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The Trouble with Words

By Texas2002

 

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

This story begins about a week after the end of "Escaping the Ropes".

 

"Ya did too," Joe Cartwright maintained.

"No, I didn’t." His oldest brother Adam gritted his teeth and fought for patience. If he’d acted this way when he had been Little Joe’s age Pa wouldn’t have tolerated it for a minute.

"Did too."

"Did not."

Ben Cartwright directed a look Adam and Joe’s way as the three of them rode back to the house for lunch and then fought a smile as, from the sides of his eyes, he watched Joe silently mouth, "Did too" and Adam mouth back, "Did not".

Little Joe sat straight. "Well if you didn’t who did?" he challenged for the umpteenth time in the past week.

Ben took a deep breath of the pine-scented air and wondered how long it would be before snow arrived. A white dusting had glistened in the sunlight on the higher ranges for days now and experience had taught him the storms came when you least expected in this country.

"For the love of –" Adam bit off his response and tried to direct Beauty ahead of Ben’s horse, but she was content to go the leisurely pace. Besides, Smoke was in front of her. "How many times do I have to tell you: it was Pa."

Little Joe looked over from where he rode on Paint. "Nah," he said with a shake of his head. "Pa’d think up something more ‘riginal. You did it."

Adam leaned across his saddle toward his little brother. "If you don’t quit worrying me about this I’ll make you wish you’d never been born."

Little Joe’s temper shot into the clouds and exploded as quickly as an artillery shell. "You lay a hand on me and I’ll sic Hoss on ya!"

Adam’s color heightened, his jaw set and his blue eyes sparked. "Not before I’ve busted your tail!"

"Pa’s the only one gets to bust my tail!!" Little Joe yelled and to his dismay Adam curled up in laughter, grasping his saddle horn to keep from falling off his horse. The boy was completely confused about why his anger had sent his brother into near hysterics. "What’s so funny?" he demanded. Nothing was worse than being laughed at when you were angry.

Adam waved his left hand and after several gulps of air was able to answer. "Nothing."

"What’re you laughin’ at?"

"Nothing, Joe, forget it." Adam rearranged his reins and swiped at his tear-filled eyes.

"Tell."

"No," Adam answered.

"Yes."

"No."

Ben moaned and spurred his horse just enough ahead to put a healthy distance between himself and his sparring sons.

 

+++

 

 

The fussing between Little Joe and Adam did not cease during lunch so finally Ben sent his eldest son in one direction for chores and his youngest son in the opposite direction. Somehow, despite his best efforts, they wound up in the barn in late afternoon where they renewed their argument until Ben let them know he was no longer amused. The result was that they both came as close to sulking as was allowed at the dinner table. Hoss, who usually did well to get a word in edgewise at the table, regaled Barbara with an almost poetic description of watching from one of the higher points on the Ponderosa as wild mustangs ran across great expanses of open land below.

With dinner completed, Ben and Adam sat at one end of the table to play chess while Hoss and Little Joe settled near Barbara at the opposite end of the table and watched her sketch.

"Hey, what’s that?" Little Joe asked in excitement.

Ben quickly looked up in disapproval and the boy added, "Ma’am."

Barbara’s hand moved with practiced strokes as she held a charcoal pencil. "It’s a ghost," she answered and Ben bit off a moan. Ghosts combined with Little Joe’s over-active imagination would mean many a sleepless night. They were just now convincing him pirates did not live on the Ponderosa or sleep under his bed.

"A ghost?" Hoss asked slowly. He pointed to her work with his right index finger. "What’s that, ma’am?"

Barbara paused for a sip of tea from one of the large pottery mugs and then placed it back on the table, well away from her work. "That is a castle. Years ago men built them all across England and many other places for protection for their people during wars."

Hoss nodded. Ben would have had a hard time deciding who was more enthralled – Hoss or Little Joe.

"So," Little Joe sat on his knees in the chair and leaned his elbows on the table top, "do that castle and that ghost – well, I mean –"

Barbara met the boy’s eyes. "Many of the castles and old buildings are said to be haunted. People say they have seen ghosts there."

Adam’s right brow rose and Ben knew he was thinking the same thing: there went tonight’s sleep.

"Well," Joe continued hesitantly, wanting to know the answer and not wanting to at the same time, "are these ghosts mean?"

"Some of them."

"But there are nice ghosts?" Hoss’ relief was comical.

Barbara tilted her head and paused in her sketching. "Not many, no." She laid down her pencil and leaned back in her chair. "You know about Halloween, don’t you?"

Uh oh. Ben hoped she didn’t go into this too deeply. The last thing he needed was for the boys to know about more of Angus’ and his antics.

"Yes, ma’am, a little – sort of," Hoss answered. He was always eager for a story from any source.

After a breath, Barbara spoke. "A long time ago in Ireland the people believed summer ended on the last day of October."

"That’s my birthday," Joe proclaimed proudly.

"I seem to recall that." Barbara’s eyes twinkled. "They believed that day was also the beginning of a new year. And because it was the beginning of a new year, spirits could come back."

"Spirits?" Little Joe frowned.

"Ghosts," Adam answered as his attention turned from the chess game to Barbara’s tale.

Ben gave his oldest son a bemused smile and decided to enjoy another cup of coffee. As he reached for the pot, Barb continued.

"Now, because the people believed these ghosts could come back –"

"From where?" Hoss asked worriedly.

"They were the spirits of dead people," Ben said. His sons looked at him only momentarily and quickly returned to the lady at the end of the table. He couldn’t remember when he had seen all three of them so absorbed in the same thing and the sight of it nearly caused him to laugh.

"The people believed," Barbara said, "these ghosts could come back and they didn’t want that so they tried to dress up and be as scary as possible."

"Did you ever see one, ma’am?" Hoss said.

Barbara shook her head. "I spoke with people who said they had, particularly at one set of ruins, but no I never saw any." He brows rose. "Truth told I’m just as glad I haven’t."

"Geez," Little Joe breathed.

"That was a long, long time ago," Barbara reminded. "Nowadays, it’s more of a celebration, a party. The people go around in the middle of the night pretending they are ghosts and they do things like take gates off their hinges so when neighbors wake up in the morning it looks like a spirit was there during the night."

Ben could tell those ideas appealed greatly to Little Joe.

"I believe," Barb’s voice took on a cunning sound and Ben braced himself, "Angus taught your father how to tip an outhouse when they were a bit younger than you are Hoss."

This time his sons turned to Ben with huge grins on their faces and not one of them looked away.

"Did ya really, Pa?" Hoss asked.

"A time or two." He shifted in his chair. "Halloween also has to do with churches now."

"Churches!" Little Joe exclaimed. Sitting through a church service was torture of the worst kind for him.

Ben pretended he hadn’t noticed the alarm in Little Joe’s voice and face. "The first day in November is called All Soul’s Day in some churches. A day when they remember the loved ones they’ve lost. And the night before it is called All Hallowed Eve or All Hallows Eve because the next day is considered hallowed or holy."

"And people shortened the name to Halloween," Barbara concluded.

Little Joe returned to the first thing that had interested him. "What color is that ghost?"

"From what I understand sometimes they are thin so you can see through them but sometimes they are white."

Ben saw an idea spring to life in Little Joe’s mind. How dangerous would it be and who was it going to involve? The youngster’s ideas almost always led to grief for someone.

 

 

Little Joe cuddled into his pillow and fought a giggle of delight. This was going to be so good. He could get back at Adam plus some. All he had to do was wait until he heard Adam get up to go to the outhouse and he’d be a ghost and scare him back into last month. This was one of his best ideas ever. He’d managed to sneak Ma’s white tablecloth from the hutch when everyone had been getting ready for bed. It, a candle and some Lucifer sticks were under his blanket right now – just waiting for the fun. Geez, he could hardly wait.

He listened to Hoss’ snoring and Smoke whimpering as he dreamed on the floor at the foot of Pa’s bunk. Abigail and John Adams preferred to share the warmth of Barbara’s bed which was fine with Pa – he’d already made the remark that the next thing he knew Little Joe would be wanting to bring Paint inside as it got cooler. Little Joe drifted asleep for a few minutes even though he didn’t want to and then suddenly there was the sound he had been waiting for. Adam muttered and his bunk squeaked as he sat up and got his bearings. He quietly opened the door to the living room and closed it behind him.

Time for action! Quiet as an owl, Little Joe got down from his bunk with his disguise in hand. If he’d only thought to turn around and be sure Pa was asleep things would have turned out so differently – but he didn’t. He kept his back to Pa’s bunk and slipped out the side door.

