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The Mice Will Play

By Texas2002

Rating: PG

This story is dedicated to ToLiMar.

 

Ben Cartwright checked the ropes around the packhorse’s load and looked at his eldest son from the sides of his eyes. "Any questions?"

Adam rubbed sleepily at his face. "Yeah: do you really have to start out this early?"

Pa smiled and took the reins to lead both horses from the barn. "You know where we’ll be if you need us."

Adam nodded and pushed his hat down a bit against the autumn chill. "We’ll be fine. It’s Angus and you I’m worried about."

Pa swung into the saddle. "I’ll be home Wednesday morning for breakfast." He gave a quick wave goodbye with his left hand and then directed his horse away from the barn, trailing the packhorse behind him.

Adam watched Pa ride across the meadow and meet up with Angus where the deciduous tree leaves were turning gold. The two older men might not have a lick of sense - heading out for a hunting trip before the sun was up - but Adam did.

He returned to the house, crawled back onto his bunk, and fell sound asleep.

 

"You sleep all time father away?"

Hop Sing’s agitated voice edged into Adam’s consciousness.

"What?" he asked sleepily.

"Time for breakfast."

Adam sat up so quickly he nearly hit his head on the bunk above his. Darn it. He didn’t want his first day of being in charge to start this way. "I’m sorry, Hop Sing. I’ll get the fire started right away." He banged on the bottom of Hoss’ bunk. "Get up you lazy –"

"That bunk empty. Little Joe bunk empty. Hop Sing start cooking fire long time ago. You lazy one." Hop Sing left the room as quietly as he had entered it.

Sure enough, both Hoss and Joe’s beds were made. At the foot of Joe’s bunk, Smoke sat on his haunches, leaning slightly to his left, and eyed Adam with no small amount of recrimination.

"If you hadn’t barked half the night I could have slept," Adam accused the ever-growing pup.

Smoke wasn’t impressed. Adam was exaggerating again. Smoke hadn’t barked until Pa and he had gotten up about four in the morning. Not early at all by ranch standards. Sometimes Smoke just didn’t know if Adam was gonna make it here on the Ponderosa.

"It’s about time you joined the living," Hoss taunted when Adam stepped into the living room where the warmth of the fires and the smell of breakfast greeted him. "I knew we’d have to keep an eye on Little Joe but I never figured you for no porch sitter." The coffee cup he extended Adam’s way took the sting out of his teasing.

Adam ran his hand through his dark hair. "Where is Joe?"

"Milking Buttercup. Already brought in the eggs. Sure is getting chilly out there."

Adam nodded absently and then eased the coffee mug to his lips, sipping the invigorating liquid.

Hoss ambled over to the dining table and sat down. "Joe and me saw the list Pa and you worked out and we divided it up already. What’s say we mark things off as we do ‘em – the way Pa does? Sure makes a fella feel better at the end of a day to see a scratched up list."

What was it about early morning that made Hoss so infernally talkative? "Yeah, fine."

He watched as his brother placed the pencil to his lip to dampen it and then drew two lines. "I reckon we gotta do this here stuff along with what we already do?"

"You reckon right." Adam sat in front of the fireplace, waiting for the coffee to waken his brain.

"He don’t want all this done in two days, does he?" Hoss asked worriedly.

Adam rubbed at the back of his neck. Yeah, Hoss, he wants us to work night and day until we drop dead. When had Pa ever been a taskmaster? "No, he just expects a reasonable amount."

Hoss studied the list. "How many out of eighteen do you figure is a reasonable amount?"

Adam counted to twenty and, since that didn’t help, snapped, "I don’t know, Hoss. However much we can get done."

Hoss looked up in surprise and started to shoot a remark back at Adam but Joe burst in and slammed the door behind him, sloshing milk on the floor.

"Hey, Adam! ’Bout time you got up." Joe grinned widely and carried the bucket toward Hop Sing.

Adam frowned. What was it with these two? If Pa overslept they wouldn’t come at him like this. The problem was that Pa never slept late. He was usually the last to go to bed and always the first to rise. Sometimes Adam had trouble keeping up with him.

"Boys eat while food is warm," Hop Sing instructed after pouring a small bowl of milk for Abigail and John Adams.

Smoke had learned a long time ago not to come between a cat and its milk bowl. Besides, he had his food dish to drag around and clang until someone gave up and shared some real food like ham or eggs or potatoes or flapjacks or biscuits or homemade venison sausage. Cats had no idea what they were missing at breakfast.

Hoss fingered Pa’s list again with his left hand as soon as he had filled his plate. "The way Joe and me see it, gettin’ them cattle onto the new grazin’ is the most important thing here. If they stay in that pasture another day it’ll be lower than Pa likes. We can handle that. We’ll look ‘em over and check the fence line."

"I don’t know," Adam said slowly, trying to ignore Smoke as he banged his dish at Hoss’ boots, "you two have a way of getting distracted –"

Joe grinned widely at Hoss and then looked at his oldest brother. "He’s not gonna get dis-tracted today. Tess is comin’ over."

Adam’s appetite died. Tess was a fine girl but she made him nervous. Mainly because, despite everything he had done to discourage any misunderstandings, he still sensed she thought he had feelings toward her. "Tess," he said.

Hoss’ grin threatened to split the bottom of his face. "She needs help plannin’ that autumn get-together."

"What kind of help?"

Hoss shrugged. "If I knew that she wouldn’t be coming over." He slathered preserves on a biscuit and passed it down to Smoke, along with a hefty piece of ham. The clattering dish went silent. "She’ll be here mid-day so I asked her to eat with us if that’s okay, Hop Sing?"

"Miss Tess always interesting guest," Hop Sing said. He smiled at Adam and then quickly looked down at his plate.

 

Well that had been easy enough. Hoss and Joe were moving the cattle. Which, of course, left Adam with the chore list. Part of him wanted to choose the easiest ones but Pa would see through that in the wink of an eye and then his own two eyes would mirror displeasure. Besides, eventually all the chores had to be finished.

Hoss had already marked the important ones but the trouble was, at first glance, they all looked urgent. Why was that? Probably because of Pa’s handwriting - it was as strong as the man and just as important to pay attention to.

And best not forged.

Adam smiled as he stuffed the list into his jacket pocket. He had only signed Pa’s name once. Pa hadn’t called it forgery but he had given Adam a lecture that had left him mortified.

He couldn’t remember when Pa’s signature had started fascinating him but by the time they had settled in New Orleans he had decided he would sign his name the way Pa did. Having an artistic side anyhow, he had broken down Pa’s signature into movements of the pencil and gotten pretty good at writing "Cartwright" so it would have been difficult for anyone to tell Pa’s version from his.

And then one day, for no particular reason, instead of writing "Adam" in front of the last name he had written the abbreviation "Benjmn" as Pa had in those days. It had started as another exercise for a bored kid but Adam had quickly found a chance to put his newfound skill to use. Stopping by the shop one day, he had watched Pa fill out and sign a piece of paper that he then gave to a man. And the man had taken it as if it were cash! So, when Pa wasn’t looking, Adam had filled out one of those pieces of paper and taken the three dollars to his favorite bookstore.

That last action was probably all that had saved his hide: he hadn’t spent the money on candy or something else frivolous. Pa’s jaw had been set hard when he had walked up to Adam in the courtyard the next day. And, as Joe so correctly noted on more than one occasion, when Pa’s jaw was set you were in trouble up to your ears.

Pa had motioned. "New book?"

"Yes, sir." Adam had been very glad he had left the others upstairs - it was going to be hard enough to explain one. He had sat on the wrought iron bench, not moving, not speaking, and making sure he met Pa’s eyes. And as he had done so the horrifying knowledge had hit him that when he had written Pa’s name he had stolen from him.

"Recognize this?" Pa had reached in his vest pocket and pulled out the piece of paper Adam had filled in and signed Pa’s name to.

"Yes, sir."

"Close the book, son."

He had and then he had listened while Pa made sure he understood why he was never, ever to sign Pa’s name again. Adam had understood. He never, ever did it again.

He hadn’t given the transgression another thought until one time when they were at the Trading Post in Eagle Station and Pa had signed for a package. Mrs. Orowitz had looked down at Pa’s writing and exclaimed, "My goodness! Adam and you sign the same way!"

