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Knuckling Down

By Texas 2002

 

This story follows "Pulling Their Weight"

Rating: PG for a little lightweight innuendo

Author’s note: The china marble referred to in this story is a high-fired china that is like glass. I have not been able to determine when the phrase "Lost his marbles" came into popular speech but I’ll use literary license if it wasn’t popular by 1849.

 

"Please?"

"No."

"Puhleeaasse?" Little Joe held his arms out at his sides as he trudged beside Pa.

"Little Joe, it’s a town council meeting." Pa threw open the barn door and walked inside. "You and I both know you are not interested in sitting through a town council meeting."

"Pa, I promise. I’ll play marbles right behind the town hall an’ I’ll come soon as you need me to." Little Joe followed toward the stalls. "Please, Pa?" He paused long enough to put on the face Pa usually couldn’t say ‘no’ to. "Please?"

Pa didn’t say anything right away, a good sign he was giving in. "What about Smoke?"

"I’ll ask, Hoss. He’s not going, right?"

"If Hoss can’t watch him, you put Smoke in his pen." Pa’s head moved with every word.

Pa didn’t need to say anymore. Memories of the damage Smoke had done the last time he had stayed home alone were still very fresh with Little Joe.

He uttered, "Yes, Pa" and ran off to find Hoss.

Little Joe just had to get to Eagle Station. Like Pa, he had important business there. But, unlike Pa, he’d just as soon the rest of the family didn’t know about it.

Somehow, some way, he had to win back his marbles from Wendell.

If Pa found out they were playing for keeps Little Joe would get it good. Pa had told him from the time he was old enough to understand that playing for keeps was gambling. Little Joe didn’t see the harm in a little gambling and he’d tried to talk to Pa about it, thinking maybe they could reach an agreement the way Pa and Adam did from time to time. Pa had been pretty reasonable until Little Joe had made the mistake of talking back to him.

The memory of that embarrassing lecture caused him to shift on the wagon seat as they rode toward Eagle Station.

Pa glanced his way "Something wrong, son?"

"Just gettin’ settled."

"Where are your marbles?"

"I – left ‘em with Wendell." Which was the truth. Why was Adam smiling at him that way from his horse?

"So," Little Joe asked, deciding to change the subject, "you figure there’ll be a lot of folks at the meetin’?"

"Probably." Pa directed the team onto the trail toward town. "Eli said several people are scheduled to speak. They want to hire a sheriff. Much as I’d like to have some law enforcement I don’t know where the money would come from."

"I know one dissenting vote already," Adam said as he thought of JackWolf. He looked toward the road ahead. So Little Joe had left his marbles with Wendell, hum? That could only mean one thing – they were playing for keeps despite Pa’s warning. Eventually Pa was going to get suspicious if Little Joe didn’t bring his marbles home, especially since one of them was a special china one that Adam had played with when he was a child.

After a reminder to stay near the Town Hall, Pa followed Adam inside the building and Little Joe ran to find Wendell.

"But what’re you gonna play with?" Wendell challenged as they stood outside his father’s blacksmith shop.

Little Joe sighed. "C’mon, Wendell, we don’t ever keep all of ‘em or we’d never have another game."

His red-haired friend considered Joe’s argument a moment and then grinned at the prospect of some more good games. "Where ya wanna play?"

"Behind the Town Hall."

They gathered up a few more boys and soon Wendell had drawn the circle in the dirt. He put the agreed upon number of marbles in the center and then Little Joe and he each shot a marble toward a rock to see who would go first. When Little Joe won, Wendell moaned.

"He’s got you now," Toby laughed knowingly.

"May as well hand them to him," Zed added.

Little Joe put a knuckle on the ground and flicked his shooter toward the center. He only had five marbles left in the ring when he missed and it was Wendell’s turn. He knew the game was over because Wendell wasn’t gonna miss those no matter what. They played several more games and the competition drew more onlookers.

Winnings in his marble sack, Little Joe finally raised his head slightly. "Now let’s play for my china one."

His buddy shrugged. "Can’t."

"Why not?"

"Cause I’ve got it," Lewis Tinker pushed through the group of onlookers. Standing a head and a half above the others, he looked more grown than fifteen even if he didn’t act it.

Lewis? Stinking, mean, big-old-bully Lewis had his treasured china marble?

Little Joe stared at Wendell in disbelief. "You played with Lewis?"

"Well, you ain’t been in town for a while and -"

Everything from betrayal to fury to the need to hit something shot through Little Joe - and Wendell was the closest. He swung his fist and experienced the astonishment of having it crack against Wendell’s chin.

Wendell staggered back, surprise in his green eyes only until they nearly closed in rage.

Little Joe ducked as Wendell charged him and quickly turned to face him again. This time he wasn’t so lucky. Wendell got a hold of him and they fell to the dirt. They mostly wrestled and kicked but Little Joe felt one blow land near his eye and threw his arms up to protect himself. He’d finally managed to get on top when strong hands closed around him under his arms and lifted him up.

Oh, no. It was Pa and he was gonna wish Wendell had killed him.

"Stop it. Now."

Little Joe looked up in surprise. That wasn’t Pa’s voice. It was Adam’s.

"Don’t you know what Pa’ll do if he finds you fighting?" Adam half-whispered, looking worriedly over his shoulder at the Town Hall. He motioned with his right hand. "Come on."

"Where?"

"To clean you up." Adam led the way to the creek behind town and squatted down to wet his neckerchief. "Wash your face and hands." He dusted at the front of the boy’s clothing and then motioned that Little Joe should turn around.

It felt like Adam swatted extra hard at the seat of Little Joe’s pants.

Adam touched up a few spots with the wet neckerchief and then stood, inspecting his handiwork. "Well, you don’t look any dirtier than usual now. The meeting’s almost over so Mrs. Orowitz will be opening the mercantile."

"I want my marbles."

Adam put a hand to Little Joe’s left shoulder. "I’ll get them. You go to the mercantile." When it looked like his younger brother was going to argue, Adam gave a jerk of his chin.

What was Little Joe thinking? Not just a fight but a fight by Town Hall? No telling what Pa would have done if he’d found out but Adam had a couple of good ideas.

"Are you okay?" Adam approached Wendell.

"Ain’t seen the day yet that Little Joe could lick me."

Adam smiled at the boasting. "Where are his marbles?"

The boy reached to the side and lifted a small muslin sack. "Tell ‘im no bad feelin’s?"

Adam bounced the bag in the palm of his hand and said he would.

The crowd began to emerge from Town Hall and when Pa’s eyes settled on Adam he looked questioningly at the marbles but didn’t say anything.

"I sent Joe ahead to the mercantile," Adam said.

As they entered the store, Little Joe’s animated voice reached them from where he knelt behind the counter petting Smoke’s mother. "And he’s real smart, Mrs. Orowitz. ‘Cept he chases shadows."

"Chases shadows?" the woman asked, giving Little Joe her complete attention.

