By Texas 2002
This story follows "Pulling Their Weight"
Rating: PG for a little lightweight innuendo
Authors 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 Ill use literary license if it wasnt popular by 1849.
"Puhleeaasse?" Little Joe held his arms out at his sides as he trudged beside Pa.
"Little Joe, its 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. Ill play marbles right behind the town hall an Ill 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 couldnt say no to. "Please?"
Pa didnt say anything right away, a good sign he was giving in. "What about Smoke?"
"Ill ask, Hoss. Hes not going, right?"
"If Hoss cant watch him, you put Smoke in his pen." Pas head moved with every word.
Pa didnt 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, hed just as soon the rest of the family didnt 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 didnt see the harm in a little gambling and hed 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 therell 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 Id like to have some law enforcement I dont 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 Pas warning. Eventually Pa was going to get suspicious if Little Joe didnt 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 whatre you gonna play with?" Wendell challenged as they stood outside his fathers blacksmith shop.
Little Joe sighed. "Cmon, Wendell, we dont ever keep all of em or wed never have another game."
His red-haired friend considered Joes 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.
"Hes 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 Wendells turn. He knew the game was over because Wendell wasnt 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 lets play for my china one."
His buddy shrugged. "Cant."
"Cause Ive 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 didnt 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 aint 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 Wendells 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 wasnt 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. Hed 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 wasnt Pas voice. It was Adams.
"Dont you know what Pall 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."
"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 boys clothing and then motioned that Little Joe should turn around.
It felt like Adam swatted extra hard at the seat of Little Joes pants.
Adam touched up a few spots with the wet neckerchief and then stood, inspecting his handiwork. "Well, you dont look any dirtier than usual now. The meetings almost over so Mrs. Orowitz will be opening the mercantile."
"I want my marbles."
Adam put a hand to Little Joes left shoulder. "Ill 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 hed found out but Adam had a couple of good ideas.
"Are you okay?" Adam approached Wendell.
"Aint 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 feelins?"
Adam bounced the bag in the palm of his hand and said he would.
The crowd began to emerge from Town Hall and when Pas eyes settled on Adam he looked questioningly at the marbles but didnt say anything.
"I sent Joe ahead to the mercantile," Adam said.
As they entered the store, Little Joes animated voice reached them from where he knelt behind the counter petting Smokes mother. "And hes real smart, Mrs. Orowitz. Cept he chases shadows."
"Chases shadows?" the woman asked, giving Little Joe her complete attention.
"Yes, maam. Therell be a butterfly or a dragonfly or even a bird and Smoke doesnt 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."
Bens lips twisted to the left as he recalled that Ruth and Margaret had been cohorts in the puppy plot. "You dont mind if I check the order before we leave do you? Just to be sure theres nothing of Margarets mixed in?"
Ruths face became as innocent as an angels. "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. "Youll just tell Pa."
"I saved your hide today. Why would I tell Pa?"
The twelve-year-old thought about it a minute. "Promise you wont?"
"Weve been playing for keeps."
"Oow," Adam said softly.
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. Weve gotta get it back."
Little Joe hesitated for a heartbeat. "I dont think Lewisll play you, Adam."
"No, but hell play you. And were going to work on your game until you can beat him."
Little Joe sat up with excitement and Smoke growled in protest. Didnt Little Joe understand he was a growing pup and he needed his sleep?
"Promise?" Little Joe asked.
Ben didnt 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 Joes 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. Hes a fast learner."
"You didnt 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 didnt know anyone had moved in there."
Little Joe shrugged easily. "I think thats 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 hed be back before dinner. He had some bread and venison and preserves for them from Hop Sing."
"Whos 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. "Theyve got a pa and a ma, a girl and two boys."
So that was it. "This girl wouldnt happen to be Adams age?"
Hoss and Little Joe frowned at one another. "No," Hoss said. "Shes maybe 19."
Ben smiled to himself. "And the boys?"
"Adam said theyre 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 didnt hurt it. Didnt even get a tooth mark on it."
"He what?" Ben asked quickly.
Little Joe beamed up at him. "He didnt even get a tooth mark on it."
"Thats the sign of a good bird dog."
Little Joe screwed up his face. "Whats 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 cant shoot em, too," Hoss observed.
