a moment he was that youngster again, sharing the late evening with Pa in a quiet house. "I could hardly do it – look into Pa’ face and tell him that I’d liked it better when it was just Hoss and him and me. Pa had always let me take on anything as soon as I wanted to and he’d always trusted me to take care of myself. But Ma treated me like a kid -"

"You were a kid," Little Joe protested.

Adam smiled. "I know. But I didn’t want to be. You know how that is?"

"Yeah," his brother agreed. "What’d Pa do?"

"He explained to me that Ma knew how important I was to him. And the reason she kept such a close eye on me was because she loved me, too. She’d lived in New Orleans for a long time and she knew how a boy could get hurt. He asked me to open my heart – just a crack – and told me he’d be even more proud of me than usual if I would treat her with courtesy like a real gentleman." Adam blinked and caught himself, realizing he’d told Little Joe a lot more than he’d intended to.

"Anyhow," Adam put his hat back on and lifted his chin. "On our way here from New Orleans we met that family that had the little girl Ma liked."

Joe remembered. He’d been more than a little jealous. "Annie."

Adam nodded and tossed the grass stalk to the side. "Ma made a little doll for Annie. She was having trouble stitching the face on it so she asked me to hold it for her. Pa came up behind me and roared, ‘That better not be a voodoo doll!’ Ma said I went white as a cloud. She scolded him for scaring me. But then they both started laughing because I had thought the voodoo would work back when I’d been a kid."

"So," Little Joe leaned forward, "you figure someday Pa’s gonna laugh about Wendell and me?"

Adam pushed down the brim of his little brother’s hat. "I can guarantee it. Come on. We need to get these cattle moving."

The youngster scurried to his feet and adjusted his hat. "Adam, did you really do that or did you make it up?"

Standing beside Paint, waiting to help his brother into the saddle, Adam laughed. "Ask Pa." He put his hands around Little Joe’s waist. "Just don’t ask him when I’m around. My backside still prickles when I think about it."

+++

Ben took off his hat as he stepped into the building. He’d known he would be the last one to arrive for the private council meeting when he’d had to go back inside at home and change clothes. What had Little Joe been doing throwing ashes off the front porch?

Embarrassed by his tardiness, he quickly walked to his chair.

"Everything okay, Ben?" Jack leaned back and smiled in amusement at the usually punctual man. He hadn’t heard any proof yet but he was pretty sure that youngest son of Cartwright’s had been in on yesterday afternoon’s shenanigans. Wendell had for sure and generally where you found Wendell you found Little Joe.

"Actually that’s what I was hoping a few of you could tell me," Ben replied. He accepted the offer of a cup of coffee from Margaret. "Is your buggy alright?"

Margaret tilted her head to the side in wide-eyed surprise. "How did you know about that?"

"My son was one of the instigators."

Jack chuckled but made no comment.

Margaret’s right hand covered part of her lips. "No harm was done, Ben."

His eyes roved and settled on Shelby. "How about you? I heard you had a four-legged visitor."

"Most excitement we’ve had in a month ‘a Sundies." Shelby laughed. "Folks were in the place all afternoon drinkin’ and talkin’ about it." She cast a gloating look Jack’s way and stuck her cigar back in her mouth.

Ben leaned his elbows on the tabletop. "Eli?"

The storeowner waved his hand. "Business stopped while we watched the excitement. But nothing was hurt."

Ben took a deep steadying breath. "How about the stagecoach?"

"Aw," Jack drawled, "it just left a little early."

Ben ran his left hand through his hair and then looked at Margaret. "Is rearing a girl any easier than rearing a boy?"

She fought hard not to laugh and embarrass him even further. "I’m afraid I wouldn’t know, Ben."

He sat up straight and rested the palms of his hands on the tabletop. "Well, I apologize to all of you for what happened. And if there is any restitution to be made, Little Joe will make it."