"Yes, ma’am. There’ll be a butterfly or a dragonfly or even a bird and Smoke doesn’t seem to notice them. But he chases their shadow on the ground."

"That is odd. So does his mother."

Ruth became aware of Ben and Adam and she quickly smiled. "Ah, good afternoon. I have the things you requested."

Ben’s lips twisted to the left as he recalled that Ruth and Margaret had been cohorts in the puppy plot. "You don’t mind if I check the order before we leave do you? Just to be sure there’s nothing of Margaret’s mixed in?"

Ruth’s face became as innocent as an angel’s. "Of course not."

 

Adam waited until Hoss’ snoring was almost deafening that night before he closed his book and propped himself on his right elbow. "So what was the fight about?"

Little Joe, who should have been asleep hours earlier, put his hands behind his head causing Smoke to whimper and crawl to the foot of the bunk. "You’ll just tell Pa."

"I saved your hide today. Why would I tell Pa?"

The twelve-year-old thought about it a minute. "Promise you won’t?"

"Promise."

"We’ve been playing for keeps."

"Oow," Adam said softly.

"It’s worse."

How could it be worse? Adam watched his brother closely.

"I lost the china."

"The china marble that was mine?"

Little Joe gave a slight nod of his head.

Adam fell back on his pillows and closed his blue eyes. "Pa gave me that marble. He traded an Englishman for it. We’ve gotta get it back."

Little Joe hesitated for a heartbeat. "I don’t think Lewis’ll play you, Adam."

"No, but he’ll play you. And we’re going to work on your game until you can beat him."

Little Joe sat up with excitement and Smoke growled in protest. Didn’t Little Joe understand he was a growing pup and he needed his sleep?

"Promise?" Little Joe asked.

"Promise."

+++

Ben didn’t cross paths with his youngest son the next day until mid-afternoon when the boy rode in - Smoke peeking out of the special bag Hop Sing had fashioned to fit Little Joe’s saddle.

"Hey, Pa," Little Joe jumped to the ground and held up a string of fish after putting Smoke on his feet. "Smoke and me caught nine fish."

Little Joe did nothing alone these days. Anytime he mentioned himself it was "Smoke and me."

"Ought to be enough for Hoss," Ben teased as he squatted down and gave Smoke a scratch behind his wet ears. "Did Smoke tangle with another frog?"

Little Joe laughed easily. "Nah. He’s a fast learner."

"You didn’t see Adam, did you?"

Was it his imagination that his son chose his next words carefully?

Little Joe put the fish down on the porch and Smoke pulled at one of the tails until the boy saw what he was doing and told him to stop. "I think he mighta said somethin’ about goin’ to welcome those folks that bought the Albert place."

"I didn’t know anyone had moved in there."

Little Joe shrugged easily. "I think that’s what he said."

Which meant, of course, it was exactly where Adam was.

"Do you remember if he might have said anything about when he would be back?" Ben asked in amusement as he watched Smoke ease back to the fish and pull at the fish tail, looking from the sides of his eyes at Little Joe.

Little Joe swallowed from the water bucket dipper and stared into space. "Seems he mighta said he’d be back before dinner. He had some bread and venison and preserves for them from Hop Sing."

"Who’s that?" Hoss asked as he crossed the porch and walked to the water bucket. Smoke immediately quit pulling at the fish and ferociously attacked Hoss’ pants hem.

"Did you know someone bought the Albert homestead?" Ben asked.

"Oh, yeah," Hoss said with enthusiasm, shaking his leg and dislodging his attacker. "They’ve got a pa and a ma, a girl and two boys."

So that was it. "This girl wouldn’t happen to be Adam’s age?"

Hoss and Little Joe frowned at one another. "No," Hoss said. "She’s maybe 19."

Ben smiled to himself. "And the boys?"

"Adam said they’re just kids," Little Joe answered. He held up the fish for his brother to see and Smoke jumped, still intent on getting one by the tail. "Look what Smoke and me caught."

"Did he pull in the pole like we been teachin’ ‘im?" Hoss asked.

Ben lowered his head. What would these two try to teach this pup next?

"He tried," Little Joe answered. "But the fish started splashing and Smoke got upset and started barking at it. When it kept splashing he just jumped in the water and swam out there and got it."

Hoss frowned. "YOU can eat that fish."

"He didn’t hurt it. Didn’t even get a tooth mark on it."

"He what?" Ben asked quickly.

Little Joe beamed up at him. "He didn’t even get a tooth mark on it."

"That’s the sign of a good bird dog."

Little Joe screwed up his face. "What’s a bird dog?"

"You shoot the birds and it brings them back without damaging them."

Little Joe and Hoss looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

"Too bad ‘e can’t shoot ‘em, too," Hoss observed.

"Hey," Little Joe’s face lit up. "Wonder if we could train ‘im to -"

"No!" Ben ordered.

His youngest son looked up at him in aggravation. "I was just wondering if we could teach ‘im to bring back birds like that."

Hoss laughed softly. "Gee, Pa everybody knows a dog can’t shoot a rifle. Leastways not without a lot of practice." Hoss laughed when Pa pulled off his hat and swatted Hoss’ shoulder with it.

Smoke barked his approval and attacked Hoss’ pants hem again.

 

As he returned from checking the cattle in late afternoon, Ben noted Adam’s horse in the corral. He turned his own horse in and glanced around the ranch yard. Smoke, Abigail and John Adams were sleeping in a pile under the front porch bench and Little Joe was stretched out nearby, his hat over his head.

He turned on his heel and spotted Hoss and Tess walking down in the meadow, laughing and looking down. Ben entered the barn and his oldest son looked up from stacking feed sacks with as close to a guilty look as Ben had seen in a while.

"Pa," he said and quickly straightened the last of the bags before it could fall on his boot. "Sorry I didn’t see you this morning to tell you where I was headed. Hop Sing asked me to take some things over to the family that bought the Albert place."

Ben crossed his arms. "Hop Sing."

Adam nodded once. "I helped with a few things and she sent back a real heavy cake that has nuts and rum in it. Smells good." He walked past Pa toward the corral to tend his horse.

Ben followed and handed Adam a brush. "Maybe we should invite them over for lunch some Sunday to get acquainted."

Was Adam’s face flushed from brushing his horse or was there some other reason? Ben decided to leave it for the moment and smiled as he walked to the house.

A friendly tap in the side from the toe of Pa’s boot as he went nearby on the porch woke Little Joe from his late afternoon nap. The aromas drifting from the open windows told him dinner would be ready soon so he needed to tend Paint the way he should have a couple of hours ago and then get cleaned up.

"Hey, Adam," he greeted as he joined his brother in the corral. "Pa was asking for you."

"He found me," came the cryptic reply.

"You ain’t in trouble, are ya?"

Adam shook his head. "None that I know of."

"Pa kinda acted like you hadn’t told him where you were going."

"Hop Sing knew. Pa could have asked him."

"Oh." Little Joe made note of that in case Pa ever wasn’t around when he wanted to do something.

