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Tug of War

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 purely for entertainment and is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone else involved in these marvelous shows.

Rating: G

This story is a continuation of "Cutting to the Chase"

 

 

Pa eyed Hoss and me over his coffee mug as he sat on the front porch bench while the crickets chirped in the still, night air. "So what were you digging with those shovels?"

"Uh." He was in a good mood so we could probably get him to cooperate if I took it one step at a time. "It's a long story."

He replied as I knew he would - as he always does. He tilted his head back, his lips went straight, and he looked at us from the bottoms of his eyes. "I’m listening."

"Well - see, Pa." Hoss shot a look at me and I shrugged my shoulders. If he wanted to propose our idea to Pa he was welcome to have the first try. "See, we found this place that was kinda boggy from the snowmelt."

"Boggy."

"Yes, Pa. It was slippery as all get-out."

"And where was this slippery as all get-out bog?"

I detected gentle humor in Pa’s voice. I also saw it in his eyes.

"Well - we found it when we were riding out to check the herd yesterday."

Pa squinted. "Which way did you go?"

"We took a detour," I offered.

"A detour."

Hoss nodded. "We thought we saw something in the trees."

"Up in the trees?"

I shook my head. "Not up in the trees, Pa. Down on the ground. We thought we saw something moving. Thought it might be a deer."

Pa’s eyes went from Hoss to me to Hoss. So far he was still in a good mood but we probably needed to get to the point quickly. "So it wasn’t a deer?"

"No, sir," Hoss answered. "It wasn’t nothing."

"It wasn’t anything," I corrected. Before Hoss could interrupt, I continued. "We rode up toward the trees because we thought we saw something."

Pa nodded that he understood that part of the story.

"And when we were riding back down from the trees we saw the bog."

"All - right." Pa stretched the words. He sipped from his coffee mug. "And?"

"Well - see, Pa - well." Hoss took a deep breath. "We figured it would make a right fine place for a rope pull."

"A tug-of-war," I explained.

Pa went still. "A tug-of-war."

We smiled, proud of ourselves for recognizing a nature-made opportunity for some good, old-fashioned, springtime fun.

Hoss sat down beside Pa, his face full of excitement. "See - what we figured was we’d have a rope pull between Mr. McNally and you."

"We?" Pa placed his coffee mug on the porch. "I don’t understand how that ‘we’ is involved in a tug-of-war between Angus and me."

"We dug the mud-pit, Pa. Now all Mr. McNally and you’ve gotta do is see who’s the strongest." Hoss smiled at how logical our idea was.

Pa stood slowly and sighed. "Why would Angus and I want to prove who’s strongest?"

My turn. "We thought it would be a matter of pride."

Those blue eyes studied me to the inch. "Pride."

"You could have bragging rights until next spring when we’d have another tug-of-war," I explained.

"We," he repeated. " ‘We’ keeps popping up without doing anything."

Hoss frowned. "I told you, Pa. We dug the mud."

"And that is supposed to make me want to have a tug-of-war with Angus?"

He clearly did not see the connection. But I had a plan. I took a step toward the front door. "I understand you not wanting to do it. Angus probably outweighs you by fifty pounds. Maybe Hoss should challenge him."

Sometimes Pa’s as predictable as the alphabet. He rose to the bait. "I don’t need Hoss challenging Angus in my place."

"All right!" Hoss clapped his hands.

"I’ll ride over to the McNally place tomorrow and tell him you’ve called him out for a tug-of-war," I said before Pa could back down.

He put his hands on either side of his waist and his brow creased. We didn’t give him time to figure out how we’d worked him - we headed straight for the bunkroom.

 

"So you’re a fine fisherman, are you?" Molly’s dimpled chin jutted and her green eyes sparkled.

"Better than you," I said.

Molly threw the newspaper we’d been reading to the porch and stood from her chair. "And just how do you know that?" she challenged.

"Pa says I’m the best fisherman he’s ever seen." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mrs. McNally smile as she walked past us to hang the wash.

"Well your pa doesn’t know everything." Molly marched from the porch.

I ran to catch up with her and then walked sideways beside her to see her determined face. "Where are you going?"

Molly took quick strides, her arms swinging widely at her sides. "I’m getting the fishin’ poles, Adam Cartwright. And then I’m kickin’ yer tail in a fishin’ contest."

That would be the day when any girl beat me. I rolled up my sleeves as I walked beside her toward the storage shed. "I’ll dig the worms."

"No need for that. My brothers and I keep a supply." She opened the shed door and stepped inside. As I stood behind her she handed me two fishing poles and then a small bucket that smelled to high heaven. She rummaged around a bit more and produced a fishing basket. "Ready?" she asked as she faced me.

I struggled to balance the armload she had given me and trudged behind her toward the pond down the hill behind the McNally house. "You could help," I said pointedly. "I’m not your pack mule, Molly McNally."

She turned on her heel and grinned at the absurd picture I presented. "All right, I’ll take a pole and the basket. You can have the other pole and the worms. Help ya feel better, will it?"

Molly’s eyes rounded when I landed a lick across her hips with my fishing pole. She let out a yell like a wildcat and I belatedly wondered if I should have done that.

"Ah, lad, your own doesn’t have as many layers protecting it as mine, I’ll warrant." She laughed and squinted her eyes, waving the pole threateningly. She made a feint, I quickly stepped away, and the "fishing trip" deteriorated into a mock sword fight with Molly shouting "en garde" and "touché." I guess it’s natural for fishing trips to turn into sword fights - they usually do when I fish with Hoss or Joe; they always do when I go fishing with Pa.

No telling how long we would have waged battle if I hadn’t made the mistake of turning left when I should have gone to the right and I felt the breath-taking sting of the fishing pole across my hips.

I shouted and took a mis-step onto the muddy bank. The next thing I knew I careened into Molly and we rolled into the not-particularly-warm water.

I bolted to my feet, allowed myself a gasp, and reached down to Molly.

She yelled at me in all her red-haired fury and slapped at my hand.

"Fine, get out on your own."

"Don’t you dare leave me here!"

She was right. If I walked away and left her in the water and Pa heard about it – once again I reached out my hand. She jerked hard, pulled me off balance, and I landed behind her in the pond.

"Don’t look," she ordered as she started toward the bank.

What did she mean "don’t look?" I wiped my hair from my eyes and understood what she meant. The back of her blouse was sheer.

"Wait a minute," I ordered.

"Never," she shot back over her shoulder, then stopped and her green eyes slid over me as I unbuttoned my shirt. "And just what do ya think ya’re doin’ now, Adam Cartwright?"

"Here, take it and cover up." I was amazed at how large my shirt was on her slender body. She lapped it over in front and turned to face me as I slogged my way out of the water.

"We must be getting inside or we’ll be ill," Molly said.

"What about the fishing contest?" I taunted.

Her eyebrows arched. "Next time."

Molly’s mother wasn’t the least bit surprised when we returned to the house wet. Considering Aidan and Sean’s propensity toward mischief - and trouble - I don’t think anything astounded her anymore. She only smiled again. "Now that was a short excursion. Molly, go change," she instructed. "Adam, I’m afraid I have nothing dry to offer you but a blanket. Come inside and sit by the fire and I’ll pour you some coffee. A spot of whisky with it?"

"No, thank you, ma’am." I hung the shirt Molly had returned to me on the back of a chair. I dripped by the fireplace and knew the misery of being cold on the side away from the fire and too hot on the side facing it. After a while, I was subjected to the unpleasant smell of wet wool trying to dry.

Mrs. McNally handed me a warm cup of coffee and a woven, brightly colored blanket. "I suppose you could go in our room and dry your body but you’d only be putting on your wet clothes again."

"I’m fine, ma’am, really."

She meant well but her attention made me uncomfortable. As soon as I finished the coffee, and Molly returned to the living area in dry clothes, I said my goodbyes and Molly walked me to the front porch. Before swinging into the saddle, I put on the only dry thing I had with me – my hat.

"Ah, lad!" Angus waved from the front of the barn. "Remember ta tell Benjamin I accept tha gauntlet he’s thrown at m’feet."

I sketched him a salute and swung into the saddle. It would be good to get home and dry off - the getting there in wet trousers would be anything but pleasant.

My ride home was also unpleasant because a nagging worry I thought I had put to rest resurfaced. From the time I’d seen her at the Harvest Dance, in the arms of James Wallace, Molly’d been moody and withdrawn. Occasionally, like during our "fishing expedition," her good humor returned. But more often than not she was pre-occupied - and I was afraid I knew why. After Aidan and Sean had locked me in the old shack near the road from our place to the McNallys, Hoss had told me something that had added to my concern for Molly. According to Aidan and Sean, their sister had been meeting a "fella" at the ramshackle building. I could think of only one reason for that kind of clandestine rendezvous. And I wondered what kind of man could be so thoughtless about Molly’s welfare - and how Molly could think so little of herself.

Pa’s laughter filled the front meadow when I rode up to the house. "So Angus didn’t take kindly to the challenge?"

I eased out of the saddle. "It wasn’t Angus. It was Molly." I grabbed Beauty’s reins and led her past Pa.

"Why did Molly get upset about the challenge?" Pa followed me into the barn, wiping his hands on an already dirty rag.

"She didn’t. She got upset when I - " Now how did I phrase this?

"Yes?" Pa leaned against one of the stalls.

I loosened Beauty’s saddle. "I - uh - smacked her across the hips." I looked up and added quickly, "With a fishing pole."

Pa waved the rag in the air. "That makes all the difference, "he observed dryly. "Is that when she threw you in the horse trough?"

I heaved the saddle. "No. She hit me back - with her fishing pole." Before he could offer another wry remark I said, "And that’s when I lost my balance and we landed in the lake."

"It’s a bit cool for swimming."

I rolled my eyes at him.

Pa pushed from the stall and placed his hand over mine as I reached for Beauty’s bridle. "I’ll take care of her. You get dry."

I thanked him and didn’t waste any time getting to the bunkroom.

"Hey, Adam." Joe burst into the room the moment after I pulled on dry trousers. "What’d Mr. McNally say?"

"They’re coming over Saturday after morning chores. Mrs. McNally’s bringing lunch for everyone."

He sat on his bunk and kicked his feet. "Wanna bet?"

I tucked in my shirttail and frowned at him. "If Mrs. McNally said she’ll bring lunch then she’ll bring lunch."

My brother’s lips pulled to one side. "I ain’t talking about lunch. I’m talking about the rope pull."

I fought the impulse to correct his grammar. "The rope pull?"

"Yeah." His eyes widened with excitement. "I’ll bet ya on the winner."

My fingers froze on my trouser buttons. "You know how Pa feels about betting, Joe."

He tossed his head. "Not betting. Betting."

All right. He was talking about the kind of betting Hoss and I used to do. I would bet Hoss that he couldn’t do something. If he won then he bet I couldn’t do something. Pa never did grasp our concept.

"On whom are you betting?" I asked.

Joe made a face at what he considered my "big-headed" talk. "Pa."

I shook my head and finished buttoning up. "No bet."

Joe had a raging gambling fever - and no family loyalty whatsoever. "Mr. McNally, then." He disregarded my surprised look. "If I win you have to eat carrots the next time Hop Sing cooks ‘em and if you win I’ll eat something green the next time we have it."