Standing next to Pa, Adam had nearly jumped out of his skin.

"How do you mean, Ruth?" Pa had asked calmly.

She had pointed to a line where Adam had signed his name when he had received a new book he had ordered. "See? It is as if you write with the same hand."

Pa had smiled very slowly, his eyes wandering to Adam, and had said, "Wonder how that happened?"

It was another of those things they could smile about now – but it hadn’t been amusing back in New Orleans.

Darn, the breeze was still chilly despite the sunshine. Usually Adam liked autumn but this one was showing signs of getting cold too fast. The weather was so perverse up here it probably meant they were in for a warm, dry winter. He hoped not. That melting mountain snow fed a lot of creeks and streams that watered several of their pastures.

He started to do his regular early morning chores but found they were finished. Joe, he knew, had done his own chores of gathering the eggs and milking the cow. Hoss must have been the one who cleaned out the stalls and curried the horses. It was up to Adam to pump the well and water all the animals. Half an hour later, he hitched up the team to bring in more of the hay they’d cut last week. After a short trip inside to tell Hop Sing where he was going, Adam decided to let Smoke ride along in the wagon, called to the team, and headed off to work.

What Hoss had named the Hay Meadow was a nice, open area where the native grass grew tall during the summer. They had been able to harvest twice from the meadow this year. Dense trees sheltered it on all four sides – providing welcome shade when you needed a rest while cutting the hay. Even Pa hated the job of swinging the scythes but complaining didn’t get it done any faster.

The first evening after they’d cut hay it had been all Adam could do to stay on his horse when he rode back home. The next evening, he had stretched out in the back of the wagon with the tools and it was a testament to how tired he was that he had fallen asleep. He knew then that Pa wanted to give them a day off but they had to work while the weather was dry. At least now they had all the grass cut but it wasn’t going to walk to the loft in the barn.

Adam stopped the team and set the brake - then watched in dismay as Joe’s crazy pup jumped from the wagon into the cut grass. He didn’t land on his feet but instead rolled onto his back and came up covered with the stuff. A couple of full-body shakes took care of most of the long pieces but the short ones stuck in his fur so he looked like a badly made porcupine.

Tossing the hay into the wagon bed was tedious, boring work. Adam whistled to relieve the monotony and then grew tired of that when he ran out of songs. He sang once, but only because no one could hear him. It was a funny song Angus had taught him that bordered on being bawdy. All right, it was bawdy. But it was funny and it wasn’t disrespectful to women and Pa had probably been the one to teach it to Angus anyhow. He just had to be sure he never sang it around his brothers. Hoss would look at him and say, "Adam, that ain’t very nice". But Little Joe would demand a word-by-word explanation of what he didn’t understand and then he would be sure to sing it at the top of his lungs the next time he was with his buddies in town.

Adam finally took a break when his muscles burned so much in protest that he couldn’t ignore them. He leaned against the side of the wagon and drank from his canteen. Despite the cool day, he was dripping sweat. He shed his hat – for which Pa would have given Adam untold misery had he been around – and he also pulled off his jacket and shirt. He would have gone bare-chested but he knew better: if he got sick they’d be a hand short just when they needed everyone. He put the canteen back under the wagon seat and started to work again, warning Smoke to stay clear.

Smoke and Joe had a lot in common: neither one of them paid a bit of attention when asked to do something. Smoke’s problem today was that field mice had found shelter under the newly cut grass and when Adam lifted a forkful they scattered for other cover. Smoke thought Adam had made up the game just for him and he bounded all over the place, creating all kinds of consternation for Adam and the mice. Adam was most concerned that he might stick the pup with one of the pitchfork tines.

And then all his concern for Smoke disappeared. What happened was partly his fault. Pa was always warning him to tuck his pants inside the tops of his boots when he was working like this. But the precaution seemed as ludicrous as it looked to Adam. After all, it was early autumn and the snakes were hibernating. Unfortunately, none of the mice were and one darted under Adam’s left trouser leg and headed toward warmer places.

Adam let out a yelp and then shouted at Smoke to quit chasing the mice. To Smoke’s eyes, Joe’s big brother was sure acting silly. He hopped around on one boot, unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers and wiggled his hips. For the moment Adam’s antics were a lot more interesting than anything the mice had come up with so Smoke sat down and watched with his head tilted to one side and his tail wagging.

Whoa! What was Adam doing now? He’d dropped his trousers and was clapping his cupped hands on the upper leg of his underwear, still moving around and nearly falling because his pants were down around his knees. This was more fun than barking at those bouncing things Little Joe called rabbits and waking everyone in the morning.

Absorbed as he was in Adam’s unusual behavior, Smoke didn’t hear the buggy team until it was right on them. He didn’t want Adam to be upset at him for not keeping up his guard duty, so he flew to his feet and set up a ferocious alarm. He did a mighty fine job because the team of grays, which smelled vaguely familiar, shied slightly.

Adam heard Smoke’s barking and looked up as he grabbed the mouse from his upper thigh.

He closed his blue eyes slowly. Only one thing was worse than being caught with your pants down - and that was being caught with your pants down by a stranger.

"Good morning," the man sitting in the buggy said and tipped his hat.

Adam pulled his trousers up, knowing full well his face was as red as a ripe apple. "Sir." He buttoned up and tried to gather what dignity he had left.

The man stepped down and walked toward Adam as if he had seen nothing unusual. He extended his right hand. "I am Morehead Dalmer, Angus McNally’s brother-in-law."

"Uh – yes, sir – my pa said he’d met you. Adam Cartwright." As Adam started to shake hands with the older man he realized he was still holding the mouse. He tossed it aside and did Mr. Dalmer the courtesy of removing his glove.

Mr. Dalmer’s hands went into fists and he rested them on either side of his waist. His eyes scanned the hay meadow and then quickly surveyed the sky. "Hop Sing told me I would find you here. I realize you have work to do so I shan’t keep you long." He smiled down at Smoke who was watching him closely. "Interesting dog you have there."

"He’s my brother Joe’s."

"Not a dog man?"

"Mine died a long time ago."

Mr. Dalmer nodded and looked down. "I wonder if I might talk to you about a business proposition?"

Adam realized he was squinting against the sun and bent down to retrieve his hat. "Yes, sir. But I’d have to talk it over with my pa and brothers before I could give you an answer."

"Actually, this is a proposition for you. Angus tells me he has had discussions with you and you’re more well read than anyone in this area - with the possible exception of your father."

Adam nodded once since he found nothing to comment on.

"Back in St. Louis, I have several business interests. I spoke with your father about the banks and he probably shared that information with you –"

"A bit, yes."

Mr. Dalmer lifted his chin. "I also am the owner of several newspapers throughout the country. The paper Molly and you read is one of mine." He took a few steps and Adam walked beside him. "I’m asking you to consider writing for my paper."

Adam almost choked when his heart jumped into his throat from surprise.

The silver-haired man looked toward the trees again. "I realize you have family responsibilities here. I’m not asking you to leave them. What I would like from you are articles about the territory. I have a man who is doing the same for me in Texas and I brought copies of the papers containing his writing so you can see what I mean. I would appreciate one story a month now that you have a stage line that carries post. If you are able to write more so much the better. And I would like to see your first article in three weeks." He looped his thumbs in his vest pockets. "Are you interested?"

"Yes, sir."

Adam was sure he was interested when Mr. Dalmer told him the amount he would pay per story. Wait until Pa heard about this! Adam could put half in his savings and use half here on the Ponderosa – and receive free newspapers. It was hard to beat that kind of bargain.

"Well," Mr. Dalmer said after he gave Adam a small stack of newspapers and they shook hands again, "I won’t keep you any longer. Give my regards to your father when he returns from the hunting trip with Angus."

Adam said he would do that and he waved as Mr. Dalmer climbed into his buggy. As soon as the man turned the team, Adam tossed the tools on top of the hay in the wagon and picked up Smoke.

"It’s time to eat," Adam said to Smoke as he vaulted into the wagon.

Smoke had learned the word "eat" a long time ago and he was ready.

 

Adam had barely set the wagon brake when Little Joe came running and grabbed Smoke. "Is he in trouble?" he asked, ignoring Smoke’s tongue licking all over his right cheek. His expression betrayed worry.

Adam eased out of the wagon, his shoulders aching. "I thought he might like the exercise."