"You ain’t listenin’, Ben," Shelby said as she leaned forward. "Wasn’t nobody hurt and everybody had a great time watchin’. Even made some profit on it."

Ben’s forehead wrinkled with confusion.

"Old Isham’s been tryin’ to sell that mare of his for weeks. Been swearin’ up an’ down she could outrun the wind. Well, I mean all you had to do was look at her and figure he was pullin’ your leg. But when all that hooraw started in the streets Isham’s mare spooked and took off like a lightning bolt. By the time he got her back, he had four fellas offering to buy ‘er."

"It was," Jack said as his brow arched, "a most enjoyable afternoon. Please thank your young son for us."

Ben sighed. "I’ll pass if it’s all the same to you."

+++

Hoss was bored. It didn’t happen too often, which was just as well, because when he was bored he would do just about anything. And right now he was bored to the point of asking Little Joe for ideas.

"Where are you two going?" Adam asked as he sat in the living room reading in the late afternoon.

Little Joe shrugged. "Just messing around."

"Stay close. Pa oughta be back anytime and he may have some extra chores in mind."

Hoss frowned and stuck his hands in his front pockets. "I’ve done all the chores I’m doing for one day."

Adam’s dark brows shot up. He knew bravado when he heard it – although he was more accustomed to it in Little Joe than in his gentle-natured middle brother. "Suit yourself." He shrugged and returned his attention to his book.

"Dangerous words," Hop Sing said from near the fireplace after the twosome had gone outside.

"Suit yourself?" Adam asked without looking up.

"No, that he not do any more chores today. Best not say to father."

Adam smiled.

Outside Little Joe looked up at Hoss. "So what’d ya wanna do?"

Hoss let out a deep sigh and pursed his lips. He leaned against one of the porch posts. "Just somethin’ different."

"Wanna go swimmin’?"

"Nah," Hoss said with a shake of his head.

"Fishin’?"

Hoss stepped off the porch and started walking. "I said different, Little Joe. Cain’t you think of anything?"

It took him a minute or two but Little Joe came to the rescue. "Wanna see something Wendell and me’ve been doing?"

Hoss’ head tilted to the left and his soft blue eyes squinted. "I don’t know about that. Pa don’t seem real tickled about what Wendell and you think up."

Little Joe tipped his head back. "Hoss, there ain’t no way this’ll get us in trouble. Honest."

"I don’t know, little brother."

"Come on," Little Joe tugged at three of Hoss’ fingers, as close as he could come to holding his older brother’s hand. "It’s harmless as sleeping."

Nothing Little Joe did was harmless as sleeping, Hoss thought. But now he was curious.

Little Joe first stopped by the woodpile where he selected a piece of planking left over from building the new outhouse. He then led Hoss around to the side of the house opposite the barn where he picked up about a dozen dirt clods of varying sizes.

"Now here’s what we do," Little Joe explained as Hoss stood with his hands on his hips. "I’ll throw these clods your way and you hit them with the piece of wood."

"What’s so fun about that?"

Little Joe’s shoulders squared. " ‘Fraid ya can’t hit one?"

The taunt had the desired effect. Hoss narrowed his eyes and pushed back his sleeves.

"Now there’s one secret," Little Joe instructed as Hoss picked up the wood plank. "You gotta watch the clod all the way to ya."

Hoss squatted down slightly to adjust for his brother’s height and nodded. "All right. Throw one."

He was a natural! It had taken Little Joe and Wendell a couple of minutes to figure out what Hoss did the first time. He whacked the dirt clod in mid-air and it disintegrated like the ash Little Joe had tossed in the air that morning.

"Like that?" Hoss asked, his chest sticking out with bragging.

"Let’s try another," Little Joe said. After all, it could have just been luck.

Nope. Hoss knocked that one into pieces, too. And now he was really enjoying himself.