"Hey," Little Joes 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 cant 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 Adams 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 didnt 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 Adams 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 Pas 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 aint in trouble, are ya?"
Adam shook his head. "None that I know of."
"Pa kinda acted like you hadnt 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 wasnt around when he wanted to do something.
As if reading his mind, Adam said. "But if I were you, Id 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. Paints headstall. Smoke had chewed through just about everything that was supposed to be connected. And this was Little Joes 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 hed been taught.
Little Joe dropped the headstall and sat on the chest. When Pa found out aw, gee, he had that brand new belt hed bought at the mercantile.
"Joe! Dinner!" Pas 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 wouldnt quit talking, was saying something Ben couldnt 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 caint be undone."
That sounded ominous. Adam pushed his fork into his beans. "Maybe you arent looking at it right."
"Well, that was the problem in the beginning but it aint now," Hoss said, almost sounding morose. He rubbed at his face with his right hand. "Tess and me made a terrible mistake."
Adams 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 couldnt figure it out he filled his plate with more beans.
"Maybe you and I should discuss it alone later, son."
Hoss shook his head. "Everybodys gonna know eventually, Pa."
Little Joe looked around the table again. What was wrong? Pas jaw was set, Adam was staring into space, and Hop Sing was softly saying something in Chinese.
Hoss squared his shoulders. "John Adams aint a boy."
"What dya mean he aint 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 -"
"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.
"Its 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 doesnt know how to tell a boy from a girl?" He launched into laughter until Hoss scowled at him in undisguised threat.
"Youre not going to change his uh- her name, are you?" Adam asked easily.
Hoss frowned at his plate. "You figure itd be okay to call her John Adams?"
"I think its a fine name, son," Ben reassured.
"I think John is a -" Little Joe paused as Hoss frowned at him. "I think its a fine name, too."
The sky was darkening, and Smoke was playing with Hoss and the kittens in the house, when Ben realized hed 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 hadnt aroused Bens suspicions, the guilt on the freckled face would have.
Ben sat on the chest and looked at his son. "Please dont hide anything behind your back like that."
It had been a long time since hed seen such emotional warfare. Little Joe wanted to obey, that much was clear. But he also didnt 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.
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.
"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."
"And even if we didnt have to worry about Smoke chewing it, why do we hang bridles?"
"So the reins and all dont 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 Joes 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."
It took everything in the youngster to meet Bens eyes. "I didnt lie to you, Pa."
"And I appreciate the fact that you didnt. You told me man to man what you had done. I expect you to be more careful though."
Ben patted the boys shoulder and walked from the barn. He hoped the lesson was learned and that he wasnt 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 days chores that hadnt 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 Paints headstall. When he couldnt find Hoss he asked Hop Sing.
"He with Tess," was Hop Sings 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.
"Youre 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 dont 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! Whered you learn that?"
"Pa plays marbles?"
"He did when I was a kid."
"For keeps or for fun?"
"Joe, were talking about Pa."
"I still dont see nuthin wrong with playing for keeps."
Adam sighed. "Well, as long as youre 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 hes Pa?"
"Yep. Because hes Pa."
Bens frustration evaporated as his chest swelled with pride for his sons.
But, as hed always heard, pride came before a fall.
Adams very next words caused his chest to cave in.
"Now, knuckle down and lets see you practice that shot. Youre 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. Hed 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 Bens own words on him.
Abigail jumped onto the settee beside him and he absently stroked her soft fur.
"Oooo?" she tilted her head.
"No, its 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 couldnt 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? Dont talk to me like this in front of my sons? Ive 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 wed ride in to Eagle Station."
Little Joe and Hoss were bad liars; Adam was dreadful.
Ben looked at the sun. "Youll be back before dark?"
Yes, sir to such a simple question? Oh, now he was sure Adam was up to something.
"Dont 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 its 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. Im 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 hes 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. Hes 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 wasnt 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.
"Wheres Lewis?" Little Joe grabbed Tobys arm when he found him on the sidewalk in front of Shelbys Saloon.
"Who cares?" Toby shook his arm free.
"I want to play im." The determination in Little Joes face caused Toby to smile.
"Ill 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 Pas knees. Hed 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 hed been Hoss age hed 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 hed have one in hand and allay any of Pas suspicions.
"Hello, Adam." Mrs. Greene smiled as she turned from the counter where she had been talking with Mrs. Orowitz. "How is Little Joes puppy?"