Boy it was cool. He needed to get around the house to the back fast ‘cause it was a sure bet Adam wasn’t gonna linger on a night like this. The good thing was there wasn’t any wind so when he struck the Lucifer and lighted the candle it was plenty bright. Now for the best part. He wedged the candle in the dirt for a minute and opened the tablecloth, then threw it over himself.

Uh oh. He couldn’t see through it. Oh well, that didn’t matter. He’d just get in position and when he heard Adam he’d jump forward. He flipped up the tablecloth long enough to figure out he wanted to stand between the outhouse and the back door so when Adam came out he’d be right there. Then he retrieved the candle, tiptoed to the side of the outhouse, and pulled the tablecloth over him, careful to hold the fabric far away from the flame. It was the last good thing that happened.

The outhouse door opened and closed and Little Joe sprang forward yelling in the deep voice he used when he was pretending to be Pa, "Ad-am! I have come for –"

The racket as Adam fell backwards into the pails and other storage material by the back door was deafening. As was the roar that followed it. "Thunder and per-dition!!"

Oh no, it couldn’t be. With a sinking heart and a prickling bottom, Little Joe lifted the tablecloth to the top of his head.

"What the devil do you think you are DOING?" Pa demanded as he struggled up from the area near the back door.

If he’d had his coat on Little Joe would have run away for sure. Right then. Forever and ever.

The back door opened and Adam and Hop Sing peered out, Adam holding a snack he’d made from bread and meat. Little Joe looked from Adam to Pa in sheer agony.

Pa snatched the ghost outfit off Little Joe’s head with one hand and grabbed the candle with the other. "Is this your mother’s table cloth, young man?"

Little Joe nodded.

Pa’s eyes narrowed and he pointed with the hand holding the candle. "Get your bottom in bed while you can still sleep on it."

He didn’t wait for Pa to say ‘now’ but sprinted past Adam and Hop Sing. Adam’s pursed lips didn’t escape him: he’d loved every minute of seeing Little Joe in trouble.

Little Joe ran through the living room and climbed into his bunk. He wanted to be safe with his blanket all around him before Pa came in. How was he to know Adam had gotten up for something to eat? He hadn’t known Pa was even out of bed much less in the outhouse. It wasn’t like he’d done it on purpose. The whole thing was an accident and Pa always said he wouldn’t punish them for accidents. Besides it was Adam’s fault: if he hadn’t tied Little Joe in bed and then threatened to bust his tail then Little Joe wouldn’t have been trying to get Adam. He also wouldn’t have scared Pa back into last month instead of Adam.

It was all Adam’s fault.

And he was gonna get Adam if it was the last thing he did.

 

 

 

+++

 

 

"Well you ain’t gonna let ‘im get away with that, are ya?" Sean demanded.

He, Aidan and Joe sprawled in the McNally barn hayloft, the afternoon sunshine bathing them as Joe related Adam’s threat of bodily harm. He’d decided not to tell them about goofing up as a ghost knowing they’d make fun of him and tell him he couldn’t do much of anything right. Joe knew he shouldn’t be at the McNally place because he had chores to finish at home, but when Pa’d ridden off to the Greene place and Hoss had hitched up the team to go to Eagle Station after lunch, echoes of his shouting match with Adam had come back to him. He didn’t want to be anywhere around the Ponderosa until Pa and Hoss were back to protect him. Pa wouldn’t let Adam tan him. Pa wouldn’t let anybody lay a finger on Little Joe – much less a hand or a belt. At least he never had before. Why hadn’t Pa said anything when Adam had threatened to spank him the other day? Was Pa gonna let Adam spank Little Joe ‘cause Adam was grown up now?

"He ain’t gonna touch me," Joe said cockily, despite his private worries. "He tries and I’ll put him in his place so fast it’ll make him dizzy."

"And just how do ya plan to do that Mr. Big Talk?" Aidan challenged.

"Yeah," Sean parroted, "how da you plan ta do that?"

"I got ways," Joe boasted.

Sean sat up and eyed him. "Like?"

"I could tie HIM in bed, ‘cept he’s the lightest sleeper you ever saw. I could put a snake in his bed but all the snakes are hibernating. And ‘cause of Abigail and John Adams we hardly ever see a mouse around anymore. I thought about putting something sour in his morning coffee but Pa might get some of it and –"

"You know your problem?" Aidan interrupted.

"You think too small," Sean finished the thought for his brother.

Little Joe sat up and propped his back against a hay bale. "What d’ya mean I think too small?"

Sean shook his head and pulled up his knees. "Don’t you wanna get back at Adam for tying you in bed and now tellin’ ya he’s gonna bust your butt?"

"Well, shoot Joe, messing with his coffee or doing something like hiding all his clothes or putting lathered shaving soap in his boots isn’t nothing big. We do that to Pa all the time."

Joe liked a joke as much as the next guy but somehow he knew without ever having been told that lather from shaving soap inside his boots would not bring a smile to his Pa’s face.

"You gotta do something to Adam that he ain’t expectin’," Aidan continued.

Little Joe wasn’t sure he wanted to know but he asked anyhow. "Like what?"

Sean shrugged and the words came out of him as easily as if he’d been planning it for days. "Kidnap him."

"He’s bigger than me!" Little Joe yelped.

"We’ll help ya," Aidan said.

"Yeah," Sean agreed, "that way we can see how it works."

Little Joe shot him a suspicious look. "See how what works?"

Sean grinned, but it wasn’t the kind of happy grin Little Joe was used to seeing in his family. There was something about it that reminded him of Jack Wolf. "We’re gonna pull it on Molly," Sean said.

They were what? Little Joe knew the McNally boys didn’t make their older sister’s life easier but there had to be more to this than just wanting to tease her. "Why’re you gonna kidnap Molly?"

Sean shot Aidan a conspiratorial glance and they both leaned closer to Little Joe. "Ya know that little shack just off the trail between our place and yours?" Sean lowered his voice as he spoke.

Little Joe nodded silently. Eli said it had been there the first time he had looked at the property years ago.

"Molly’s been meeting a fella there."

For reasons he didn’t quite understand, Little Joe grew uneasy. Why did a girl meet a fella at some shack in the middle of nowhere? Pa had always been really strict with them about how they should behave with a girl and - even though Pa’d been mostly talking to Hoss and Adam – Little Joe had listened closely. He was pretty sure Hoss or Adam would think twice about meeting some girl off somewhere like that because, like Pa said, it showed disrespect for the girl’s reputation. And besides Little Joe knew for certain Adam and Hoss didn’t want to stand through an angry lecture from Pa.

Little Joe shook his head. "Adam’s not gonna meet Molly someplace like that."

Aidan rolled his eyes. "We ain’t gonna tip our hand using Molly for bait. We’ll use you."

"Why would he meet ME there?"

Sean took a deep breath of impatience. "We tell him you got hurt and you’re waiting for him at the shack. And when he goes inside looking for you we bolt it from the outside."

Little Joe’s heart pounded. "But, how’ll he get out?"

"Who cares? He’ll think of something."

Little Joe stood and walked back and forth a few times. In one way, he’d like to get back at Adam for tying him in bed and making him scare Pa. And boy howdy would locking Adam in the shack do that. But there were two problems he could see: Adam’s temper and Pa’s punishment. If Adam found out Little Joe’d had anything to do with this – well, it wasn’t worth thinking about. And if Pa found out that Little Joe had what he called "put your brother’s welfare at risk" he’d tan Little Joe; and that was not something Little Joe wanted to have happen anytime soon.

If it meant facing Adam’s wrath and Pa’s belt there was a whole lot wrong with the idea.

"No." He looked square at Aidan and then Sean.

"Whaddya mean no?" Sean shot to his feet. "You’re a coward."

Little Joe’s eyes narrowed. "Take it back, Sean."

The other boy stuck out his chest. "Or you’ll what?"

If he’d only thought about it, Little Joe never would have swung his left fist. But he did and it took Sean completely unaware. He went flying back and landed in the hay.

Aidan stared at Little Joe with a piece of hay he’d been chewing hanging from the corner of his wide-open mouth. "Dang!" he laughed. "You knocked Sean on his –"

Sean was back up by then and he ran toward Little Joe, barreled into his stomach and they both fell into the hay bales.

"What’s the noise up there?"

They froze.

"If I ‘ave to climb that ladder ya won’t be sittin’ at dinner. Get yer tails down ‘ere now!" Mr. McNally ordered.

Little Joe was the last one to step to the barn floor and he noted Mr. McNally’s surprised expression. "And when did you show up, lad?"

"After lunch, sir."

"Well these two ‘ave chores they ‘aven’t finished so you’d do well to head home."