Although it was not like Hoss’ and my childhood bets the chance to see Joe eat a green vegetable overrode my good sense. "It’s a bet."

He slapped his mattress with his right hand. "I’m gonna tell Hop Sing to make a whole mess a carrots."

I leaned toward him. "And I’m going to ask him to cook turnip greens."

"Aw, Adam, that ain’t fair."

"Isn’t fair."

He stood and put his small hands on either side of his waist. "So what’re ya gonna do?"

I sat to pull on an old pair of dry boots. "What do you mean what am I going to do?"

"Instead of turnip greens."

Instead of turnip greens?

"Ya said turnip greens isn’t fair," he reminded.

Why I am blessed with two brothers who misunderstand about every tenth sentence out of my mouth I’ll never know. "Spring spinach, then."

"Adam! Spinach makes my ears itch."

I stood and flicked my index finger against his hair. "It’s better than crawfish making your eyes hurt."

He sighed deeply and threw his arms in the air - then walked beside me to the living room.

 

"Haven’t you learned by now that grown-ups know everything?" Barbara smiled at Joe at the breakfast table on Saturday morning when he asked how she knew Pa and Angus planned to have a tug-of-war. Ma and Pa had fed me the same nonsense and when I had been his age I had believed it as strongly as Joe seemed to.

My youngest brother’s face filled with distress and he shot a concerned look Pa’s way. I wondered if Joe’d been up to something – and then I remembered who he was.

"So - " Barbara taunted Pa. "Who do you think will win?"

Pa didn’t even look up from his flapjacks. "It’ll be a draw."

What did Pa mean "a draw?" Somebody had to win.

"A draw!" Joe exclaimed. "One of ya’s gotta win!"

Barbara was intrigued. "You’re betting?"

Ut oh. She’d known how Pa felt about his sons betting since I’d met her in New Orleans.

"No, ma’am," Joe said. "Pa don’t allow betting. Well, leastways not that kinda betting."

Barbara stirred her tea with the handle of her knife. "There’s more than one way to bet?"

She unwittingly set up one of the few things that was guaranteed to give Pa a massive headache.

"Don’t ask," Pa pleaded.

"Sure," Hoss answered. "There’s betting and then there’s betting."

Her blue eyes reflected the light from the window and they looked as if they were glowing from within. "And, pray tell, what is the difference?"

My brothers’ foreheads wrinkled and they asked in unison, "Pray what?"

"The difference," I said, having no desire to hear a conversation go downhill before my second cup of tea, "is that one way of betting involves money. The other way - "

Pa waved his left hand. "I’m telling you, Barb, you aren’t going to understand this no matter how they explain it."

"The other way," I said again, "is when you bet someone they can’t do something and they bet they can. And if they do it they get to bet you that you can’t do something. But if they don’t do it you get to bet them again."

Barbara nodded and sliced into her flapjacks. "Oh, well that makes sense."

One point for the Cartwright sons.

Pa sat straight. "No, it doesn’t," he declared. He can be stubborn at times. Okay, he’s stubborn all the time.

She shrugged. "Of course it does. Only a doddering old codger wouldn’t be able to understand what Adam said." Barbara gave Pa that "gotcha" look of hers and he stabbed his fork into his flapjacks.

"I am not doddering," he grumbled.

Ooohh.

Barbara spread her left hand across her heart. "My dear cousin, I never said you were."

Did I detect dripping insincerity in her tone?

He frowned at Barbara and reached for his mug.

She gave him a winning smile. "But you are becoming a bit of a codger."

Ooohh.

Hop Sing chuckled and bowed his head.

Joe reached for his glass of milk. "What’s a cod-jur?"

"Never mind," Pa all but barked.

Hoss looked at me and snickered. If there was one thing Barbara knew how to do it was how to irritate Pa faster than a mosquito bite.

"You’re getting crotchety, too," Barb observed.

Pa ignored her.

Barbara is not one to be ignored. "And a bit deaf apparently."

I grabbed my napkin and covered my mouth, clearing my throat to keep from laughing.

"I don’t know if you should participate in this tug-of-war, Benjamin." Her tone was solicitous. "You’re not a young man anymore."

Pa didn’t reply.

His cousin nodded and said, as if to herself, "They say hearing is the first thing to go."

I coughed into my napkin and looked from the tops of my eyes at my brothers. They had their heads lowered. Hoss’ right hand was in front of his mouth. Joe’s shoulders were shaking. Hop Sing smiled and feigned interest in his breakfast.

"So what did you boys bet?" Barbara asked as an afterthought.

"Nothing," I said quickly. "We just bet on who would win."

Pa leaned back and rested his right elbow on the arm of his chair. "Who did you bet on?"

"That’s s’posed to be ‘On whom did you bet,’ " Joe corrected. When all faces swung to him in astonishment he shrugged. "That’s the way Adam said it."

We regained our bearings.

"I bet on you," I answered.

Pa turned his attention to Hoss. "And you?"

"I ain’t bettin’." Hoss poured more honey on his remaining flapjacks.

"You don’t think I can beat Angus?"

"I just ain’t bettin’s all."

"I’m bettin’ on Mr. McNally," Joe announced.

Pa leaned back even more and considered his turncoat son. "Angus!"

Joe waved his right hand in the air. "It wouldn’t be a bet if I bet on ya, too, Pa. That’s the way it goes. One of us wins and one of us loses."

"Neither one of you will win because it’ll to be a draw." Pa pulled his chair closer to the table.

Why did he keep insisting on a draw? Was he up to something?

Joe squinted at him. "Ya got it rigged?"

My mouth fell open. "Where’d you hear that?"

My little brother shrugged at me. "Around."

"Around where?" I pursued.

He rested his chin in his right hand and cut a piece from his flapjacks with the edge of his fork. "One of the guys prob’ly."

"I hope you weren’t gambling," Pa warned.

Joe laid down his fork and leaned across the table toward me. "I heard it from you."

My jaw threatened to unhinge. "Me?"

"That’s what you said about them poker games at the hotel."

"When did I - "

"You were talking to that new fella ya met at the tradin’ post and ya told him not ta gamble over at the hotel ‘cause the game was rigged but Shel - Miss Sterrett don’t allow no cheatin’ at her place. Not since Mr. Devereaux left."

I returned my napkin to my lap. "You were eavesdropping."

Joe’s response was just this side of panic. "Was not! You were talkin’ to ‘im right there on the sidewalk and I was leanin’ on the wall eating candy. Practic’ly everybody heard ya."

Pa leaned his elbows on the tabletop and clasped his hands. Those blue eyes were full of mischief. "And you know the game is rigged because - ?" he prompted me.

"Because I know Jack." And I don’t care for his business ethics one bit. Not that he has any ethics.

Barbara put down her fork and turned to face me. "Really, Adam, give the man the benefit of a doubt."

"I don’t give him the time of day, much less the benefit of a doubt." I looked her straight in the eye. If it came to a standoff I was determined to win.

"Adam." Pa shook his head.

Barbara folded her napkin and placed it on the tabletop. "I do not understand this familial dislike of Jack Wolf."

Hoss didn’t look up from his plate. "We’ve just known him longer. Adam and me worked for him until right after he built his - hotel."

Pa jerked his left hand in the air. "How can you like that man, Barb?"

"I don’t have to agree with everything a person does to be a friend. If anyone ought to understand that it’s you. Do you approve of everything Margaret Greene does and says?"

Not a fork or knife or mug moved.

He pointed at Barbara. "Margaret and I have differences of opinion but she is a moral person."

His cousin threw her arms up from her sides. "Oh, please! How can you possibly know who’s moral and who isn’t?"

Pa’s eyes narrowed and his voice lowered. I knew what that meant and I hoped Barbara had the sense to back down. "A person’s morals dictate their behavior."

"You don’t like Jack because I do."

Ut oh.

"I don’t like Jack and I don’t trust him - and I felt that way long before you arrived," Pa whispered. He straightened and his voice returned to normal. "Just once can we eat without arguing?"

Barb shot him a look and poured another cup of tea. "I doubt it."

There were a few seconds of quiet and then they smiled at each other. It wasn’t my imagination that they enjoyed their sparring.

"Someday, Barbara," Pa vowed.

"I’m ready whenever you are," she promised.

 

I’d noticed more than once that Tess and Molly were incapable of anything but giggles when they got together - and they didn’t disappoint Hoss or me as we waited for Pa and Angus to start the tug-of-war later that morning.

"Don’t that beat all?" Hoss shook his head. He propped his right boot on the crate that Hop Sing had packed with blankets, plates, flatware, and mugs. After leaning his elbow on his knee, he sighed. "I can’t take it when girls act like that, can you?"

I watched Tess and Molly hold hands and swing their arms as they walked toward the shade. Molly was behaving oddly. She’d told me more than once that she didn’t trust Tess and that Hoss shouldn’t either. "I don’t particularly care for it, no."

"Why do you figure girls giggle like that and hold hands? If fellas did that - "

I arched a brow at him and waited.

"Well, fellas don’t do it, is all."

"You aren’t jealous because you’re not the one holding Tess’ hand, are you?"

He whipped off his hat and beat my shoulders with it as I laughed at his expense.

"Hey Adam! Hoss! They’re ready!" Joe waved his arms over his head from where Barbara and he stood uphill.

Hoss and I threw fake punches at each other as we walked toward the bog.

At the battle site, Pa and Angus examined the rope. Mrs. McNally had lowered the tailgate of their wagon. She and Hop Sing sat side by side, talking. I idly wondered if they were swapping recipes. At the front of the wagon, out of their mother’s sight, Sean and Aidan were stuffing their mouths with fried chicken. I hoped they would have the decency to leave some for the rest of us. There’s always hope. I glanced behind me. Tess and Molly couldn’t have cared less about the reason for the gathering - Molly was too busy braiding Tess’ hair.

Hoss snorted in disgust. "They look like Abigail and John Adams when they’re grooming each other."

Actually, he wasn’t far off.

"Julia, darlin’!" Angus bellowed. "Ya have that gun with the blank?"

She waved it in her right hand.

"And you’re sure it isn’t the other one with the bullet, love?"

"It’s the one you told me had a blank."

Angus ducked a look at Pa and suggested she aim the pistol to the side, just in case. He extended his right hand, Pa grinned at him, and they shook hands. Their eyes locked and I knew what they were doing - squeezing each other’s hand as hard as they could. It must have been a standoff because they separated, waving their hands to stop the stinging before they pulled on their gloves.

"I been thinkin’, Benjamin." Angus picked up his end of the rope.

"Now that surprises me, Angus."

" ‘Twould be a far sight better ta do this bare-handed like we hauled sails at sea. Seems tha gloves won’t give us a grip."

Pa looked from the bottoms of his eyes as he thought. "All right." He tugged off his gloves as Angus removed his and they tossed them to the side.

"Now, Angus," Barbara called, "scrub the palms of your hands against the sides of your pants."

Angus raised his arms in protest. "Barbara, surely ya wouldn’t be thinkin’ I’d cheat yer cousin!"

Pa smirked and imitated Angus’ accent. "Aye, Angus, sure and she would."

As Angus reluctantly wiped his palms as Barbara had instructed, Hoss shook his head and looked at me from the sides of his eyes. "What do you reckon Mr. McNally’s got on his hands?"