As if reading his mind, Adam said. "But if I were you, I’d ask his permission until I were a little older." He patted Little Joe on the back and left the corral, walking toward the house.

Little Joe finished with Paint and then entered the barn to put up the grooming brushes. But he stopped in his tracks when he saw part of a bridle lying twisted and half destroyed beside the chest they stored smaller tools in.

His stomach growing queasy, Little Joe bent down and fingered it. Paint’s headstall. Smoke had chewed through just about everything that was supposed to be connected. And this was Little Joe’s fault pure and simple because he had thrown it on top of the chest when they got back in from fishing instead of hanging it the way he’d been taught.

Little Joe dropped the headstall and sat on the chest. When Pa found out – aw, gee, he had that brand new belt he’d bought at the mercantile.

"Joe! Dinner!" Pa’s voice called from the front porch.

Little Joe kicked hay over the evidence and quickly stepped from the barn. "Comin’ Pa!"

It had been such an easy-going day that Ben was a little surprised by how quiet his sons were at dinner that evening. Adam and Hoss spoke only when spoken to. And Little Joe, who wouldn’t quit talking, was saying something Ben couldn’t make any sense out of.

"I mean, sometimes Smoke makes mistakes but, well gee, we all make mistakes, right?" Little Joe forced a smile.

Why on earth was Little Joe talking about mistakes? Ben put molasses on his bread and decided whatever was going on with Little Joe would come out sooner or later.

Adam shook his head. What was Little Joe so nervous about? Had Smoke gotten into something else today? More importantly what was wrong with Hoss?

"You all right?" he asked his blond brother.

Hoss shrugged lethargically.

"Maybe I can help," Adam said.

"It cain’t be undone."

That sounded ominous. Adam pushed his fork into his beans. "Maybe you aren’t looking at it right."

"Well, that was the problem in the beginning but it ain’t now," Hoss said, almost sounding morose. He rubbed at his face with his right hand. "Tess and me made a terrible mistake."

Adam’s fork clattered to his dish. He quickly retrieved it. Hop Sing folded his hands in his lap and Pa very slowly eased back in his chair. Little Joe looked around at everyone, wondering why they were behaving so oddly. When he couldn’t figure it out he filled his plate with more beans.

"Maybe you and I should discuss it alone later, son."

Hoss shook his head. "Everybody’s gonna know eventually, Pa."

Little Joe looked around the table again. What was wrong? Pa’s jaw was set, Adam was staring into space, and Hop Sing was softly saying something in Chinese.

Hoss squared his shoulders. "John Adams ain’t a boy."

"What d’ya mean he ain’t a boy?" Little Joe challenged his brother from across the table as Adam leaned his head back, Hop Sing rolled his eyes and Pa blew out his cheeks and lowered his head as if he were saying a prayer.

"I mean John Adams is a girl," Hoss said, his chin jutting.

"Aw gee Hoss." Little Joe leaned to the side and picked up Smoke. Holding the twisting puppy under his front legs, Little Joe dangled him over the table with his chubby belly facing Hoss. "All you gotta do is look for his -"

"Joseph!"

"Dang it, I know what you look for," Hoss shot back at his baby brother.

"Joseph, put Smoke on the floor now." Ben leaned his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands, grateful there was no company present.

"It’s harder to tell with kittens," Hoss said defensively. "And anyhow Tess was the one who told me John Adams was a boy."

Little Joe slapped both small hands on the tabletop. "Tess doesn’t know how to tell a boy from a girl?" He launched into laughter until Hoss scowled at him in undisguised threat.

"You’re not going to change his – uh- her name, are you?" Adam asked easily.

Hoss frowned at his plate. "You figure it’d be okay to call her John Adams?"

"I think it’s a fine name, son," Ben reassured.

"I think John is a -" Little Joe paused as Hoss frowned at him. "I think it’s a fine name, too."

The sky was darkening, and Smoke was playing with Hoss and the kittens in the house, when Ben realized he’d lost track of Little Joe. He seemed to be doing more of that lately and he knew from rearing two other boys that this was not necessarily an age when Little Joe should be unsupervised for great lengths of time. He strolled outside, nodded to Adam who was sitting on the bench, and decided to check the barn.

The moment he stepped in, Little Joe jerked like a puppet on a string and quickly whipped something behind him. Even if that movement hadn’t aroused Ben’s suspicions, the guilt on the freckled face would have.

Ben sat on the chest and looked at his son. "Please don’t hide anything behind your back like that."

It had been a long time since he’d seen such emotional warfare. Little Joe wanted to obey, that much was clear. But he also didn’t want to pay any consequences.

Ben held out his left hand.

"Will ya let me ‘splain, Pa?" came the worried request.

"I always do."

Little Joe bit his lower lip and slowly handed a headstall to Ben. A headstall that was more destroyed than useful.

Ben studied the tooth marks. "How did Smoke get to this?"

Ben recognized all the signs, especially the looking around. Little Joe was getting ready to launch into a lie.

"Joe."

The brown eyes stopped on his face.

"Do you remember why I spanked you when you burned down the outhouse?"

His hands went into his back pockets. "Cause I lied."

"The smart man learns from his experiences."

Little Joe understood what Pa was telling him. He pulled his left hand from his back pocket and quickly swiped at his nose. "I – I was in a hurry to clean the fish after we got back?" The sentence became a question.

Ben nodded.

"I put Paint in the corral and took her saddle and all off. But I kind of threw some of the stuff on the chest."

"Instead of hanging it."

"Yes, Pa."

"And even if we didn’t have to worry about Smoke chewing it, why do we hang bridles?"

"So the reins and all don’t get tangled an’ broken and so nobody trips or gets hurt or anything and so everyone can find what they need when they need it," Little Joe recited.

Ben handed the damaged headstall back to his son. "What do you think we should do about this?"

Little Joe’s licked his lower lip. "You could give me extra chores and make me fix this headstall."

"Do you think it can be repaired?"

"Hoss can tell me."

"Anything else?"

It took everything in the youngster to meet Ben’s eyes. "I didn’t lie to you, Pa."

"And I appreciate the fact that you didn’t. You told me man to man what you had done. I expect you to be more careful though."

"Yes, Pa."

Ben patted the boy’s shoulder and walked from the barn. He hoped the lesson was learned and that he wasn’t being too easy on his youngest son – he would have spanked Adam for the same offense when he had been twelve.

+++

After lunch the next day, Ben did a mental check of the day’s chores that hadn’t been done. He was not surprised to find that Little Joe was forgetting several of his extra chores – but for Adam and Hoss to ignore their chores was unusual. He first went looking for Hoss, thinking Little Joe would be with his older brother finding out how to repair Paint’s headstall. When he couldn’t find Hoss he asked Hop Sing.

"He with Tess," was Hop Sing’s response.

"Is anyone getting any work done around here?" Ben asked in frustration.

Hop Sing smiled. "Some just doing more than others, maybe."