Adam looked at the Orowitz dog, Estelle. "I think hes 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. "Thats the way a good rancher has to think."
Adam shook his head. "Then hes 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 Joes 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 Joes shout was ear piercing. "You didnt knuckle down you good for nothin cheater!"
Uh oh. This wasnt going anywhere good. Adam placed his right hand on his brothers 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. "Nobodys going to win if you two -"
He never finished the sentence. Lewis fist connected with Adams nose and for a brief moment he would have been blind if he hadnt 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 wasnt going to fight some kid.
"Lewis," he said, wiping at his nose. "This needs to stop now."
Lewis didnt 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 Adams 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? Didnt 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 boys 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 aint 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. "Dont threaten my brother."
When he was sure the bully wouldnt come out of the creek until the Cartwrights were gone he ordered, "Lets go" to Little Joe. To his discomfort he saw awe in his little brothers eyes.
That awe changed to worry during the ride home. "Whatre 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 hed been in the middle of a stampede.
"I know," Little Joe said suddenly. "Well tell him that a bear attacked and you protected me."
Adam rolled his eyes his younger brothers way. Hed never thought hed hear Joe mention a bear attack so lightly time healed wounds in more ways than one.
"You dont reckon hell tan you, do you?" Little Joe asked worriedly, thinking again about Pas 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 youd been able to get that china marble back."
"He was saving it for last. I couldve won it in that last game if he hadnt cheated. Now whatre we gonna do?"
Adam gave a nod of his head toward the house. "You have to think of a solution. Im 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 Adamd 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 somethins wrong with Adam?"
Ben hadnt 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 didnt know better hed think Adam had been fighting.
"What happened to you?" Ben held the horses 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 wasnt his fault. Lewis started it," Little Joe blurted out from atop Paint.
Adam winced as if hed been lashed and Pas hands went to his waist. He looked up at Little Joe and then down to Adam in bewilderment. "Lewis?"
"You said I couldnt 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, dont say stuff like that around Pa, okay? Adam dont need any more trouble."
Little Joe shrugged and put Smoke in Paints 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 wasnt 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, its a long story."
Why did they keep saying that? It hadnt excused one of them yet. "Im listening."
Adam closed his eyes. All the way home, hed been trying to figure out how much he could safely tell Pa. "You arent 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 Im not going to tell you everything."
He squared his shoulders and waited for the explosion. None of Ben Cartwrights sons had been reared to be insubordinate and Adam doubted the rule would change now.
"Im listening," Pa repeated with a little more edge in his tone. He wasnt smiling but he wasnt 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 didnt 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 hadnt."
That didnt 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 wouldnt accomplish anything by fighting. Thats when Lewis hit me in the nose. He barreled in to me, got in some other licks and then I finished things."
"I booted him into the creek."
Pa didnt say a thing. Even as grown as he was, Adam didnt know what the silence meant and he found it a little uncomfortable. "Im not going to fight a kid. I dont care how big he is. But you might talk to Joe. Lewis could really do some damage to him."
Pas 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 Adams 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 Adams 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.
Pa looked down and his voice went husky. "Id 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.
Adams appetite hit rock bottom even though he worked hard all day. Ben didnt have to wonder what that was about he was keeping a promise to Little Joe while he knew something his father didnt approve of.
Little Joe couldnt 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 couldnt locate him near the house or barn, Adam checked the fishing hole and Little Joes 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, Adams 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 - mightve gone to town," Adam said slowly, eyes to one side.
"Might have," Pa demanded sharply, "or did?"
Adams back stiffened at Pas angry tone. After all, he hadnt done anything to deserve a dressing down. "I dont know any more than you do, Pa."
Hoss shifted uncomfortably when Pa jabbed his finger Adams way.
"But you think you do." Pas anger rose as his voice deepened. "Hes been gambling with marbles and Lewis has the china one. And I do not excuse you for encouraging him to disobey me!"
Hoss hadnt seen Adam go so white since hed 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 didnt move and as far as Hoss could tell he wasnt 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 didnt 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.
"Ill 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 didnt know when he had concentrated so much on a game in all his life. Using every skill Adam had taught him, and a few hed 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 didnt knuckle down!" Lewis yelled.
"Yeah, he did!" Wendell shouted back.