"We’ll ask Barbara." She was legendary in our family for knowing how to keep the odds on her side.

"Yeah." My brother’s expression was reminiscent of an elf face I’d seen in a children’s storybook. "Might come in handy."

I smiled and leaned toward him. "Did you mean to do that?"

"Do what?"

"Say whatever Angus has on his hands could come in handy?"

Hoss chuckled in surprise but said, "Yeah."

"No, you didn’t."

"I was just waitin’ to see if you noticed."

I love my brother but there are times when I don’t believe him anymore than I believe in - well, elves.

Hoss motioned toward the mud pit. "Here goes."

Barbara and Joe stood on the grass even with the middle of the mud pit. Joe cheered Angus with all his energy.

Pa faked a hurt look at his youngest son. He spit on his palms and wrapped his strong hands around the rope.

Angus gave Pa the evilest grin I’d seen and winked at him. "Hope ya brought a change of clothes, Benjamin."

Pa’s lips twisted. "Won’t need them, Angus."

"Ya always were cock-sure a yerself."

Mrs. McNally cupped her left hand to the side of her mouth. "This pistol is heavy," she warned.

Angus grabbed the rope. "So, shoot tha thing, woman!"

It was just as well he’d told her to aim toward the side because the bullet whistled into the pine trees. The sound startled Pa - and Angus took his advantage. He pulled on the rope and Pa jerked forward and nearly lost his balance.

"You cut-throat!" Pa shouted. He spread his legs, planted his boot heels, and pulled at the rope - his left hand far in front of his right hand. His first heave caused Angus to stagger.

"Oh, that’s how it is, is it?" Angus growled.

The battle was exhausting - and it was hard on Pa and Angus, too. Pa slid forward about a foot. Angus stumbled. Pa grunted. Angus said something under his breath. There was no more taunting – they concentrated on the matter at hand.

Joe jumped up and down and waved his hat as he pulled for Angus. I thought Pa might appreciate some encouragement so I yelled at him. I don’t think he heard me. Hop Sing interjected a, "Use superior brain, Mr. Cartwright!" and after Mrs. McNally regained her composure she shouted, "Use your brawn, Angus!" Barbara cheered for whoever looked like he was winning at the moment.

All the shouting and excitement finally piqued Tess’ and Molly’s curiosity. They strolled to stand in front of Hoss and me and indulged in some whispered comments and more giggles. Their attention span was short, though, because they soon wandered back to the shade and Tess braided Molly’s hair.

After about ten minutes of watching them struggle I noticed Angus had his back into it - but Pa was using his legs. I’d seen Pa stay in the saddle using his legs to control the horse while he fired a rifle at a racing antelope. No one needed to tell me about his stamina.

"I’ll be danged," Hoss whispered to me. "I didn’t ever figure it’d take this long, did you?"

"I thought it might, yes."

"Do ya reckon Pa was right this morning? Ya figure it’ll be a draw?"

"No, Pa’ll win."

The back of Pa’s shirt was soaked with sweat and I could tell he wanted to wipe the salty drops off his forehead before they slid into his eyes. But he didn’t dare take a hand off that rope - or even lean forward to wipe his brow on his forearm.

"Draw?" Pa gasped.

Angus gave a curt nod.

But neither of them released the rope.

"I have - your word - of honor?" Pa asked through his teeth.

"I thought - ya knew - me better - than ta think - I have any - honor," Angus quipped.

Pa’s humor won out and he released the rope. He bent over, putting his hands on his knees, as his laughter stole his breath.

Angus wasn’t expecting Pa to let go of the rope so quickly and he flew backwards, landing hard on his backside. Hoss and I squinted in empathy.

"Ya won, Mr. McNally!" Joe ran to him and jumped all around the man.

Angus sat up, bent his knees, and lowered his head. "No, lad." He paused for breath. ‘Twas a draw."

Joe took the news as a personal affront. "A draw!" he yelled. "It ain’t no draw! You won fair and square! You had ahold of the rope last!"

Angus shook his head. " ‘Twas a draw."

"But it can’t be," Joe whined.

I gulped and found I could barely speak after all my shouting. "A draw."

Hoss turned to face me. "You sure you fellas didn’t bet any money?"

"Something a lot worse." I closed my eyes. Why had I let Joe talk me into this?

"Adam?" My little brother’s voice had softened considerably and it sounded close.

I opened my eyes to find him looking up at me.

"Adam? We gotta talk. Now."

Hoss frowned. "You sure you fellas didn’t bet money?"

"It’s a bunch worse than that," Joe moaned. "Adam? What’re we gonna do?"

I looked at my boots. "What do you think we should do?"

"I think we should call off the bet," he announced.

"There’s no honor in calling off the bet."

Joe squatted at my knees and looked up at my downcast face. "What’s honor got to do with it? This is ser’ous."

I smiled at his pronouncement and raised my head. "If a man doesn’t keep his word he isn’t worth anything," I reminded.


Joe stood. "Yeah? Well I ain’t a man and neither are
- "

He stopped just in the nick of time.

"Yes?" I invited.

"Well - " He looked to my side. "You ain’t a full-grown man."

"I hate to break this to ya, little brother." Hoss didn’t sound like he was particularly torn up about what he was saying. "But Adam there’s done all he can about growing."

I shot Hoss my best intimidating look. He tilted his head to the side and grinned at me.

"I have an idea," I said softly to Joe. "If you’re willing to compromise." His face screwed up in puzzlement. "If you’re willing to meet halfway."

He gave one clipped nod indicating that he understood - and for a moment he reminded me of Pa.

"Since neither of us won - and neither of us lost - and we can’t call off the bet because that wouldn’t be right - it seems to me that the best course of action would be to do what we bet the other brother to do."

Hoss chuckled in appreciation. "Dang, Adam."

"Do what we bet each other to do," Joe repeated slowly.

I squatted down and looked him in the eyes. I held out my right hand. "I’ll eat the spinach and you eat the carrots."

Joe’s bright eyes shone with happiness. "Deal." He slapped his small hand in mine.

"Spinach?" Pa’s voice caused us to turn to my left - Joe’s right - and I quickly stood. Pa looked from me to Joe and back to me. "Spinach? And carrots?"

Hoss had to face the other way he was laughing so hard.

"That’s what you bet?" Pa asked in disbelief. "Spinach and carrots?"

Joe smiled. "Yeah."

Pa’s eyes made the circuit again from me to Joe to me. "Which one was I?"

"You were carrots," I answered meekly. "Angus was spinach."

Pa tilted his head back. "Carrots."

"Yes, Pa." I put my left hand in my left front pocket.

"And spinach."

"Yes, Pa." I snugged my hat closer to my eyes.

He turned around very slowly and walked away from us.

I winked at Joe and he winked back.

After gorging ourselves on Mrs. McNally’s amazing culinary creations my brothers and I stretched out on a blanket and enjoyed the gentle breeze and soothing sunlight. I put my hands behind my head and my hat over my eyes, pretending to be asleep. But not before I noticed Joe lying beside me in brotherly imitation. Hoss was the most comfortable - he had his back resting against his saddle and was snoring so loudly that Mrs. McNally, Angus, Hop Sing, Barbara, and Pa moved almost fifty feet away from us. Tess and Molly were giggling on another blanket several feet beyond the adults. Would their throats never wear out? And what was going on anyhow? Molly wasn’t a giggler by nature. Aidan and Sean had taken their slingshots and disappeared into the pine trees.

"Adam?" Joe spoke through his hat.

"Umm?"

"Why do ya think Aidan and Sean ate their lunch before everyone else?"

I didn’t want to say what I thought - that they were a pair of undisciplined brats - so I hedged - "I guess they were hungry, Joe."

"If one of us did that Pa’d tan our britches."

"He’d tan your behind, Joe. He can’t tan your britches."

My little brother gave a huge sigh. "You know what I mean." I felt the slight movement of air as he took his hat off his face.

"Yeah." I chuckled.

"You figure Mr. and Mrs. McNally let them get away with that a bunch?"

"Possibly, yes."

"Mr. and Mrs. McNally let them get away with a lotta stuff Pa’d tan me for."

Boy was that true. "I know."

Joe was quiet a long time. I wondered if he’d actually fallen asleep. But then I heard him shift beside me and his left hand lifted my hat so he could see my face. He leaned close enough that I could have counted his freckles. "There’s somethin’ wrong when your ma and pa don’t make you eat with everyone else."

I smiled slowly and took off my hat. "Is that so?"

"Well - Pa says that not bein’ on time for meals is bein’ disrespectful to everyone else and that ya have to show respect if ya want respect. And it doesn’t seem that eatin’ before everyone else eats is respectful."

"Um hum."

"Doesn’t that mean they’re disrespectful, Adam?"

I studied him. Joe had been connecting cause and effect and implications lately and it was intriguing to hear his thoughts. I phrased my answer carefully. "They would be considered disrespectful in our family. But different families have different rules - different ways of doing things - different expectations."

He frowned and gathered his thoughts. "There’s only one right way to do things. That’s what God says."

The conversation was getting more interesting all the time. "Exactly what does God say?" I asked.

He sat up cross-legged. "You know. He says to be respectful; and not to kill people; and not to want things other people have; and to keep promises; and not to steal; and not to lie about folks; and to say prayers before ya go to sleep; and not to swear; and to do as you’re asked; and to remember Sundays." He frowned over his shoulder as Hoss’ snoring reached new levels. "Sure wish God’d said you can’t snore."

I decided not to point out that he was confusing God’s rules with several of Pa’s. It’s hard to distinguish between God and Pa sometimes.

"Adam? What’s Pa mean when he says - " Joe fought to remember the word. "What’d he mean when he said more-alls tell how folks behave."

Hoss snorted and shifted and swiped at his nose.

"Morals are knowing the difference between right and wrong." Best not to confuse him with the concept of being "immoral" or "amoral."

Joe ran his index finger along the section of blanket between us. "So it don’t mean like living forever?"

I smiled. "That’s immortal."

Joe rolled to look at me. "Ya know what, Adam?"

"What?"

My little brother propped himself on his right elbow and lowered his voice. "Sean and Aidan don’t know the diff’rence between right and wrong."

I nodded, waiting.

"And ya know what?"

"What?"

His voice softened even more. "Seems to me if you don’t know the diff’rence between right and wrong - " he hesitated.

"Yes?"

"Well, seems to me maybe your ma and pa - well, you know. Maybe your ma and pa haven’t - well - "

"Taught you?" I offered.

He nodded and his eyes roved to Angus and Mrs. McNally. "Or maybe you just won’t learn."

"Yeah," Hoss said and we both jerked in surprise. "Or maybe your pa ain’t tanned your britches enough."

Joe’s lips twisted to the right and then he shared what I had told him. "He can’t tan your britches, Hoss. He tans your behind."

"Not mine, he don’t." Hoss rolled onto his back. "I learned right from wrong a long time ago."

"Aw, Hoss." Joe slapped Hoss’ broad shoulder with his small right hand.

Hoss grabbed Joe. He held the youngster on top of him and tickled Joe’s ribs.

I glanced Pa’s way. He grinned at my brothers and then he nodded at me.

 

Little Joe was definitely in a talking mood. He chattered all the way home - describing the tug-of-war as if none of us had seen it. When we pulled up by the corral Joe said he still thought Mr. McNally had won because Pa had given up and Mr. McNally had been the last one holding the rope.