Ben pulled on his work gloves and was approaching the back of the barn when he saw Adam and Little Joe hunched near the ground with their backs to him.

"Like that?" Little Joe asked.

"You’re getting better. But you need to think about how these are going to hit one another even more than you do, Joe. Like this one. You don’t want to hit it straight on or even off the right side here. You just want your shooter to glance off it like this. See."

Shooter? His responsible twenty-one-year-old son was playing marbles when he should be doing chores? Something was afoot.

"Wow! Where’d you learn that?"

"Pa."

"Pa plays marbles?"

"He did when I was a kid."

"For keeps or for fun?"

"Joe, we’re talking about Pa."

"I still don’t see nuthin’ wrong with playing for keeps."

Adam sighed. "Well, as long as you’re living under his roof you should obey him."

"Is that why you do? ‘Cause you live under his roof?"

"I obey him because I respect him, little brother."

" ‘Cause he’s Pa?"

"Yep. Because he’s Pa."

Ben’s frustration evaporated as his chest swelled with pride for his sons.

But, as he’d always heard, pride came before a fall.

Adam’s very next words caused his chest to cave in.

"Now, knuckle down and let’s see you practice that shot. You’re gonna make Lewis sorry he ever won that china."

 

Ben relaxed on the settee that night, long after everyone had gone to bed, and sipped an herbal tea that was supposed to help him sleep.

What was he to do?

Did he step in now and tell the boys he had overheard them behind the barn? Or did he let them go through with their plan and pay the price? It would be easier on him to call them on it now but the lessons that seemed to stick with his sons were the ones learned the hard way.

The problem was that the older he got the more he disliked being part of those lessons and meting out the consequences.

He knew he had been inconsistent in rearing the three of them. He’d been too young a father when Adam was little - making heavy demands and oftimes dealing with the boy too strictly. Luckily, Hoss had been a compliant youngster but even he had his moments. Almost every time that happened, Adam had stepped in and served as Hoss’ spokesman until Ben cooled down. And then there was Joseph. Nothing in life, except perhaps his own childhood, had prepared Ben for his youngest son: he had the most distressing ability to turn Ben’s own words on him.

Abigail jumped onto the settee beside him and he absently stroked her soft fur.

"Oooo?" she tilted her head.

"No, it’s not food. Just t-" Ben caught himself and frowned. "Did you ask if this was food?"

Abigail turned her head slightly and said, "yow."

This couldn’t be. He knew Hoss had taught the kittens to say "oow" when they wanted out and something akin to "eee" when they were hoping for a dish of milk. But oooo and yow?

Ben put down the mug of tea and picked up Abigail. "Do me a favor, Abby? Don’t talk to me like this in front of my sons? I’ve barely got the upper hand as it is."

+++

"Uh – Pa?" Adam tried to act so casual as he approached Ben two days later that the man was immediately suspicious. "I have a book to return to Mr. Orowitz and since Little Joe and I finished our chores I thought we’d ride in to Eagle Station."

Little Joe and Hoss were bad liars; Adam was dreadful.

Ben looked at the sun. "You’ll be back before dark?"

"Yes, sir."

Yes, sir to such a simple question? Oh, now he was sure Adam was up to something.

"Don’t let Little Joe race Paint," Ben instructed.

Adam nodded quickly – did Ben imagine the relief in the slender face – and set his hat. "Yes, Pa." He took long strides toward the corral, almost running, and yelled toward the porch. "Come on, Joe. Pa said it’s all right."

Little Joe bounded off the end of the porch and raced to meet his brother at the corral.

"Where are they headed?" Hoss stopped with a sack of feed thrown over his shoulder. His left hand covered the corner Smoke had chewed.

"Town. You want to go with them?"

"Nah. I’m teaching Smoke how to get stuff."

"How to what?"

"He and I had a little talk about what he could do to make himself useful around here and one of the things he’s been learning is how to get things for me when I need ‘em. He already knows hammer and saw."

"How does he bring you the saw?"

"He gets his mouth on the handle and tugs it to me. He’s better help than Little Joe. Come to think of it, he concentrates more than Adam lately, too."

Ben watched his sons ride toward the town road and a sinking sensation took over. If this wasn’t about that china marble he was the President of the United States.

As soon as they knew they were out of sight, Adam and Little Joe let out whoops and pushed their horses into a gallop. They raced part of the way, slowed to a walk, and then built up to a good pace so they could reach town before late afternoon.

"Where’s Lewis?" Little Joe grabbed Toby’s arm when he found him on the sidewalk in front of Shelby’s Saloon.

"Who cares?" Toby shook his arm free.

"I want to play ‘im." The determination in Little Joe’s face caused Toby to smile.

"I’ll find ‘im. Where do ya wanna meet?"

"Out by the creek."

Toby ran off and Adam nodded. "Beat him for both of us, little brother."

Little Joe grinned and ran toward the creek.

Adam never had been good at lying to Pa, even when it would have saved him from going across Pa’s knees. He’d been convinced from the time he was old enough to talk that Pa could read his mind. Later he just knew Pa could see the truth on his face. And by the time he’d been Hoss’ age he’d pretty much given up on lying entirely. Sometimes he could talk around the truth, or try for a half-truth. But Pa and he went too far back, were too close, for him to be comfortable with the space a lie created between them.

With that in mind, he entered the mercantile to borrow a book from Mr. Orowitz. That way at least when they returned to the ranch he’d have one in hand and allay any of Pa’s suspicions.

"Hello, Adam." Mrs. Greene smiled as she turned from the counter where she had been talking with Mrs. Orowitz. "How is Little Joe’s puppy?"

Adam looked at the Orowitz’ dog, Estelle. "I think he’s going to be bigger than his mother."

Mrs. Greene tilted her head. "And Ben? Is he still all right with Little Joe having the puppy?"

"He wants every animal to carry its weight."

She crossed her arms. "That’s the way a good rancher has to think."

Adam shook his head. "Then he’s a good rancher."

He was stowing the book he had borrowed from Mr. Orowitz in his saddlebag when Wendell ran toward him, arms and legs pumping as if he were being chased by a grizzly.

"Adam!" the boy yelled "Adam, come quick! Little Joe’s liable to get his gizzard stomped."

Adam pushed his hat down and ran after the youngster, following him to a dusty area by the creek.

"Was not!" Lewis yelled as Adam stopped behind his little brother.

"Was too!" Little Joe’s shout was ear piercing. "You didn’t knuckle down you good for nothin’ cheater!"

Uh oh. This wasn’t going anywhere good. Adam placed his right hand on his brother’s small shoulder but Little Joe shrugged it off as if it were a gnat and stepped away.

"Take it back!" Lewis shouted.

"Give it back!" Little Joe countered.

"Look, fellas," Adam stepped between them, hoping to reason with at least one of them. Well intentioned as his movement was, it proved a catalyst for catastrophe.

Adam gave Little Joe his best "think about it" look. After all, Lewis was almost as tall as Adam and he was built the way Hoss had been at that age.