"He’s not in trouble?"

Adam studied his brother, fighting a smile. "Not unless there’s something I don’t know about."

"Hey, Adam?" Little Joe said as Adam led the horses to the water trough. "Is Molly your girl?"

Adam wondered, not for the first time, about the way Joe’s thoughts bounced around. "No, Molly is not my girl."

"Hoss says she is."

Well, he knew one thing his younger brothers had talked about as they’d moved the cattle this morning. "Hoss is wrong."

Little Joe tilted his head and, if Adam hadn’t known his little brother better he would have said he practiced a little caution. "What is she then?"

"What do you mean what is she?"

"Well if she ain’t your girl what is she? She ain’t your sister."

"She’s a friend, Joe."

Little Joe put Smoke on his feet. "Girls can be friends?"

"What do you think Tess is?" Adam asked.

Little Joe shook his head. "You and Tess ain’t friends."

Adam gave a short laugh. "What makes you say that?"

"Only reason you get along with Tess is cause of Hoss."

Adam’s blue eyes squinted. Joe was more perceptive than he’d given him credit for. "That’s not true."

"Sure is," Little Joe said with the assurance of a kid who sees everything in black and white. "That vein on your forehead swells up every time you’re around Tess."

"What are you talking about?"

"How do you stay out of trouble with Pa?" Joe asked with a cockiness that took Adam by surprise. "You gotta watch him real close and notice all kinds of things. Like when he grinds his teeth you’re gonna get spanked. If he balls up his hands, you better get quiet real fast. And if he calls you ‘young man’ you better start with the ‘sirs’. Things like that. That’s how you stay out of trouble with Pa."

"Or you could just behave," Adam offered but the statement was wasted on Joe.

"So anyhow, when you get good at watching Pa you get good at watching other folks. Like I watch you."

Adam looked down. Joe was making him dizzy. Okay, he could understand watching Pa for clues – he had done the same thing as a kid though he had usually been able to feel Pa’s moods without laying eyes on him. But why would Joe watch Adam? He wasn’t following this line of thinking at all. "So you’re saying when Tess is around some vein on my head swells up?"

"Yep," Joe said triumphantly. "It’s the same vein that swells up when you argue with Pa. So it figures that being around Tess makes you feel like you’re arguing with Pa. And since you don’t like arguing with Pa, you don’t like being around Tess. See?"

Adam blinked. Joe’s reasoning wasn’t correct, but at least it was reasoning. He supposed that was a start.

"What d’ya do with a girl who’s a friend?" Joe asked.

"The same thing you do with any other friend."

Joe threw him a wilting look. "Adam, there’s some things you just can’t do."

"Like what?"

"How’re ya gonna have a peeing contest with a girl?"

"Okay," Adam wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. "You can’t do that." He’d have to remember to tell Pa that one out of Joe’s earshot.

"And girls don’t like bugs and stuff," Little Joe said. "And they’re all the time whining."

"Joe, you can’t judge all girls by the few you’ve known."

"I’ve known more than a few," he bragged, shoulders rising.

Adam leaned sideways toward him. "No you haven’t, little brother. Believe me there are girls just as rowdy as you are. You just haven’t been around them."

Joe was quiet several moments. "Where are they?"

"Who?"

"Those girls who are like me."

Oh lord. Best go lightly here. "There are some in town."

"Any of ‘em at Jack’s place?"

"Mr. Wolf."

"Are there?"

"No, there are no little girls your age at Mr. Wolf’s."

"Little girls! I’m not a little boy!"

"Forget it."

Little Joe forget something? Impossible.

"Why doesn’t Pa want me going to that other part of town?"

"He’s told you." Adam led the horses into the corral.

"You know what I think?" Joe confided. "I think there’s pirates."

"Pirates," Adam repeated. "What would pirates be doing in town?"

"Well, Pa said the people in that rough part of town rob people and hurt ‘em and they drink a lot and do a lot of other things and they sound like pirates don’t they?"

Adam shrugged. "No. They just sound like outlaws." He tied the gate closed and walked toward the house. Something Hop Sing was cooking smelled very good.

"Did you ever meet any pirates in New Orleans?" Little Joe asked, half-running to keep up with Adam.

"I don’t know. They didn’t go around introducing themselves that way."

"But – well – didn’t they wear a patch on their eye?"

Adam paused near the front door and looked down at Little Joe. "No, some of them had long jagged scars on their faces."

Joe’s bright eyes widened as he asked, "From sword fights?"

"No, from asking their older brothers too many questions."

Joe’s lips twisted to the left. "Awww, Adam."

He put his hand to the boy’s back and opened the front door. The cooking aromas drifted to him and he knew, without looking, that Hop Sing had made one of his favorite soups.

"We was about to send someone out to fetch ya." Hoss grinned as he passed Adam on his way from the washbasin to the table.

That was when Adam saw Tess already sitting at the table, giving him that wide-open smile of hers. "Hello, Adam," she said brightly.

"Tess." He took off his hat and hung it on the corner of the settee. He had planned to share the story about Mr. Dalmer’s offer with his brothers and Hop Sing at lunch but something in him didn’t want anyone else knowing about it before Pa did. Excited as he was, he decided he would wait until Pa was home to share the news.

Joe jabbed him slightly in the ribs and Adam looked down. The kid pointed to his forehead, eyebrows raised.

Hoss watched from the table as Adam splashed water on his face. "You okay? There’s a vein kinda pumping up on your forehead."

Little Joe jerked his chin up in a quiet "told you so" and strutted to the table.

 

 

"Why ain’t Hoss here?" Little Joe complained as they worked in the hay meadow after lunch. "If we have to be, he should."

Well, Adam was working in the hay meadow. He had asked Joe to stay up in the wagon and rake the hay away from the tailgate, which he was diligently doing.

Adam leaned momentarily on his pitchfork. "He’ll be here as soon as Tess leaves."

"Bet she stays all afternoon. Girls don’t know anything about a man’s time."

Adam went back to work. "You’re sure an expert on women."

"All you gotta do is use your eyes. Girls want presents and they want you to read poetry to ‘em and stuff." He stopped and looked down at Adam from the wagon bed. "Tess don’t need help plannin’ that autumn thing – and she wouldn’t be over here takin’ up all Hoss’ time if Pa was here. Pa’d send her packing."

Was it Adam’s imagination or had he just been challenged? Whatever Joe was thinking, Adam wasn’t rising to the bait.

"We gotta get this done before a rain starts," Little Joe continued. "Pa’s not gonna like it if we can’t get it all in on account of Hoss bein’ with Tess."

Adam paused again and looked at his brother. He might not be as wise about Joe’s ways as Pa was, but he knew jealousy when he heard it. Would Joe never learn that Hoss and Adam had a few interests beyond their little brother?

Joe scowled up from under his hat brim as he pulled the hay into the wagon. "We’re supposed to be partners and he ain’t carrying his weight."

"I’ve never known him to avoid a chore," Adam observed.

"Ya think I do?" Joe challenged.

"Did I say that?"

Little Joe threw down the rake. "It’s what you meant."

Adam took a deep, steadying breath. "It is not what I meant and I am not going to argue with you."

"I’m gonna tell Pa how you slept so late that Hoss had to do your chores this morning," Little Joe muttered.

Adam knew what was going on. He didn’t like this job either. It was hot and dirty and he could think of a lot of things he’d rather be doing. But if Little Joe thought he could keep aggravating Adam until he was sent off to some other chore just so Adam could have some peace and quiet it wasn’t going to work.

"Did ya hear me?" Joe taunted.

Adam continued to silently throw hay into the wagon.

"Did ya?" the twelve-year-old demanded.

"You tell Pa whatever you want, little brother," Adam said.

"Yeah, you’re right: he won’t do anything cause everybody knows you’re perfect." Joe’s tone was as soaked in sarcasm as Adam’s back was in sweat.

Adam dropped the pitchfork and walked toward Little Joe. All intention of holding his temper in check was forgotten before he reached the wagon. "What the devil is your problem this afternoon?"

Joe spread his arms and gave Adam a smirk that invited confrontation. "I don’t know what you’re talking about, big brother."

Adam grabbed Joe’s left arm above the elbow with his right hand and gripped as hard as he dared. He gave Little Joe a hard look and then released him. "Don’t make me stop work again," he said so softly he wasn’t sure Joe had heard him.