"What I figure," he said as Pa set the wagon brake, "is we need to have another rope pull."

Hoss and I grinned at each other and stepped out of our saddles.

"We are doing nothing of the sort." Pa popped Joe’s leg. "But you need to take care of the horses."

"Aw, Pa."

"Now, please."

Hoss helped Joe out of the wagon.

"I will make hot tea," Hop Sing announced. "Drink with pie Mrs. McNally send home."

"Pie!" Hoss rubbed his hands together.

Barbara stepped down from the wagon and she blinked in surprise. "Hoss, there’s no way you’re hungry."

"That ride took a lot out of me." Hoss smiled. "But, if you don’t want your share I’ll be glad ta - "

"You won’t touch Barb’s share if you know what’s good for you," Pa teased.

Hoss laughed and heaved his saddle to his back.

Unlike my family, I was still full from lunch. And I was restless. I walked behind the house and through the tree line to the pond. Pa said it’s a small lake. But after Pa couldn’t satisfactorily explain the difference between a large pond and a small lake Hoss, Joe, and I decided we would call it "the pond" and Pa could call it a "lake." Hop Sing simply refers to it as "the water."

I stood and looked out at the gently lapping waves but I knew I would be staying a while so I sat on the small boulder Hoss named "The Dreaming Place." The breeze is rarely strong there and the water always looks clear even though when you study it from uphill it is as blue as the sky. We keep a pile of pebbles and small flat rocks to the right of The Dreaming Place because tossing them into the water seems to help us think better.

After a while, and no small amount of pebble tossing, I realized being around Molly that morning was what had made me restless. All of her giggling, her smiles, and her light-hearted talk while we had eaten - all of it had been forced. And all of it had been shallow. Molly hadn’t been shallow when I’d first met her. Something was wrong.

The next few days were as routine as any others. But Pa knows me like he knows himself and he sensed that I was troubled. I caught him studying me by the fireside in the evenings or watching me closely as he leaned on the corral while I helped Hoss work the horses - but he didn’t ask because he knew I wasn’t ready to talk. He returned my respect and waited.

As the week stretched out I couldn’t shake a feeling of dread. It was as real as the unsettled air before a storm breaks - and just as ominous. I tried to joke with Hoss and Joe. I couldn’t concentrate when I opened a book to read. One day I wasn’t paying attention as I saddled Beauty and when I swung the saddle off its stand I hit Pa square in the chest. Another time I threw a spading fork out of my way so I could reach a feed sack and the tines speared the ground inches from Hoss’ boots. My family’s looks at me became more concerned and, on occasion, aggravated.

The day I rode out to check the cattle there was a definite charge in the air. I glanced at the sky but there was no sign of a thunderstorm. That didn’t mean much. Experience has taught me that bad weather can storm over the mountain peaks before you can draw your next breath. I nudged Beauty toward the stock. Two new calves pressed against their mothers’ sides. The older calves lay uphill, clustered near the "nurse" cow as she watched over them while their mothers grazed. They presented a scene of contentment and peace - completely different from the way I felt.

I’ll never know what made me ride toward the shack. It was out of my way and I had enough chores waiting for me to fill two days much less the remaining afternoon. I can’t even say I was surprised to find Molly leaning against the south side of the building with a faraway look in her eyes.

I tipped my hat as I sat on Beauty. Molly looked up at me as if she were struggling out of a dream.

"What are you doin’ here, Adam Cartwright?"

I shrugged and rested my hands on the saddle horn. "Taking a ride."

Her eyes narrowed. She turned slightly to look at the scenery instead of me. "Who sent ya?"

What? "No one sent me, Molly."

"It’s my mother, isn’t it?" She acted as if she hadn’t heard me. "Who told her?"

I dismounted and held Beauty’s reins. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

Molly whirled on me and her eyes flashed. She reminded me of a wolf Pa and I had come across in one of the passes – head forward, neck extended, and dangerous. "My mother thought I’d go back if it was you who came for me, didn’t she?" Her hair blew across her face and she impatiently pushed it back. "Well you can tell her I’ll not be going back. Not with you nor anyone else."

I took off my hat and released Beauty’s reins. What was Molly talking about? Not going back?

Molly folded her arms across her chest as if she were chilled. "She wants me to be coming back before my father finds I’m not there, doesn’t she?"

When I didn’t answer, Molly looked at me from the sides of her eyes.

"There’s no one can stop me, Adam. Not her, not him, not you."

I looked down. I needed to clear my thoughts so I could understand. My eye caught the edge of something on the other side of her skirt. A bag - the size of bag a person uses for short trips.

"You’re going somewhere." I raised my eyes to study her profile and her chin jutted.

"He’ll be here any time now and you for sure can’t be stoppin’ me then," she declared.

"Who?"

Her laugh was short and mirthless. "Who indeed! Who do ya think, Adam Cartwright?"

My chest tightened and I spit out the name, "James Wallace."

Molly tossed her head back. "One and the same."

I reached toward her. "You can’t leave like this."

She spread her hands on either side of her hips. "I can and I will."

I leaned toward her. "Why?"

"Why!" she exclaimed. She motioned to her side with her left arm. "Why, you ask? Why do ya think for Lord’s sakes?"

"This isn’t right," I told her. "If you want to get married you should - "

"All in good time. But first we’ll be leavin’."

I didn’t know this girl who stood in front of me. There was nothing of Molly about her. "All in good time?"

"We’ll marry when we get ta California."

"And until then?"

She tossed her head back. "Until then, what?"

"You’re leaving with a boy you aren’t married to."

Her eyes flashed again and I backed away from her. "A boy, is he? He’s every bit of your age, Adam Cartwright, so don’t be actin’ so high and mighty with me." Then she said something I would never have expected to hear pass her lips. "You’re jealous ‘cause it’s him that got me ‘fore you!"

My chest tightened even more, my stomach felt as if I’d swallowed a piece of ice, my knees threatened to fold, and my sight blurred briefly.

"Molly, you aren’t making sense."

She took two steps toward me. "Don’t go actin’ all innocent with me. I saw you frownin’ at ‘im at the dance. Angry you were. Well you should have made your intentions known sooner is all I have ta say. You should have said what you wanted instead of - don’t be givin’ me that look. You can’t fool me with it." She turned on her heel and walked to the far edge of the shack.

"Would you please think about what you’re doing?" I pleaded.

Molly rested her right hand on her neck but didn’t speak. I didn’t recognize this girl. She didn’t sound like Molly and she sure wasn’t thinking like Molly. "Tell me why," I asked.

Once again she gave that short laugh. And she repeated, "Why do ya think for Lord’s sakes?"

"I don’t know, Molly. Help me."

"Help you? By all that’s holy! You need help? I’m the one who’s with child!"

I lost my breath. The breeze didn’t blow, the birds quit singing, and nothing moved. I gulped air, my head cleared, and I tried to keep the shock out of my voice. "Does your mother know?"

"My mother? Of course she doesn’t know."

My voice was failing me. "Tess?" I whispered.

Molly tossed her head. "That little girl? What does she know of the world?"

Everything I thought I knew about Molly was dying in front of me. "What do you know of the world?" My tone of voice was harsher than I’d intended.

Her smile was as cold as January snow. "More than you, it would seem."

She looked beyond my shoulder and I heard the sound of tack as two horses approached. I turned and saw James Wallace on one horse, the reins to another horse clasped in his left hand.

"Hello, Cartwright. Come to see us off?" Something in his bearing reminded me of Jack Wolf. I wanted to knock the sneer off his face and then beat him into the ground.

"Molly." I grabbed her right arm as she lifted the bag with her left hand. "Molly, think about what you’re doing, please?"

She didn’t speak as she yanked her arm out of my grip.

"It’s too late, Cartwright." James laughed and pulled the riderless horse beside him. "She’s mine."

"She’s no one’s!" I shouted. "She’s not a horse or a piece of property. She’s a girl."

His eyebrows rose. "A girl, eh?" He laughed again. "You’ve got a lot to learn, Cartwright."

He made no attempt to help her into the saddle. He accepted the bag when she held it up to him and then watched as she struggled to mount.

"No kissing the bride, I’m afraid. We’re in a hurry." With that he put spurs to his horse and slapped at Molly’s. They rode toward the west, well off the beaten track.

I sat on the grass, pulled up my knees, and shook as if with fever.

 

Beauty nudged me awake hours later. I looked around in confusion and rubbed at my face as I stood. The sun was low and I judged there was no more than an hour of daylight remaining. I hadn’t done any of my afternoon chores and there was no hope of completing them now. All I could do was get home in time for dinner.

"Sorry, Pa," I said when I stepped into the house.

He nodded and said, "Adam." I felt his eyes on my back as I cleaned up at the basin. Then he eased away from where he’d been leaning by the fireplace and walked toward the table.

Hop Sing carried a serving dish and Joe tagged along behind him with a bowl full of steaming hot bread. Hoss entered the living area from the bunkroom, buttoning the cuffs of his shirtsleeves and smiled at me as I dried my hands. "Hey, Adam."

I felt myself struggling to be free of a black maelstrom. The encounter with Molly and James had been like a frightening dream that is triggered by illness. Home - the familiar surroundings and the intimacy of family - was the life-saving cure. Home eased me back into my world and inexorably pushed the dark storm away.

"What happened to you?" Hoss asked me after Joe said grace.

Pa watched me closely as he took a slice of venison and then handed me the platter.

I placed a piece of the smoked meat on my plate and passed the dish to Hop Sing. Having already formulated my answer to the question I knew would be asked, I delivered it flawlessly. "The day was pretty. And the cows and calves were peaceful. I sat down for a minute. And when Beauty woke me up it was almost sunset." Everything I said was true - even though I hadn’t told the entire story.

Joe piled a section of his plate high with applesauce Hop Sing had undoubtedly spent hours preparing from dried fruit. "You feel asleep? When there was chores to do?"

I forced a waning smile and nodded.

Hoss - who sat next to Joe - didn’t believe me, either. "What’d ya really do?"

I shrugged. "I fell asleep. Ask Beauty."

Joe gave me a look of disgust. "Nobody can talk to a horse. I mean you can talk to them but I never heard one talk back."

Hoss was not perturbed in the least by Joe’s declaration. "Abigail and John Adams and I always know what we’re talking about."

Their banter was as soothing as a warm blanket.

Despite my fatigue I found Hoss’ statement intriguing - and a much-needed diversion. He’d maintained the cats and he’d talked when he’d first gotten them but I didn’t know he still believed it. "You understand what one another are saying?"

"Sure. You and Beauty do, too. I can tell."

Hop Sing passed the bread bowl to me. "Perhaps Adam take care of horses and Hoss take care of cows. Adam not fall asleep around horses because he is interested. And Hoss does not care for cow smell so he not fall asleep around cows."

"That’s a good idea, Hop Sing," Pa said dryly. I cut a look at him. There was no sign of disappointment in my behavior. No indication of an impending lecture about responsibilities. I was glad for it. I knew I wasn’t ready to share the afternoon’s events - I wasn’t sure I ever would be even though logic told me that eventually Molly’s actions would affect all of us.

"Aw, Pa." Hoss shifted uncomfortably. "I’d smell like cows every day if I did that."

Would they never learn to say "cattle" instead of "cows"?

