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Not Quite New Neighbors

By Texas2002

 

Rating: PG

This story follows "Knuckling Down"

 

Hoss frowned at the candy and tried to remember which one Little Joe liked best. His little brother hadn’t quite been himself these past coupla days. Oh he teased around and he played with Smoke and acted brainless at times. But he had sat on a pillow at dinner the night before last and he was still careful when he sat down or moved certain ways. Hoss knew what that meant: Pa had tanned him for fighting in town. He’d been sure of it today when they were getting ready to come to Eagle Station and Little Joe said he’d just as soon stay home with Hop Sing. Little Joe never passed up a chance to come to town and have a good time. Candy wouldn’t help his butt but it might help his feelings.

"Mrs. Orowitz?" Hoss finally asked. "What kind does Little Joe usually get?"

She smiled and pointed. "Your little brother is partial to this one."

Hoss smiled in return. "Then that’s what I’ll take." At his side he caught a snicker from Adam. "What’s so funny?"

"You’ll have that eaten before we get home."

Usually that was true. But not this time. This time he meant to surprise Little Joe not torment him. He started to say so to his older brother, but saw Adam’s attention lock onto something at the front door.

Hoss looked over his shoulder as he paid Mrs. Orowitz and watched Adam quickly cross the floor with his hand outstretched to shake.

"Hello, sir," he greeted and took off his hat.

The man he spoke to was Hoss’ size with reddish hair and a full red beard.

"Hello again, Adam. And what would you be doing in town?"

Adam’s excitement was evident in his animated movements. "I’m here with my pa and my brother." He looked around quickly and jerked his chin.

Hoss stepped forward, clutching the candy, and pulled off his hat.

"Mr. McNally this is my brother, Eric. We call him Hoss."

"A good name for such a little brother," the big man laughed and shook Hoss’ hand with strength. Mr. McNally looked around. "And your father?"

Adam peered through the window to the sidewalk. "Here he comes now. Mr. McNally, this is my father -"

Something about the way Pa froze just inside the doorway caused Adam to stop. The two men studied one another for what seemed like forever – especially since Adam didn’t know how they were going to react. Then they very slowly stepped forward.

"Ben?" Mr. McNally said wonderingly.

"Angus?" Pa covered the last few steps in two strides. "I nearly didn’t recognize you with that beard! What’s that about?"

They shook hands, laughed in delight, and slapped one another on the shoulder at the same time.

"A good beard keeps you warm in the winter," Mr. McNally said.

"So does a good woman," Pa laughed.

Adam and Hoss shared astonished looks. What had Pa just said?

The two men sidestepped to the outside, hands still clasped and pumping.

"Well – I – what are you doing here?" Pa was overwhelmed. "My God, Angus, how’d you get here? Not by sail for sure."

His friend was just as amazed at the encounter. He glanced back to Hoss. "Look at what you could’ve been if you hadn’t stunted your growth with all that carousing." He shook his head and squinted at Adam. "And now I know why this one seemed so familiar. He has Elizabeth’s eyes. So you married her like I told you. How is she?"

Pa gave a sideways shake of his head. "She died not long after he was born."

The big man’s face sobered. "You never knew her?" he asked Adam.

"No, sir."

"Oh, she was a beauty." But Mr. McNally was not one to stay serious for long. He slapped at Pa’s chest with his gloves. "Way too good for this one."

Pa laughed. "You haven’t changed a bit." His brows rose. "Well, you’ve matured a little maybe."

"Don’t be so sure of that."

"I don’t mean your age, I mean your middle."

Adam and Hoss had never heard Pa be that personal with anyone. They leaned back on the outside of the mercantile and wondered who this Ben Cartwright was.

"And you’re a fine one to talk!" Mr. McNally shot back. "You used to be not much bigger than Adam there. Some woman gave you a lot of good cooking and I’ll warrant no small amount of good lovin’ for dessert. God’s love, man, what are the odds we’d both wind up so far away from the sea?"

Pa tilted his head. "There was a time when I could have called those odds pretty closely."

"Stars, there was a time when you knew what card every man was holdin’." Mr. McNally faced Adam and Hoss and they straightened to attention. "Be warned, boys, only a fool gambles against yer father. He’s not only got the face fer it but he’s got that mind fer math that can clean out yer pockets before ya know."

They finally released one another’s right hands but kept their left hands resting on each other’s shoulders - almost as if fearing that breaking the physical contact would make the entire thing a dream.

"I never expected to see you again," Pa said. "I heard your ship went down near the cape."

"Survived to show up here and haunt you."

"That can’t be your whole reason for being here."

Mr. McNally looked from the sides of his eyes. "Don’t think I can haunt you and make the past alive again, eh?"

"I don’t doubt you can do that for a minute," Pa admitted.

"I bought the Albert place. And I never thought twice about this Adam being a Cartwright. God knows I’ve run into enough with that name in this world. Sure didn’t think about him being your son or I never would have let him near my daughter." Mr. McNally swung his arm around Pa’s shoulder before Adam could say anything. "This deserves some celebratin’, don’t you think?" he proposed. "I remember when we’d -"

"Angus," Pa said with a shake of his head to the two sons standing gape-mouthed nearby.

"Oh, right. Can’t forget the lads. Will you join us boys? I judge that you’re of age, Adam. And I’m sure we can find something for the little brother there."

Hoss grinned widely. He liked this lively friend of Pa’s.

Shelby Sterrett turned from clearing a table in her saloon and smiled. "Well, now, Ben. Good to see ya. Usual cup of coffee?"

"Coffee?" Mr. McNally howled. "Oh man, what’s happened to ya?"

"Shelby," Pa said. "I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, Angus McNally."

"Well, Mr. McNally, any friend a’ Ben’s is welcome anytime. What’ll it -" She paused as Adam and Hoss stepped in behind their father. "Boys."

"Ma’am." Hoss’ eyes roved around like he’d never seen the place before during business hours. Come to think of it, Shelby couldn’t remember if he had.

Adam had come in at least once that she remembered. She’d tossed him out, gently but tossed nonetheless.

"So what’ll it be, gents?" she asked as they seated themselves.

"Your best," McNally said.

"Best whut?" Shelby asked, talking around her cigar.

"If you have a good whisky, that’ll do. If not, a good beer."

"Better go with the whisky. Ben?"

"He’ll have the same," McNally answered quickly. "And bring us a bottle."

Shelby nodded. "Boys?"

"I reckon some coffee, thanks," Hoss answered.

Adam started to order a coffee so Hoss wouldn’t feel left out, but he decided it was time to enjoy a few privileges. "A beer, thanks."

"Stars, man," Mr. McNally leaned his chair back against a post. "Here we are like old times in a saloon."

Adam and Hoss looked at one another again eagerly. They were going to have so much to talk about tonight in the bunkroom.

Pa rested his arms on the table. "The only thing missing is drunken sailors and the call of the gulls."