"Yes, sir." Little Joe unhitched Paint. He didn’t look back at the McNally boys and he sure as heck wasn’t gonna wave goodbye to them.

 

+++

 

Ben was leading his horse into the barn from his ride to Margaret’s when Little Joe rode up on Paint. He gave Ben that quick smile that usually meant he was nervous. His cheeks, like everyone’s lately when they were outside for any length of time, were rosy.

"What have you been up to?" Ben asked easily.

"Nuthin’."

Um hum. Well, if there was trouble involved Ben would find out about it soon enough.

"Afternoon chores finished?"

"Uh – I was just getting ready to do them."

Um hum.

"You know you don’t have much time before dinner."

Little Joe nodded, wide-eyed.

No doubt about it. The boy was into something. Hopefully, after Ben’s temper outburst last night, his youngest son had learned there were not to be anymore nighttime scares. If he hadn’t Ben would have to have a serious talking-to with Little Joe.

Hoss returned from town, waited for Little Joe to finish unsaddling Paint, and the two of them headed off to take care of errands while Ben and Adam worked in the barn. Adam never spoke - he was probably grateful for the quiet - until Barbara and Little Joe came into the barn.

Adam pointed a hammer at his youngest brother. "I’m warning you, don’t start." He took one of the boxes Barbara carried her paints in from her and placed it on a table.

"Are you sure you don’t mind repairing that?" Barbara protested.

"It won’t take long." Adam assured and reached for a nail. "This is pretty wood."

"The wood is from France but I had the box made in England," she answered and sat on a stack of feed sacks.

"I heard you were very comfortable in England," Ben said with a twinkle in his eye. He handed Little Joe the ax handle he had been checking and motioned for the boy to open a chest so they could oil the tools inside.

Barbara crossed her legs at the knees and folded her arms as Adam began to hammer. "And just what do you mean by that?"

"People wanted their portraits painted and at least one young man asked for your hand in marriage."

"They also wanted portraits of their dogs, for heaven’s sake. And all those young men wanted to do was spend all their time gambling and drinking at the club. No, I have to amend that. Occasionally they went out to the country to gamble and drink." Barbara glanced at Adam as his hammering grew louder. "Careful," she cautioned as she gave the box a worried look.

"Why didn’t you paint landscapes?" Ben asked.

"I was tired of being there, Ben. I wanted to see the West and it has been everything I had hoped. You have the most beautiful light here, the most incredible colors and the most colorful –"

"DAM-NATION!" Adam yelled immediately after the hammer came down hard on his left thumb. He grabbed his left hand and seemed unaware, for a moment, of what he had said.

He was the only one. Ben looked up from the tool chest in surprise and leaned back thinking this would be interesting. Little Joe gulped visibly as he remembered Ben’s earlier warning to him about using the word. Barb ducked her head and put her left hand to her lips.

Then it happened. The silence in the barn, as well as the fact that all attention was directed his way, sank in and an expression just this side of horror washed across Adam’s young face. He gave Ben a worried, open-mouthed look but hastened to speak to Barbara. "I’m sorry for offending you, ma’am."

"Apology accepted," Barbara said graciously. She squared her shoulders and Ben had to give her one thing – she had control of her lips again.

"If you wouldn’t mind," Ben said firmly, "I think Adam and I need some time alone."

Barbara laid a hand on Little Joe’s shoulder to direct him. Little Joe glanced back as they walked toward the barn door but Barbara put a hand under his chin and turned him to face forward.

Adam watched their backs as they left and then turned toward Ben. His demeanor took Ben back to when his eldest son had been 12 and they had had a spell of trouble in New Orleans. Adam had always apologized after his punishment – and always with this look of concern.

The blue eyes mirrored heart-felt regret and Ben was surprised when Adam didn’t speak.

"Adam –" Ben started and that triggered his son into action.

"I know what you’re going to say, Pa –"

Ben tilted his head and folded his arms. His sons always said that and rarely did know what he had intended to say.

Adam held his hurt thumb in the cupped palm of his other hand. "I wouldn’t have said that if I hadn’t used it before."

Ben leaned against one of the support posts. "That’s true."

Adam waited, his head bowed. Ben wondered if the young man had any idea how little he had to be sorry for in life – and how much he would regret by the time he was his father’s age.

Ben pushed away from the post. "Adam, we’ve discussed this before. When you’re a man like you and I are you have freedoms but you also have responsibilities. You have two younger brothers watching your every move and listening to your every word. I’ve always been proud of the example you set and I know you take your responsibilities seriously." Ben shifted and his movement caused Adam to finally raise his head. They made such direct eye contact that Adam flinched slightly. Ben’s tone of voice went stern. "You WILL watch your language. You WILL find more appropriate ways of expressing yourself and you WILL control your temper. Do I make myself clear?"

Adam nodded.

Ben picked up the hammer. "Something on your mind?"

"Yes."

"Want to share it?"

Adam took one of those short breaths that always indicated he was worrying. "How long do I have to be an example for Hoss and Little Joe?"

Ben reached for another nail. Adam was usually so mature he had to remind himself how young his son was – especially when he hit Hoss on the arm, rough-housed with Little Joe, cheated at checkers with either one of them, and generally teased until both his good-natured brothers were on the verge of losing their tempers.

Not receiving an immediate answer, Adam continued. "When can I stop watching what I say and do and –"

Ben spared him a look. "You think the only reason for doing that is because of Hoss and Joe?"

Adam shrugged.

Setting the hammer aside for the moment, Ben studied Adam closely. "Don’t you think I’ve heard and used worse language than yours a few minutes ago?"

The blue eyes were steady on Ben’s face. "Yes, I suppose."

"Have YOU ever heard me use that language?"

Adam’s eyes twinkled a half-second. "You’ve yelled something about perdition a couple of times."

Ben smiled in self-recognition. Resting his left elbow on the worktable, he rolled a nail between his index finger and thumb. "Son, occasionally first impressions are wrong." His voice deepened. "But not very often."

Adam’s brow furrowed, indicating he wasn’t following Ben’s thoughts.

"When I meet a man certain things tell me what kind of man he is: his hand shake; whether he looks me in the eye; not what he’s wearing – don’t ever be fooled by that; whether he speaks thoughtfully; and what kind of language he uses."

The wrinkles along Adam’s forehead cleared.

"I don’t mean his grammar, although I’m not saying that’s unimportant." Ben was making himself nervous toying with the nail so he placed it on the table. "But I’m not impressed by a man who can’t speak an entire sentence without swearing. If you’re wise, you will ALWAYS watch how you speak and what you do."

"Because of other people’s opinions?" Adam challenged. What other people thought had never kept him from expressing himself. Ben doubted it ever would.

"Because of YOUR opinion. Do you feel good about yourself when you swear or take the Lord’s name in vain?"

"I’ve never done that!" Adam protested the last part of Ben’s sentence.

"It’s a small step from one to the next," Ben assured from experience.

Adam’s mouth opened to say something but nothing came out. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft and he returned to the subject of Hoss and Little Joe, running his unhurt hand through his hair. "Sometimes I just get so tired of looking after them."

Ben could sympathize with that. He’d been looking after one boy in particular for 21 years. "When you need a break, go hunting for a few days. It always helps me." He lifted his head slightly. "Adam, I did make myself clear about using proper language and controlling your temper?"

Adam’s eyes roved to his right and Ben frowned. What was Adam doing? He knew better than that. Ben followed Adam’s line of vision to the shadow of a certain 12-year-old at the back barn door. There could be only one explanation for why Joseph was standing there so still.

Ben laid a hand on Adam’s left forearm and his son’s eyes shot to his face. Ben jerked his chin toward the feed sacks and asked again. "Did I make myself clear?" as he unbuckled his belt.

Adam choked with shock. He blinked and his mouth fell open. Ben shook his head and then winked. Surely his son knew he was too old for a tanning. But Adam’s eyes fell to the belt and then rose to Ben’s face forlornly.

"I was hoping we were through with this," Ben said as he and Adam sidestepped toward the feed sacks. "You know what to do, son." After a brief pause Ben laid a lick across a feed sack and Adam jumped, jerking his elbows up in a defensive posture. "Yell," Ben mouthed and - finally assured he wouldn’t be bending over - Adam made a low sound of distress. By the fifth lick across the feed sack he let out a howl. Adam’s cries grew progressively louder and more convincing until Ben counted thirty, at which point Ben’s eyes were watering from holding back laughter and Adam blurted out a yelp that was so funny he had to throw his forearm across his mouth. Amazingly it sounded like a wail.

Ben held his index finger to his lips and slowly eased his way to the open back barn door. In a movement a hawk would have admired, Ben stepped from the barn and grasped his youngest son’s collar. "Why don’t you join us since you’re so interested?"