Little Joe didnt 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 boys 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 Joes gut same as he had for Adams.
But he didnt. Instead he swung and a fist smashed into Little Joes cheek near his ear. Nothing he had ever experienced had prepared him for that pain.
"Little Joe! Get down!" Toby yelled.
Following his friends directions, Little Joe ducked into a ball but still felt Lewis smash into his back. Hed about had enough of this no matter what Pa said about not fighting. Besides, Pa wasnt 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 wasnt 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 Pas 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 didnt know hed ever been playing for keeps and lost it in the first place. So that was good.
What wasnt so good was that hed ridden into town without permission. And then, worst of all, hed gotten in that fight with Lewis. That was gonna cost im some hide.
He just wouldnt 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.
Pas voice brought his head up and he was surprised to see Pa leaning his right hand on his horses hip as he looked back at him from a considerable distance.
Howd 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 hed be in even more trouble. Unless he could really pretend he was hurt inside something that didnt show. Somehow, he didnt feel up to that.
"Are you hurt anywhere?"
He shook his head and swung from Paints 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 pants 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.
"Wheres your brother?"
"Adam?" Hoss asked hesitantly.
Pa didnt 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?"
Hoss watched Pa walk behind the house. Bet hes headed to find Adam at the pond. Hope they dont argue no more. Never can stand it when they do that. Hoss clicked his tongue to get Paints 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 wasnt in it.
Ben had let Adam think about the reprimand long enough. Now it was time for understanding and praise.
He walked to his sons 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 shouldnt have yelled at you in front of the others. I apologize."
Adam didnt 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 didnt come.
Ben thought he knew what Adam needed to hear, though. "Its not easy deciding whether to be the adult your father expects or the partner your little brother needs." He smiled. "But a man couldnt 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 didnt drown in the well. He couldnt 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 hadnt 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 wouldve been getting madder every day.
Maybe he should run off and try prospectin. Hed heard it was a tough life but heck that didnt 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 theyd 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.
The voice caused Little Joe to jump.
Pa crossed from the door to the window and lowered it so there wasnt 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 Adams bunks. "And what did you decide?" Pa asked.
Little Joe sat looking at his bare feet. "Not to run away."
"Good decision." Pas voice was like it always was. Not angry. "And the other decisions you made today?"
He shook his head. "They werent so good."
"Tell me about them."
"I I went to town without permission. And I got in that fight with Lewis. But I didnt 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 didnt 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 Joes 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.
Hed 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 didnt 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?"
"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 Im doing this?"
Little Joe shook his head no and then he was across Pas lap. Pas left hand flipped back the shirttail Little Joe hadnt tucked in and then his right hand seared the seat of Little Joes pants.
It was a long time before Pa put him back on his feet.
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 hed 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 fathers 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 wasnt much more comfortable.
"Hoo boy thats 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 brothers puffy eyes. "Whats wrong?"
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 boys face was much too rigid, his coloring too pale, his eyes swollen from crying and sleep. "Little Joe," he said simply.
"Hey," Hoss said, "that work shed could double as a dog house for Smoke sometimes, too."
"Well, son, well 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 hell be shaving."
They all laughed. Everyone except Joe. He looked down at his tea and decided it was the right color to drink.
He didnt 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 wouldve dropped the empty mug if Pa hadnt caught it in his left hand.
Ben looked into Little Joes startled eyes. "You know I wont excuse you from dinner," he said softly as he placed the mug on the floor beside the chair. After all, Ben didnt feel much like eating either with his stomach still sour from having to punish his son. But there was a house rule that punishment didnt excuse anyone from daily routine.
Little Joes usually smiling lips were straight.
Ben preferred his sons obedient but he didnt 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 youll be able to make up your own mind about gambling. But right now theres too much danger in it for you." Ben paused a moment, searching his sons 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. Its 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 hadnt. He knew. He shook his head "no" and Pa quit talking.
Why had Little Joe shaken his head no? Why couldnt 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 Joes hair off his forehead. "Want to tell me whats wrong?"
Little Joe wasnt sure he could too much depended on it. "Pa?" he whispered.
"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?"
A single tear trickled down his cheek as he asked, "Spit on it?"
Ben gave a short laugh in surprise. He hadnt 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 Joes hand lost in Pas 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 hed shaken hands with Pa man-to-man.