But Joe had heard him. He kept his eyes glued to Adam.

"Quit worrying about Hoss’ share of the work and do your own," Adam ordered over his shoulder.

Little Joe quickly bent for the rake and worked without stopping until Hoss rode up and tied his horse to the wagon.

"Hey, fellas," Hoss said as he rolled up his sleeves. "Sure looks like you’ve put in some time here. Hand me down one of them pitchforks, Little Joe." His sky blue eyes twinkled as he took the tool and stood across from and slightly to the side of Adam.

"Get the planning done?" Adam asked.

"Yeah. It’s gonna be a lotta fun: a dance and all kinds of good food. And then some readings. Tess is kinda hopin’ she can talk you into doin’ one from one of them poetry books ya have. I’m gonna see if Pa and Mr. McNally’ll play some fiddle music for the folks." Hoss frowned and he motioned to Adam. "You look tuckered out."

"Some of us have been workin’," Joe said. Hoss looked puzzled but Adam felt irritation surfacing again.

Hoss tilted his head. "Why don’t you two go on back and do something lighter and I’ll finish this load?"

"It’ll go faster if we all work on it," Adam answered.

Hoss ducked his head even lower to make eye contact with Adam. "You ain’t mad about somethin’, are ya?"

"Just glad this job is nearly finished."

Hoss grinned and spit in his glove. "Let’s see how far we can get before supper."

Adam gave him a quick smile and did the same, then looked up at the wagon, his left brow arching. "You in on this or not?"

Joe jumped down and looked up at them hesitantly. "Can I be?"

"We’re partners, ain’t we?" Hoss laughed.

"But - how d’ya do a three-hand shake?" Joe asked.

"Spit," Adam instructed and Joe obeyed. "Now hold out your hand." He took Joe’s right hand in his and then nodded at Hoss who put his big hand over theirs from the side.

"Ain’t Pa gonna be surprised when he gets back and we’ve got all this done?" Hoss laughed. "Come on, boys, we’re burnin’ daylight!"

 

Adam moaned and shifted on his bunk that night. He’d given up trying to read because his arms were too tired to even hold a book. And the truth was his brain was too weary to concentrate on the words.

They had pushed hard today - harder than they should have. But all the hay was in the barn now, the last wagonload still waiting to be stored in the loft. It had been worth the extra effort to know that in the morning they would not have to return to that hellish hay meadow.

"I’m aching in places I forgot I had," Hoss said from his bed. "I don’t know when I’ve hurt this much. Even my butt hurts."

"Now THAT I can remember."

"Hmm?" Hoss asked.

"The last time my butt hurt like this."

Hoss laughed. "Bet it had something to do with Pa’s belt."

Adam looked over at Little Joe, who had his back turned to them and Smoke sprawled across his legs. That wouldn’t last long. Joe’s legs would go dead and he’d wake up and kick and fuss until Smoke retreated to the chair in Pa’s room or the rug in front of the fireplace. Was Joe asleep or just pretending? Sometimes he pretended and Adam was convinced it was because Joe thought Adam and Hoss would talk about girls.

Hoss spoke again. "Ain’t ya gonna tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"The last time your butt hurt like this."

"You were there."

Hoss was quiet for a full minute. "You mean back when we all three got in trouble?"

"That’s what I mean."

"Pa wasn’t any too happy with us that day, was he?"

Adam put his hands behind his head. "Even a man like Pa can finally run out of patience."

"Why do you figure we kept pushing him thata way? We knew better."

Adam shook his head. "Just part of being a kid."

"Yeah but you was – well, shoot if I was 10 you had to’ve been about 15 or something."

"Or something," Adam said. "And way too big for my britches."

Hoss rolled over and kicked his covers around. "I never do like hearing Pa say that. He always whittles some off your butt so them britches fit better."

Adam laughed. "I don’t think you have much to worry about."

"What d’ya mean?"

"Well, Hoss," Adam motioned with his right arm even though his brother couldn’t see him. "Do you really think Pa would still take his belt to you?"

"I don’t plan on findin’ out," Hoss answered. "I like it a whole lot better when Pa’s happy with me."

"Amen to that, brother."

"Say, Adam?" Hoss’ voice held concern. "We didn’t get much scratched off that chore list today."

"We’ll get more of it done tomorrow. Pa’ll be glad to see that hay in, don’t worry."

"I ain’t exactly worried. Just hope we can get more done tomorrow."

"We will."

Adam closed his eyes and in what seemed like only a minute Hoss was snoring.

Why did they have to start talking about Pa? Adam had busied his mind all day but now, here in the dark, it threatened to keep him awake with worry.

Pa would be careful. He wouldn’t take chances. But sometimes things happened to even the most careful men: rifles exploded in their hands; horses fell on top of them; loose rocks gave way and they fell hundreds of feet; and outlaws had been known to kill a man for his horse and weapon. There had even been talk in town of a man who had been found dead on a nearby trail, killed for no apparent reason since all his outfit was still intact.

That wouldn’t happen to Pa. He was tough. And smart. It would take a lot to get the better of Pa.

Logic told him Pa was a grown man, experienced on the frontier. Pa had gotten them this far, hadn’t he? But at night Adam’s thoughts tended to be light on logic and heavy on emotion. And emotion knew life could change between heartbeats and leave him as empty as a broken jar.

He rolled to his side and willed himself to quit thinking. But when slumber finally came, only hours before dawn, it was not restful.

 

"I don’t think Adam slept much," Hoss whispered as Joe and he dressed the next morning.

Little Joe looked down at his dark-haired brother worriedly. He was flung across the bunk, the covers were scattered as if three different winds had blown them at the same time, and his right arm was across his eyes. "What d’you figure is wrong with ‘im?"

"He just got too tired. I remember Pa doin’ that a coupla times on the wagon train."

Little Joe was unconvinced and he reached down to pet Smoke, who was looking up at him. "You – you don’t think he’s sick or somethin’?"

Hoss smiled and put a big hand to his shoulder. "Naw. Come on. Let’s you and me get the early chores done and then we’ll wake ‘im up. Only this time we won’t hooraw him for sleepin’ in, how’s that?"

 

Adam moved his head and wished he hadn’t. His neck was killing him. As were his legs and his lower back. He bit off a moan as his arms let him know they, too, were stiff.

"I brought ya some coffee."

The voice came from Little Joe, sitting on the edge of Adam’s bunk and looking very worried.

"Thank you," Adam managed to croak. He propped himself up on his right side and took the cup with his left hand. He looked at the dark brew. "Did you make this?"

That got a smile. "Naw, Hop Sing did. But I spit in it so it would taste better."

Adam grinned and closed his eyes again as he sipped the warm, hearty liquid.

"Was – were you havin’ nightmares?" Little Joe ventured cautiously as he leaned closer.

"Did I sound like I was?"

"Was it pirates?" Joe asked in a whisper.

"Was what pirates?"

"Your nightmares."

Adam looked into the round, curious eyes. "No, it wasn’t pirates. It was just a lot of things on my mind."

"Pa makes me drink warm milk when I have nightmares."

"I’ll remember that." No sense telling Joe how many late night mugs of warm milk Pa had made him drink through the years.

Joe held the cup while Adam slowly swung his legs from the bunk. "Damnation, I’m sore," he moaned.

The round, curious eyes squinted. "That’s a trouble word."

"Yes it is." Adam stood slowly.

"If you say it too much you’ll forget and one day you’ll say it when Pa’s around."

Adam smiled. "And then I’ll pay the consequences, won’t I?"

Joe looked down into the cup of coffee. "I don’t like that word."

"Damnation?"

"The other one."

"Consequences?"

"It always hurts."

Adam nodded in agreement as he took the cup of coffee from Joe’s hands. "You’re pretty smart if you’ve already figured that one out."

The twelve-year-old smiled with the compliment and tried to look as if it didn’t mean as much as it did. Adam remembered being that age: wanting to please and not wanting to please and wondering if all the changes going on inside and out were normal.

Joe motioned to the pitcher by the washbasin. "I brought you some hot water for shaving."

Adam tilted his head slightly. Coffee in bed, hot water for shaving. "Is there something I need to know about?"