"Throw some more," he ordered, his eyes twinkling. After three more, the sun was a bit lower and the rays broke through the pine boughs, hitting Hoss in the face. They changed where they were standing and that was when Joe’s eyes fell on the rock at his feet.

Fighting a grin, he picked up the rock, asked Hoss if he was ready, and tossed it as hard as he could.

The sound when Hoss hit the rock was so loud that Little Joe thought the wood slat had cracked. But he only thought about it for a second. Behind him came the distinct shatter of glass and Hoss, who could see what had happened, dropped the piece of wood like it was a burning log.

Little Joe turned slowly. How could that be? How could one rock break two pieces of window glass?

"Ain’t no way to get in trouble?" Hoss’ face was red as he repeated Joe’s assurance. "What’re we gonna tell Pa when he gets -"

There was no time to worry about that. Pa came around the corner of the house with Adam and Hop Sing lagging behind him. He held up his gloved left hand. "Would you care to tell me what this is?"

Hoss squinted to see better. "A rock?"

"I know it’s a rock, son. Why did it come through the window and nearly hit your brother and me?"

"I don’t know, Pa. It was supposed to be a dirt clod." Hoss’ innocent answer caused Adam’s eyebrows to rise and his lips to inch up in a smile.

"A dirt clod," Pa said.

"Yes, Pa."

"Well it isn’t."

Hoss looked down at Joe and there was danger in his normally benign expression.

"I expect the two of you to pay for new window glass and to replace those windows. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Pa."

Pa settled his eyes on Little Joe. "You would do well to behave the rest of the day."

Little Joe nodded so strongly that his bangs bounced.

The tall man dropped the rock and turned on his boot heel to return to the house.

Hoss closed in on Little Joe, speaking through clenched teeth. "You knew that wasn’t no dirt clod, didn’t you?"

"I wasn’t paying attention," Little Joe pleaded.

"Wasn’t paying attention," Hoss said in disgust. His left hand shot out to point at the broken window and Little Joe flinched. "Now I have to put my saved money into fixin’ that. And I’ll bet you don’t have more’n a nickel, do ya?"

Little Joe looked down. "I don’t even have a nickel."

Hoss shook his head and looked like for very little he’d squash Little Joe like a bug. "Dangit, Little Joe, you’re gonna owe me somethin’ fierce."

Adam stepped off the porch and approached them, his hands in his front pockets. "Pa needs us behind the barn," he announced.

Hoss looked up from Little Joe, his jaw sticking out. "I told ya, Adam, I ain’t doing anymore chores."

Adam shrugged. "Don’t tell me."

"And don’t tell Pa while I’m around." Little Joe picked up his hat.

Hoss held his hands out beseechingly as the three brothers walked. "Well don’t you fellas ever get tired of chores?"

Adam nodded and his dark hair fell onto his forehead. "We all do. So does Pa, so does Hop Sing. But they have to be done."

"Why? What’s so all-fired important that one chore can’t wait for tomorrow?" Hoss asked.

Little Joe leaned back slightly and considered the idea. "Hoss is right, Adam. We’d be safe long as we all stick together."

Adam was astounded at such mutinous talk. "Where’d you get an idea like that?" he asked the 12-year-old.

"Well, Pa isn’t gonna lay into you. And Hoss is too big."

Adam put a hand to his littlest brother’s back. "Say for argument’s sake we didn’t do the chore. Do you want to face him at dinnertime?"

"Well, if we’re all together -"

"Him giving you that hard, quiet look so you can’t eat," Adam said. "And the air so thick with disapproval and disappointment you can hardly breathe."

"And knowing you let him down," Hoss said morosely.

Little Joe stopped in his tracks and blinked. "It was your idea!"

"It ain’t no more," Hoss said with a shake of his head.

Little Joe raised his arms in exasperation. "Just a minute ago -"

His middle brother frowned. "It ain’t worth it, little brother."

"How do you know?" Little Joe demanded. Everybody knew Hoss hardly ever got into trouble.