"Did you say the call of the girls?" Mr. McNally joked. "Ya know, there’s no one who makes as good a drunk as a sailor, have ya noticed that? I’ve seen all manner of drunks these past years and they just don’t measure up."

"Maybe they aren’t getting their portion of rum every day," Pa said. "It was rum, wasn’t it?"

That remark sent them both into such raucous laughter two men in the corner in the back looked up to see what was going on.

"So what are ya doin’ in Utah Territory, Ben Cartwright?" Mr. McNally asked when they’d settled down a bit.

"Ranching. I’ve been through the plains and down to the gulf coast. Marie and I were on our way to San Francisco when we stopped here and decided to stay."

Adam had to give it to Pa: he could sure reduce twenty-one years into a few words.

"So the mother of this fine lad is with ya?" Mr. McNally motioned to Hoss.

"No." Pa shook his head. "She was killed by Indians not long after Hoss was born. I met Marie down in New Orleans."

Mr. McNally’s face showed his approval. "Those people know how ta live. Marie must be the one whose cookin’ yer profiting from."

"She died this year."

Mr. McNally frowned. "Heaven’s graces, man."

Pa smiled with affection. "But she’s still with me in a way: we have a boy who’s almost 13. Joseph." Pa diverted the subject. "How did an ugly thing like you ever get a wife?"

"Kidnapped ‘er in London, got ‘er drunk on good French wine, and by the time she was sober she was pregnant," he laughed.

Hoss looked at Adam, eyes wide.

"The end result of that little escapade is our daughter Molly," Mr. McNally continued. "We should’ve stopped there but ya know how it is when ya get used to having a good time in bed. The good Lord hit us with Sean and Aidan. When I’m not after one of them I’m after the other or both." He looked up at Shelby as she placed their drinks and smiled. "You’ll join us for one won’t ya, lass?"

"Don’t mind if I do." Shelby poured a drink.

"To friends," Mr. McNally said.

Pa’s face glowed with pleasure. "To friends."

The two men raised their glasses, entwined their right arms and emptied the shot glasses in one swallow.

Adam and Hoss shook their heads.

Shelby walked back to the bar and Pa filled their glasses again.

"To Abel Stoddard," Pa said.

"To the good old cap’n," Mr. McNally agreed and looked at Adam. "You had a fine grandsire, lad."

And again Pa and Mr. McNally raised their glasses, entwined their right arms and emptied the shot glasses in one swallow.

Adam leaned back in his chair when Pa filled the glasses for a third time.

"To all the ships at sea," he said.

"And all the men who sail ‘em," Mr. McNally added.

And for the third time they swallowed the liquor down in one gulp. Adam rolled his eyes Hoss’ way. His younger brother was grinning like a school kid on Sunday.

"Ah, Benjamin," Mr. McNally said as he refilled the glasses. "I wish ya’d gone to the Orient with me."

"I was there."

"The women! All covered with silk and smelling as exotic as their spices." He started laughing and pointed at Pa. "Course you were already determined to have Elizabeth by then."

Pa leaned back, stretching his long legs, and sipped his whiskey. "I had all the silk I needed in that black hair of hers. And her eyes. Angus, I could look into those eyes and they were deeper and bluer than any water I’d ever sailed."

"And what a temper," Angus remarked from the side of his mouth.

Adam put down his beer. He had always assumed his reputedly bad temper came from Pa. You mean he had it from both of them?

Pa flushed in embarrassment. "That was just a misunderstanding, Angus."

"Well when you put a hand where it shouldn’t go on a girl in broad daylight it’s bound to attract some attention."

Adam’s mouth fell open and Angus, who had a clear view of him, motioned the young man’s way with his shot glass. "You’d best explain to yer son, there, Ben."

Pa swallowed down the rest of his drink and tried not to laugh. "It’s nothing like that, Adam."

"It was bad enough fer her to slap ya like fire," Angus reminded.

Pa rested his left arm on the chair back. "Your mother and I were in the park. It was a spring day and I’d just gotten in from sea the day before. We sat on a bench near some flowering shrubs and we were facing one another and -" Pa laughed and looked down. When his eyes met Adam’s they were full of mischief. "Your mother was a very fashionable young lady -"

"Get on with it, Ben, or I’ll tell ‘im," Angus cajoled.

"She had on a dress that showed a – pleasing amount of bare bodice and shoulder."

"And she had a very pleasing bare bodice and shoulder," Mr. McNally interrupted before pouring more drinks for Pa and him.

"Anyhow, she was telling me about some poetry she’d read and a bee landed on her dress at her shoulder. I was keeping my eye on it to be sure it didn’t try to sting her -"

"So he says," came his friend’s hoot.

Pa’s eyes held their mischief. "She was talking and I didn’t want to interrupt and then the bee walked onto her – uh – bare bodice and before I thought I reached over to brush it away."

"Were you married?" Hoss asked, his eyes wide.


"No," Pa answered.

"Uh oh."

"Pretty much," Pa agreed. "I reached over to brush the bee away. My fingers touched her bare skin and I don’t know what it did to her but I’ll never forget what it did to me."

Was Pa really telling them this?

Pa ran his hand through his hair. "Anyhow, I had bought a ring on that trip and I was wearing it. When I brushed her skin, and jerked my hand, the blasted ring caught in the lace trim by her bodice."

"Ohhhhh," Adam breathed.

"I pulled my hand, trying to get it free, and I ripped that lace from here to there."

Mr. McNally was lost in laughter, tears rolling down his red cheeks, re-living the event.

"In the meantime, your mother flew to her feet and slapped my face off the charts. And of course when she jumped up, it ripped even more of the top of her dress. By then she was kicking my shins with her boots. I grabbed her arms, trying to get her to be still so I could take off the ring."

"And keep ‘er from breakin’ yer leg," Mr. McNally added.

Adam smiled at what he was visualizing.

"So there I was," Pa said, wiping at his eyes, "this six foot young man holding the arms of this screaming slip of a girl whose dress was torn and whose hair was coming down all around her face. What do you think happened when the policeman showed up because of all the excitement?"

"It was a wonder to behold," Mr. McNally added. "Yer pa yelling his innocence and how he loved ‘er and poor ‘Lizabeth sobbing hysterically and bellowin’ at ‘im that ‘e’d better never come near ‘er again or she’d castrate ‘im-"

"Castrate him?" Adam repeated softly. "She really said that?"

Pa and Mr. McNally shot one another a look that said volumes. "Lad," Mr. McNally answered, "your mother was as fine a lady as ever was but ‘er father was a sea captain and she’d heard enough of that language no matter how careful he was. I’m not sure she said the word castrate exactly but it was to that effect. Ever heard a sea captain give a man a dressing down?"

Adam looked at Pa. "I think I’ve come close."

But Hoss was stuck on another part of the story. "You were in jail, Pa?"