"You smell every day anyhow," Joe quipped.

Hoss gave Joe a fake frown and put his fork and knife to venison.

"Pa?" Joe tilted his head to the left. "Buttercup wants a baby."

We all looked at him.

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

"She feels sorry for Webster and she wants to love ‘im."

This was the boy who had just said no one could talk to animals?

"Webster?" Pa asked. He hadn’t touched his dinner yet.

Joe nodded. "You know Webster."

"I do?"

"The calf," Hoss explained to Pa.

I had brought home a calf that had been rejected by his mother. He was the smallest one I’d seen and I’d been afraid he wouldn’t survive even if another cow adopted him. We’d been bottle-feeding him and keeping him warm in the barn.

"The way I figure," Joe said and we all braced. "The way I figure is Buttercup’s been real good to us and if she wants to take care of Webster then we oughta let her. I mean, we’re givin’ him her milk anyhow, ain’t we? Seems we could cut down on our work if we just put ‘em in the same pen and let him have it directly."

He had something there. Pa arched an eyebrow at me and I shrugged.

"Who will be sure Buttercup takes care of Web – the calf?" Pa asked.

"I figure it’s my idea so I prob’ly should," Joe replied.

Something strange was happening to my youngest brother. First the chicken business and now wanting to take care of a calf? He was assuming responsibility without being told. I wasn’t ready for such startling behavior.

Joe put down his flatware and his next action almost caused Hop Sing to choke. The boy pointed straight at Pa and raised his head so he was looking from the bottoms of his eyes. "We ain’t gonna eat Webster, neither. He’s gonna be a bull."

Pa pursed his lips. "You’re giving me an order?" He wasn’t angry - just amused at the upstart.

The pointing finger lowered but Joe continued to look at Pa the way Pa so often looks at us when we’re on our last chance. "When it has to do with cows it’s Adam’s job, Pa."

Attention shifted to me.

"Don’t you think Webster’d make a good bull?" Joe asked me.

"That’s difficult to know." I reached for my tea mug. "Generally you wait until they’re a certain age before you decide whether you want a bull or a steer." I cringed after the words came out.

"Nobody’s gonna make Webster a steer!" Joe was so adamant he threw his arms in the air and came perilously close to hitting Hoss’ left elbow. "All a steer’s good for is eating - or selling so’s he can be eaten. And nobody’s gonna eat Webster."

Pa smiled ever so slightly at me. I knew what he was telling me without words. I would bring home future calves at my own risk.

"Webster is yours, Joe," I said after a drink of tea. I leveled a big-brother look at him. "But the first time you don’t take care of him I’ll take him back faster than you can blink."

Joe frowned. "I take care of Smoke, don’t I? And I’m good to Paint. And I was taking care of Jimmy until - well - " He glanced at Pa. Jimmy’s day of glory was still a sore subject with Pa.

The topic of conversation suddenly shifted to the weather.

After two games of checkers with Joe, and holding three strips of rawhide taut while Hoss braided them for a special rope, I strolled out to the front porch. Spring days fooled me into thinking warm air was here for a while. Spring nights reminded me summer was months away. The sky was clear and as black as coal - a perfect night for looking at the stars. I walked around to the side of the house and climbed the ladder to the porch roof. The air was cooler up there and I wondered why. Heat should rise. I leaned back against the roof of the house and studied the stars - the friends I’d known the longest and the friends who remained constant.

Thinking of friends made me wonder about Molly. Where was she now? What could force her to leave with James Wallace? James didn’t have anything to offer her - he didn’t bring friendship much less love.

I had seen in her eyes that Molly was desperate. But why? Was she afraid of gossip traveling from lips to ears until it had nowhere else to spread? Was she afraid of what her parents would say about her being with child? Was she unable to accept what she had done?

Was it possible for a person to change as much as it seemed she had? Or had the seeds of her actions waited below the surface where no one could see them? Had they waited for the moment when conditions allowed them to sprout from the depths of her soul - doomed to fail because they had no roots and no hope of being nurtured?

Why couldn’t I understand what Molly had done? I knew why I couldn’t understand James. We had nothing in common. He had no respect for Molly, and I’d been taught respect for others ever since I could remember. If he cared for her he never would have asked her to compromise her morals. But then - maybe he hadn’t had to ask her to compromise.

My thoughts tumbled from Molly and James to Angus and Mrs. McNally. What would Molly’s leaving do to them? And how would they feel if they found out about the other things Molly had done? How would they feel if they found out she was with child?

I knew how Pa would have reacted if it had been me instead of James. I could imagine the crushing disappointment, the loss of respect for me, and the searching look in his eyes as he tried to decide why I had failed after all his guidance and love. There would be love, though. And with time the love would triumph over the other feelings.

He had told me more than once that the test of a person was how they reacted during times of adversity. And Pa knew more than any man should about difficulties. We had shared fortune’s whims for the past twenty-one years. We’d handled certain tests better than others but we’d learned from all of them. Did Molly understand the adversities she would be facing? Did she comprehend that most of them were of her own making?

"Adam?"

I turned to my left. Pa stood on the ladder and had his arms folded on the rooftop.

I needed to hear his voice so I asked, "Do you think people change?"

He shrugged and tilted his head to the left. "I would hope so. If you don’t learn from your experiences you may as well be dead," he said softly.

"I mean deep inside."

Pa joined me. He sat cross-legged and then he looked up and smiled at the stars. "No matter what happens, they’re always there, aren’t they? Ready to guide us whenever we need them."

He wasn’t just talking about the stars. I’d known him too long to think that. Sometimes Pa has a way of making his words have double meaning - and when I pay attention I understand the lesson he’s teaching. He was right. The stars are always there. And they are always a way to find my bearings no matter where I am.

Pa raised his left index finger and traced an outline. "When you locate the North Star you can find any constellation."

I raised my eyes and nodded.

"The skies change, the stars move, but the North Star is an anchor you can always rely on." He faced me and the moonlight turned his eyes such a light color they looked as clear as glass. "There’s an anchor inside you, too."

Yes, there is.

He turned back to the stars. "I learned at sea that when an anchor is properly set the only way a storm can pull a ship free of the anchor is to break the chain." He smiled again. "And it takes a fierce storm to break an anchor from its chain."

"But it can happen," I said.

"Oh, yes, it can happen. I haven’t known many ships to survive a storm strong enough to break anchor though, Adam."

"Were you - ever on a ship that broke anchor?"

"Once." He nodded slowly. "I was blessed though."

We faced each other again. "How’s that?" I asked.

His eyes searched mine. "I had two other anchors. They were smaller but they held me until I found the main anchor again." He patted my left thigh and stood. "Don’t get too tired up here. Sleep might not be the only thing you fall into."

I watched him return to the ladder and then I closed my eyes. Molly had broken anchor - and only time would tell if she would survive the storm.

 

The moment dawn washed the eastern horizon with the promise of a new day I was outside, raising my coat collar against the chill as I walked to the barn. I might not have finished my chores the day before but I’d be darned if I’d be irresponsible two days in a row. Praying for Molly’s welfare was the extent of my power to help her, I decided. Best to accept that fact and concentrate on what I could do.

Pa stopped short when he found me resetting a corral post an hour later. He considered me with raised eyebrows. "Time lost can’t be regained."

I nodded and braced my boot against the post to straighten it. "But a man can make better use of the time he has."

He shook his head. "Don’t do that to me."

Surprised at his lament, I looked at him from the sides of my eyes.

Pa strolled to me and put his left hand on top of the post to hold it steady. "I can accept that you’re artistic, argumentative, a good writer, logical, stubborn, musical, opinionated, and as loyal as any man God’s ever created - "

I shoveled dirt against the corral post. "But - "

"Please don’t become a philosopher."

I tossed dirt onto his boots and muttered, "Sorry about that."

He chuckled. "No, you aren’t."

I looked up and we smiled at each other.

He gripped the post with both hands and braced his boot against it as I tamped down the dirt. "Did your star-gazing help you last night?"

"I think so, yes. At least until a philosopher climbed up on the roof and started talking about stars and anchors and storms at sea."

"Another philosopher?"

I placed what I hoped was the last shovel full of soil and pressed on it with my boot heel. "It’s hard to ignore him."

"Probably because he’s always right."

I choked and leaned on the shovel handle. "He probably believes that."

Pa grinned and released the fencepost. "Anything else you need help with?"

"Not at the moment, no."

"When you do, let me know."

I looked at him from the tops of my eyes. "I always have."

He slapped the top of the fencepost with his gloves and nodded.

I didn’t linger over breakfast - which is nothing unusual. The only time I hesitate to go outside is when the wind is about to blow the barn over and the cold is brutal. Every so often Pa shakes his head and says I never will change. When I humor him by asking what he means he says it’s been impossible to keep me inside since I learned to walk. I point out to him that as far back as I can remember we were out-of-doors. He usually concedes the point and pats me on the back.

When I work it’s best if I concentrate - and that doesn’t allow me time to think about anything else. I needed the salvation that concentration brings more than ever that day. When I did stop to rest, for however brief a time, my eyes invariably roved to the trail between our place and the McNallys’. Angus would be riding up at any moment and I closed my mind to the question of what I might or might not do when that happened.

"What’re you lookin’ at over there?" Hoss asked after we unsaddled our horses later in the day. "You see a storm comin’ or somethin’?"

His statement had more meaning than he could know. I shook my head but he wasn’t satisfied.

"You been lookin’ that direction all day."

"I’m watching for a deer I saw yesterday."

He put his hands on either side of his waist and his sky blue eyes filled with excitement. "How many points?"

Glory, I hate telling lies. "I couldn’t tell. Eight or so."

"Eight points!" Hoss exclaimed. "Let’s go huntin’ tomorrow."

"We have enough work here for a month."

He lowered his voice to the conspiracy level. "Ain’t nothin’ that can’t wait a day or two."

I grasped Beauty’s reins to lead her into the corral. "You plan on telling Pa that?"

Hoss’ sails collapsed. "Maybe you could talk to him."

"Talk to who about what?" Pa approached us from the barn with a hammer in his left hand.

Hoss answered him with even more enthusiasm. "Adam saw a big old buck, Pa. An eight-pointer."

Pa tilted his head back. "An eight-pointer."

"Yessir. And he saw it right down there." Hoss motioned to the trail.

"And you want to go hunting."

Hoss smiled until the sides of his eyes crinkled. "We can always use more venison, Pa."

"There’s always work to do, too," Pa reminded.

"Aw, Pa. It’ll be here when we get back."

I needed to stop this before it went any further. "Hoss, that buck’s probably miles from here by now."

Pa squinted at me. I was the one who usually jumped at the opportunity to go hunting. "I imagine he is."

Hoss threw his arms in the air, reminding me of Little Joe. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen my littlest brother for hours.

"Where’s Joe?" I asked.

"Taking care of business," Pa answered. "Barbara didn’t meet him at the usual time so he’s gone to town."

"By himself?" Hoss yelped.

I shrugged. "Remember when he went to watch that bare knuckles fighter for - " Well, shoot. Pa hadn’t known about that. "I need to take care of Beauty," I mumbled.

"He had to carry the eggs," Pa continued, "so Hop Sing took him in the buggy."

Hoss approved. "That’ll keep ‘im outta trouble."