Hoss rested his big hands on either side of his waist. "Remember the time I ran off to see Tess and didn’t tend the horses like I was supposed to? Just clean forgot about ‘em. Then I came in late and I hadn’t told anyone where I was goin’ so Pa had been worrying."

Adam looked down. He remembered. He’d been reading by the fireplace when Hoss stepped in the front door and he had quickly exited to the bunkroom.

Hoss took a deep breath and tilted his head to one side as he regarded Little Joe. "I can tell you this. There’s somethin’ a lot worse than Pa yelling at ya like he did this mornin’ and that’s when he don’t say a word."

"Wouldn’t bother me," Little Joe boasted.

But his middle brother shook his head in disagreement. "He looked up from some papers he was workin’ on and watched me slip over to where Hop Sing had left my supper to stay warm. I sat down to eat but Pa gave me a look that cleaned the appetite right outta me. I knew better than to waste the food so I sat there thinkin’ I’d get hungry. But the longer I sat there the worse it got. He was disgusted with me, Little Joe. Flat out disgusted. When I started to tell him I was sorry he got up to keep from sayin’ something while he was really mad. It was the only time in my life he went to bed without telling me goodnight." Hoss frowned. "I couldn’t sleep and the next mornin’ I had to talk to him, had to tell him how sorry I was and that it’d never happen again." Hoss straightened his shoulders. "And I don’t mean for it to."

Still digesting his brother’s confession, Little Joe kicked at the dirt as he followed in the big boot prints.

When they stopped behind the barn, looking for Pa, Adam followed Hoss’ sky blue eyes to the top of the building.

"Sounds like Abigail and John Adams," Hoss said as worriedly as a father who heard his child whimpering.

Adam sighed in resignation. "Hoss, I keep telling you if you’ll just let them be they’ll figure out how to get down."

Hoss motioned to the tall pine. "But look at that thing. There ain’t no limbs for more’n eight feet from the ground. It’ll kill Abigail and John Adams if they start down that trunk and lose hold."

Adam looked at his brother from the sides of his eyes. "They are not going to fall, Hoss. They’re cats."

"Well, they ain’t full grown and if someone doesn’t help ‘em they’re never gonna be."

Adam knew where this was going and he intended to head it off. Using his most assertive big brother voice he said, "They’re your cats, you rescue them."

"Me??" Hoss looked at Adam as if he’d lost his mind. "You know what’s liable to happen if I get up on that roof. I’ll bust through it or fall off and break a leg. I ain’t good at being up there like you are, Adam."

Muttering that he wished he were an only child, Adam pulled off his boots and let Hoss give him a boost to the roof over the woodshed. Then he propped the ladder and, with Hoss holding one side, inched his way up until he felt the roof edge. A moment later he was atop the barn with keen memories of the trouble he’d gotten into climbing on rooftops in New Orleans. Even though Pa had tanned him for it several times, it had sure been fun to be up high and it still was.

He glanced down at his two brothers and grinned widely, then bent over and slowly made his way toward the pine tree.

There they were: Abigail and John Adams clinging to the very end of a bough with that wide-eyed, short-nosed kitten look of theirs.

"Come on, Abby," he coaxed.

She whimpered some worried sounds but finally trusted the safety of his long-fingered hands. He padded sock-footed to the lowest part of the roof and dropped her down to a smiling Hoss.

Now for John Adams. This was the absolute last time Adam was doing this - he didn’t care how much Hoss pleaded.

Last week when Pa had seen him taking the same stupid risk he’d let Adam know how unhappy he was. Being corrected like that in front of his younger brothers was more embarrassing than the fact that he deserved it.

"Come on, John." Adam squatted and held out both hands. John Adams made a pitiful sound first and then hissed at him. He supposed the growing cat intended for it to be serious but it was so funny coming from something that little that he laughed. And that was when he made his mistake. He reached for the scruff of John Adams’ neck, to carry him to safety, and the scrapper flew into him.