"I ain’t interested, Pa, honest! I was standing here figurin’ out what chores I still have to do. I didn’t hear ya tan Adam."

Ben pulled him inside the barn and even he was surprised at how Adam’s eyes, which had filled with tears from laughter, looked as if he’d been crying.

"So you didn’t hear me tan Adam?" Ben repeated Little Joe’s words as he looked down at the befuddled boy.

"Uh, I mean –"

"Would you excuse us, Adam?" Ben asked and Adam made a pass at his eyes with the back of his hand and then left the barn so meekly Ben could have cuffed him. There was no small amount of actor in Adam.

Now he had yet another son to correct. "Look at me, please," Ben requested.

It was all Little Joe could do to obey because in-between the barn floor and Pa’s face was that belt hanging in his right hand.

Ben waited patiently until Little Joe quit biting at his lip. "We’ve already had a talk about listening to other people’s conversations, haven’t we?"

"Unless they’re talking in front of ya like we do a lot," Little Joe reminded.

"Yes, unless they’re talking in front of you the way we do a lot. But when two people are speaking privately it is not polite or respectful to listen to their conversation. You wouldn’t want your brothers or Hop Sing to listen to our private talks, I’m sure."

Little Joe fidgeted with the hem of his jacket and then stuffed his hands in the pockets.

Ben propped his right boot on the lowest stable rail. "I always give you one warning, don’t I?"

His son nodded and then remembered to look him in the eye and quickly did so.

"And I already gave you that warning, didn’t I?"

Little Joe nodded again.

"So I should tan you for disobeying me and listening to Adam’s and my talk, shouldn’t I?" Ben asked gently.

Tears welled in Little Joe’s eyes. "Isn’t your arm tired from tanning Adam?"

"I’m just getting warmed up," Ben assured, fighting for a poker face.

Little Joe’s shoulders sagged and he took a jerky breath.

Ben softened. Maybe the lesson was learned and he could appeal to his son’s growing sense of responsibility. "I won’t tan you this time if you give me your promise you won’t eavesdrop."

Little Joe whimpered, not understanding the large word. "I did two things wrong?"

Ben gave a shake of his head. "Eavesdropping is listening in on other people’s conversations," he explained. "Do I have your promise?"

From the time he had understood what a promise was the usually impetuous Little Joe had always gone very quiet when one was mentioned. They were next to sacred to all the boys – especially when there was spit involved. Finally he nodded and said, "I promise, Pa."

"Pa!" Hoss called. "Hop Sing says dinner’s ready!"

Ben studied Little Joe another moment and then put his belt back on. There was no small amount of relief in his youngest son’s eyes when he did so.

Ben rested his hand on Little Joe’s shoulder as they walked from the barn. "And I don’t suppose I need to warn you about bad language?"

"No, sir," Little Joe assured.

 

 

Little Joe didn’t believe his eyes. Adam hardly shifted around when he sat at the table and he was as friendly with Pa as ever, talking about the news from San Francisco he’d been reading in the paper. Joe thought to himself that if he’d just had thirty licks from Pa’s belt he wouldn’t have been able to sit on a pillow much less on a wooden dining chair. And he wouldn’t have wanted to talk about anything with anyone. He would have wanted to get to his bunk so he could lie on his stomach and let his butt cool off and wait for time to pass. Maybe that was it. Maybe your butt got tougher when you got older. Joe’d have to figure out a way to ask Adam about that.

"Pa," Hoss said suddenly and purposefully, putting down his fork. "We need to talk about this saddle."

Joe had seen the new saddle Hoss had brought back from town and he thought it was a fine one. What did Hoss think was wrong with it?

Pa cut into his vegetables. "All right."

Hoss held his head high. "Well for one thing, we can’t afford it," he said worriedly. "And for another thing, mine ain’t that bad."

"Yes, it is." Adam laughed.

Little Joe frowned. Adam was laughing? Okay, that was it for sure. Your butt got tougher, pure and simple. ‘Course there was something else it could be. It hadn’t sounded like Pa’s belt had been hitting skin. Maybe if Pa hadn’t made Adam drop his britches then Adam had put something in the back of ‘em when Pa wasn’t looking. Boy howdy would that be worth knowing about! He’d have to start looking around in the barn for something you could slide down your trousers when you needed to.

Pa shared Adam’s amusement but could see he had not assuaged his middle son’s concern. "Have you ever known me to be frivolous with money?"

Something flickered in the sky blue eyes but Hoss decided not to say what he was thinking. "It’s just – I don’t feel right about you spending all that money on me."

Ben’s grin dimpled his cheeks. "I’ll get my investment out of it."

Hoss’ brow wrinkled as he began to suspect something. "You didn’t pay for it, did ya?"

"Pa wouldn’t steal!" Joe flew to their father’s defense.

"No, but he’d trade," Adam remarked evenly, leaving Hoss to think a moment.

Hoss had picked up his fork and he pointed it in Pa’s general direction. "That steer I asked you about that had the pretty spotted hide. That’s what you done, isn’t it? Mr. Larson said some Army fella was real happy for the trade."

Pa shrugged when Barbara looked at him inquiringly.

"Hey, Hoss -" Little Joe blurted as the thought hit him. "Did ya get me any candy?"

"You didn’t give me any money."

"I don’t have any money." Little Joe looked at Hoss in bewilderment.

"Well dang it, Little Joe, it takes money to buy things. Folks don’t go giving away things for free."

"They do if they think you’re cute."

"Joseph!" Pa said in surprise at his son’s craftiness but his youngest held out his arms in supplication.

"It’s true, Pa. Mrs. Orowitz is all the time sneaking me candy and Mr. Orowitz gives me cookies and tells me not to let Mrs. Orowitz know."

"Yeah?" Hoss continued. "Well sometimes folks want money."

An angry Little Joe squint was followed by an angrier response. "You could have gotten me some candy out of Christian kindness."

Ben’s surprise gave way to astonishment and Hoss even leaned back but it was Adam who spoke. "What’ve you been reading lately?" the oldest brother asked.

Joe’s chest swelled. "Pa’s not the only one who looks at his Bible."

Odd, Ben thought. It was always in the same place and usually open to the same page where he had quit reading. Of course, Joe hadn’t said he’d read it; only that he’d looked at it. It was always important to listen to Joe’s exact words.

"And besides," Little Joe added, "Mrs. McNally is always talking ‘bout it."

Ah, now the truth. Ben and Hoss exchanged grins.

Adam smiled at Joe in obvious affection. "Well just remember, little brother: that Christian kindness goes both ways. Now pass the rice, please?"

Little Joe made a face at Hoss as he obeyed Adam.

 

 

+++

 

"I can handle it, Pa." Adam leaned on a front porch post early the next morning, looking down at his father. He motioned vaguely to the house and grounds. "Besides, you can’t spare anyone to go with me."

Ben knew Adam was right but that didn’t make the decision any easier. Predators were coming down from the high country and someone needed to move the small herd they had in the northeast sector down to the winter pasture where the other cattle were. Adam was capable of handling the cattle but Ben didn’t like the idea of his son riding alone.

"Take Smoke with you."

Adam’s smile at Ben was contagious and he immediately ran for the corral like a six-year old kid released from a long day of school.

Ben watched him saddle up. It had taken him a long time to accept that if they had stayed in Louisiana, if Adam weren’t able to ride away and enjoy the ranch as he was doing now, he might have already left the family – heading for open spaces. God forbid, he might even be one of those poor souls headed for the gold fields.

"I’ll be back before late chores," Adam said as he pulled alongside Ben, ever mindful of his responsibilities.

Ben patted Beauty’s hip. "We’ll take care of those. You take care of yourself."

Adam nodded and whistled to Smoke again. They took off at an easy canter and then Adam leaned sideways in the saddle and said, "Wanna race?" He nudged his horse and Smoke shot ahead of him.

"Where’s he off to?" Hoss walked from the bunkroom, pulling on his jacket.

"Bringing that last bunch down to the winter pasture."

"I’ll go with him," Hoss offered, raising his blonde eyebrows.

"Oh no you don’t. I have a full day planned."

"Aw, Pa," Hoss moaned. "Why does Adam get to go off by himself?"

Ben debated on whether or not to answer and before he came to a decision Little Joe came out the front door with a biscuit in his mouth as he buttoned his coat. It was getting cooler for sure when Joe buttoned his coat without having to be reminded. He pulled the biscuit from his mouth and motioned with it.

"Where’s Adam goin’?"

"He’s bringin’ down that group in the northeast pasture," Hoss answered easily. "Smoke’s with ‘im."