Lewis made a lunge at Little Joe but Adam extended his arms, one open palm toward each of the would-be warriors. "Nobody’s going to win if you two -"

He never finished the sentence. Lewis’ fist connected with Adam’s nose and for a brief moment he would have been blind if he hadn’t seen all the bright stars.

"Adam! Look out!" Little Joe yelped and Adam ducked. Lewis went flying past him and landed on his side in the dirt.

This was insane. He wasn’t going to fight some kid.

"Lewis," he said, wiping at his nose. "This needs to stop now."

Lewis didn’t agree. He hunched over and charged, giving Adam a belly hit that not only slammed the air out of his lungs but felt like it ruptured his stomach. Adam landed on his back with the boy on top of him. After a few of Lewis’ plummeting fists to his face and sides, Adam sucked in enough air to roll the kid over. He was on top but now what?

His hesitation cost him dearly. Lewis grabbed Adam’s left calf and gave it a searing wrench to the side. Adam fell off the boy, grabbing his leg and looked up just in time to see a fist coming straight for his face. He blocked it, and the next one.

What was wrong with this kid? Didn’t he know better than to fight a grown man?

"Get off!" Little Joe yelled, tugging at Lewis from behind. He looked for the world like a mad wildcat. "Get off him!"

"Joe!" Adam shouted. "Back out! Now!" His distraction allowed Lewis to land a fist on his cheekbone.

That was it. Kid or not it was time for a lesson.

Adam stood, leaning over as he gathered breath. With strength he normally saved for carrying feed sacks and moving bales of hay, he turned the kid around. He gripped the back of Lewis’ shirt collar and put his right boot to the seat of the boy’s pants and heaved with all his might.

The splash when Lewis hit the creek was a sight to behold. And when the boy stood up he was the object of no small amount of ridicule and laughter.

Adam watched him closely, wiping his nose with the back of his right hand.

"Your big brother ain’t always gonna be around!" Lewis yelled to Little Joe.

Adam took a step forward and the boy jerked backwards, falling on his tail in the water. "Don’t threaten my brother."

When he was sure the bully wouldn’t come out of the creek until the Cartwrights were gone he ordered, "Let’s go" to Little Joe. To his discomfort he saw awe in his little brother’s eyes.

That awe changed to worry during the ride home. "What’re we gonna tell Pa?" Little Joe finally dared to ask as they approached the corral.

Pa was going to know something had happened because Adam was covered with dirt and the front of his shirt was splattered with dried blood, his right sleeve was torn out of the armhole, and two bad scrapes were already bruising on his cheek. He looked like he’d been in the middle of a stampede.

"I know," Little Joe said suddenly. "We’ll tell him that a bear attacked and you protected me."

Adam rolled his eyes his younger brother’s way. He’d never thought he’d hear Joe mention a bear attack so lightly – time healed wounds in more ways than one.

"You don’t reckon he’ll tan you, do you?" Little Joe asked worriedly, thinking again about Pa’s new belt.

Adam shook his head "no" and shifted in his saddle. "But if he ever hears about you fighting like I just did, he will tan you." Adam sighed. "I wish you’d been able to get that china marble back."

"He was saving it for last. I could’ve won it in that last game if he hadn’t cheated. Now what’re we gonna do?"

Adam gave a nod of his head toward the house. "You have to think of a solution. I’m out."

Hoss was the first to see the two of them approaching and he called back to Pa from the front porch. "Here they come now. Told ya Adam’d be home before dinner."

Ben stepped outside, closing the door behind him and glanced at the sunset. What could have possibly taken so long? Why were they riding so slowly? Neither of the horses looked lame. He stepped to the edge of the porch.

"Pa?" Hoss squinted at his brothers. "Does it look to you like somethin’s wrong with Adam?"

Ben hadn’t seen Adam this filthy even when he had been a kid and he had never had a sleeve torn out of his shirt.

If he didn’t know better he’d think Adam had been fighting.

"What happened to you?" Ben held the horse’s head as he looked up at his son.


Adam dismounted and attempted to dust some of the dirt from his pants. "A misunderstanding." His face was a study in painful embarrassment.

"Pa, it wasn’t his fault. Lewis started it," Little Joe blurted out from atop Paint.

Adam winced as if he’d been lashed and Pa’s hands went to his waist. He looked up at Little Joe and then down to Adam in bewilderment. "Lewis?"

"You said I couldn’t fight ‘im," Little Joe reminded. "Ya never said nuthin’ ‘bout Adam."

"Joe," Adam rubbed at his right eyebrow, "would you please quit helping me?"

"What happen to you?" Hop Sing asked as he hurried from the porch.

"A misunderstanding," Ben answered, frowning deeply.

"Misunderstanding need tending?" Hop Sing asked.

Adam thanked Hop Sing for his concern and assured him he was just dirty.

"Hoss, help Joe tend the horses, please," Pa directed, and then turned his attention back to Adam.

Hoss gave his little brother a worried look as they led the animals to the barn. "Adam really fought Lewis?"

"Kicked his tail," Little Joe bragged.

Hoss cleared his throat. "Uh, don’t say stuff like that around Pa, okay? Adam don’t need any more trouble."

Little Joe shrugged and put Smoke in Paint’s saddlebag to give him a ride to the barn.

Ben looked toward the pines. He had been baffled in his life but rarely like this. What had spurred Adam to fight? And a boy at that? Surely it wasn’t the marbles.

Adam put his hands on his hips in an unconscious mirror image of Pa and wondered what to tell him. How could something so well intentioned go so completely wrong?

Good intentions or not, Pa expected answers. That message was clear when Adam finally spared him a glance and saw the set of his jaw.

He ran his right hand through his hair. "Pa, it’s a long story."

Why did they keep saying that? It hadn’t excused one of them yet. "I’m listening."

Adam closed his eyes. All the way home, he’d been trying to figure out how much he could safely tell Pa. "You aren’t going to like it."

Ben crossed his arms at his chest.

Adam pushed his hands into his front pockets. "When I tell you what happened I’m not going to tell you everything."

He squared his shoulders and waited for the explosion. None of Ben Cartwright’s sons had been reared to be insubordinate and Adam doubted the rule would change now.

"I’m listening," Pa repeated with a little more edge in his tone. He wasn’t smiling but he wasn’t frowning either.

Adam took heart that Pa was respecting his decision. He could show Pa the same respect by keeping the story simple and to the point. "Little Joe was playing marbles down by the creek."

Pa nodded, his expression still unreadable.

"I was getting ready to go find him so we could head home when Wendell came running up yelling that Joe was about to get in a lot of trouble."

That news didn’t take Pa by surprise.

"When I got there – to where they were playing marbles – Joe was saying that Lewis had cheated and Lewis was saying he hadn’t."

That didn’t surprise Pa, either.

"Lewis started toward Joe and I stepped in between them."

"Lewis started toward Little Joe."