His little brother shook his head quickly. "I didn’t do nothin’." When Adam didn’t interrogate him further, he relaxed and shrugged. " ‘Cept some of your mornin’ chores. Hoss is doin’ the others. We figured you needed the rest. You look bad, Adam."

That was two mornings in a row they had done his early chores: he wasn’t setting a good example.

Adam looked in the shaving mirror and had to agree with Joe’s assessment of his condition. A shave would help a little. But nothing was going to lighten those dark circles under his eyes except a good rest. Tonight he would sleep even if he had to drink some of Pa’s liquor to do it.

He soaped his face and, as he raised his razor in his right hand, noticed Joe was watching him closely.

"Does that hurt?"

Adam couldn’t resist. "Yeah, it’s aching today."

Joe chuckled. "Not raisin’ your arm." He motioned to Adam’s cheeks. "Does it hurt when you shave?"

"Sometimes – if the razor’s dull – or if it’s really sharp and I cut myself."

"I remember when you was learnin’ and ya nicked yourself."

"So do I," Adam said. He concentrated on shaving and each time he looked down to rinse the blade he found Joe’s intense interest focused on him. After he washed his face, he kicked a stool in front of the mirror and put his hands around Joe’s slender waist. "Step up."

"Can I shave?"

"I’ll show you what it feels like," Adam said, twisting his lips and trying to look serious as he surveyed Joe’s smooth cheeks. "I think I see a patch here that needs tending. Soap it up."

The boy lathered the soap bar and piled enough on his cheeks for three passes at a heavy beard.

"I wanna do it myself," Joe begged.

Adam said ‘no’ and was surprised there was no further argument. He leaned forward from the waist and guided Joe’s head with his left hand. "It’s real important for you to hold still, Joe. Shaving is serious business."

Joe nodded and then stood like a tree trunk. The only things Adam saw move were those big eyes and a twitch or two from his freckled nose.

When he was finished ‘shaving’ the baby cheeks, Adam motioned. "You’ll want to rinse that off really well or it’ll itch like poison ivy." He laid his razor back in its case. "Well, what do you think?"

His little brother patted his face dry in a perfect imitation of the way Pa usually did and leaned back slightly, looking at his left profile and then his right. "I think ya missed a spot right here."

"Missed a spot!" Adam teased as he swooped down on the boy, lifting him behind his knees and shoulders.

"No! Not the horse trough!" Joe yelled as Adam crossed their room carrying him. "It’s cold enough to freeze the stink outta shit!"

Adam stopped in mid-stride and looked down at his wiggling armful as a breath of surprise escaped him. Joe picked up sayings in town the same way he picked up treats from Mrs. Orowitz and favors from half the people who met him: without even trying. "That’s a trouble word," he said, mimicking Joe.

Hoss spoke from the doorway between the bunkroom and the living room. "Let Pa hear you say it and you’re liable to get yer mouth washed out." But his eyes twinkled as they met Adam’s puzzled ones.

"I suppose," Adam said, certain that Hoss would catch on, "we could save Pa the trouble."

"No!" Joe twisted so violently Adam came close to dropping him.

"It would mean more breakfast for you and me," Hoss said, nodding slowly. He reached for the cake of shaving soap. "I figure this’d work about as good as the lye soap, don’t you?"

Adam fought not to laugh as Joe thrashed around in his arms, screaming and yelling. His noise, combined with Smoke’s barks, filled the bunkroom with an uproar.

"Got ‘im?" Hoss closed in on them, soap in hand and a devilish grin on his face.

Joe’s howls ceased as he clamped his mouth shut, but his kicks and his flailing arms took up with renewed conviction.

"What going on?" Hop Sing asked as he entered the room.

"Just washing Joe’s mouth out," Adam explained nonchalantly.

Hop Sing shook his head. "Boys complain about washing clothes but eager to wash out mouth? Not make sense." He threw his arms in the air and walked back to the living area.

"Stop ‘em Hop Sing!" Joe yelled and then screamed from his throat as Hoss held his mouth open.

"I don’t know," Hoss said. "This stuff is the expensive soap, ain’t it? We probably shouldn’t waste this on ‘im. Now that lye stuff we make – shoot, we could use two whole bars if we wanted to."

Adam felt Joe’s muscles stiffen in rebellion – the teasing had gone far enough. He put Joe on his feet on the stepstool.

Neither he nor Joe was ready for what happened next: in as pure a fit of temper as Adam had ever witnessed, Joe balled up his left fist and rammed it into Adam’s midsection. Alarm filled Joe’s eyes the instant he realized what he had done.

The blow didn’t hurt Adam as much as it surprised him but when he grabbed his stomach Hoss turned Joe by one shoulder and shook his finger in the boy’s face. "Adam ain’t done nothin’ but care for you since the day you were born. Let’s hear it right now and it had dang better mean somethin’."

Joe’s breathing was shallow and fast and his lips looked bloodless. He shakily pulled in some air and opened his mouth but his lips quivered.

Joe looked back over his shoulder at Hoss with such confusion that Adam couldn’t take it. He bent down and hugged his little brother, rubbing the slender back while Joe’s fingers dug into Adam’s shoulders like a man hanging on to a sheer rock face.

Poor kid. Adam could remember letting his temper fly before he had thought and the deep-rooted, irrational fear that had followed – the fear that Pa would quit loving him. And though he hadn’t been fond of Pa’s spankings at least when they were over Pa had always hugged him and all had been forgiven.

"Why don’t we forget what just happened?" Adam proposed.

He felt Joe nod into his shoulder.

"Okay with you?" he asked Hoss.

Hoss looked immensely relieved by the suggestion and then made good on the agreement by saying, "I guess since we ain’t washin’ out Little Joe’s mouth that means we’re gonna have to share those biscuits and gravy?"

Joe pushed back from Adam’s chest and their eyes met. Adam gave him a barely perceptible nod that an outsider would never have noticed. But it was all Joe needed – his world was fine again. Excited at the prospect of his favorite breakfast he asked, "Biscuits and gravy?"

"That’s what Hop Sing said he was fixin’." Hoss stepped aside when Joe ran past him and into the living room. He pointed to Adam’s stomach. "You really okay?"

"That runt could never hurt me," Adam said.

"Yeah, well I’ve got the gravy!" Joe yelled back.

"I’ll hold him and you get it from him." Hoss raised his eyebrows meaningfully as they approached the table.

Joe watched his brothers. "That ain’t funny."

"That isn’t funny," Adam corrected.

Joe’s left hand pointed at Adam as he spoke to Hoss. "See, he says it ain’t funny either."

Adam rolled his eyes and sat down as Hoss roared in laughter.

"What?" Joe was a picture of bewilderment.

Adam shook out his napkin and spread it on his lap. "Never mind."

 

"Ain’t that somethin’?" Hoss beamed with delight. "We’ve got eleven of them eighteen chores finished and we’ve still got time before supper."

Adam nodded and, holding the list against an outside barn wall, drew a line through another chore. "I think what we need to do now is sharpen those blades, don’t you?"

"I gotta take care of that bridle, too. Looks like it could break with a hard tug." Hoss stuck his hands in his coat pockets as the three brothers walked inside the barn.

"Joe," Adam said without looking, "go ask Hop Sing if he needs any knives sharpened, please."

Joe started toward the house, which meant of course that he ran.

"And don’t run if you bring any knives back!" Adam called over his shoulder.

"And carry ‘em point down!" Hoss added.

Joe stopped and put his hands on his hips. "And don’t pee in my pants!" he yelled in exasperation at his brothers, causing Adam and Hoss to grin at each other.

Adam gathered up the axes and anything else that looked like it could use sharpening and set up in the barn. He wanted to be out in the bright sunshine but the cutting cold in the wind forced sensible beings to look for shelter.

He sure hoped Pa had taken plenty of warm clothes. This was the kind of weather that could give you chills really fast. It was also the kind of weather when a man needed to avoid alcohol. He knew Pa would do that – he was not so sure about Angus.

He was doing it again. Worrying about a grown man who had taught him pretty much everything he knew. He was insulting Pa by thinking that he couldn’t take care of himself.

And if Adam didn’t concentrate on what he was doing he was liable to get a nasty cut.

"Hop Sing said he’d ‘preciate if you’d do this one," Joe said breathlessly, indicating he had run from the house to the barn holding the knife with the blade pointed forward.