"We can hope," Pa said dryly. He gave me another searching look and then we turned to our separate chores.

 

"So how’s that calf?" Pa asked Joe at dinner that evening.

Joe grinned cunningly. "Ya mean Webster?" He was going to force Pa to say the calf’s name yet. "He’s great. So’s Buttercup."

"She hasn’t asked you to moo-ve the calf?"

"Aw, Pa!" Joe moaned above Hoss’ and my muffled groans.

Hop Sing smiled at Pa. "Buttercup seem very happy." He paused. "She no longer moo-dy."

Joe, Hoss, and I whirled on Hop Sing.

Pa nodded. "I imagine he’ll be glad for her company when it gets dark and the only light they have is the moo-nshine."

"Would ya stop?" Hoss pleaded.

But our father and Hop Sing were too far along to stop.

"I’m just glad Buttercup wasn’t afraid of the little guy," Pa continued. "I’d hate to think she was a cow-ard."

"Pa," Joe warned.

Hop Sing grinned. "And at least calf not cow-er when he see Buttercup."

Okay, this was getting to be too much.

But Hop Sing didn’t think so. "Barbara discuss planned dance with cou-ncil?"

"I’m warning ya," Hoss threatened.

Pa leaned back in his chair. His eyes were full of the devil. "Yes, and Shelby said she received some cou-nterfeit money when that last wagon train came through."

It was high time for a cou-nterstrike. "The last time I was in town I saw a cou-ntess who had a beautiful cou-ntenance. But her husband, the cou-nt, wasn’t very smart because he cou-ntersigned on a bad contract so now they can’t go back to their home cou-nty."

Hoss laughed and toasted me with his mug. "Adam wins!"

Joe lowered his head and covered his ears.

Pa smirked at me. "Did the cou-ntess have nice calves?"

My littlest brother looked up in alarm. "Pa! You can’t talk like that about a lady!"

"I don’t know," I said slowly in answer to Pa’s question. "Her calfskin boots were nearly knee-high."

Hop Sing took his turn. "I hear about that cou-nt. He plan to start new group of cav-alry."

Pa slapped his hands on his chair arms. "I’m out of words. Adam?"

I turned from smiling at Hop Sing. "Have you noticed how Hoss’ been making cow eyes at Tess?" I pointed at my brother. "Ut oh. He’s scow-ling at me."

"You could go on like this all night, couldn’t you?" Pa squinted at me.

I grinned at him. "I can cou-nsel you about your vocabulary if you need."

He wasn’t ready to give up. "If you don’t stop I’ll have your hide."

The battle was on. "But where would you hide it?"

"Oh, I’d put it in a hide-out somewhere."

"Sooner or later someone would figure out you were hiding it, though."

"I’d be hide-bound and determined that they wouldn’t." When I didn’t say anything he tossed his head. "Well?"

Hoss proposed a deal with Joe. "I’ll choke Pa. You take care of Adam."

Joe gave him an affirmative nod and they each glowered at us. Pa cleared his throat and had the last word. "I think they’re udder-ly disgusted with us, son."

That was bad even for Pa. I looked at my brothers. "I’ll hold him down if you’ll gag him."

Hoss smirked at me. "Last time I saw Pa gag was when Ma tried to get ‘im to eat liver."

Then Joe surprised us all. "I bet we can find something to keep Pa quiet while we’re eating." He looked at me from the tops of his eyes. "Ya know, some kind of gag-jet."

"Gag-jet?" Pa asked in confusion.

"Gadget," I clarified.

"That’s what I said," Joe shot back. "Gag-jet."

Pa rolled his tongue from his left cheek to his right cheek. "I think we better stop while we’re ahead."

Hoss looked down at his plate. "What’s a herd got ta do with it?"

"I said ‘ahead", not ‘a herd,’ " Pa corrected.

My brother sighed and I could tell he was up to something. "Ain’t what I heard."

Hop Sing waved his arms. "If family not behave there be no dessert."

Four sets of eyes shot to him in alarm - and we ate very, very quietly.

 

I had braced myself for the moment when Angus would ride up in the front yard. I never expected Mrs. McNally. When she stopped the buggy near the house the next morning one look told me trouble had been hauled out of its shuck.

"Julia," Pa said with delight. "What a surprise. Come in and have - "

"Ben, Molly is missing." Beside me on the porch, Hoss and Joe exchanged bewildered looks. Hop Sing looked at me.

Pa walked closer to the buggy. His face was grim. "When?"

"She left home the day before yesterday. She said Tess had invited her to spend the night at the Greenes’. When she wasn’t home by dinnertime yesterday - " The worry on Mrs. McNally’s face was heartbreaking. How could Molly care so little for the woman who had given her life and loved her all these years? "Angus rode to the Greenes’. Tess hadn’t seen Molly and she hadn’t invited Molly to visit. By the time Angus came home it was dark. I convinced him there was no sense in searching - there wasn’t even a full moon. But he’s out trying to find her now. Please, Ben, can you help?"

His answer was to tell Hoss and me to saddle up. "Why don’t you come inside and let Hop Sing make some tea before you head home?" He took her left hand and looked up at her.

"I need to be home. In case - " She didn’t have to finish the sentence.

Before her buggy was out of sight, we were on horseback. Joe wanted to go with us but Pa convinced him he had an important job to do at home. "Molly may show up here," he told my youngest brother. "If she does, I need you to ride to the McNally place to tell them. I know you can do it or I wouldn’t ask you. Will you do that for me, please?"

Joe puffed up with importance and sketched a salute. Pa turned his horse and said, "Let’s ride."

We were no sooner on the move than Hoss asked, "Where to, Pa?"

How far did I allow this farce to go? We had work to do at home - there was no reason to waste time on Molly. I needed to lead them to the answer without letting them know they were being led. "The logical thing," I said, "is to start with the trail toward the McNallys’."

Pa gave me an appraising look but he didn’t ask questions.

Several minutes later Hoss complained that he didn’t see how we could find any tracks now that Mrs. McNally’s horse and buggy wheels had trampled the trail. We needed a diversion. Hoss was to Pa’s left and I was to Pa’s right. I edged away from them, looking at the ground to the left of my saddle, and rode toward the pines. As soon as they started following me I waved them off. "Nothing," I said.

"Not that eight-point buck?" Pa asked.

I met his eyes. He knew I was keeping something from him. We returned to the trail and we rode silently. Hoss kept looking to his right; I studied the ground to my left. If Hoss was as good a tracker as I thought he was -

"Wait a minute." He dismounted and walked to his side of the trail. After a deep frown he sat on his boot heels. "The best I can tell - " He took off his hat. "It looks like three horses. The ground’s pretty messed up. Looks like two of ‘em were stamping around."

I swung from the saddle and followed the tracks to my left - knowing they would lead to two sets of footprints. I meandered until I could feel Pa’s impatience. There they were. Two sets of tracks. One was Molly’s. Her bag had even left a cleared place where she had set it down. I reasoned there was no way anyone could know the other tracks were mine - they could have been made by any man wearing riding boots. I squatted and waved a hand at the ground. "There’s something here," I announced. "A girl’s shoe prints."

Hoss snapped his fingers. "That’s it, Pa. Remember how Sean and Aidan were saying Molly’d been meeting a fella here? They musta met here and - " He looked toward the tracks he’d found. "They musta headed that way."

Pa kept his eyes on me. They were smoldering with anger. "Hoss, would you ride to the McNally place and tell them what we’ve found, please? Wait for Angus and bring him here so he can pick up the trail?"

"Yessir." Hoss spared me a look over his shoulder as he walked to the horses. He wanted to know what was wrong but I shook my head slightly so he would clear out.

I knew what was coming. Pa was only waiting for Hoss to be out of earshot - which he was sooner than I wanted.

"I have been patient. I have been understanding. I tried to help. But it ends here, Adam."

I only thought I was an adult. I stood slowly and winced at the anger in Pa’s eyes and the knowledge of how formidable his temper was. I was fourteen years old again.

"I want the truth. Now."

I summoned all my strength. "It’s - "

"So help me God," he said through gritted teeth, "if you tell me it’s a long story you will regret it." He pulled off his gloves but kept his blazing eyes on my face. He pointed to the ground with his left index finger. "Do you think I don’t know your tracks, young man?" he demanded. "You have always walked on the backs of your heels."

I lowered my eyes to study my boot prints. I had noticed that Joe tended to walk on the outside edges of his heels but -

"Adam."

I raised my eyes. "I tried to stop her."

"From?"

"Leaving."

"With whom?"

For the first time I realized he did know when to use "whom" - he had been saving it for impact.

"James Wallace."

Pa looked to the side and slapped his gloves against his right leg. "James Wallace." I could tell the name left a bad taste in his mouth. "When?"

"The day before yesterday."

That pulled his full attention back to me. He was going to slice me apart one thin strip at a time. "The day before yesterday."

I nodded.


"The day you were almost late for dinner. The day you didn’t finish your chores. The day that was so pretty and the cattle were so peaceful and you fell asleep."

There was nothing to say.

He took a step toward me. "You didn’t ride to the McNally ranch to advise them. You didn’t trail Molly and James so Angus would have some idea of where they were going. You fell asleep?!" He turned on his boot heels and walked to where Molly had been standing when I’d ridden to her.

"It wouldn’t have done any good," I said softly. "Nothing would have stopped her."

Pa kept his back to me and I saw him pull in a long, deep breath. "No, you decided to do nothing."

"What was I supposed to do?" I shouted. "You weren’t here. No one could have stopped her - especially after James rode up. You weren’t here trying to talk reason into her. You didn’t hear her when she said she didn’t care if she was leaving with a man she wasn’t married to. You didn’t - " I brought myself under control. "You have no right to judge," I warned. "No right at all." I slammed the palm of my right hand against the shack wall and walked toward Beauty. I was sick at my stomach and as close to crying as I had been since Ma had died.

"Adam."

"Leave me alone, Pa." I continued to walk.

"I will not. Turn around."

I stopped but I kept my back to him.

"Now, Adam."

I closed my eyes and turned.

"Open your eyes, please."

I blinked away the threatening tears. "You have no idea what it was like," I repeated hoarsely.

"Why did she leave?"

Throwing my arms into the air I asked him how the devil I should know.

His jaw ground to the left. "I think you do."

I walked straight to him. "Why do you want me to tell you? You know everything anyhow, don’t you?"

I braced for the full force of his temper.

"I know when you’re so angry you don’t care what you say, yes."

I turned to the side and jammed my hands to the sides of my waist.

"Let’s start over," he suggested.

"There was nothing I could do."

"Why didn’t you ride to the McNallys’?"

I admitted the truth. "I wasn’t ready to answer their questions."

"Why didn’t you trail Molly and James?"

"I was too shaken to ride."

"Why did you fall asleep?"

"My knees gave out. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t think, I was shaking so badly my teeth - " I covered my face with my hands. "It was like I’d never met her before she changed so much."

"She didn’t change."

I turned toward him. "She did, Pa."

"The only thing that changed was your understanding of her, Adam. Just like it did with Henri."

Henri? Why was he talking about Henri, a boy I’d know in New Orleans?

"Think about it, son," he guided. "Was Henri any different on the day you had that fight than he was on all the other days you’d been around him?"

"I never talked to him again," I said.

Pa nodded. "Why?"