"Yes, Pa. I stepped in the middle to tell them they wouldn’t accomplish anything by fighting. That’s when Lewis hit me in the nose. He barreled in to me, got in some other licks and then I finished things."

"Finished things?"

"I booted him into the creek."

Pa didn’t say a thing. Even as grown as he was, Adam didn’t know what the silence meant and he found it a little uncomfortable. "I’m not going to fight a kid. I don’t care how big he is. But you might talk to Joe. Lewis could really do some damage to him."

Pa’s left eyebrow shot up as he looked Adam over. "So I see," he said dryly. "Well, come in the house and wash some of this misunderstanding off your face."

After tending the horses, Little Joe and Hoss stomped across the front porch, making plenty of noise in case Pa and Adam were still discussing Adam’s fight with Lewis. But when they opened the front door Pa was sitting in a chair laughing and Adam, cleaned up and buttoning a fresh shirt, was saying, "She growled at Mr. Wolf the whole time he was on the sidewalk and when she went back in the store Mrs. Orowitz gave her a treat."

Little Joe headed for the washbasin, conspicuously placing Adam’s book and his sack of marbles beside it.

"How was your game?" Pa asked.

Little Joe glanced up at Adam questioningly and received a look of assurance that their secret was still safe. "I beat Lewis."

"Give him his marbles back?" Pa asked when Little Joe had finished washing.

"Sure."

Pa looked down and his voice went husky. "I’d hate to find out you were playing for keeps."

"Me, too," Little Joe admitted, hoping he sounded innocent.

+++

Ben watched his oldest and youngest sons with keen interest the next few days.

Adam’s appetite hit rock bottom even though he worked hard all day. Ben didn’t have to wonder what that was about– he was keeping a promise to Little Joe while he knew something his father didn’t approve of.

Little Joe couldn’t concentrate on anything. Ben heard the word "sir?" out of him more in three days than he had in the previous twelve years.

On the fourth day, Little Joe disappeared. Ben couldn’t locate him near the house or barn, Adam checked the fishing hole and Little Joe’s secret cave, and all Hoss knew was that Little Joe had asked him to watch Smoke.

"Little Joe very preoccupied," Hop Sing said when they gathered on the front porch. "This morning he nearly put egg yolks in fire and egg shells in bowl. What that saying? Almost like he lose his marbles."

As the last word came from Hop Sing, Adam’s mouth opened in a startled and uncontrolled "ooh".

The reaction did not escape Ben who turned on his oldest son, his tone indicating he would not tolerate anything but an answer as straight as an arrow. "Where is he?"

"He - might’ve gone to town," Adam said slowly, eyes to one side.

"Might have," Pa demanded sharply, "or did?"

Adam’s back stiffened at Pa’s angry tone. After all, he hadn’t done anything to deserve a dressing down. "I don’t know any more than you do, Pa."

Hoss shifted uncomfortably when Pa jabbed his finger Adam’s way.

"But you think you do." Pa’s anger rose as his voice deepened. "He’s been gambling with marbles and Lewis has the china one. And I do not excuse you for encouraging him to disobey me!"

Hoss hadn’t seen Adam go so white since he’d accidentally hit him too hard in the stomach when they were sparring.

Pa pulled on his hat and spoke to Adam through gritted teeth. "See that those chores get done."

Adam didn’t move and as far as Hoss could tell he wasn’t breathing. After Pa rode off at a gallop, Adam left the porch without a word.

"Adam?" Hoss started after him but Adam kept his back toward his brother and waved a hand. Hoss knew what that meant. Adam wanted to be left alone.

Hoss didn’t much blame him.

+++

Little Joe was good at marbles even if he did say so himself. Nearly all the town boys acknowledged that fact and they gathered at the creek to watch him play Lewis.

They were ready to start their third game when Lewis pulled out the china marble and held it up to admire. "How about we make this game a little more interestin’?" he said.

Little Joe squinted at him and wondered if he could snatch that china marble and get to Paint before Lewis got a hold of him.

"I’ll use this for my shooter and you use that marble one you won last game. And whoever wins this game gets every thing on the ground right now and both of these. Winner takes all."

"Fine by me," Little Joe agreed.

The game was not the runaway Little Joe had hoped for. He hit one marble out and then missed the next one. Lewis hit one out and missed his next shot. Neither one of them seemed capable of getting their shooter out of the circle which meant they were fair game as targets. But Lewis was having as much trouble a he was and the game dragged on and on.

Instead of the usual shouts and calls as the shots were made there were subdued "oohs" and "awws" and the spectators crowded so close Lewis had to warn them to back off more than once.

Little Joe didn’t know when he had concentrated so much on a game in all his life. Using every skill Adam had taught him, and a few he’d developed on his own, he worked slowly and methodically toward winning. He tuned out the sounds of the other boys; even Lewis’ taunts, and barely heard the "chink" as marble hit marble.

Then it came down to one shot. The china marble and two others were in a line with his shooter. He had to do what Adam had shown him last week – hit the first one hard enough to put everything into motion but not scatter them too much and at the same time get his shooter out of the ring.

He knuckled down, pretended there was nothing else in the world, and then watched it all happen in slow motion. The first marble, the third one, the second one rolling beautifully. Did his shooter have enough on it? It was rolling for the outside circle. Rolling. Slowing. It barely crossed the line and Little Joe yelped for joy.

He reached, closing his fingers around the china marble, and Lewis’ boot stomped down on his hand.

"You didn’t knuckle down!" Lewis yelled.

"Yeah, he did!" Wendell shouted back.

Little Joe didn’t plan to give Lewis any time to think about it. With one hand still trapped under Lewis’ boot, he rammed his shoulder hard behind the bigger boy’s right knee and Lewis crumpled to the dirt in agony.

"All right!" Toby laughed.

Little Joe started gathering up the other marbles.

"Look out!" Zed warned.

Little Joe caught movement from the side of his eye and he ducked so Lewis flew into the dirt as he had when he had tried to fight Adam. And when he got to his feet and bent over, Little Joe knew he was going to make a run for Little Joe’s gut – same as he had for Adam’s.

But he didn’t. Instead he swung and a fist smashed into Little Joe’s cheek near his ear. Nothing he had ever experienced had prepared him for that pain.

"Little Joe! Get down!" Toby yelled.

Following his friend’s directions, Little Joe ducked into a ball but still felt Lewis smash into his back. He’d about had enough of this no matter what Pa said about not fighting. Besides, Pa wasn’t here.

Angry, and without even thinking, he barreled into Lewis and sent him crashing to his back. Then Little Joe sat on top and hit his adversary anywhere he could land a fist – sides, face, upper arms - he wasn’t picky.

All the shouts, warnings and cheers died as if someone had thrown a bucket of water on a burning log and for a moment Little Joe wondered what was wrong with his ears.

Then a hand grabbed his right arm. He would have known those gloves anywhere.

"Looking for this?" Pa held the china marble toward him.