If Ben read his youngest son’s expression correctly it was not Smoke he was worried about. The few times Ben had tanned one of the boys they had been given a day of ground work before having to do something that required being on horseback. As far as Little Joe knew, Adam was forking a saddle the morning after bending over for Ben’s belt.

"You’ll need to take care of Adam’s chores as well as your own," Ben instructed. "You can divide them however you want. Then you and I have some things to do, Hoss. And Hop Sing has a list for you, Little Joe."

"Still wish I could’ve gone with ‘im," Hoss muttered and Ben smiled to himself.

 

+++

 

For once Little Joe didn’t mind doing chores inside the house. It was getting colder by the day and he never had cared for chilly weather. Ma had always said it was because he’d grown up in New Orleans where the weather maybe got cold in February but even then it didn’t snow. Here he had to wear too many clothes and folks got sick and he had to stay cooped up, which usually meant somebody’s temper got the better of them. He liked the warm days when he could peel out of his clothes and go swimming or pull off his boots and walk through the meadow barefoot. Pa wasn’t too happy if he found him walking barefoot in the meadow on account of the snakes and things but Little Joe thought it was worth the risk – not of getting bitten by a snake but of having Pa fuss at him. Warm weather also meant picking berries and finding honey and sleeping with the window open.

He hated winter. Well, except for the snowball fights. Those were fun. Sometimes if the snow wasn’t too dry Pa would help them build walls and they’d spend the better part of an afternoon waging battles and putting snow down each other’s trousers. He guessed there were a couple of things about winter that weren’t too bad.

Little Joe complained when Hop Sing gave him the list of chores after lunch because he knew if he didn’t make a little bit of fuss Hop Sing would think he was sick or something.

But there was one chore on the list that worried him something fierce. Hop Sing wanted him to polish Pa’s tobacco canister. Little Joe hadn’t touched that since all the trouble about smoking the corncob pipe. He didn’t much care to do this chore and weighed the odds of disobeying Hop Sing.

Little Joe was standing on a chair by the hutch to reach the canister when the back door opened and Pa stepped in. He jerked his hands away from the brass as if it were hot metal.

"I was –" he started but Pa lifted him at the waist and carried him over to the settee. "No, Pa!" Little Joe yelled.

By that time Pa was sitting down and had Little Joe bottom side up across his knees. Joe threw his hands back to protect his tail. "Hop Sing said to make it shine!"

"Your bottom?"

"That tobacco thing!"

Then Pa laughed. "I know." His eyes were bright as new coins when he put Little Joe on his feet.

"Just for that you can shine your own dumb canister," Little Joe blustered.

Pa leaned back and stretched his right arm along the back of the settee. "It’s not on MY chore list."

"I ain’t ever touching it again."

"The chore list?" Pa asked.

Little Joe plopped down on the settee on Pa’s right side and leaned his head back. "You didn’t have ta scare me ta death."

Pa ran his tongue across his top lip and dropped his right hand to Little Joe’s right shoulder. "Why were you scared?"

Little Joe rolled his eyes. Pa had no more forgotten all the trouble about the tobacco and the corncob pipe than he had.

"Pa?"

"Um?

"I’m real sorry I scared you the other night."

Pa gave him a gentle smile.

"I – I won’t do it again."

Pa’s smile spread to a grin. "I would greatly appreciate that, Joseph." He rested his right arm on Little Joe’s shoulders. "You know you never should have used that tablecloth."

"I was real careful, Pa. I kept it away from the candle and –"

"Joseph," Pa interrupted, his hand tightening on Joe’s shoulder. "What do we use tablecloths for?"

Joe didn’t want Pa mad again. He cleared his throat. "Eating."

To his surprise, Pa chuckled. "I don’t think even Hoss has ever been hungry enough to eat a tablecloth, son. We use them on the dining table." He reached around with his left hand and mussed Little Joe’s hair. "Not for costumes. Understood?"

"Yes, Pa."

"What all this?" Hop Sing asked as he entered the back door. "Little Joe have chores. Father very bad influence."

Little Joe and Pa stretched their faces at each other and then Pa said, "You heard Hop Sing, son. Quit wasting time." He leaned back and closed his eyes. "Where’s Barbara?"

"She in room, drawing," Hop Sing answered.

Ben nodded and felt the drowsiness that warmth caused this time of year in late afternoon. He hoped Adam would get home soon. Hoss was finishing the last of his chores. He yawned. "I think I’ll just close my eyes a minute."

Ten minutes later Hoss and Little Joe looked down at a sight they had never seen: Pa was sitting on the settee sound asleep before bedtime.

"You sure he ain’t sick?" Hoss asked.

"Father relaxed," Hop Sing assured. "Has been working very hard to prepare for colder weather. Good for him to rest. We will wake him when time for dinner."

Hoss shrugged at his little brother. "Well, all the chores are done." He glanced out the window. "Wonder where Adam is."

"He’ll be home," Little Joe said. Maybe all that time in the saddle today had finally gotten to his butt and he had had to take a break and walk part of the way home.

 

 

+++

 

 

Glory what a day it had been! Adam could use a few more like this. Riding all by himself. No younger brothers to listen to. Sitting under one of the huge Ponderosas eating the lunch Hop Sing had packed for him when he felt like it and not when one of his brothers started nagging that he was hungry. Watching in open admiration as Smoke used the skills Pa and Angus had taught him to round up the cattle and keep them from going astray. Even a chance sighting of Sean and Aidan hadn’t spoiled his good mood. And all the while the weather was bracing, bringing his blood to the top and making him anxious to move, to do things.

He had missed this kind of weather in New Orleans. The city had been a pretty place with flowers brighter than Adam had ever seen and lush, green growth so thick you had to keep cutting it back or it would ruin walls and walkways. But the weather was almost always humid and warm. When it did cool off around the time of Mardi Gras it wasn’t the invigorating cold he had grown accustomed to in the plains but was damp and bone aching.

Here there were seasons during the year and different temperatures at the different elevations. For better and worse. It could rain until your hat mildewed, get so hot your body felt like it was frying, blow cold winds that sliced through every layer of clothing you wore, and throw hail at you that could kill if it hit hard and fast enough, and then there was the lightning that converted many a sinner. But there were also days like this – days when autumn was bidding its goodbye and winter was sneaking in the back door and just for a little while everything was suspended and the only sound was the quaking of the leaves.

Smoke’s bark jerked Adam from his reverie and he smiled at the dog. "Think our work’s done?" he asked and glanced at the sky. It was time to get back. "Lead the way." He laid Beauty’s reins against the left side of her neck and she turned slowly to follow Smoke. There was no need for hurry. They had plenty of daylight left and Smoke seemed to want to bask in the enjoyment of a good day’s work as much as Adam did.

One thing he was looking forward to at home was telling Pa the good news: they hadn’t lost a single cow and the lower pasture still looked good. Pa had ridden to Margaret’s yesterday to share some ideas with her about wintering the herd but Adam and he hadn’t had any time to discuss what Pa had found out.

At the thought of Pa, Adam shook his head slowly. He never would have figured Pa to make a joke out of a tanning; they never had been a light subject when Adam had been a kid. Pa had wrestled with him and put Adam over his knees and swatted him with his hand in play but that belt had always been serious business. As old as he was, and as sure as he’d thought he was that Pa would never embarrass him by tanning him, he’d suddenly felt more 12 than 21 in the barn yesterday. It had taken him that first lick and Pa mouthing at him "yell" to realize the fake tanning was to teach his littlest brother a lesson.

He didn’t know how much the lesson had stuck though, beyond any talking-to Pa might have given Little Joe in the barn, because it had occurred to him that as soon as he’d left the barn he’d forgotten to keep role-playing. He’d sat in his dining chair without any shifting around or hint of discomfort and he hadn’t been quiet the way all of them were after a run-in with Pa. And then in the bunkroom he’d slept on his back. Surely by then Little Joe had figured out that Pa hadn’t laid his belt across Adam’s butt thirty times. Then again he’d long ago quit trying to figure out how his little brother’s mind worked.

Adam grinned widely. Little Joe was going to give Pa a lot of gray hairs these next few years. He recognized the stubbornness in himself but there was one big difference: Adam had learned to quit stepping over the line; Little Joe was going to dance the jig all along that line and try to use his charm to get away with it. Yep, life was about to get really interesting for Pa and Little Joe.

As they crested the hill to the trail that ran from the McNally place to the Ponderosa, Smoke barked ferociously and Beauty shied. Adam kept his seat and squinted in the direction of Smoke’s barks. Sean ran straight at him.

"Adam! Come quick!"