"Not fer long," Mr. McNally said. "Good old Cap’n Stoddard heard what ‘ad happened and was there in a coupla hours."

Pa frowned. "How do you think he heard?"

"Well, think about it, Benjamin. ‘Lizabeth was hot as molten lead so she didn’t care what happened to you. Who else knew about it?"

"Just you and whoever that girl was with you."

"I didn’t have the money or the reputation to get ya out. Anyhow, jails always made me nervous."

Pa squinted. "So you told him?"

"Sure."

"Well, in that case, to friends again," Pa lifted his glass.

"To friends."

 

"Sure ya won’t have another?" Mr. McNally taunted hours later as he paid Shelby.

"Not now." Pa stood firm against his friend’s insistence.

"Then bring the family over for dinner on Sunday and we’ll see what we can do," Mr. McNally said. "Adam there knows the way."

The two men stood.

They pumped one another’s hands as they had when they first saw each other at the mercantile and slapped each other on the back again. "Come early," Mr. McNally said.

Pa smiled at Shelby. "You’ve just met one of your new best customers."

She smiled as if she knew a secret.

+++

Little Joe leaned on the end of the dining table, grinning widely. "Pa did what?"

Hoss nodded his head as he sat across from Adam. "He took that whiskey down in one gulp."

"Naw." Little Joe shook his head in disbelief and popped another piece of candy in his mouth.

"He did sure ‘nuff," Hoss said adamantly. "And ya know what else? They tied their arms together when they did it."

"They what?" the boy laughed.

Hoss kicked at his older brother’s boot under the table and Adam looked up from the newspaper he was reading.

"Let’s show Little Joe how Pa and Mr. McNally did that drink thing," Hoss said.

Adam shook his head. "Hoss -"

"Come on, Adam. I wanna see," Little Joe cajoled.

All right. Stupid as this was they would not let him get back to his newspaper until he had placated them.

Adam picked up his mug in his right hand and Hoss did the same. "Understand, they were drinking whiskey and not Mrs. Greene’s apple cider," Hoss stressed, striving for accuracy.

Adam and he looped their right arms around each other as they had seen Pa and Mr. McNally do and then they each took a quick gulp, throwing their heads back. The result was predictable. They choked and sent apple cider spraying onto the table. Smoke broke into excited barks and then licked at the droplets that made it to the floor.

"It takes practice." Pa approached the trio from the front door, his amusement evident on his face. "And I strongly encourage you to do any future practicing outside or Hop Sing is liable to have your heads. You might want to wipe that up before he gets in from his garden."

"Can you really do that, Pa?" Little Joe asked in wonder as a coughing Hoss found a damp rag to clean the tabletop. Ma used to cook with whisky and wines a lot. And Pa still had whisky in the house. But just the little bit Little Joe had tasted when Pa made him take it with honey for a sore throat or a cold had convinced him the stuff was pretty strong. "Can you, Pa?" he asked again.

"What?" Pa plopped his hat atop Little Joe’s head.

"Can you drink whiskey in one gulp?" Little Joe took off the hat, but continued to hold it.

Pa faced Little Joe, his eyes twinkling. "Can’t you?"

Adam grinned and patted the newspaper with a dry cloth.

"Are we really gonna go visit ‘em Sunday?"

Pa walked to the fireplace for a cup of coffee. "Yes, we’re really gonna go visit ‘em Sunday," he mimicked.

"Well – who is he?" Little Joe walked to the settee where Pa sat with one hand holding his mug of coffee and the other arm stretched along the top rail.

"I knew Angus for a few years before I married Adam’s mother. We worked and lived together."

"He’s a real nice fella," Hoss said quickly.

Pa nodded. "He has a good heart and his handshake is his bond."

"They have an entire wall in the house covered with books," Adam said. He sat in the chair to Pa’s left. "Mrs. McNally was a schoolteacher while they were in St. Louis."

Pa found that news interesting. "Wonder if she’d consider teaching in Eagle Station? Usually the teacher is unmarried but -"

"So, what’d ya do?" Little Joe asked.

Pa frowned that he didn’t understand.

"What’d you and Mr. McNally do?"

"We worked for Adam’s grandfather."

"I don’t mean that. What’d ya do for fun?"

Little Joe could tell Pa was hiding something. "We didn’t have much time for anything but work, son."

Luckily, Adam and Hoss didn’t refute his answer to the twelve-year-old.

Pa patted the cushion beside him and Little Joe sat down slowly. He handed Pa his hat and Pa hung it off the end of the settee.

"So where’s Mr. McNally from?" Hoss sat in the other chair and crossed his right boot to his left knee.

"He grew up in Scotland and Ireland and fished there as a boy. Then he lived a while in England before he sailed here." Pa blew on his coffee. "Angus is the one I bought the china marble from."

"Did he play?" Little Joe looked up at Pa.

There it was again: that hesitancy on Pa’s part. "Angus loved all kinds of games, Little Joe. He probably still does."

Pa caught that same guilty look on Adam’s face he had seen a few days ago in the barn.

"Think his boys’ll wanna play marbles?" Little Joe asked.

"Oh, they’ll want to play," Adam assured him.

Pa held up a warning finger and that was all he had to do.

The spanking Little Joe had received for gambling and fighting had hurt for days but deep inside he was very grateful Pa hadn’t used his belt. He also knew without a doubt that Pa wouldn’t cut him that slack again.

"I know, Pa," he assured. "No gambling."

+++

Mr. McNally was exactly like Hoss had described him. Tall, broad chested, and he had the most amazing red hair and beard Little Joe had ever seen. It was even redder than Wendell’s was. Everybody in the family had the same color red hair and bright green eyes. Mrs. McNally was so happy to meet Hop Sing, who she said was a genius with herbs based on the foods they had swapped, that the two of them immediately went into the house. Molly, the only girl, easily grabbed Adam’s hand after the introductions were made to the rest of the family and told him they had finally received a newspaper from St. Louis. That left Little Joe facing Sean and Aidan. Adam had told him they were just kids but they looked to Little Joe like they were around his age.

"Hey, let’s go -" Sean started but Mr. McNally was having none of it.

"The meal’ll be ready in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Till then you’ll keep your own right here on the porch. If you get dirty your mother’ll make me wale ya." He put his pipe in his mouth and walked to the porch, where there were two rocking chairs and a bench. "Would ya be wantin’ somethin’ wet before the meal, Ben?" he asked.

"Sounds good, Angus," Pa said as he sat down in one of the rocking chairs. Mr. McNally came out with two filled whiskey glasses and handed one to Pa.

"Umm," Pa said after a sip. "You do know your whiskey." He held the glass up and looked at the liquid. "Seems like I had some of this before. It came from the north."

Mr. McNally laughed. "It comes through there but not from there."

They both laughed and Little Joe, who was sitting on the edge of the porch in front of Pa’s chair, went wide-eyed. He hadn’t seen Pa drink like this since Ma and he used to have something after dinner – or she’d make those mint drinks that Little Joe could never understand why he couldn’t have.