Caught by surprise, and sent off balance, Adam fell to his back near the top of the barn and started tumbling toward the front.

Uh oh. Either the fall was going to kill him or Pa was. He had no idea where John Adams was and didn’t much care. Unable to control his natural reaction, he yelled all the way down and prepared for death.

Inside the barn, Ben looked up with a puzzled frown creasing his forehead. What was that thudding? And who was that yelling at the top of his lungs? Pushing the wooden wheelbarrow loaded with hay toward the front corral, he stepped through the open doors.

Before Ben’s disbelieving eyes, Adam fell from the sky, landed in the hay on his back and the wheelbarrow crashed apart. Ben was left holding two handles that didn’t connect to anything. Mouth slightly open, a fierce frown furrowing his forehead, Ben shook his head to clear it. Surely he had not just seen what he thought he had.

"Adam?!" Hoss yelled as he and Little Joe rounded the barn and screeched to a halt.

Adam started to sit up but lay back down spread-eagled and laughed uncontrollably after John Adams landed on top of him then skittered off to explore.

"Would you care to tell me what happened?" Ben tossed the useless handles aside and turned to his two younger sons.

They looked at each other, Little Joe leaning so far back to make eye contact with Hoss that Ben was sure he’d break his neck. They were cooking up a whopper in that invisible language of theirs.

"Well, see Pa," Hoss started.

But it didn’t take Little Joe long to cut in. He put his hands in his back pockets, a habit he’d developed after the spanking he’d received for lying about burning down the outhouse. "We were standing behind the barn, Pa – Adam was telling us you had another chore for us – and it just came out of nowhere."

Ben was afraid to ask. "What came out of nowhere?"

"The wind. It was like those dirt devils only bigger. It just lifted Adam and sent him flying over the barn."

Oh Lord, this was one of the best ones yet. "Just flying over the barn," he repeated.

"Well, it dropped him about halfway," Little Joe admitted just as straight-faced as possible. Ben hoped his son never played poker because he would be very good at it.

"Yeah, Pa," Hoss added his part. "And that wind was so strong it sucked old Adam clean out of his boots."

Ben glanced down at his oldest son who had quit laughing and was rubbing at his eyes and face as if to get a grip. Ben had half a mind to get a grip on the 21-year-old himself. Hoss had spoken the truth about one thing. Adam was stretched out in his sock feet.

Which only meant one thing.

"What were you doing on the roof?" Ben asked, trying to control the edge he felt rising in his voice.

Little Joe stepped forward, flinging his arms out. "We told ya, Pa, this wind -"

Ben tilted his head back and his youngest read the warning. Even better, he heeded it.

Adam sat up, bending his knees and propping his forearms on them. "I was rescuing Abigail and John Adams."

Ben closed his eyes and looked away to keep from saying something he would probably regret in an hour.

Well, maybe two.

"Adam," he said as he fought for control. "They are cats. They are used to climbing and they are used to getting down."

Adam looked from the tops of his eyes in silent apology. "I know, Pa. It’s Hoss I can’t convince."

Ben leaned from his waist toward the son sitting in the hay. "It’s not Hoss who keeps getting on top of the barn."

Adam nodded and small pieces of hay fell from his dark hair. "I told him this was the last time."

"If I ever find you up there again without good reason -"

He stopped suddenly.

Adam grinned widely, his deep blue eyes full of mischief , remembering the same words coming from Pa many years ago. "Yes, Pa?" he prompted.

Humor welled in Pa as he recalled a dark-haired, blue-eyed slightly rebellious 11-year-old repeatedly climbing from the wrought iron balcony to the roof to slip out at night in New Orleans.

He extended a strong hand and Adam accepted it, pulling himself up.

Pa looked from the tops of his eyes and laughed.

Adam joined in the private joke and dusted himself off.