Adam paused and looked at him with dark brows lifted and Joe looked down.

"If you’re holding the knife like that how am I supposed to take it from you?"

Adam kept his face as serious as he could but watched with affection as Joe studiously pointed the blade at the ground and put his own hand on the hilt near the blade. He looked up at Adam expectantly. "Sometimes Pa passes ‘em with his hand here but the blade pointed at him."

"He’s handled knives a long time, Joe, and his hand’s a lot bigger." Adam took the chopping knife from Joe. "Thank you."

"Can I – can I do it?" he asked, causing Hoss to look up from the bridle and meet Adam’s eyes.

"Not the knife," Adam answered as he studied it. "But I’ll show you how to do one of the axes."

"Did ya hear that?" Joe turned to Hoss, arms held out in excitement. "I’m gonna do an axe."

Hoss gave his little brother a wink. "Bet it’ll be the sharpest one in the bunch, too."

Joe’s chin jutted out. "Kinda like me."

"Say what?" Hoss lowered his head and pulled a teasingly mean face.

Joe grinned, knowing there was nothing to fear. He dragged up a stool near Adam and thought for a while.

"Who do you think is smartest?" Joe asked.

"Pa," Adam and Hoss said in unison.

"Then who?" Joe persisted.

"His horse," Hoss laughed.

Hoss’ response was so unexpected that Adam burst into laughter.

"Did you say his horse’s rear end?" Adam tormented when he had caught his breath.

Hoss’ hand paused over the bridle he was repairing. "Adam, you know I didn’t saying nothin’ of the sort," he scolded.

Adam tilted his head slightly and pursed his lips. "Yeah, but Pa doesn’t."

Hoss pointed his right index finger at Adam, looking so much like Pa it startled Adam for a moment. "You tell Pa I said anything like that and I won’t leave enough of your hide to write your name on."

Adam stood, grinning, and pulled off his coat. "Oh yeah?"

Hoss tossed aside the bridle and threw his coat on top of it, ready for fun.

Adam put his fists up. "Let’s see if you still know how to do this."

Hoss’ smile dimpled his cheeks. "Okay, Joe, you saw Adam start it."

Joe scooted out of the way and watched in delight as his brothers sparred, jeered and mocked each other.

"Little Joe!" Hop Sing called from the front porch. "No bring knife, no have dinner!"

"Oops." Adam slapped Hoss on the back and headed back to his job.

Little Joe ran to the open barn door and called, "Coming in a minute, Hop Sing!"

"What you do? Whittle knife down to toothpick?"

"No, uh, Adam had something big to take care of first."

Adam quickly finished the knife and handed it to Joe. "Now be careful taking it to Hop Sing."

"And when I get back I can do an axe?"

"Don’t run!" Adam shouted after him.

"Telling him that is like telling the sun not to rise," Hoss observed.

Before Adam had his jacket back on Joe returned to the barn, his face flushed and his eyes expectant.

"All right," Adam motioned, "sit here and I’ll show you. But Joe –"

His brother looked up at him.

"The first time you don’t listen to me that’s it. No second chances."

Joe nodded that he understood. And he did.

His only problem was a persistent fly that kept distracting him.

"Just ignore it," Adam advised.

"It’s trying to go up my nose!" Joe snorted.

"Ignore it and it’ll go away."

Joe frowned. "That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard."

"Just try it."

The fly persisted for another minute or so and then went elsewhere. When it did, Joe paused in disbelief. "Does that work on other things?"

Adam shook his head that he didn’t understand.

"Does that ignorin’ work on other stuff?"

Impatient to be finished with the job, Adam said, "sure" and failed to note the worried look his reply brought to Joe’s face.

When Joe finally completed the chore, and was showing the newly sharpened axe head to Hoss, it was hard to judge who was more proud of the twelve-year-old’s accomplishment – Joe or Adam.

 

Little Joe told Hop Sing about his new achievement in minute detail at dinner and, to Adam’s relief, Hop Sing good-naturedly nodded and listened.

Just when Adam thought his little brother might be winding down, Little Joe reached for his milk and, in that way that was uniquely his own, his thoughts skipped to a completely different topic. "Hey, Hop Sing, Mrs. McNally makes these really good things to eat called –" he frowned. "What were those?" he asked Adam.

"Scones."

"Yeah. Ya put butter and jam all over ‘em and boy they’re good. Last time we were there I chased the goats and Mr. McNally taught us about using ropes and we pretended we were pirates and we shot our slingshots. So we were pretty hungry by then and Mrs. McNally let us eat a whole batch of ‘em. Next time I’ll bring ya back one." Joe sucked in a breath. "Hey Adam?"

Adam looked up from his dish.

Joe’s eyes twinkled with mischief just like Pa’s could. "If Molly isn’t your girl why were you rolling in the grass with her?"

Hoss paused in mid-chew as he smiled at his older brother. It wasn’t often Adam got caught at something.

Adam leaned his elbows on the table. "What do you mean rolling in the grass with her?"

"Aidan and Sean and me could see everything from the top of the hill the other day."

"So?"

"I saw you rolling in the grass with Molly."

"So?"

"Everybody knows what it means when you roll with a girl," Joe said with that air of certainty that was beginning to surprise Adam.

"So tell me little brother - what does it mean?"

Joe shrugged. "It means she’s your girl."

"Who told you that?"

"Sean."

"Well that figures," Hoss said softly. "Dern kid."

Adam frowned. "You let me know anything else Sean or Aidan tells you and I’ll tell you whether it’s true or not."

Little Joe knew when he was bested. "Rolling with a girl doesn’t mean she’s your girl?"

"Remember what I told you yesterday about Molly just being a friend?"

"So tell me, big brother, " Hoss said in a perfect mimic of Adam’s earlier response to Joe, "what does it mean?"

Adam shot Hoss a look and then, sighing, put down his fork. "Molly and I took the newspaper outside to read it. We were sitting on the grassy slope behind the house. When we were finished reading, Molly started to stand and I got up to reach down and help her. My boot caught the hem of her dress and it pulled her off balance and then I lost my footing and we rolled down the slope."

Joe’s eyes rounded. "They stopped just before they hit the lake," he said to Hoss.

"And I thought you were the ladies’ man in the family," Hoss teased.

"Ya kissed ‘er when ya stood up," Joe declared, leaning sideways towards Adam.

Adam put his napkin on the table. "I did not kiss her."

Joe’s chin went in the air. "What were you doing then? Sniffing her?"

"A bug was biting her neck."

"You sure had to get close to see it."

Adam scooted back his chair. "I’ve had all I’m gonna take from you," he warned.

"What’re ya gonna do about it?" Joe challenged.

In a swift, strong move that looked like he’d been doing it for years, Adam pulled Joe across his knees.

"Help!" Joe yelled as his hands flew back to protect the seat of his pants. "Help! Adam can’t do this!"

"Looks like he has," Hoss said easily.

"Let me up!" Joe ordered as he tried to twist.

But his oldest brother had a firm hold on him. "Let me up, what?" Adam coached, his blue eyes wide and as mischievous as Joe’s had been moments earlier.

"Let me up, Adam."

"Nope."

"All right, all right. Let me up, please."

"Nope, still not it."

"Hoss!" Little Joe pleaded. Then he calmed and hung his head. "Let me up, please, Adam."

"Nope. Still not it."

"Well what d’ya want me to say? I’m sorry I was funnin’ with ya?"

"Sure would be a shame to have to swat you here at the dinner table."

"Hoss!" Little Joe yelped. "Hoss! Stop him!"

"He hasn’t done anything yet." Hoss winked at Adam.

"Hop Sing!" Joe cried out.

"Appears brother has upper hand," Hop Sing quipped.

Joe wilted across Adam’s knees. "What d’ya want me to say?"

"Molly is not my girlfriend."

"Molly is not my girlfriend."

Adam made to pull Joe’s hands away from his bottom and Joe quickly said, "Molly is not Adam’s girlfriend."

"And let me up, please, sir."

"What???" Little Joe was indignant. "Hoss, do I have to say sir to Adam?"

"Well," Hoss drawled, "he is bigger than you."

"I have to sir him?"

Hop Sing nodded. "Might solve present position."

"No!"

"Okay, have it your way," Adam grabbed Little Joe’s hands with his left hand and raised his right hand.