Adam glanced around, wondering what the boy was doing out here by himself. His answer came soon enough.

"Ya gotta come!" he said when he stopped about 12 feet away. "Little Joe fell and hurt his leg. Aidan’s with him back at the shack. Ya know the one I mean?"

Adam knew. They’d all noticed the old shack when he’d first mapped the property. He didn’t waste time asking how Joe had hurt his leg or what he’d fallen from. There was time enough for that later. He whistled to Smoke and put Beauty into a run.

"Where is he?" Adam demanded as he flew from the saddle when he saw Aidan standing near the structure.

Aidan motioned to the old ramshackle building and Adam ran to it. "Joe?" he called. He stepped inside, fighting to see, and heard the door slam behind him and the distinct sound of a cross-board going into a brace. What the devil? "Joe? Are you in here?" he called out again. As Pa had taught him years ago, he looked at the darkest corner so his eyes would adjust quickly. Not that there was much light to adjust to, just a small amount filtering through the roof.

The giggling outside turned him toward the door. "Open the door now," he ordered and the voices went quiet. "Joke’s over," he warned, growing more impatient. "Little Joe." Giggling muffled behind hands. "Joe," Adam’s voice rose and so did the edge in it. Finally, hands on his hips and angry with himself for falling for such a ruse, he decided to get even. "Joseph Francis!"

"Joseph Francis," one of the voices howled.

"What a handle," the other one said after a belly laugh.

"Come on, we gotta get home for dinner."

"What do you mean you have to get home for dinner?!" Adam stormed and rammed his shoulder into the door. "Let me out of here!"

His only reply was the sound of boots running away and boys laughing. They ran toward the McNally place and that, along with the fact that Little Joe hadn’t come unraveled at the "Joseph Francis" call, meant Little Joe wasn’t with them. When he got his hands on Sean and Aidan – where were their brains anyhow? Did they believe he wouldn’t know they had done it? Talk about not thinking. And God help Little Joe if he had any part in this prank.

Before he could get his hands on them, though, he had to get out of this place. There was no window to break out and nothing to climb on to lift the roof away. Despite the look that it might fall down in a strong wind, the place was solid and none of the boards Adam pushed against seemed inclined to give way. Well, if he couldn’t go up or out he guessed he would have to go down. He dropped on his knees and began digging in the dirt floor by the west wall. Whimpering started on the opposite side and Adam took heart. "All right, come on Smoke, dig away."

Even with the two of them going after the dirt it took longer than Adam had expected it might. Darkness closed in and as it did a growing concern about where Beauty was gripped Adam. He had tried to train her to be ground tied but they weren’t as far a long with that as he would like to be. If something spooked her she would take off for home and if she didn’t get tangled up somewhere along the way, her arrival would alarm everyone because they would know he was on foot at night.

Darn those McNallys anyhow for ruining what had been such a perfect day.

Smoke’s claws met his gloves but he could tell from patting the hole that it was not deep enough for him to crawl out so he returned to his knees, his anger with the McNally boys growing as he worked. No matter what Pa said about this Adam was going to get a pound of flesh out of those kids. They’d talked in private about Angus’ two boys before and Pa had said it was Angus’ place to punish them. Pa had always believed in a man punishing his own children and as Hoss, Little Joe and Adam had grown up that had been both a curse and a blessing: a curse because they had known Pa’s rules and that there were no exceptions to the consequences when they broke them but a blessing because they had never suffered bleeding welts from a buggy whip or had the palms of their hands beaten until they swelled. Adam respected Pa’s opinion – he just didn’t happen to agree with him this time. Angus McNally’s two sons were going to get a sound punishment from Adam Cartwright.

As he saw them in the light filtering in through the hole, Adam realized his gloves weren’t worth saving. He tossed them aside in disgust and then carefully crawled his way out of the shed - out here there was still that light lavender light of the moon and over in the distance, not far from the road, he saw Beauty grazing as if she hadn’t a care in the world. He had taken a step her way when he heard voices coming from the direction of the McNally home and he quickly flattened against the side of the shed and told Smoke to sit and be quiet.

The boys laughed as they approached the shack. After they called to Adam a few times, thinking he was inside, one of them began to sound a bit worried.

"Do you figure there’s something wrong with ‘im, Aidan?"

"Nah, ‘e’s just ‘orsing around with us. We brung ya some dinner, Adam. Ya want it?" Of course they hadn’t. As hungry as he was Adam would have smelled it.

Moments of silence passed.

"Aidan, I think somethin’s wrong."

The wood slat slid. "Then you go in and check on ‘im," Aidan said and the door slammed closed again and the wood slat fell into place.

All the while, Adam had been quietly sneaking around the side of the building and as soon as Aidan tossed his brother inside and locked him in, Adam grabbed him with as strong a grip as he could manage after all the digging.

"Hello, Aidan," Adam said through his teeth and he had the delight of watching the boy’s eyes grow huge in fear. "This is long overdue." And with that he bent the youngster over his left leg and delivered swats that resounded in the night air.

"Aidan?" Sean called once, at the very beginning, and Adam assured Sean his chance was coming.

By the time Adam had finished with Aidan he was darn sure he had thinned the kid’s britches. He pointed to the wall with his left index finger. "You WILL face that wall and you WILL NOT move." Adam called to Smoke and said, "Guard" and the dog growled as he sat behind the sobbing Aidan.

Sean was deep into self-pity when Adam hauled him out of the shack but Adam’s resolve was deeper. This time, too, the swats cracked in the night air like kindling being snapped. Unlike Aidan, Sean kept trying to avoid Adam’s palm and interfering but that stopped when Adam told him to get still or he would spank Sean’s bare butt.

When he had them both turned to face him, Adam frowned. "Now you can explain this to your father."

Sean launched into new wails but Aidan just moaned and looked down.

Adam motioned and took Beauty’s reins. "Start walking."

 

+++

 

"Ben?"

He was warm and half-asleep and rolled his cheek slowly to the small hand to his left. This was the way to wake up, with your wife at you side and –

"Ben?"

He moaned and refused to open his eyes. What he wanted to do was take her in his arms and –

"Ben, it’s dinner time."

That wasn’t Marie’s voice! Ben’s blue eyes flew open as he startled awake and Barbara jumped back at his violent reaction.

"Told ya he comes awake quick," Little Joe said from behind her.

Ben rubbed at his eyes and then his face and took in the scene around him. Barb watched him warily as she stood in front of him with the fireplace behind her.

Little Joe grinned knowingly. "Sure hope your chores are finished," he said, "’cause it’s dark out there now."

Hoss laughed from where he sat in one of the fireside chairs and then muttered when Hop Sing called to him to come set the table.

Ben straightened on the settee and leaned forward, forearms on his thighs. "Where’s Adam?"

Little Joe shifted. "He ain’t back yet, Pa." Then he said with bright assurance, "But I bet he’ll be back any minute. You know how Adam is."

Blinking, Ben finally understood his youngest felt a need to protect a brother he thought had been so recently subject to their father’s belt.

"Should we go look for him?" Barbara inquired, crossing her arms.

Ben was not about to let Barbara ride at night no matter how much fight she put up. "No, we’ll give him a little longer."

"Adam’s real good at taking care of himself," Little Joe said. "And ‘sides he has Smoke with ‘im and if something was wrong Smoke’d come get us ‘cause he’s the best dog ever."

Barbara patted Little Joe on the shoulder. "Yes, he is. Except when I want to sketch him. Then he won’t hold still."

"Well, he’s a busy dog, ma’am. He ain’t got time to be sittin’ still for paintin’s and stuff," Little Joe answered as they walked to the table.

Ben made his way to the table and although he agreed with Hoss that the meal was delicious as always, he grew increasingly uneasy about Adam.

"Pa?" Hoss said as if he’d been reading Ben’s mind, "You figure Adam’s all right?"

"He probably just took longer pushing those cattle than he intended to," Ben responded.

But neither one of them believed it because before Hoss had even started on seconds he changed the subject from the sheep dogs Barbara had seen in England back to Adam’s tardiness. "You don’t figure – I mean – well you don’t think he would’ve stopped by to see Molly, do ya?"

"Nah," Little Joe said with a wave of his left hand. "Molly’s been meeting some fella secret-like and it ain’t Adam that’s for sure."

Ben didn’t like the sound of that and wondered how Little Joe knew – and whether Angus did.

Hoss tilted his head and paused in eating. "How do you know that?" he demanded.

Little Joe shrugged and grabbed another roll. "’Cause Sean and Aidan’ve seen the fella and it ain’t Adam."

"I know Adam wouldn’t do nothin’ like that," Hoss said impatiently as if Little Joe’s statement was as obvious as the sun rising in the east. "What I mean is how do those McNally boys know Molly’s been seeing some fella?"