Stomach so tense he thought he was going to throw up, Little Joe answered, "Yes, sir. Thank you, Pa."

"And who do the rest of these belong to?"

Little Joe looked to Wendell, hoping he would take the clue.

"Some of ‘em are mine, Mr. Cartwright. Some of ‘em are Lewis’."

Good old Wendell.

"Can you two sort them out?"

They nodded and Pa directed his attention to Little Joe, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.

Going home was not something he particularly wanted to do. He dragged his heels until he reached Paint.

"Do you want to settle this now?" Pa asked from atop his horse.

He put a little more speed in adjusting the saddle and swung Paint around to follow Pa. But a gloved finger pointed to Pa’s right side and Little Joe wordlessly urged Paint to go abreast.

He had the china marble back, but that was about the only thing right in his world. Well, there was one more thing – Pa didn’t know he’d ever been playing for keeps and lost it in the first place. So that was good.

What wasn’t so good was that he’d ridden into town without permission. And then, worst of all, he’d gotten in that fight with Lewis. That was gonna cost ‘im some hide.

He just wouldn’t think about it until they got home. Anything could happen in the meantime. He might get hit by lightning or a mountain lion could eat him or he could just drop dead. Pirates could even kidnap him. Or outlaws could shoot him. It happened.

It just never happened to him – and especially not when he needed it to.

"Little Joe."

Pa’s voice brought his head up and he was surprised to see Pa leaning his right hand on his horse’s hip as he looked back at him from a considerable distance.

How’d he get this far behind? He urged Paint to catch up and bit at his lip.

They were nearing the house when Pa asked, "Are you hurt?"

Would saying ‘yes’ win some sympathy? Maybe keep Pa from tanning him? ‘Course after Pa and Hop Sing checked him over and found out he was lying he’d be in even more trouble. Unless he could really pretend he was hurt inside – something that didn’t show. Somehow, he didn’t feel up to that.

"Little Joe?"

"Yes, Pa?"

"Are you hurt anywhere?"

He shook his head and swung from Paint’s saddle.

"Clean up and meet me at the barn."

Maybe he could accidentally fall in the well and drown.

Hoss watched his little brother walk to the porch, his pant’s knee ripped and his shirt and face covered in dirt. What was it about going to town lately? First Adam and now Little Joe getting into fights? He put down Abigail and John Adams as Pa walked toward him, leading the horses.

"Where’s your brother?"

"Adam?" Hoss asked hesitantly.

Pa didn’t even reply – just wrapped the reins around the corral rail.

"He said he was going for a walk." Hoss forced an uncertain smile. "All the chores are done, Pa."

"Thank you. Would you take care of the horses, please?"

"Sure thing."

Hoss watched Pa walk behind the house. Bet he’s headed to find Adam at the pond. Hope they don’t argue no more. Never can stand it when they do that. Hoss clicked his tongue to get Paint’s attention and loosened the saddle.

Ben stepped from the trees into the clearing that overlooked the stream-fed pond. The grass, which had been as green as an emerald a month ago, was drying. It was almost the color of Hoss’ hair – golden and curling as it cured.

Ahead, on the flat rocks, sat his oldest son. Hat beside him so his dark hair shone blue in the late sunlight; shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows; his knees pulled up. Ever so often he picked up a pebble and tossed it into the small waves that lapped at the nearby shore but his heart wasn’t in it.

Ben had let Adam think about the reprimand long enough. Now it was time for understanding and praise.

He walked to his son’s side and sat on his boot heels to look out at the water, remembering many other times when Adam and he had talked while studying the waves of the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. "I shouldn’t have yelled at you in front of the others. I apologize."

Adam didn’t respond.

Ben patted his son on the back. He stood and took a deep breath. "Thank you for finishing the chores." He turned toward the house.

"Pa?" Adam stood quickly.

Ben faced him.

His son wanted to speak but the words didn’t come.

Ben thought he knew what Adam needed to hear, though. "It’s not easy deciding whether to be the adult your father expects or the partner your little brother needs." He smiled. "But a man couldn’t have a finer son than you are, Adam."

The slender shoulders came out of their slump and the deep blue eyes shimmered. Adam was back.

 

Little Joe didn’t drown in the well. He couldn’t even manage to trip and fall and knock himself out going into the house. So all that was left was to scrub up and change clothes.

He had pulled on clean pants and a shirt, but hadn’t tucked it in, when he decided he had to come up with a plan. He sat on his bunk, leaned his elbows on his knees and wondered if he should run away.

He bet he could get to Sacramento or maybe even to San Francisco. If he got there he could get on a sailin’ ship and not have to face Pa until he was grown like Adam. Maybe Pa would be so glad to see him after that he would forget how mad he was when Little Joe ran off. Or maybe he would’ve been getting madder every day.

Maybe he should run off and try prospectin’. He’d heard it was a tough life but heck that didn’t scare him. Smoke and him liked being outdoors and playin’ in water. Think how much more fun it would be if you were playin’ in a creek and all of a sudden you found gold in your pan. He could get rich and come back and they’d have everything they needed for the ranch. They could even hire some hands to help run the place.

Course he could always run back to New Orleans. Tante Jeanette would let him stay with her. No, Pa would sure enough come for him if he were in New Orleans.

And if he ran off and Pa found him – he trembled a little with the thought.

"Chilled?"

The voice caused Little Joe to jump.

Pa crossed from the door to the window and lowered it so there wasn’t quite as much breeze entering the room.

"I – I was coming to the barn, Pa. I was just – thinking the way you always tell me to."

At times like this it always struck Little Joe what a big man Pa was. Broad shoulders, firm upper arms, strong hands, thick belt.

He jerked his eyes upward, concentrating on the way Pa leaned on the upright post of Hoss and Adam’s bunks. "And what did you decide?" Pa asked.

Little Joe sat looking at his bare feet. "Not to run away."

"Good decision." Pa’s voice was like it always was. Not angry. "And the other decisions you made today?"

He shook his head. "They weren’t so good."

"Tell me about them."

"I – I went to town without permission. And I got in that fight with Lewis. But I didn’t want to do that, Pa. Lewis made me."

"You had plenty of chances to get out of it," Pa said.

Little Joe hoped he looked innocent as he made eye contact. "No, I didn’t Pa."

"I was there when you started the last game of marbles. Would you care to rethink what you just told me?" Pa suggested.

Little Joe’s mind fought for bearings. The start of the last game of marbles? What would Pa know from seeing that?

He would know that Lewis won the china marble in an earlier game. And he would know they had been playing for keeps and in that last game Little Joe agreed to winner take all.

This was bad.

Then Pa saw the fight. The whole fight. He saw Little Joe take that cheap shot at Lewis in the beginning and then wale on him when he finally got on top.

This was really, really bad.

He’d better not make it any worse by lying.

"How did Lewis get the china marble?" Pa asked.

"From Wendell." When Pa made an impatient movement, Little Joe explained. "I lost it to Wendell and then Wendell played Lewis when I didn’t come into town when I first got Smoke."