"Let me up, please, sir?"

Adam’s mouth dropped open in surprise. He put Joe on his feet, holding him at his waist, and his eyes searched the boy’s face worriedly. "I was teasing you."

Little Joe pushed Adam’s hands away. "Gee, Adam, don’t take life so serious. I ain’t ever gonna ‘sir’ you!"

Adam laughed in delight and grabbed Joe. He laid him across his knees again and this time delivered light swats that brought giggles from Joe and barks from Smoke.

 

Adam shifted in the chair and closed his eyes to rest them. Everyone in the house was sound asleep and yet here he sat reading, hoping to get tired enough to rest.

Actually, tired had nothing to do with it. He was past that. It was his thoughts he couldn’t quiet. Taking care of the ranch was the easy part. Waiting for Pa to return was wearing him out.

He knew better. He was acting like some lame-brained kid.

Pa had left him plenty of other times – for a few hours and occasionally for a few days – and returned safely. But most of those times terrible things had happened where Adam had been and horrible things had happened where Pa had been, too. Some events, like Inger’s death, hurt so deeply they had never discussed it and probably never would. Others, like when Pa had helped rescue survivors of a steamship accident near New Orleans, Adam had read about in the local paper and asked to no avail to hear more about.

The good thing was that Pa was a man of action.

And the bad thing was that Pa was a man of action.

Adam had promised himself he would not spend another fitful night so he set his book aside, picked up a clean mug, and walked to the hutch where Pa kept the liquor. From past experience, he knew wine made him sleepy and he tended to get sick on whisky. So he rummaged through the few wine bottles remaining from their journey from New Orleans and found one that was already open. Ma had taught him to always sniff the open bottle to be sure the wine had not turned to vinegar. This was a full-bodied, deep-colored wine and it smelled wonderful. He poured it into the mug and then pushed the cork back into the bottleneck.

Leaning against the hutch he slowly sipped the wine. Pa wasn’t much for wine. He preferred brandy and whisky. Adam wondered idly if his mother had liked wine. He would ask Pa.

A creak from the wooden floor caught his attention and he turned toward the bunkroom. Little Joe stood by the far chair, barefoot and in a nightshirt with his long johns underneath, clutching a blanket and pillow.

"Hoss’ snoring wake you?" Adam asked knowingly as he walked back to his chair.

Joe shook his head ‘no’ and looked down.

"Bad dream?"

"I just woke up."

"At least you were able to get to sleep." He held out his left arm in invitation. In the daytime Joe wouldn’t have been caught dead sitting across his brother’s legs, but nighttime changed him, too. He settled quickly, wordlessly and leaned his head into Adam’s chest, staring into the fireplace embers.

Adam sipped the wine again and relaxed.

"I can hear that stuff inside you," Joe said softly. "Like that drawing in that book you have. It goes down your throat and splashes in your stomach."

Adam smiled.

"Can I have some?"

"Just a sip. This isn’t watered down like what Ma used to give you."

Joe took a sip and screwed up a magnificent face that caused Adam to laugh despite the late hour. Joe handed back the mug and leaned into Adam again.

"Oh no you don’t," Adam cautioned. "You’re too heavy to fall asleep in my lap."

"Can I sleep by the fire?"

"May I sleep by the fire," Adam corrected.

"Sure, if you want to," Joe answered innocently. "There’s plenty of room." He wrapped the blanket around him, fluffed up his pillow and laid down about a foot in front of the settee. "Want me to put some more wood on?"

Adam said he thought the fire was just about right. He finished his wine and watched Joe’s eyes drift closed and his breathing become deep and regular. Smoke padded out of Pa’s room, gave such a wide yawn that his tongue curled back, and then plopped down beside Joe without his usual circling. By the time the bunkroom door opened and Hoss stepped into the room, Smoke’s paws were twitching back and forth and Adam had a pretty good idea he was dreaming of chasing rabbits.

"Everything okay?" Hoss asked. He was barefoot and wrapped in a quilt like an Indian.

Adam shrugged. "Just felt a little chilly."

"Yeah." He moved to the settee and lay down, propping the pillows under his head. "Sure is quiet outside tonight." His eyes drifted to the flames in the fireplace. "Not even an owl." Abigail Adams quietly jumped to the settee and lay on top of Hoss’ legs.

Adam’s drowsiness enveloped him with delicious warmth. He pulled the other chair closer and propped his legs in it, then scooted down until his head was resting comfortably. John Adams vaulted into his lap and purred softly. The vibration and warmth from John’s furry body were the finishing touches: Adam drifted into a much-needed deep sleep.

 

 

The half-light that preceded sunup slowly woke Adam. Rubbing at his face he realized he was not on his bunk but twisted up in two chairs. A quick glance around revealed Hoss on the settee and Little Joe snuggled up with Smoke on the floor. Why weren’t they all in their beds? Had they fallen asleep talking? No. He didn’t remember much conversation at all except Hoss saying something about how quiet it had been last night.

He stretched and Smoke looked up expectantly. Adam pulled on his boots and let Smoke outside. The autumn chill drifted in the opened door so Adam returned to start the fires, grab his coat and do the early chores.

"Why – why’re you milking the cow?" Joe stammered when he came across Adam in the barn an hour later.

"To thank you for doing my chores the past two mornings." Adam smiled. "But I’m not going in that chicken coop."

"Aw Adam," Joe’s lips twisted, "they ain’t gonna hurt you."

Adam lifted the milk bucket and led the way to the front porch. "I’m telling you, they try to kill me every chance they get."

"No they don’t. Come on, I’ll show you." Joe took his brother’s right hand, tugging at it. "You ain’t gonna let a little old chicken scare ya, are ya?"

Adam lagged behind Joe, wincing as if he were about to be lashed. He hated chickens. He’d never, ever come out of an encounter without some kind of injury - which was why he always ate chicken with such delight.

"Tell ya what," Joe coached, "you just throw the feed around and I’ll gather the eggs. They’ll be so busy eating they won’t even notice ya."

Adam backed away as Joe opened the coop gate. "Joe, they really don’t like me –"

Joe’s shoulders slumped as they often did when he considered something to be silly. "Remember what Pa’s always telling us? Ya gotta face your fears."

Adam pointed at his feathered adversaries. "I have. There’s a scar on my forehead to prove it."

"Aw Adam, it’s the puniest scar I ever saw." He grinned widely at his big brother’s hesitancy. "Come on, Adam, be a man about it."

That snapped Adam into action. He took the feed bucket from Joe and stepped into the coop behind him. He scattered the first handful and Joe helped him along by encouraging the chickens to vacate their roosts. Adam quickly threw another handful. And another.

"Hurry up, Joe." He fought to keep the panic out of his voice as the fowls converged on him, plotting how to block his route of escape.

"Aw, for cryin’ out loud, Adam. Throw the feed farther back," Joe’s tone was beyond condescending.

"Joe – Joe – I swear they’re getting ready to –"

In the next instant a flurry of wings came straight at Adam and he ducked, throwing his arms up to shield his face and hat, and dropping the chicken feed in the process. He stumbled against the side of the coop - which thankfully held - but in the process he lost his footing and landed on his butt and the palms of his hands.

"Aw no!" he yelled, shaking his hands of what covered the soil in the chicken coop. "When was the last time you cleaned in here?"

The chickens were happy now. They were clucking ecstatically over all the feed Adam had spilled.

Joe held the egg basket and shook his head. "Gee Adam, you’re worthless with chickens, ain’t ya?"

Adam stood, disgustedly wiping his hands on the sides of his pants. "Aw, darn, look at this sh-"

"Don’t say it," Joe cautioned as they left the chicken coop. "If you do, Hoss and me’ll have to wash your mouth out."

Adam glared down at the impudent upstart. "It’s not funny."

Joe jerked his head sideways. "Kinda depends on – what does Pa call it? – your point of view?"

"Gosh darn, what happened to you?" Hoss laughed from the edge of the front porch when he saw Adam.

"It’s not funny," Adam declared.

"Dang if it isn’t." Hoss pointed toward the slope in front of the house. "And it’s about to get a might funnier."

Adam twisted to follow Hoss’ line of sight and wilted. Molly was riding up as fresh as the morning with her red hair bouncing all around her freckled face. She WOULD catch him this way: unwashed, unshaven, hair uncombed, with his pants and arms covered in –

"Hey, Molly!" Hoss called out and waved.