"They’ve seen ‘em meeting at the –" Little Joe paused with the roll halfway to his mouth and then slowly lowered his hand as he stared past his brother’s shoulder. "Uh oh."

Hoss turned, expecting something behind him, but Ben knew what Little Joe’s unfocused look meant. He leaned his elbows on the table, holding his napkin in his hands. "Something you want to share with the rest of us, Joseph?"

The chestnut hair shook no and Barbara gave Little Joe as perplexed a look as Ben had ever seen. She needed to stay around a while, Ben decided. His three sons could give her amazing insight into the way different people thought.

"Why don’t you tell us anyhow," Ben coaxed.

Joe’s eyes roved his way. They held a swirl of disbelief and dread. "You’re not gonna like it."

Well at least he hadn’t said it was a long story. There was hope.

"Does it concern Adam?" Ben asked evenly.

Joe nodded.

"I think you’d better tell us," Ben braced himself for what he knew would be a convoluted tale. But every so often Joseph surprised him and this was one of those times.

"I think they kidnapped him," Little Joe answered simply.

Hop Sing sat back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap. Barbara put down her fork.

"Who?" Hoss demanded so angrily that the boy flinched.

Since he was at Ben’s right hand, Little Joe scooted around in his chair and rested his small right hand on the table. "I didn’t like the way Adam said he’d bust me and I told Aidan and Sean about it?" He waited for Ben to nod. "And they said we could kidnap Adam ‘cause they’d been planning on doin’ it to Molly anyhow and we could try it out on Adam only I thought it through like you always tell me to and – well - I figured out the con-se-quences and I didn’t much like what I figured out and so I told ‘em no."

Sitting beside Hoss, Barbara could not take her eyes off Little Joe as his sentences ran together. Hoss started to speak but Ben held up his hand.

"And where were they planning to take Adam when they kidnapped him?" Ben asked.

Little Joe leaned toward him, eager to cooperate. "That shack on the road ‘tween here and the McNallys’."

Ben eased back in his chair. "Hop Sing, I apologize but I think I should go find Adam. Could you keep some of this meal warm for us, please?"

"Adam will be very much in need," Hop Sing agreed.

"I’ll go too, Pa." Hoss started to stand.

"No, you stay here."

His youngest son looked up at him. "You don’t think they’d do something dumb like hit him over the head, do ya Pa?"

Ben picked up his coat and grabbed his hat. "I have no idea what those two are capable of, Joseph."

"They better not’ve hurt Adam." Did Ben detect the faintest tremble in Little Joe’s voice? "I told ‘em to leave ‘im alone."

The night air was cold and the fogging of his horse’s breath created an eerie haze as Ben followed the moonlit trail. He hoped Little Joe was right and Angus’ boys were involved in this. God willing Adam wasn’t lying hurt out in the cold somewhere. He was a careful young man but things happened. And they could happen so quickly.

If Sean and Aidan were involved, and especially if Adam had been hurt, Ben would have to talk to Angus about their behavior. It was not a conversation he looked forward to – no man liked being told his sons, who were his responsibility, were causing trouble. Ben had ingrained in Adam, Hoss and Little Joe that life would be easier for them if he heard about misbehavior from them rather than from someone else. The training had led to often comic results like the time at dinner when Marie had said, "Benjamin, I must discuss something with you" – meaning a household purchase - and her words had triggered a flood of confessions of minor transgressions from the boys. She had made some ridiculous excuse and had exited the room to muffle her laughter while Ben had been left trying to keep a straight face as he listened to his young sinners.

He hunched his shoulders against the increasing cold and was ready to turn off the trail for the shack when Smoke came running toward him barking happily. A moment later, to Ben’s immense relief, Adam rode over the rise from the McNallys’.

"Sorry Pa," he said out of habit and shifted uncomfortably.

"I’m glad you’re all right." Ben gave him a cursory looking-over. "You are all right?"

Adam nodded as he pulled his horse alongside Ben’s. All the fogging breath and heat from the horses’ bodies gave the illusion they were floating on a cloud. "Pa, I need to tell you something you aren’t going to be happy about."

"We’ll talk about it after you’re warmed up," Ben responded.

 

 

Little Joe raced from the fireside when he heard boot-falls on the front porch. He skidded to a stop as first Adam and then Pa entered the house, followed by Smoke. Adam looked about as cold as Little Joe had ever seen him: his shoulders were hunched and he walked straight to the fireplace to warm his hands. His hands? Why wasn’t he wearing his gloves?

Hoss nodded after looking up from some drawings Barbara had done. "Hey, Adam, glad you’re okay."

Barbara handed him a cup of coffee for which he said a soft "thank you."

"Boy we were worried about ya!" Little Joe blurted in relief. "Thought maybe a mountain lion or something got ya!"

Pa turned from taking off his coat. "You thought what?" he demanded in that deep voice that meant trouble and pulled Little Joe up short. What was wrong with Pa?

They all followed Pa and Adam to the table. Barbara sipped coffee; Hoss just sat with his elbows on the table waiting to hear what had happened; Hop Sing was busy brewing hot tea. Little Joe decided to sit on the other side of Adam – away from Pa. He could almost swear he felt cold air coming off his oldest brother as Adam started eating.

Little Joe spared Pa a brief look. Why was Pa angry with him? Because he’d said that about being worried that maybe a mountain lion got Adam? Well he had been. What was Pa’s problem anyhow? He didn’t know everything. He didn’t know that after he’d ridden off Little Joe had started thinking about Adam and worrying that all kinds of things could have happened. One of those longhorns could have hurt Adam’s leg. Beauty could have fallen. Heck, Beauty could have broken a leg and Adam could be pinned under her. Outlaws could have set on him. Or that mountain lion everybody kept talking about could have jumped him or Beauty or both. Sometimes Pa could be so downright unreasonable he wasn’t even worth talking to.

Deep in his own thoughts, Little Joe didn’t pay attention to much of anything going on in the room – the way Hoss got up to feed Smoke or how Hop Sing served a cobbler he’d made from dried peaches – until he looked down and found the dessert in front of him. Everybody else had finished theirs and was having coffee.

"Now, we’ll talk," Pa said.

Little Joe glanced around uncertainly. Talk about what?

"You first," Pa said to Adam and Little Joe listened spell-bound as his older brother told how the McNally boys had gotten him to the shack and then Adam and Smoke had dug a hole so Adam could escape. Gee but Adam was smart! And Smoke had come to the rescue!

"That’s when they came back." Adam looked at the floor. "It was dark by then. I locked Sean in the shed and wore out Aidan’s tail and then I took hide off Sean."

Little Joe’s mouth dropped open. Adam did what?

"Hot dang!" Hoss was delighted by the news but quickly went quiet when Pa gave him "the look".

"You spanked Angus’ sons," Pa repeated.

"Yes," Adam answered.

"Then what?"

"I walked them home and told Angus what they’d done." A pause. "And what I’d done."

"And?"

Adam shrugged. "I got on Beauty and started home."

"What did Angus say to you?"

"He – uh – thanked me for bringing them home."

"Thanked you for bringing them home."

"Yes." Adam turned his coffee cup around on the table. "He was pulling off his belt so I didn’t stay around."

Joe looked from the sides of his eyes and Hoss snickered at him. They would have been lying if they’d said they were sorry to hear Adam’s news.

Pa leaned back, hooking his right arm over his chair back. "Now, Joseph, why don’t you tell Adam your story?"

Adam turned on him with all the focus of a hawk and Little Joe gulped. "You had something to do with this?" Adam demanded.

Little Joe looked to Pa for help. Adam’s left hand gripped his right arm. "Talk to me, Joe."

Little Joe didn’t want to talk to Adam. His eyes were crackling like the blue light on fire logs.

"I – I didn’t do anything."

"I don’t believe you."

"But I didn’t," Joe begged.

"Tell me the story Pa’s talking about."

Shrinking from his oldest brother Little Joe wondered why he could barely talk. He tried speaking louder but he couldn’t and as he explained Adam leaned closer and closer. Once again Little Joe told how he’d complained to Aidan and Sean about Adam tying him in the bed and threatening to bust him and how all he wanted to do was get back and then they told him about their idea to kidnap Molly and they could do that to Adam but Joe thought about it like Pa was always telling him to and he said no, it wasn’t a good idea and Sean called him a coward and he said to take it back and they got in a fight and Mr. McNally had to break it up and – oops. He hadn’t told Pa about the fight. He stopped there.

"Were you anywhere around when they locked me in that place?" Adam sounded like Pa. He looked like him, too, and Little Joe tried not to think about the fact that his oldest brother had spanked Aidan and Sean.