"So you ignored all my warnings about not gambling?"

Little Joe nodded slowly.

"Does that sound like a good decision?"

He shook his head.

"You ignored your chores, left without permission and went to town to play Lewis and win back the china marble. Do any of those sound like a good decision?"

He shook his head again.

"Any other decisions?" Pa prompted.

He swallowed and gripped his hands together real hard and wished he were anywhere but here.

"What did I tell you about fighting Lewis?"

"Not to."

"You disobeyed me when you gambled with the marbles. You disobeyed me when you fought Lewis," Pa said calmly as he moved to the chair they sat on to pull off their boots. "You did not get permission to go to town. And you neglected your chores so your brothers had to do more than their share." Pa motioned for Little Joe to stand and walk to him. "Any questions about why I’m doing this?"

Little Joe shook his head ‘no’ and then he was across Pa’s lap. Pa’s left hand flipped back the shirttail Little Joe hadn’t tucked in and then his right hand seared the seat of Little Joe’s pants.

It was a long time before Pa put him back on his feet.

"Joe."

He looked up wordlessly.

"Be sure you thank your brothers for doing your chores."

As soon as Pa was out of the room he made his way to his bunk. Instead of bawling into his pillow like he had the other times when Pa spanked him, Little Joe slowly curled on his right side, clutched at his quilt and wept quietly.

A scratching at the bunkroom door pulled Little Joe from sleep and for a moment he panicked – afraid he’d overslept and missed his morning chores. But then he noticed the sun was low in the west. He rolled from his bunk and was pulled up short by the hurting in his tail. Limping slightly to the door, he opened it and Smoke bounded in, jumping around his legs with a welcome as if Little Joe had died and come back to life.

He shuffled barefoot into the living room. He needed to move around and get some of the soreness out.

Hop Sing looked up from his worktable and smiled.

Little Joe cleared his throat. "Hop Sing? Do you maybe have some tea for a stomach?"

"All teas for stomach," he teased in his gentle way.

"Maybe a tea to kinda settle a stomach?"

Hop Sing unlocked a wooden chest on the worktable and motioned. "Bring cup please."

Little Joe obeyed.

"This tea make things better." He sprinkled a few leaves in the mug and then handed it to Little Joe. "Use kettle water by fire. Let sit until half as dark as father’s coffee and leaves settle to bottom."

The boy nodded. He started to sit on his heels but quickly thought better of that when his bottom hurt him. He bent over from the waist instead although that wasn’t much more comfortable.

"Hoo boy that’s a fine target," Hoss laughed but immediately regretted it when Little Joe jerked up and splashed hot water on his hand. "I was only kidding, little brother."

Little Joe sucked the water off his hand.

Hoss’ light blue eyes filled with concern when he saw his brother’s puffy eyes. "What’s wrong?"

"Nuthin."

Hoss continued to give him a worried look as he walked toward the washbasin.

"Yeah, I think we could," Adam said as he stepped into the house. He waved his arms and walked backwards so he could face Pa. "We have the lumber."

"For what?" Hoss asked from the washbasin.

"Adam thinks we have enough space to build a work shed," Pa answered.

Hoss dried his hands quickly. "Sure would free up more of the barn."

"By the way, someone needs to oil those tools tomorrow." Pa walked to the basin Hoss had vacated and refilled it. He nodded to his youngest son who stood not far from the fireplace holding a mug. The boy’s face was much too rigid, his coloring too pale, his eyes swollen from crying and sleep. "Little Joe," he said simply.

"Pa."

"Hey," Hoss said, "that work shed could double as a dog house for Smoke sometimes, too."

"Well, son, we’ll see about that. Smoke has a lot of growing up to do before we can trust him with that much equipment."

The subject of the conversation barked loudly and Hoss picked him up. "Notice how his bark is getting deeper? Next thing you know he’ll be shaving."

They all laughed. Everyone except Joe. He looked down at his tea and decided it was the right color to drink.

He didn’t much feel like listening to all the talk in the living room so he returned to the bunkroom and leaned out the window, breathing in the cooler air of early evening. He sipped the tea. At first it hit a very empty stomach but after he drank it all, he closed his eyes and let the breeze wash over him. In his imagination he was atop a cloud, looking down on a deep green forest. There were baby deer looking up at him and a herd of horses running below as fast as his cloud was moving in the air. Birds flew next to him and then he was floating over a lake full of clear, cold water with smooth rocks at the bottom.

A hand on his back scared him from his daydream and he would’ve dropped the empty mug if Pa hadn’t caught it in his left hand.

Ben looked into Little Joe’s startled eyes. "You know I won’t excuse you from dinner," he said softly as he placed the mug on the floor beside the chair. After all, Ben didn’t feel much like eating either with his stomach still sour from having to punish his son. But there was a house rule that punishment didn’t excuse anyone from daily routine.

Little Joe’s usually smiling lips were straight.

Ben preferred his sons obedient but he didn’t want them frightened – and this one was. He sat in the chair. "Do you remember when I told you Smoke would only feel good about himself when he was grown if you had given him lots of love and set limits?"

The boy nodded.

"Well - I have to set limits for you, too. Fighting is no way to settle an argument. People who get in fights tend to wind up on the wrong side of the law, son. And as you get older you’ll be able to make up your own mind about gambling. But right now there’s too much danger in it for you." Ben paused a moment, searching his son’s face, hoping the youngster understood. "The reason you need to ask permission before you go somewhere is because I depend on you. I may need your help or have something else planned. It’s also a sign of respect to let others know where you are."

But none of that was what was bothering Little Joe. When Pa had asked him if he had any questions about why Pa was going to spank him he hadn’t. He knew. He shook his head "no" and Pa quit talking.

Why had Little Joe shaken his head ‘no’? Why couldn’t Ben figure out what was frightening the boy? After a moment he leaned forward, arms on his knees, and reached up with his right hand to brush Little Joe’s hair off his forehead. "Want to tell me what’s wrong?"

Little Joe wasn’t sure he could – too much depended on it. "Pa?" he whispered.

"Yes, son?"

"Are – are things all right?"

There was a world of meaning in those simple words. Ben maintained eye contact with his youngest son. "If you learned your lesson then yes, things are all right."

Little Joe ventured closer. "Promise?"

"Promise."

A single tear trickled down his cheek as he asked, "Spit on it?"

Ben gave a short laugh in surprise. He hadn’t spit on anything since John and he had been kids.

Little Joe spit in his right hand and held it out. Pa did the same and they shook – Little Joe’s hand lost in Pa’s enormous one. He bet Pa had never spit with Adam or Hoss, by golly.

Pa stood and lifted the pillow from the extra bunk. He handed it down to Little Joe without asking if he needed it.

Clutching the pillow in front of him, Little Joe walked with Pa to the dinner table, wondering if Adam and Hoss would notice how much taller he was since he’d shaken hands with Pa man-to-man.

 

The end

+++