"You’ve done a lot with the place," Pa said as he rocked the chair. "It looks good."

"Yeah, the boys here are good hands when I can keep ‘em out of mischief, "he laughed and tousled Aidan’s hair. "Some times havin’ them around is like losing a good arm."

Sean giggled as he sat on the bench. "That’s when he tells us to just go on and get outta the way."

Little Joe quickly looked up at Pa again. He’d tried goofing around a couple of times hoping Pa would tell him to go do something else. Pa not only hadn’t let him get away with it he hadn’t seen anything funny about it.

"So, Ben, Adam told me you have some of those longhorn cattle and they’re doing pretty good. I’d still like to see the English cattle on this grass. They’ve so much more meat to them. But Adam tells me your neighbor Mrs. Greene lost some to the heat."

Little Joe tuned out the talk and looked around instead. The McNallys had changed a lot about the Albert homestead. They’d made the corral bigger and there was a whole section to the barn he didn’t remember. In addition, they’d done something he hadn’t seen in a long time: they had a fence around the front area. It looked funny to him now that he was so used to the open quality of the Ponderosa but he noticed there were some small plants growing near the fence. They had thorns on them and he remembered seeing those in New Orleans. Ma used to call them roses and they smelled wonderful. It was going to be a while before these were any decent size. He knew there was a stream just beyond the slope that came out of the mountains. When he used to come here to visit the Alberts, Mr. Albert let him launch tiny sailboats from the flat rock by the big pine and then he’d run to catch them.

"Son?" Pa gave his shoulder a shake.

Little Joe looked up.

"It’s time to go in."

The meal at Angus’ table was as raucous as Ben had expected it would be.

Adam and Molly, who sat beside each other, carried on their own conversation and only acknowledged the others’ existence when someone asked them to pass a dish.

Hoss chattered as Ben hadn’t seen him do since he was a boy. He delighted in Angus’ stories and told Angus about the time Ben had set up the turkey decoy on a hunting trip only to have the joke turned on him.

Ben saw what Angus had meant about having his hands full with his two young sons. He and Julia both stopped repeatedly to correct Aidan and Sean and exercised infinitely more patience than Ben possessed. When Angus had to correct the two boys for shooting peas at each other, Ben looked away and counted to twenty.

Little Joe sensed a change in his father. He was trying to be good, just eating and being real polite. Why was that vein in Pa’s forehead pulsing like that? He hadn’t done anything wrong.

Ben took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the table. As he reached for his knife he became aware of his youngest son’s worried eyes on him. Ben smiled reassuringly and Little Joe relaxed.

Not five minutes later, Julia quickly broke off her conversation with Ben and slapped the table once with a wooden spoon. Adam, Hoss and Joe jumped and immediately looked to Ben as if he had done it.

She hammered the spoon against the tabletop several more times and finally received her own sons’ attention.

"Behave as you’ve been taught or leave the table," she instructed.

That was fine with Aidan and Sean. They jumped up, knocking over their chairs, and ran out the front door without even an "excuse me".

Mrs. McNally was not pleased with their behavior but Mr. McNally waved a large hand. "Let ‘em go, Julia. It’ll be more pleasant anyhow."

Adam’s right brow rose. Little Joe was giving him a look of open-mouthed shock. Adam shook his head slightly and Little Joe snapped his mouth closed and returned his attention to his plate.

Since it was cooler outside, everyone went out to the front porch after the meal. Angus was still a good fiddle player and he entertained them with a few fast tunes to which Molly insisted on dancing with first Adam and then Hoss. Hoss elbowed Adam when Mrs. McNally finally talked Pa into dancing with her.

The fiddle music evoked memories Ben didn’t know he had. It was as if a different man had danced with Elizabeth like this so many times: dancing to fiddles and whistles after the ships came in; or when they went to the shore with friends to cook clams and fish; or when they celebrated safe passages. It was not slow, romantic music. No these were the tunes that got everyone yelling and laughing and their blood running high and the girls hiking up their skirts so their feet could move faster.

On so many nights Elizabeth and he had returned home, Ben still whistling one of the songs as they walked upstairs well after midnight. They’d remove their shoes and shed some layers of clothes and then, with him whistling and Elizabeth singing, dance again. The whirling and the laughing and the fast stepping had been more intoxicating than any liquor. What would Adam think if he knew he was the product of a mother and father who couldn’t get enough of the high-spirited dancing or each other?

Could he really have been only a little older than Hoss? He’d thought he was so grown at the time.

When Julia and he finished the round they sat on one of the benches, laughing and catching their breath.

"You’re a fine dancer, Ben," Julia said.

"Marie loved dances and parties," he said although Marie had not been the woman in his earlier thoughts. For a startled moment, he felt as if he had been unfaithful to her.

"In Eagle Station?" Julia’s surprise cracked her pretty voice.

Ben pulled himself back to the conversation. "Well, she would have loved to have had parties there, too. But I was talking about when we lived in New Orleans."

"You’ve almost lived as many places as we have." Julia laughed as easily as her husband. "From this time on, if there’s a dance I expect one round with you," she instructed.

After the fiddle music, Angus taught Ben’s sons a few sea songs they hadn’t heard – clean ones much to Ben’s relief. And he regaled them with a couple of pub songs that were also without stain. Hoss especially enjoyed the ditties and although he was normally shy about singing because he considered Adam to have the superior voice he joined right in as soon as he had learned one. When Hop Sing did a quick translation of a short song into Chinese, it sent Angus, Hoss, Little Joe, Aidan and Sean into spasms of laughter.

As early evening settled in Julia lit the candle sconces on the porch and asked if anyone wanted coffee. Adam, Hoss, Molly and Hop Sing followed her inside. Little Joe left the porch with Aidan and Sean after a silent look from Ben that he understood – don’t go far.

"It’s been a good afternoon," Ben said.

"We always did have a good time together." Angus leaned his chair back. "Remember when we’d stay up the better part of the night and then get to the dock just by a hair? I couldn’t do that now."

"No," Ben agreed.

"And I’m not near as good at cards as I used to be. I played your Adam one day when he was here, thinkin’ I’d show ‘im somethin’ ya know and by God the lad embarrassed me. I finally did win $5 off him but that wasn’t near enough t’heal my bruised ego." Angus shifted in his chair. "Should’ve known better than to gamble with any son of yours. Course at the time I’d no idea he was yours."

Ben rocked his chair back. "I did a lot of things in my youth that my sons don’t need to know about."

Angus exploded in laughter. "Don’t I know it?!" He stood abruptly. "Come along."

Ben stood and stomped life into his legs, then followed Angus into the barn.

Angus started up the ladder to the hayloft. "No women to roll with up here but something almost as good."

Angus would absolutely never change. Ben laughed and stepped onto the decking of the hayloft. Angus rummaged around and produced a whiskey flask and then held it aloft like a trophy. When Ben started to sit on a hay bale, Angus grabbed his upper arm.