"I told ya, Adam. I told ‘em we weren’t gonna do it."

Adam pointed his index finger into Joe’s chest. "If I find out you’re lying –"

"I was here!" Instead of being angry, Little Joe found himself fighting tears of frustration. "I wouldn’t do nothin’ to hurt ya, Adam."

"Anything," his brother corrected automatically.

"I wish you’d quit doin’ that," Little Joe shot back.

"What?"

"Tellin’ me what to say. I know what to say."

"Then say it."

"You know what your problem is?" Little Joe said suddenly. "You’re bossy."

Adam leveled a look on him and then decided it wasn’t worth the argument.

"He’s your older brother, Joe," Pa said slowly. "One of his responsibilities is to watch out for you."

"Yeah," Little Joe muttered, "well it was one thing when I was learning how to walk and could’ve fallen and killed myself. He doesn’t have to go holding my hand now."

Ben smiled slowly as memories of his own brother surfaced. "Older brothers don’t change just because you grow up."

"And I got two of ‘em," Little Joe stated flatly.

"And don’t you forget it," Hoss added.

"Like I could," Little Joe said sourly, unaware of the smile that passed between Pa and Hop Sing.

 

 

Little Joe looked up as the bunkroom door opened and wished he were already asleep when Adam sat down on the chair. "I want to talk to you."

Panic gripped the boy and he scooted down in his covers.

"Not Pa’s kind of talk. Sit up, would you?"

Little Joe did as Adam asked and then watched when Adam leaned forward and clasped his hands. "We need to get something straight here, Little Joe. You may not have been there when Aidan and Sean locked me in but you’re responsible."

Not liking where the conversation was headed, Little Joe shook his head. "I told ‘em we weren’t doing it and I didn’t have any part in it."

"The minute you told them you wanted to get even you became responsible. You’re too smart for this, Joe. There are some friends you can talk to about certain things because they’ve had the same upbringing and they have the same values and loyalties. But there are some friends who disappoint you or make you angry or don’t see things the same way – and sometimes if you aren’t very careful you’ll get into a lot of trouble because of them. Your actions, your complaining to Aidan and Sean, and your listening to their plans; that all led to what happened to me."

Little Joe trembled and pulled his blanket closer. "But I didn’t want it to happen, Adam. I don’t want nothin’ to happen to you. Not outlaws or mountain lions or Beauty fallin’ on you or nothing." It had been a long time since he’d let Adam see him cry and he wasn’t going to start now. "I didn’t want them to kidnap you."

"That didn’t help much, did it?"

Little Joe lowered his chin and shook his head.

"Do you understand what I’m telling you?" Adam’s voice gentled, causing Joe’s throat to feel hot.

He nodded and then found the courage to look at Adam again. It had never been this hard to ask his brother a question. "Ya want me to bend over your knees so you can spank me like ya did Aidan and Sean?"

Adam’s chest tightened. Joe felt so guilty that if Adam said ‘yes’ Joe would submit to a punishment he would have fought with his whole being a few days ago. Adam straightened in the chair. "I seem to remember you telling me that Pa’s the only one who gets to bust your tail."

Still the guilt was there. "You want him to tan me?"

That was something Adam wouldn’t wish on Joe on his worst day. He shook his head. "I don’t think we need that, do you?"

Feeling a bit bolder, Little Joe climbed down from his bunk. "Adam?"

"Um hum?" Adam tugged off his right boot.

Little Joe approached to stand at Adam’s knees. He waited until his brother had removed his left boot and then leaned his hands on Adam’s thighs. "Can I ask ya somethin’?"

"You just did."

Sometimes Adam could be real understanding like he’d been a minute ago and then sometimes he was a real pain like now. Little Joe made a face at him and then returned to his original thought. "Well – I heard the tannin’ Pa gave ya. I – well – I didn’t figure you’d had a tanning in a long time. And – well – do you think Pa’ll still tan me when I’m as old as you?"

Adam prayed for a straight face. If he failed he would be undoing Pa’s lesson. "Possibly, yes."

"But you didn’t have any trouble sittin’ and you were ridin’ Beauty and – well – I figure you’re too old for Pa to make ya take down your britches so you got Pa’s belt over ‘em?"

Adam bit at the inside of his cheek.

Little Joe’s eyes widened and he quickly asked, "What’d you put down your britches?"

Adam leaned his head forward.

"What’d you put down your britches?" Little Joe repeated.

"I didn’t put anything down them." Which was the truth.

"But – but you had to."

Adam shook his head slowly and Little Joe leaned back in astounded admiration.

"Does your butt get tougher when ya get to be your age?"

Adam decided it wouldn’t hurt to tease his brother a little and maybe help Pa as well. "Depends on how many tannings Pa gives you."

"Huh?"

"Pa gives such a hard tanning it kills ya at the time but when it heals it kind of makes calluses on your tail," Adam said easily.

He really had Joe going – the kid’s mouth was half open and his fingers were digging into Adam’s leg. Adam took him by the waist and moved him aside so he could lie down on his bed. He picked up a book and, over the top, smiled at Joe who was still standing in the same place – shocked by what Adam had confided in him.

Pa couldn’t have picked a better moment to come into the room. He noticed Little Joe’s expression immediately and then looked at Adam suspiciously. Little Joe stepped away from Pa and banged the back of his legs on the lower bunk.

"Hey fellas!" Hoss burst into the bunkroom, full of excitement, and then stopped and gulped when he saw Pa sitting on the chair pulling off his boots.

To give him their undivided attention, Adam put aside his book and Little Joe turned to face him.

"Uh," Hoss shifted around uncomfortably a minute and then jerked his head toward the living room. "Come on out here. I got somethin’ to tell ya."

"Now Hoss," Pa said, his voice full of humor. "You know we Cartwrights don’t have secrets." He motioned with his left hand. "What’s that behind your back, son?"

"Uh –" he licked his lips and frowned then smiled. "Aw, it’s nothin’ Pa."

Little Joe leaned slightly, hoping he could see something. Hoss sure was acting strange.

"I thought you learned a long time ago not to hide things behind your back, " Pa cajoled.

"Well, I didn’t exactly mean it’s nothin’. I just meant it’s nothin’ you’d be interested in."

"How do you know that until you show me?" Pa leaned his arms on his thighs. He was having a lot of fun at Hoss’ expense.

"Oh, I’ve gotten to know you pretty good, Pa and –"

Pa held out his left hand and tilted his head back. All three of them knew better than to argue with that mannerism.

Hoss made a face. He would obey but he didn’t have to like it. He slowly brought his right hand from behind his back and passed a short piece of rope to Pa.

"That looks like –" Joe started. But Adam was off his bunk and past Joe before the second word. He took the section from Pa’s hand without even asking and his lips twisted to the left as he fingered the chewed end.

"Where’d you find this?" Adam asked with such determination that Hoss raised his brows.

"Barbara and me were making room under Pa’s bed for some of her paintin’s and stuff and I found that one and three more. ‘Cept the other three ain’t chewed. Just that one."

Adam’s attention shifted to Pa. "That’s how you did it, isn’t it?" He waved the chewed end in the air. "You got Smoke to chew off this one and you did the rest."

Pa leaned back and crossed his arms, smiling at Adam.

Then Adam said something that Little Joe thought would get him in trouble for sure. He leaned closer to Pa than Little Joe ever would have, held the rope almost under Pa’s nose and said, "You lied."

Pa laughed easily. "No, I didn’t."

"You said you didn’t wake up tied in your bed."

"I didn’t. I was tied TO it."

Adam turned around in disgust. "Semantics."

Little Joe didn’t know who these semantic folks were or what they had to do with anything but he was slowly beginning to understand the rest of it. "Ya mean," he said, "Smoke let you loose?"

"No, I woke up because Smoke was chewing on the rope on my left hand. He was making a game out of it – like tug-of-war. After he helped me get free I handled the rest."

Little Joe’s stomach turned as he looked up at Adam. "Ya really didn’t tie me in bed?"

"I told you I didn’t." Adam threw the rope to the floor and fell on his back on his bunk. "Dumb dog. One minute he’s rescuing you and the next he’s working with the enemy."

Pa laughed again and helped Little Joe into the top bunk where he tucked him in. He waited for Hoss to get settled and then sat down on his own bunk, across from Adam.

"Can we agree it ends here, Pa?" Adam begged. "Call a truce?"

"Sure," Pa answered. He blew out the candle and said, "You boys sleep well."

They all knew what that meant.

"All right," Hoss sighed wearily. "Who’s taking first watch?"

 

+the end+