"Because I didn’t want to be around him."

"Why?" Pa insisted.

"Because of the things he said about Ma."

"Partly," Pa agreed. "What else?"

I shook my head.

"Your understanding of Henri changed. Why?"

When I didn’t answer he continued.

"Admit to yourself why you didn’t want to be around him." He held up his hand when I took a breath to speak. "Think about it, Adam."

What did he want me to see? And what did it have to do with Molly? He leaned back slightly and his eyes stayed on my face.

"You can’t get there?"

"No, Pa."

"He hurt you."

"I beat the tar out of him," I protested.

Pa tapped at the center of his chest. "Here."

"What?"

"He said those things about your mother because he knew it would hurt you." Pa shook his head slowly. "I don’t know what Molly said to you. But I know what she did to you. That’s why you won’t be friends like you were before. Not because she ran off with James - not because she isn’t married. Because when she hurt you, you saw her for what she is and not what you thought she was." Pa’s eyes gentled. "Son, it is impossible for someone who cares for you to hurt you."

"Are you saying if she comes back I shouldn’t - "

He closed his eyes briefly. A signal I know well - a sign to be quiet. When I was ready to listen, he spoke. "I’m sure you will help her in any way you can. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud of you. But you need to accept that she is not who you thought she was. Do you understand what I’m telling you?" His voice was almost a whisper.

"I think so, yes."

He started toward the horses but I grabbed high on his right arm. Pa turned to me, his expression inquiring.

I licked my upper lip. "You asked why she left?"

"Yes."

"She’s with child, Pa."

His chest caved in. He ran his left hand across his face. "How long have you known?"

"That day - the day she left."

Pa raised his face to the sky and drew in air like a drowning man who had come to the surface. "How on Earth do we tell Julia and Angus something like that?"

We? He didn’t intend for me to tell them by myself? I released his right arm and he immediately cupped his hand behind my neck.

"Saints above," he moaned. "She doesn’t have a star to guide her."

"No, Pa."

The look he gave me was, as impossible as it sounds, more heartbroken than the one I had seen on Mrs. McNally’s face hours before.

We met up with Hoss as he rode back from the McNally place. "Mr. McNally told me to go on ahead." Hoss leaned on his saddle horn. "He’s packing up for the trail."

Pa gave no indication that there was anything more than Molly’s running away to be dealt with. "Why don’t you go home and start on the chores? Adam will be there in a while."

"What about you?" Hoss’ brow wrinkled.

"I’ll ride with Angus."

Hoss and I exchanged surprised looks but neither of us said anything. Instead my brother tipped his hat to me. "I’ll save some work for ya."

"I was pretty sure you would," I replied, trying to keep the mood easy so Hoss wouldn’t worry.

Pa and I directed our horses toward the McNallys’. "How much do you plan to tell him?" Pa asked.

"Hoss? Everything, I guess." I bit at my lip. "How do we tell Angus and Mrs. McNally?"

"Follow my lead," he advised. "And Adam?"

I looked over at him.

He had that hard-edged, determined air that is always at hand when needed. "You’ve never seen a temper like Angus’. Stay clear of him."

I thought I understood what he told me. But I had no idea what would happen - if I had I’m not sure I would have gone to the McNallys’.

 

"Well, out with it, man," Angus demanded when we rode up as he was tying provisions to the back of his saddle. We dismounted and tied our horses. "Say what ya need ta," Angus instructed.

Pa shook his head. "Julia needs to hear what we have to say, Angus." He looked meaningfully toward the woodpile where Sean and Aidan were at work. "And your sons don’t."

Angus made a sharp sound of annoyance but knew he would get nowhere with Pa until Pa had his way.

Having declined Mrs. McNally’s offer of cups of coffee, Pa and I sat beside each other on the McNallys’ sofa. It was set at a right angle to the fireplace, as were the two armchairs from which Molly’s parents watched us. A small pedestal table between their chairs held Mrs. McNally’s sewing basket and a candle centered inside a hurricane. We had used the glass bottles, open at both ends, in New Orleans to shelter candles from breezes and to keep them from guttering. I hadn’t seen one since then and I was fascinated, as always, by the way the glass reflected the candle’s flame.

"Out with it, Benjamin," Angus ordered abruptly. Mrs. McNally gave her husband a long-suffering look.

Pa leaned his forearms on his knees. "We found Molly’s footprints by the old shack."

"Good God, man! Hoss told us as much. Have ya nothin’ else?"

We had plenty more.

Mrs. McNally reached across the table and laid her right hand on Angus’ left arm. "Let Benjamin speak, please." But before Pa could open his mouth, she posed a question. "Why do you believe they are Molly’s tracks by the shack?"

Pa was holding his hat and he turned it around by the brim. Hoss and Joe inherited the same habit. Hoss does it when he is trying to solve a problem. Joe does it when he’s in trouble. "The reason we think the tracks are Molly’s is because Sean and Aidan told Joseph that Molly’s been meeting a young man at the shack."

Angus went ramrod straight. Mrs. McNally leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Pa waited for either one to speak and when they didn’t he continued. "The reason we know the tracks are hers is because Adam saw her there the day she left."

A frown filled Angus’ forehead like a cloud covering the sun. "Saw ‘er?"

"Yes, sir," I answered.

"And what was it she was doin’?"

I forced myself to look him in the eye. "She had a bag with her and she was waiting."

Angus slapped his hands on the chair arms. "Gods above, lad, don’t be makin’ me pull the story from ya piece by piece. Spit it out!"

So far his temper wasn’t any worse than I’d seen from Pa. "I had been checking the cattle. I rode to the shack. Molly was standing there with a bag at her feet. We talked and I found out that she was leaving."

Mrs. McNally eased her eyes from the ceiling to me. "With whom?"

Glory but I wished she had asked Pa that question. I opened my mouth, but Pa answered. "James Wallace."

"Wallace!" Angus said the name like a curse word and bolted to his feet. "What was she doin’ with that cur? I told ‘er what I’d do to ‘er if I found ‘er with ‘im again!"

"I think," Mrs. McNally said calmly, "it’s quite obvious she didn’t care what you thought of him, Angus. And it’s also obvious why they were meeting at the shack."

My face flushed and I looked at my boots for a moment.

Pa continued as if there’d been no interruption. "James rode up while Adam was trying to talk sense into Molly - "

Angus threw his left hand in the air as he paced by the fireplace. "Sense! Sense, ya say? The girl ‘as the brains of a frog! I’ll teach ‘er ta defy me!"

My skin crawled at the word "defy." It is not used lightly in the Cartwright household and I wondered if it carried as heavy a penalty in the McNally family as it does in ours.

Mrs. McNally shook her head at Angus’ outburst. "What happened when James rode up?"

I hadn’t told Pa so there was no way he could answer the question. I squared my shoulders. "I asked Molly to think about what she was doing. I tried to persuade her that leaving with a man she wasn’t married to wasn’t a good decision. But she said they intended to marry. Then James showed up with an extra horse. She got in the saddle and they rode away."

"And what’n blazes did you do?" Angus demanded.

Pa took over. "There was nothing he could do, Angus. Molly was hell-bent on leaving."

I glanced at Pa. He was aggravated when he used the term "hell-bent."

"Ya could’ve tied ‘er up." Angus walked toward me, demanding my attention. "Ya could’ve thrown ‘er across yer ‘orse and brought ‘er home. But ya didn’t want ta, did ya?"

"Angus - " There was warning in Pa’s tone. "Adam has been taught to respect women - not to manhandle them."

The man stood in front of me and Pa’s left arm shot across my chest. Angus put his large hands at his waist and his voice took on such a wily sound that my guard went up. "Tell me, lad. Why didn’t ya want ta stop ‘er?"

"I tried, sir. But she was - "

"Maybe ‘twas in yer best int’rest fer ‘er to be leavin’."

I had no idea what he was talking about but Pa did and I felt him stiffen beside me. "That’s enough, Angus. He doesn’t understand what you’re getting at."

The angry eyes shifted to Pa. "But you do, don’t ya, Benjamin? If she was yer daughter you’d be flailin’ this boy with a bullwhip."

I turned my head toward Pa. His jaw squared and his eyes narrowed. "My daughter would have known better than to meet with a boy in the first place - just as my sons know better than to compromise a girl’s reputation."

Pa’s words told me what Angus was accusing me of and my temper flared.

"I never treated Molly with anything but respect!" I shouted. Pa’s arm pressed against me and I pointed in Angus’ direction. "He’s saying I - " If it hadn’t been for Pa’s quick reflexes as he caught Angus with his left hand, I would have felt the full force of the back of Angus’ hand. I gaped at Molly’s father in disbelief.

He sullenly stared at Pa. "Release m’hand, Benjamin."

Pa nodded toward the chair where Angus had been sitting. "Sit down, Angus."

It was a battle of strong wills until Angus jerked his hand from Pa’s grasp and stalked away.

Mrs. McNally closed her eyes. "This arguing serves no purpose, Angus. And we are no closer to having Molly home." Her reasoning tone helped ease the tension that was a beast unto itself. "She left with James, then?" Her question was directed to me.

"Yes, ma’am."

Her gentle eyes probed mine. "And did she tell you why she was leaving?"

It was the question I’d been dreading. The answer I knew would hurt to her soul. The answer I wasn’t sure I could give her.

Angus whirled on his wife. "I told ya why she left, Julia! She ‘as tha brains of a - "

"That is enough, Angus! Your temper is one of the reasons she left!" Her outburst stunned Angus into silence and she returned her attention to me.

Pa let out a deep sigh and said, "Answer Julia, please."

Angus went as still as the air before a storm. Mrs. McNally clutched her hands at her neck in a mannerism like Molly’s.

"Ma’am." I drew strength from Pa’s presence beside me. He was right. I had to tell them and I couldn’t spare them the hurt Molly had caused. "Ma’am, she said - Molly said she’s with child."

"With child!" Angus exploded like a tree hit by a bolt of lightning. Beside him, Mrs. McNally seemed to shrink in size. Her hands slid to cover her heart. "By God!" Angus’ loud voice hurt my ears. "By the saints, I’ll whip ‘er until she screams!"

Pa put his arm around my shoulders.

Mrs. McNally stood. Her hands were still over her heart and she looked lost. "With child, Adam?"

"Yes, ma’am."

Angus was in front of me in two enormous strides. "And who was it got her with child? he demanded.

Pa’s right hand closed around my right arm.

I frowned at Angus. "Sir?"

"Ya ‘eard me, lad. Who got ‘er pregnant?"

I was so shocked by his language I couldn’t answer.

Pa calmly said, "Wouldn’t you assume it was James, Angus?"

His friend’s eyes scoured my face. "Maybe. Maybe the one that ‘ad his way with ‘er wouldn’t marry ‘er and she ‘ad no choice but ta turn ta young Wallace."

I understood that! I pushed free of Pa and flew to my feet. "Why don’t you say what you mean instead of hiding behind all your - "

My face exploded in pain and I stumbled backwards into Pa. He eased me aside and I closed my eyes. My ears roared and my stomach folded over on itself. I slipped and a soft sofa cushion cradled my head. As it did so, my neck caught fire and I shrieked. I wished I hadn’t yelled out because my jaw felt like it had shattered. I held my hands to my face and moaned as if I were dying. For all I knew, I was. Never, not even in the worst fall I’d taken from a horse, had I felt myself floating away from the world as I did then.