"Not yet. Follow me."

Angus had always been agile and he hadn’t lost that skill. He led Ben out of the hayloft window to the roof below it and up a ladder to the barn roof. They walked about a third of the length of the barn and then sat near the peak.

Oh, lord, Ben thought. What am I doing up here? I blistered Adam for this when he was younger and I still lecture him about it when he goes up on the barn to rescue those cats. If he sees me up here he’s going to demand to know why I don’t follow my own rules.

The problem was that he, too, had always loved heights. That love, and fearlessness, had served him in good stead at sea. And even before his sailing days, he’d always enjoyed sitting on the Boston rooftops, studying the stars at night or watching the ships during the day. He knew where Adam got his love of being up high, which was why, in the beginning, he had only scolded Adam when he did the same roof walking. But Marie had been correct. It was dangerous. The poor boy endured several punishments before he finally quit disobeying.

If he did.

Ben wondered if the lesson had been learned or if Adam had just become more skilled at not getting caught.

"Well," Angus said as he opened the flask, "there’s no call of the gulls, nor creak of the ships, nor slap of the waves, but at least we ‘ave a roof top." He held the flask toward Ben. "To friends."

Ben accepted the flask and sipped. It was not the bourbon he had grown accustomed to under Marie’s influence. This was the single malt Scotch he’d first tasted under Angus’ tutelage. His eyes must have shown something of his surprise because his friend leaned back and laughed.

"Been a while since we’ve tasted this has it?"

Ben coughed slightly and nodded his head as he returned the flask.

"Have another," Angus said.

Ben waved a dismissing hand. "Not while I’m up here."

Angus laughed with such gusto Ben was sure the sound carried a mile. "Saints above, Ben, ya used to hold yer own and jump from one rooftop to the next like nothin’ I’ve ever seen." He took a drink from the flask.

"I was a kid, Angus."

"Bet ya could still do it if ya tried."

Ben pulled his knees up and rested his forearms. "Why would I want to?"

"Wouldn’t ya just like to prove to yerself ya still have it in ya?"

"I was almost as light weight as Adam. I didn’t break as easily. I didn’t even know I could break."

"Ah, Ben, admit it, yer just old. All the fun’s gone outta ya." Angus drank again. "It must be the losing three wives that’s done it to ya. If I ever lost Julia I’d do away with myself."

Ben gave his friend a quick look because his tone had become so serious. "No you wouldn’t. You’d have to take care of your daughter and sons. You’d want to give in to the grief. But the children are just as bewildered and hurt as you are – maybe even more so because they’ve lost one parent and they know they could lose the other. You have to get through the day for their sake and then eventually it gets easier. The nights never do, though. "

"We need to find you a woman."

Ben half-laughed. "Have you seen any available woman that you’d want to marry in Eagle Station?"

"Well, then, if not marriage maybe some other fun."

Ben blinked, not sure he was following his friend’s thoughts and then afraid he was.

"There’s that place Jack Wolf owns -"

"Absolutely not!"

"Maybe Shelby knows a girl you could meet with-"

"Angus."

"Stars, have the fates just made ya old?"

That drew verbal blood. He wasn’t old. He set the pace at the Ponderosa – stayed ahead of a twenty-one year old and a seventeen-year-old and most days had the upper hand with the twelve-year-old. He could still outwork them any day of the week.

He returned to Angus’ earlier remarks. "Women shouldn’t be mistreated that way and you know it."

Angus quieted. "Are you tellin’ me -"

"I’m not telling you anything," Ben said, right brow arched.

"She was yer first, wasn’t she?"

Ben shifted uncomfortably.

Angus roared in laughter. "Well it’s about time we were honest with each other. Julia there was only my second woman. My first one was a lady in France. Name of Esther if that was ‘er real name. I was nineteen and she ‘ad to be thirty if she was a day. She scared me so bad I waited ‘til I married Julia."

They both laughed at Angus’ confession and then he asked, "What is it about a lad that ‘e wants to brag so about things ‘e hasn’t done?"

"We were too inexperienced to know each other were lying," Ben said with a chuckle.

Angus stood in the early evening light. "Well, I’ll tell ya what: I’m still not old. See my new storage house? Made it extra large. It has plenty of roof. How far ya reckon it is from here? Figure we could jump it?"

No. There was no way Angus was really considering – Ben stood quickly.

"Hold this," Angus said and tossed the flask Ben’s way.

The container of Scotch went past Ben and he turned slightly to catch it. But just as the silver flask settled in the palm of his left hand, his boot heels slid, his butt hit the roof followed immediately by his back and he started downward.

"Angus!!" Ben yelled. He rolled to his side on the shingled roof and stretched his right arm, hoping he would slow himself down or that Angus had left the horizontal slats from when he’d re-roofed it.

No such luck.

"Angus!!" Ben shouted again. "Where are you??"

"Throw it and I’ll catch it!"

"What??" Ben shouted. Angus was worried about the flask when Ben had a good chance of breaking his neck? He scraped his hand on the shingles as he made his slow descent. "Get the ladder!"

"Right! Soon as ya toss me the flask!"

Ben slid a little more and heard his right shirtsleeve tear. "Thunder and perdition, Angus!" he roared. "Get the ladder!"

Adam’s bemused voice came from below. "I have one here, Pa."

Ben leaned his head on his forearm a moment and closed his eyes. Well, he’d asked for a ladder, hadn’t he?

As he neared the roof’s edge, he heard another voice he had hoped to avoid. "You can drop that liquor holder, Pa. I’ll catch it," Hoss said.

Then there was Julia’s voice. "Angus McNally what are you doing on top of the storage house?"

Ben felt a slender hand against his left leg. "Here you are, Pa. Top rung." At least Adam was maintaining an air of respect.

He would have to look at his sons eventually he guessed so it might as well be now. Ben stepped to the ground, turned from the ladder and they both wiped the smiles off their faces.

Hoss looked from the roof to the flask in his hand to Angus to Ben, his frown creasing his forehead.

But Adam. Oh, Adam was a whole different story. His forehead wasn’t furrowed at all because his eyebrows were so raised. Those deep blue eyes could barely contain the delight of having caught his father.

Well, thank heavens Little Joe didn’t know.

"Pa?" came a small voice as the twelve-year-old stepped from behind Hoss. "What’s pur – purdy whatever?"

"We’ll talk about it at home," Ben answered.

"How come you didn’t jump over there, Pa?" Hoss asked after he had figured out what was going on. He handed Mr. McNally the flask and watched as the man drank down several swallows.

"Ya know, Benjamin," Angus said with his head to one side, "ya used to be more sure footed than that."

"And you used to be good looking," Ben said, eyes down as he dusted his pants. He should have known better than to give Angus the opening. The strong arms went around Ben’s upper torso and the two men fell backwards into a hay pile.