She waved in return and pulled up her horse a bit early, eyeing Adam warily. When she was close enough that she no longer had to squint, her lips pursed. "Looks like you’ve had an interesting morning so far," she observed.

"Yeah, well things happen when you’re in charge of a ranch," he shot back at her.

Her red eyebrows rose and her green eyes were full to overflowing with mischief. "I rode over to meet Papa. I guess since you’re still in charge they haven’t returned?" She was out of the saddle before Hoss could step forward to help her.

"Pa said he’d be back for breakfast," Adam replied, trying to sound the way he figured someone in authority would. Joe gave him a funny sideways look and Adam tapped Joe’s right boot with his left one. "Doesn’t Hop Sing need those eggs?"

"Uh, yeah." Joe stepped onto the porch and glanced back, snickering.

"I sure hope they got something," Molly said as she leaned sideways against her horse. "We’re tired of rabbit and squirrel. I think Papa’s hungry for some venison steaks." She turned to the saddlebags. "Oh, I have a couple of newspapers for you and –"

Adam watched as her emerald eyes rounded. At first he thought she had realized she had forgotten the newspapers but then she looked down and let out the most ear-piercing scream Adam had ever been near.

"Molly?" he leaned forward, his ears ringing, and Hoss stepped up beside her, his forehead lined in concern.

"Saints above!" she yelled. "Get it! For God’s sake, get it!" Adam’s only clue was that her body was quivering.

"Get what?"

She let out another scream and turned on him like a treed bobcat. "I don’t know!! Just get it!"

Adam looked at Hoss. Was this making sense to him? Hoss shook his head ‘no’.

"Something’s on my leg!" Molly shouted. "And it’s climbing up –" This scream was accompanied by her hoisting her skirts to her waist.

Hoss lost his breath, staggered, went scarlet from the neck up, and turned around in the blink of an eye. Adam wasn’t sure he’d really seen Hoss move that quickly.

But one thing was for sure. He was really seeing Molly’s underclothes and she was now screaming at the top of her lungs. With embarrassing memories of the mouse running up his leg out in the Hay Meadow still fresh in his mind, Adam decided there was nothing to do but help her.

"Hold still," Adam ordered as he dropped to one knee. "I see it."

"What?" she gasped.

"A mouse."

"A mouse! It’s too cold for mice!"

Adam looked up at her, making eye contact. "All right then it’s your imagination."

She frowned hard. "And you’re enjoying this."

"Well –"

Out of the edge of his eye Adam saw Joe and Hop Sing come out to the front porch. Joe, unlike Hoss, did not lose his breath, stagger, go scarlet or turn around. He grinned as big as he could.

While Adam was distracted by his youngest brother’s appearance, the mouse’s tail disappeared around the back of Molly’s knee and she bent at her waist. "You’re no help at all, Adam Cartwright!" She tried to hold her skirt, petticoat and everything else she was wearing and at the same time grab behind her knee.

It didn’t work.

She toppled and the next thing Adam knew he was under her skirts – his cheek against her left thigh. Lord, could the morning get any worse?

Molly yanked the skirts and petticoat back, giving him air and in that instant he slapped his cupped hand on her opposite thigh, catching the little rodent. He sat up triumphantly, ready to display the prize to Molly, when he realized there was a shadow on them.

Slowly, fearing he knew the answer before he looked, gut-sure that he did, he slid his eyes to the left.

Pa and Angus were sitting on their horses and looking down from under the brims of their hats like gods come to judge.

Adam’s blue eyes slammed closed. The morning had just gotten worse.

"Well, lad?" Angus demanded. "What were ya doin’ in m’ daughter’s skirts."

Adam held up the mouse.

"Puttin’ a mouse up her skirts were ya?"

"No, s-sir," Adam stammered. He motioned back toward Molly. "It was – it got – "

Pa leaned his right arm on his saddle horn and made a great show of looking at the filth on the back of Adam’s pants. "It hasn’t been like this the whole time I’ve been gone, has it?" he begged.

"Thing’s have been fine, Pa," Little Joe chipped in. "Stuff started going wrong cause Adam finally got up early enough to do his own chores."

Pa’s right brow arched and Adam stood. "I can explain, Pa."

"I think you’d better go clean up instead." Pa eased from his saddle. "Hop Sing, I believe Angus and Molly will be staying for breakfast."

Adam looked back at Molly who was still sitting with her skirts tucked between her legs. He wondered if his face was as flushed and embarrassed as hers.

A change of clothes and a shave – along with the fact that Pa was back – revitalized Adam. He crossed the living room and reached for a mug and the coffee pot, aware everyone was standing around laughing at the picture Molly and he had presented when their fathers had ridden up.

"Eat before food get cold," Hop Sing called and Adam wondered idly how many times he had heard the man say that.

They headed for the table, not having to be called twice when the food smelled as good as Hop Sing’s cooking always did. Chairs scooted against the floor boards, coffee mugs clanked onto the table top, then just as Adam sat down his eyes met Hoss’, shot to Joe’s and they all three catapulted to their feet.

It was too late.

The chair was finally going to tell on them.

In front of God and everyone.

They’d been able to keep the secret for so many weeks and now it would be out.

It had been just a day like any other. Adam had fallen off the barn roof rescuing Abigail and John Adams; Hoss had broken a window in the house; and no telling what Joe had gotten in to that they didn’t know about. And then night had come and Pa had gone on to bed and they had started horsing around at the table and Hoss had fallen backwards and one of the chairs had collapsed underneath him. So they’d stayed up late, repairing it and hoping Pa didn’t wake up.

The problem was the repair job had been hasty and not the best. So they’d put the chair by the front door where no one would use it.

Adam had meant to do a better repair job on it while Pa was away hunting. But he’d forgotten.

He didn’t have any time for regret because just as Hoss, Joe and he flew to their feet, Pa sat down on the chair he had dragged to the head of the table.

They stood there, like three sentinels, breathing through their mouths and staring at Pa.

Pa paused, napkin nearly to his lap, and his eyes roved to each of his sons. "New tradition?" he asked.

"Uh, why don’t you take my chair, Pa? It’s easier on your back," Adam offered nervously.

Pa spread his napkin. "Thank you, son, but my back’s just fine."

Pa reached for the coffee pot and his movement elicited hunched flinches from Adam, Hoss and Joe.

"Pa," Joe leaned his hands on the table as he spoke, "I really think you oughta take one of our chairs. That one’s kinda low to the ground and it’ll probably hurt your legs."

Pa tilted his head. "That’s very kind of you, Joseph, but my legs are fine, too. Now would the three of you please sit down so we can say grace?"

They obeyed, casting one another questioning looks as they bowed their heads, but eating was another thing entirely. Adam’s stomach was so tense with anxiety all he could do was push the pancakes and ham around on his plate. He couldn’t even concentrate on a conversation with Molly – which was just as well. He wasn’t sure how he was ever going to look her in the eyes again.

Finally, Angus and Molly said their goodbyes in the living room and Pa walked them out to the porch. As soon as the front door closed, Adam, Hoss and Joe scrambled to the table.

Hoss reached the chair first and leaned on it, trying to rock it. "Dang, that’s unbelievable. I thought Pa was a goner for sure."

Joe’s eyes rolled. "I thought we were goners."

Something was not making sense. Adam told Hoss to turn the chair upside down and his suspicions were confirmed.

Hoss shook his head. "That ain’t the patch job we did."

The familiar voice they always wound up answering to said, "No, it isn’t." Pa leaned in the open doorway, his arms crossed at his chest as he smiled at them.

"You knew?" Adam demanded.

Pa gave him a quick, amused nod.

"And you let us worry?" Hoss asked.

"Yep," Pa’s voice was deep.

"That ain’t funny," Joe muttered.

"It isn’t funny," Adam corrected.

Joe pointed to Adam as he spoke to Pa. "See, even Adam says it ain’t funny."

To Joe’s dismay, Pa burst into laughter.

"What?" Joe looked up at Adam.

Adam ruffled Joe’s hair. "Never mind, little brother. Just ignore him."

"But won’t he go away if I do?" Joe asked worriedly.

Adam smiled slowly and kept eye contact with Pa. "No, he’ll always be here."

 

The end