Hoss and Little Joe looked at each other in bewilderment. Sometimes there was no understanding Pa or Adam.

+++

The moon was brilliant that night as Ben sat on the front porch bench, his left ankle crossed to his right knee and his arms spread along the bench back. The deep searing pain of loss had been over for a while – but the dull aching void would never fill. At times like this, with the boys asleep and the night before him, he missed Marie more than ever.

"Pa?"

Well, two of the boys were asleep.

Ben turned his head to look at his youngest.

Clad in his cotton nightshirt, Joe padded barefoot across the porch and sat down beside Pa on the bench. For a brief moment he wondered if his feet would ever touch the floor. Then he remembered he had come out here to ask Pa something. "Adam and me rode out to move the cattle today -"

"He said you were a big help."

Little Joe looked up in delight. "He did?"

Ben nodded.

"Well," the boy stared toward the barn as he spoke, "he told me a story."

"What kind of story?"

"About voodoo."

What had Adam been thinking to tell Little Joe a voodoo story? Ben needed to speak to him first thing in the morning.

"Did he buy a voodoo doll to put a spell on Ma?"

Pa leaned his head back and laughed deeply. He wiped under one eye. "Why did he tell you about that?"

Adam had been right! Pa was laughing about something that hadn’t been at all funny when it happened.

"Cause he said sometimes things aren’t funny now but then later on they are."

Pa’s right brow arched. "You aren’t making a voodoo doll, are you?"

"No, sir, Pa. ‘Sides, Adam said you have to have one of the ladies from New Orleans put a spell on it."

Ben sighed in relief. Now he had to remember to thank Adam. He fought not to laugh again, recalling how sure Adam had been at the time that he was responsible for Marie’s illness.

"Did he really do it, Pa?" Little Joe prompted.

Ben glanced at him distractedly. "Really do what?"

"Did Adam really buy a doll to put a spell on Ma?"

"Why did you wait until the middle of the night to ask?"

Little Joe shifted and looked up at Pa with a tilt of his head. "He said not to ask you about it when he was around."

Ben leaned toward the boy in surprise. "Why not?"

"Something about his tail still prickled when he thought about it."

Once again, Pa leaned his head back. He laughed even longer this time.

Little Joe smiled and pulled his left knee up, wrapping his hands around it. Bare toes peeked from under his nightshirt. "So did he buy a voodoo doll?"

"Did he tell you what happened when I found out about it?"

"He said you hauled him down to the kitchen and made him tell you the whole story and then you tanned him with your belt."

Ben was surprised that his usually reserved son had shared so much with his youngest brother. He studied Little Joe from the sides of his eyes. "Did he tell you why I was angry?"

Little Joe nodded.

"Why don’t you tell me?" Ben suggested.

"Cause voodoo’s nothing but hooey. And cause you shouldn’t wish bad things on folks," he answered simply.

"Maybe you can learn that lesson from Adam’s story and not have to learn it for yourself," Ben said.

Little Joe pulled up his other knee. His voice dripped with the same bravado Hoss had exuded earlier that day. "Only one I wanna see something happen to is Lewis and I don’t need any doll to do that."

"Joseph, you know how I feel about fighting!" The two boys had already had a scrape a couple of weeks ago.

Little Joe didn’t respond. He was purposely ignoring his father.

With the slightest of smiles, Ben grabbed Little Joe around the waist and swung him across his lap, bottom up.

"Pa!" Little Joe yelped and then twisted and giggled as Ben tickled his ribs. The youngster tried to get in a tickle or two of his own at Ben’s waist but he didn’t have a chance. Finished tickling, Ben gave him a quick pop on the bottom.

Little Joe rolled over and landed on his feet, his left hand rubbing his hip. "What was that for?" he asked in surprise.

Ben pointed his left index finger. "No fights with Lewis."

"Aw, Pa!"

Ben made to take him by the waist again and Joe backed up. "Okay, no fights," he said.