"This had better be clean." Ben warned.

"It was before we put it in the stalls," Angus shot back. "Let’s see if ya have any of your old style."

In no time, the hay was spread over an eight-foot area as the two men sparred while everyone watched. Adam had to keep nudging Hoss’ side so he’d close his mouth. On his other side, Joe grinned in delight and cheered Pa on.

 

Back at home that night, Little Joe looked around the living room as he played tug of war with Smoke. The puppy’s growls were the only noise. Occasionally the firewood popped and when it did Smoke turned toward it, barking as he protected his family from the fireplace attacker. He had a real important job, keeping them safe inside such a big house, and he’d bounce back to Little Joe to be sure the boy had seen his bravery.

"So what’s that purdy word?" Little Joe said to no one in particular.

"What?" Pa asked absently, semi-dozing on the settee.

"Ya know, that purdy word you said when you came offa Mr. McNally’s roof."

"I think," Adam said without looking up from his book, "he means when you bellowed thunder and perdition."

"I did not bellow."

"So what is it?" Little Joe persisted.

Pa thought a moment. "Perdition is another word for damnation."

Little Joe wasn’t sure about the whole word damnation but he knew, from what happened to Hoss when he said it to Pa a coupla years ago, that the first part of the word could get you in a whole mess of trouble.

"What’s that word mean?" Little Joe asked.

"I told you," Pa began to repeat, "perdition means -"

"That second word."

Pa’s right eye opened.

Little Joe shifted uncomfortably. "If I’m gonna get in trouble then I don’t wanna know."

Pa’s left eye opened. "Have you ever been in trouble for asking a question respectfully?"

"But that word starts with a word that’s -" he glanced Hoss’ way "- a trouble word."

Pa stifled a smile. "Do you remember how the faith healer preached about people going to hell?"

The boy nodded.

"That would be damnation."

Pa gave the information time to sink in and waited for the next inevitable question.

"So," Little Joe looked at Pa’s boots, "when you yelled thunder and purdy-shun you meant thunder and - damnation?"

"Um hum."

Adam and Hoss grinned.

"Is that cussin’?" Little Joe squinted one eye.

Pa cleared his throat. "Do your brothers say it?"

"No," Little Joe muttered. "It sure was a good sounding word, Pa."

But he didn’t grieve for too long over a word he would have liked to throw around. He quickly changed thoughts. "I didn’t know you could shoot peas across the table like that," he said of Sean and Aidan.

"You can’t," Ben said easily.

Hoss started laughing. "Remember that time we blew that yellow dessert cream out our noses at each other, Adam? We got it all over the table and us."

Ben frowned. "When was that?"

"You weren’t there," Adam said as he looked at Hoss. "Which is the only reason why Hoss can laugh about it."

Hoss stretched his legs and allowed John Adams to jump into his lap. "Say, Pa, what was that you were drinking on the roof?"

"Scotch."

"And it makes you lose your balance that easy?" His question was innocent enough but Ben didn’t miss the fact that Adam looked down and put his hand over his eyes.

"It could make you lose your balance if you drank too much, yes. But that isn’t what happened." Ben considered the subject closed but Hoss nodded as if he expected his father to continue. "We were sitting on the roof talking and Angus decided to jump to the storage house roof. I stood when I realized what he intended to do. He tossed the flask toward me, I went off balance trying to catch it and that’s when I fell."

"Oh," Hoss said slowly. "So it didn’t have nothin’ to do with that Scotch stuff."

"Not on my part, no."

"Well why’d you go up on the roof?" Little Joe frowned.

Ben dropped his guard as he rubbed at his face. "Because Angus did."

Oh no, had he really said that?

There wasn’t one of them he hadn’t scolded severely for the same excuse.

He stifled a moan as he looked through his fingers. All three of his sons were staring at him as if he’d grown a set of horns.

Little Joe was the first to find his voice. He stood up, waving his arms and causing Smoke to bark in excitement as he demanded, "How come when I say that you yell at me and say all those words like Zeus and -"

"I don’t yell, Joe."

Hoss nodded. "Yeah, ya do, Pa," he said gently.

"You do," Adam agreed.

"Sometimes I lose my patience and -" All three were giving him their ‘admit it’ look. What was this? A mutiny?

"I’m not talkin’ about the yellin’," Little Joe went back to his subject like metal to a magnet. "How come you can say you did it ‘cause Mr. McNally did it but when I say I did somethin’ cause Wendell did it you yell at me?"

Ben’s lips twitched upwards as his son stood his ground with the determination of someone who had been dealt a huge injustice. "Because it’s my rule."

"So you don’t hafta follow your own stupid rules?"

"Ooooh," Adam said softly as he scooted down in his chair. "Little Joe, you’ll never win an argument with Pa by yelling or talking back."

"I’m not yelling," Little Joe countered.

"So that leaves -" Adam said leadingly.

Little Joe shook his head. "I’m not talking back neither."

Hoss agreed with Adam’s assessment. "If you’re not, you’re getting mighty close, little brother."

Ben watched the exchange with the same amusement that always filled him when Adam and Hoss considered it their duty to instruct Little Joe on the fine art of dealing with their pa.

He cleared his throat. "You’re right, Little Joe. I should not have said I did it because Angus did it. I should take responsibility for my own actions." Ben smiled at the boy’s triumphant expression. "Now get ready for bed and I’ll tuck you in."

Hoss watched the door to the bunkroom close and shook his head. "He’s gonna strut around for a week braggin’ how he won an argument with Pa."

Ben patted Hoss on the back. "He learned a hard lesson about obedience last week. I don’t think a little strutting will hurt him. By the way, it was very kind of you to give him that candy a few days ago."

Hoss looked down quickly, embarrassed by the attention. He stood from where he sat by Ben. "I think I’ll go on to bed, too. Good night."

Eventually, Adam tired of reading and bid Hop Sing and Ben good night.

Hop Sing poured one last cup of tea. "Good for father to acknowledge mistakes."

"How do you mean?" Ben asked.

"Good for boys to know father not perfect. That way they not worry that they are not."

Ben chuckled and picked up Abigail. "You’re very wise, Hop Sing."

+++

Ben should have known better than to let Hoss toss the hay down to him. His middle son might seem quiet-natured to outsiders, but to the Cartwright clan he was recognized as second only to Pa as a prankster. Which was why right now Hoss was in the hayloft, still tossing the hay down and shouting "What?" while Ben was slowly being buried alive as he yelled, "Stop!"

Sitting on the tool chest, Little Joe watched the goings-on with bright-eyed delight. Especially when he realized he knew something Hoss didn’t: Adam must’ve climbed the ladder to the roof over the woodpile because he was coming in the hayloft window and any second now Hoss was gonna get a real surprise.

"Hey!" Hoss yelled as Adam threw an empty sack over his younger brother’s head and shoulders.

Pa dug out of the hay pile to see what had erupted above him.

"Grab the rope!" Adam yelled. "We’re stringing him up!"

"Adam, dang it, let me up!" Hoss screamed through the feed sack.

Adam hadn’t spent all these years learning about ropes and knots from Pa for nothing. He was busy tying a rope under Hoss’ arms, on top of the bottom edge of the feed sack, which he then connected to the pulley rope.

"Ready Pa?" Adam called.

Pa yelled back, bracing himself and sitting back on the end of the pulley rope.

Hoss howled as Adam rolled him off the edge and then scurried down to help Pa.

"What’s that?" Pa taunted.

"Put me down!" Hoss demanded.

Pa and Adam shrugged and eased off the rope enough that if felt like it was falling.

"No!" Hoss yelped. "Pull me up."

They weren’t about to let him fall so they tightened their holds.

"But I thought you said down," Pa teased.

"Pa, please?" Hoss begged.

"What on earth are you doing?" A woman’s voice asked from the doorway.

Ben turned and laughed slightly, embarrassed that he couldn’t release the rope and tip his hat. "Hello, Maggie."

"Ben. How are you?"

"Mrs. Greene?" Hoss’ muffled voice came from inside the feedbag as he dangled. "Is Tess here?"

Margaret smiled in spite of herself. "Uh – no Hoss – but she sent you some cookies."

"I’ll take them for him, ma’am," Little Joe volunteered as he stepped forward to take the basket in Mrs. Greene’s hands.

"Pa! Don’t let him lay a hand on ‘em."

"Joseph," Pa shook his head gently and helped Adam lower Hoss to the ground.

"Truce?" Adam asked his trussed brother.

"Sure. Leastways ‘til I get outta this."

Ben was pretty sure there wouldn’t be any blood letting so he walked to Margaret and motioned toward the house. "Come in and have some coffee."

"Don’t mind if I do. And I have an invitation for you."

Ben put a hand to her back. "What kind of invitation?"

"Tess and I are having the new neighbors over on Sunday. The McNallys? I visited with Julia in town and she told me that her husband and you are long-time friends."

"Well," Ben drawled as they crossed the porch, "we knew each other a long time ago. I hadn’t seen him since before Adam was born until about a week ago."

"Will you come? We thought we’d make it the noon meal so everyone can be home before dark."

Ben held open the front door and followed Margaret inside. "Thank you. We’ll look forward to it."

"Ah, good morning, Mrs. Greene. Tea? Coffee?" Hop Sing smiled as he asked.

"Whatever you have warming will be fine, thank you," Margaret said as she sat down in the chair Ben pulled out for her at the table.

"Coffee then. And muffin?"

"Oh, not for me, thank you," Margaret replied.

Ben shook his head "no" and then looked up as Little Joe ran into the house with Smoke on his heels.

Smoke sat at Little Joe’s feet and cocked his head. He remembered this lady in the skirt. Well, he remembered the skirt and how much fun it had been to chase it and hide under it. But he was older now and he knew Little Joe would probably put him outside if he misbehaved. He didn’t want that because something in here smelled really good and if he behaved he just might get a taste.

"Hi, Mrs. Greene! Look how big he is!"

"Oh my. He’s going to be a large dog isn’t he?

"Yes ma’am," Little Joe said, noting his father’s silent signal to take off his hat and immediately doing so. "He’s real smart. He’s learning how to herd cattle, he brings back fish, and he gets tools for us and -"

"He brings back fish?" Margaret laughed.

"Yes ma’am. He dives in once they’re hooked and brings ‘em in without even a scratch. Funniest thing ya ever saw. Did ya know that John Adams is a girl?"

Margaret tried to keep a straight face. "Yes, I believe Tess told me that. She was rather embarrassed about it."

"Yeah, well -" Little Joe stopped in the middle of his sentence and blushed. "Uh, Hoss asked if I could bring the cookies to the barn, please."

Pa’s chin went up. "I believe we’ll keep them here until Hoss comes for them."

"No, really Pa, he asked me to."

"Then you can ask him to."

Little Joe twisted his lips. "All right, but he’s not gonna like it. He told me if I didn’t bring the cookies he’d beat me up like he’s beatin’ up Adam."

For half a second Ben started to stand and then Little Joe laughed and ran from the house followed by a barking Smoke.

Ben met Margaret’s eyes. "I don’t know where he gets that," he protested.

+++

Ben had to admit he enjoyed the meal at Margaret’s quite a bit more than he had enjoyed the dinner at the McNally’s. It was not so much the food or the company as it was the improvement in Sean and Aidan’s table manners. When they asked to be excused, Molly whispered something in Adam’s ear and he smiled knowingly. Little Joe immediately asked if he could be excused and after receiving permission from Ben was sure to thank Mrs. Greene for the delicious meal. He carefully walked to the hallway and then Ben heard his boot falls as he ran for the front.

"I believe the lads have a serious marble game to engage in," Angus observed. "Some sort of pride match if I understand correctly."

"They’re all pride matches when you’re that age," Ben added.

"I don’t know. We weren’t much older when we spent many an hour gamblin’ with ‘em."

Everyone startled as Adam sputtered and then choked on his wine. He put his napkin to his mouth and walked to the hallway where Ben watched him brace his sides with his hands, lean slightly forward, and continue to cough.

"Musta had a pit in it," Angus remarked causing Hoss and Tess to laugh. He leaned back from the table and thanked Margaret for the meal. "So, Ben, how about we stretch our legs?"

The two men excused themselves and Ben gave Angus a tour of the barn and stables before they strolled back to the front patio. As they approached one of the tables, Angus produced a deck of cards from his left vest pocket. "How about a friendly game?" he said with a wink.

"I’m not sure how Margaret feels about us playing cards on Sunday."

Angus sat on one of the wooden chairs. "I think there’s a bit ‘a fire banked there."

"Excuse me?" Ben burst into a laugh and sat opposite his friend.

Angus shrugged his broad shoulders and shuffled the cards. "Ah, Ben surely ya’ve noticed ‘ow some women keep a real firm hold ‘a themselves cause they’re afraid ‘a their own passions. She’s been hurt bad by losing ‘er man and she’s determined not ta be hurt again as I judge it."

"When did you become a philosopher?" Ben cut the deck of cards and passed it back.

Angus gave Ben a serious study. "A simple observer, man, not a philosopher." He dealt their hands and then frowned slightly at his cards. "How long’s it been since you’ve played?"

"Marie and I used to play after the boys were asleep -" Oh, no, Angus was going to take that and –

"I’ll bet you did!" he roared in laughter. "But did she enjoy playin’ cards?"

Ben cast Angus a look to be sure there was no double meaning going on. "She loved music, cards, food, dancing, clothing, people -"

"Sure wish I’d met her. She sounds like she just might’ve been yer match."

"She also didn’t ask a lot about a man’s past."