Was it Ben’s imagination that there was the slightest hint of cunning in that young voice?

"Gee, Pa, it’s still stinging," Little Joe said, twisting to look over his shoulder.

Ben shook his head. "It’ll quit in a minute."

"I don’t think so," his son said doubtfully. "I think it’s gonna sting all night."

"Joseph, it couldn’t. I barely -"

"It’s my tail," the boy interrupted. "I oughta know how it feels." His face was so dejected that Ben wondered if he’d accidentally swatted him too hard. He glanced momentarily at his palm and then grinned.

So that was it.

"This doesn’t have anything to do with that berry pie Hop Sing made, does it?"

Little Joe gave a jerk of his head. "What’d ya mean?"

"Would another piece of that pie take the sting out of your tail?"

The boy smiled. "Maybe."

The scamp ran ahead of him into the house. Heaven only knew what eating pie this time of the night would do to his sleep but kids had to get away with something every once in a while.

Ben stepped into the house, expecting it to be dark except for the low light from the fireplace. Instead he blinked slightly at the lantern on the dining table and fought a laugh as Adam and Hoss looked up guiltily from their plates.

"You better’ve saved some for me," Little Joe threatened.

Hoss shoved the pie plate in his younger brother’s direction. "I reckon Pa and you can share what’s left."

Little Joe looked down at the skinny morsel of a slice that remained. "Share!"

Ben held up his hand. "I don’t want any pie. You can have it all."

His son was not placated. "But look, Pa. It’s hardly a bite."

"Well if you don’t want it, I’ll take it." Adam smiled at his father as Joe quickly pulled the plate back toward him.

Ben handed the boy a fork and nodded that he should sit down to eat even a tiny piece of pie. Then he bid his sons goodnight and walked to his room.

He was lying in bed, looking at the stars outside his window when a horrendous noise thundered from the living area. It sounded as if every chair and the table had been overturned.

"It’s okay, Pa!" Little Joe yelled quickly. "Hoss just got his feet tangled up."

"Nothing broken!" Adam added.

"Yeah, ain’t no need in you getting’ up!" Hoss said.

That could only mean one thing. Things were not okay. Something was broken. And he probably should get out of bed.

When Ben made no movement, he heard Hoss ask, "You reckon he could’ve slept through that?"

"He wakes up if we breathe wrong in our sleep," Adam scoffed. "Well, except for you. I think he’s finally gotten used to your snoring."

"Wish I could," Little Joe muttered.

"What’re we gonna do?" It was Hoss again.

"Fix it," Adam answered matter-of-factly.

"It’s the middle of the night," Hoss protested.

"Well if you hadn’t -" Adam stopped and spoke deliberately. "The sooner we get this fixed the sooner we can all get to bed. And we’d better get it done soon because if you think Pa’s gonna let us sleep late in the morning -"

Ben rolled onto his back and put his hands behind his head.

"Dang it, Little Joe, watch what you’re doing," Hoss hissed in the living room. "You already got me in enough trouble for one day."

Little Joe started to say something but Adam spoke over him. "Listen to who’s talking," he said to Hoss. "Pa nearly had my hide me when I came rolling off that roof trying to rescue your cats."

"I ain’t never seen Pa take a hide while he was laughin’," Hoss challenged. "What was so funny anyhow?"

"Yeah, Adam?" Little Joe asked. "How come you were laughing so hard?"

Ben sighed. Well, at least if Adam shared the story of climbing on the roof there would be no danger of Little Joe trying to copy it. He was terrified of heights.

"It goes back to New Orleans," Adam said after a moment.

"Is it a funny story?" Little Joe’s voice lowered.

Ben heard his oldest son laugh. "It is now."

The three voices lowered and Ben closed his eyes. When he considered everything his sons put him through he wondered that he didn’t feel very, very old.

Of course there were times when he felt old.

But most of the time he felt loved.

And very, very blessed.

 

The end

+++