That brought Angus’ attention away from the cards, which was saying a lot. His green eyes narrowed. "And you didn’t ask about hers."

Ben shook his head ‘no’ and put one card face down on the table. "Give me one, Angus."

"Hold on, man. We have to put a little jingle into it," Angus protested.

Ben grinned widely. "I left the jingle at home."

Angus pulled back in disgust. "Well, we have to have something," he said to himself. Just before Ben guessed what the man was going to do, Angus jumped to his feet and ran to the front shouting, "Aidan! Sean boy! Lend me your marbles!"

Ben slid down in his chair, rubbing at his eyes. Oh lord. There was no way on earth he would get out of explaining this one to Joseph.

Angus came back around the corner, and running on the heels of his enormous strides were three intensely curious boys – the one with the freckled face and the dark brown eyes and chestnut hair had his mouth open in disbelief.

Then a slight movement in the door recess caught Ben’s attention. He knew that lean anywhere. His other dark haired son nodded slightly as Ben’s eyes fell on him.

A curious perversity gripped Ben and he motioned to Adam. "Come play a few hands."

Adam considered a moment, as if he were being issued a dare, and then he casually approached the table and pulled out a chair.

"Well, I’d ask Julia to sit in," Angus said as he pulled all the cards in for a new shuffle. "But she doesn’t hold with playin’ on Sunday." And as Ben gave him a quick look, Angus said, "Cards, Benjamin, cards."

Little Joe was so surprised at what he was seeing that he didn’t make a sound for fear Pa would send him packing. And he wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Where was Hoss? He never would believe this even with Adam and him both telling the story.

The first time they passed around the cards, Pa got the marbles in the center.

The second time they passed around the cards, Mr. McNally got the marbles in the center.

By then Little Joe figured out whoever got the marbles was the winner.

Then Pa rolled up his sleeves and so did Mr. McNally. Pa told Adam to do the same thing and, even though Little Joe could tell Adam didn’t quite understand the reason, he did it.

They passed the cards around, and Adam won.

They passed the cards around again and Adam won again.

Pa and Mr. McNally made sounds in their throat. Pa passed the cards around. Adam won the marbles.

Mr. McNally brought a different bunch of cards from his pocket and flipped ‘em. Pa flipped ‘em. Adam flipped ‘em. Adam passed the cards around. This time it seemed like they’d never decide who won the marbles. But, in the end, Adam got ‘em.

At that point, Aidan got real worried and tugged at Mr. McNally’s shirt. "Papa, you ain’t playin’ fer keeps, are ya?"

Mr. McNally shook his head "no" and passed the cards around. Pa studied Adam from the sides of his eyes like he’d never seen him before. Adam just looked down at his cards and smiled. The minute Pa saw Adam smile he said "I fold" in pure aggravation and put his cards face down on the tabletop.

"Ah, Benjamin," Mr. McNally moaned. "At least give the lad a run for ‘is marbles."

Pa rested his left elbow on the tabletop and pointed in Adam’s direction. "I know this one inside out, top to bottom, backwards and forwards. He couldn’t lie if his life depended on it and you can read his face like the stars. Did you just see that smile? He’s got something and I’m not losing anymore to him."

Mr. McNally reconsidered. "Well, he is yer lad and I guess you’d know him best." He looked longingly at his own cards and then laid them face down. "Okay, I fold, too. Let’s see what you ‘ave there, lad."

Adam’s eyes went from one big man to the other. "But – well, there’s no reason to show you now, is there?"

"Call it curiousity," Mr. McNally said as he pushed Adam’s hands down to the tabletop, revealing his cards. "What the – saints above, Ben! So he couldn’t lie to save his life, eh? That’s the worst hand I’ve ever seen in my life!"

Adam’s mouth opened and his eyes widened as Pa turned on him. "I was just laughing to myself at what a bad hand I had," he explained.

Pa shot Adam a look that could kill and gathered up the cards, shoving them at Adam to flip and pass around. Mr. McNally laughed deeply and leaned back in his chair. "There’s a lot of you in that one!"

Mr. McNally ran out of marbles first. At that point the game turned into a real battle between Pa and Adam. Did Pa realize that now everyone was sitting and standing on the porch, watching the two of ‘em play? Mrs. Greene had her hand over her mouth nearly the entire time and disappeared once or twice, coming back looking more controlled. But, when it was all over, Adam had all the marbles. The only one he was sure belonged to Little Joe was the china one and he held it out toward his brother.

Pa leaned way back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair.

Despite his delight, Adam looked slightly guilty.

Mr. McNally tipped his chair back against the outside wall. "He’s the best of both of us, old friend. What he didn’t inherit from you, I taught ‘im when he visited us. So, in a manner of speaking, I just trounced ya."

Ben shook his head slowly as good humor took over. And not for the first time he found himself thinking that Angus would never change.

 

 

"Pa?" Little Joe snuggled into his bunk that night, trying to share foot room with Smoke.

"Um hum?" Ben smiled, pretty sure he knew what question was coming.

"I figured it out all by myself," the boy said, looking immensely proud.

"What did you figure out?"

"The gamblin’ ya did with the marbles and the cards."

Ben watched his son’s face for clues. "And what did you figure out?"

"You decided."

Ben frowned.

"Remember? You told me when I get older I can decide but for right now I can’t? Well, I figure you decided most of the time you wouldn’t gamble. But when it’s a friend and you’re not really playing for keeps then it’s okay."

Ben smiled and shook his head. "You’re a very smart young man."

Little Joe turned his head into his pillow. "Night, Pa."

Ben kissed his forehead. "Good night."

He opened the door to the porch and stepped outside to find Adam sitting on the bench, his left ankle resting on his right knee. He smiled as Pa sat beside him.

Ben sighed deeply. "Angus has undone all my discipline of you boys for the past twenty-one years."

"I think you could still short-rein Hoss or Little Joe anytime."

"And you?"

Adam shook his head. "You gentled me a long time ago, Pa"

Ben looked at his son curiously.

Well," the young man amended, "except for one thing." The expressive eyes roved to the front again. "Aren’t the stars pretty?"

"Um hum." Ben kept his eyes on his slender son instead, wondering what was coming.

"I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love looking at them," Adam continued. "They’ve always been like a special quilt made just for the night so I can lay under them and be protected by them."

Ben remained quiet.

"The problem is, the trees get in the way around here," Adam stood and gave Ben a smile that brought childhood back into his face. "Want to really see the stars?"

They went around the side of the house and climbed the ladder to the roof over the porch. Adam walked about halfway down the length and then sat down, leaning his back against the junction where the porch roof met that of the house. Ben did the same and let out a soft sound of surprise.

He could see through the tree branches into the rich, blue-black night. The breeze, which always died down at night unless there was a storm brewing, teased his skin. And the stars blazed above him in all their celestial glory.

"My lord, what a surprise," Pa said.

"Yes," Adam agreed.

But he wasn’t looking at the stars.

 

The end