When I woke up Pa leaned over me and gently turned the cool rag on my forehead. "Adam?" He held up his hand. "Is anything blurry?"

I started to shake my head but pulled up short. "No." Before he could ask I added, "And you’re holding up four fingers."

His hand caressed my hair. "Can you listen for a moment?"

"Yes." I was surprised by how weak my voice sounded.

"I’m leaving you here with Julia. You’re to do as she says. And you’re not to go home until she tells you that you may. Do I have your word?"

"Where are you going?"

"I need to catch up with Angus. I can’t let him reach James and Molly alone." He patted my cheek gently to make me open my eyes. "Do I have your word, Adam?"

"Yes, Pa. Can I sleep now?"

"If you’ll wake when Julia tells you to."

"I will, Pa."

I thought I felt him kiss my forehead and then I didn’t feel a thing.

I couldn’t get any rest because Mrs. McNally woke me every five minutes. At least it felt like every five minutes. When I finally asked her why she was bothering me so much she smiled and assured me she was only waking me every hour. I idly wondered how it could be so quiet with Sean and Aidan around. Then I was asleep again.

When I finally came to my senses, lanterns lit the room and the aroma of something cooking that would have smelled good to me any other time turned my stomach.

"If either one of you so much as makes a sound I’ll take your father’s strap to you. Now carry this to your room and let me only see you when you’re bringing your dishes back here."

I heard footsteps walk away and then Mrs. McNally was smiling down at me. "You’re eyes look better."

The side of my face throbbed. "What - "

"Angus backhanded you," she answered my half-formed question. She took the dry, warm rag from my forehead. "Benjamin came as close to killing Angus as I’ve ever seen a man do." She looked up as thunder shook the house and I grabbed at my head. "I would stop the storm if I could, Adam. Can you sip some weak tea?"

"No, thank you, ma’am."

She patted my right arm. "Perhaps later then. You rest for now. I’ll wake you- "

"In an hour," I muttered.

"Ah," she laughed softly. "You’re getting better if you’re getting peevish."

So Angus had backhanded me. I knew what Pa’s reaction had been to that - friend or no friend.

I remembered as if it were yesterday how, on the trail across Utah territory, Mr. Davis had raised his short whip to me when he had thought I’d been to blame for breaking his wagon wheel. Ma had screamed and Pa had appeared out of nowhere. He’d twisted the whip handle from Mr. Davis’ hand and hit the man so hard on the jaw that he had knocked Mr. Davis unconscious.

Mr. Davis’ behavior had been the last straw as far as Pa had been concerned. Pa hadn’t cared for Mr. Davis or his three brothers from the second week we’d been on the trail. Neither he nor Ma had been able to abide the way the Davis families had treated their children and Pa had been convinced the men’s lack of self-discipline and planning would lead them to ruin. After the incident with Mr. Davis, our family and two others - the Teagues and the Millers - had broken off from the Davis wagons. Mr. Teague, Mr. Miller, and Pa had been of one mind as to how to face the trail - even to the point of agreeing the best way to cross the desert was to push on into the night. When we had reached Eagle Station the Millers and Teagues had traveled on to California. We had only been at Eagle Station a few weeks when word reached us of a wagon train in trouble - the Davis families. Pa had headed on to Sacramento by then; otherwise I’m sure he would have been one of the men to ride in the rescue team.

I was so fretful the next time Mrs. McNally woke me that she made me drink a liquid more dreadful than anything Ma had ever invented. I gagged twice but she was determined - and she won. Whatever it was, my muscles loosened, my headache dimmed, and my breathing deepened. I heard another roll of thunder but it didn’t bother me anymore than a gentle breeze would have.

When first light came through the living room windows the next morning I felt almost as good as new. The side of my face ached but my head, ears, neck, and stomach were fine. Mrs. McNally hovered around me as I took tentative steps and when she was convinced I wouldn’t fall and kill myself she allowed me to walk around the room. I wondered how she could give me such close attention when she was worried about Molly. I was walking toward the table so I could rest my legs when Sean ran into the house.

"He’s back, Ma!" he announced.

"Your father?"

"Nah. Little Joe’s pa."

Pa stepped inside the room. He had his saddlebags over his left shoulder. He looked, as Hoss would have said, like he’d been rode hard and put up wet. But he smiled when he saw me, and he seemed to stand straighter. "I see Julia’s taken good care of you."

I didn’t want to say she’d fussed over me more than necessary so I said she had taken very good care of me. He put his hat, coat, gloves, saddlebags, and rifle on a trestle table near the front door and accepted a cup of steaming coffee from Mrs. McNally with a heartfelt "Thank you."

"Angus?" she asked worriedly.

Pa shook his head. "The rain washed away the tracks. But you know Angus. He’s bound and determined. I imagine he’ll give up tomorrow morning."

His words didn’t assuage her concern. Her hands trembled. "Benjamin, there’s no chance he can find them?"

Pa’s eyes betrayed surprise but his voice didn’t. "No, Julia. There’s no trail and Angus’ wanting one won’t make it happen."

She let out a breath that surprised me with its relief.

After a great amount of arguing, I convinced Pa I could ride home. He told me if I put Beauty into anything faster than a walk he’d have my hide and I assured him I had no intention of crossing him. I gave him a piece of my mind when he insisted on helping me into the saddle and he told me I wasn’t too old to bend over. I laughed at the absurdity and he smiled back.

The early evening air was refreshing and I pulled in several deep lungs full. I motioned to Pa’s left hand. He was holding the reins with it and favoring his right hand - the one with which he must have hit Angus. "Is your hand all right?"

"It’s been worse."

I kept my eyes on the trail ahead. "Pa?"

"Yes?"

"Are you still friends?"

"Because of the fight?"

I nodded.

He leaned to stretch his back. There was no telling how many hours he’d been in the saddle trailing Molly and James. "We had fights when we were younger. They were never about one of us hitting the other’s son, though." He pulled his hat brim down to shade his eyes. "Angus and I need to work out a few things when he’s thinking more clearly."

I was relieved to hear his answer. Relieved to know my actions hadn’t caused a problem they couldn’t resolve.

"I told you to give Angus a wide berth - " Pa said evenly.

"No," I corrected. He cut a look at me and I added, "You told me to stay clear of him."

"That mouth hasn’t gotten you into enough trouble?"

I smiled and looked down at my saddle. "Thank you."

Pa frowned. "Thank you?"

I kneed Beauty to keep her on the trail. "For everything."

He turned to me in surprise. "Everything?"

He was right. There were a few things involved in rearing me that I wasn’t particularly thankful for. "Maybe not everything."

He grinned at me. Then, out of nowhere, he asked, "Have you ever been afraid to tell me anything?"

I wasn’t expecting the question and, as I often do when I’m caught off-guard, I said, "Huh?"

He chuckled and repeated, "Huh?" in amusement. "Out of all your vast vocabulary you chose ‘huh?’ "

I smiled in spite of myself.

"Have you ever been afraid to tell me anything?"

What had prompted that? "Afraid to tell you, no. Not inclined to want the punishment I knew I deserved, yes."

"What about something you knew I wouldn’t punish you for? Were you ever afraid to tell me anything then?"

I laughed. "Pa, if you think I’ve told you everything I’ve done - "

He laughed with me and then he grew thoughtful. "Don’t be like Molly, son. Don’t be afraid to come to me."

"I told you I’m not, Pa," I maintained.

He shook his head and laughed to himself. "I don’t know why I thought you would be."

"What does that mean?"

"Never mind."

"What does that mean, Pa?"

I kept asking and he kept shaking his head until we were almost home.

Little Joe could have swallowed a horse his mouth was so big when Hoss and he ran to the front porch to meet us. "Wow!" His neck was bent about as far back as it could safely go.

"Wow, what?" I tousled his hair.

"Gee, Adam." Hoss’ eyes took in my face. "You look like a mule kicked ya."

Pa leveled "the look" on both of them. "That’s enough."

Joe tilted his head as if it would help him see better. "How bad does it hurt?"

"Joseph, what did I say?"

My littlest brother threw his arms in the air. "Aw, Pa, we’re gonna talk about it in the bunkroom, anyhow."

Hoss rubbed above his left eye and looked down.

When we stepped inside the house, Hop Sing had to check my face and decide whether I needed additional medical attention. "You see properly from eye?" he queried. I assured him I did and I continued by telling him my head didn’t hurt, my neck was fine, but my big toe was throbbing. He did a double take and then waved me away saying I was not worth worrying about.

We settled by the fireside while Hop Sing prepared breakfast. Home and the love that comes with it seeped into me. After witnessing Angus’ outburst I had a better grasp of why Molly hadn’t gone to her parents with her problems. It didn’t excuse her behavior - but I could understand. Heaven knows Pa can sear me with his disapproval and his reprimands can make me squirm inside my skin. But he’d never once vowed he’d whip me until I screamed.

Thank God I have Pa. Thank God I have my family.

Hoss shifted in the chair next to the sofa where Pa, Joe, and I sat. He motioned to my face. "What happened?"

"I crossed Angus."

"Whaddaya mean ya crossed Angus?"

"I lost my temper."

"Well - but - " Hoss frowned. It was obvious he didn’t understand.

"He backhanded me," I explained.

"Backhanded ya!" Hoss and Joe spoke as one.

Hoss shook his head slowly and narrowed his eyes. "That ain’t right."

I could see it in every tensed muscle of Hoss’ body - my brother was ready to tangle with Angus because he had hurt me.

"It’s done, Hoss."

"It still ain’t right."

Joe studied Hoss and then he asked me, "Where’s Molly?"

I waited to see if Pa would say anything. When he didn’t I looked at the fireplace where the logs burned low and steady. "She ran away with James Wallace."

Joe was sitting beside me, perched on Pa’s knees. "Why’d she run away?"

Again I waited. Again Pa said nothing. "Because she thought that was the way to get away from her problems."

"Oh." Joe looked down and kicked his feet. That was when I noticed he was barefoot. I was surprised Pa hadn’t told him to put on a pair of socks. "I did that once."

Joe had never run away. Neither had Hoss or I - we had too healthy a respect for what Pa would have done to us if we had tried.

Pa tilted his head and looked at Joe in surprise.

"I mean, I thought about it," my brother amended.

"What happened?" Hoss asked. Did he know he was repeating himself?

Joe shrugged. "I did a buncha wrong things so Pa and I - " He turned his head and considered Pa, then looked back down at his bare feet. "Well - we had a talk."

"A talk - or a talk?" Hoss frowned.

Our brother gave him a significant look, including raised eyebrows. "A talk, Hoss."

That confession elicited a moan of sympathy from Hoss and me.

"I did a buncha dumb stuff and I knew Pa was gonna - talk to me. So I was thinkin’ about runnin’ away and then maybe by the time I came back, when I was older and all, Pa’d be so glad to see me he’d forget all about being mad." His next sentence was one of those only Joe has enough breath to say. "But then I figured with him being Pa and everything that if I ran off and stayed away ‘til I was grown then when I came back he woulda been just getting madder all the time and I sure didn’t want that so I didn’t run away and when I told Pa he said it was a good decision, ‘bout the only good decision I’d made that day ‘cept I figure that breathin’ was a good decision on account of if ya don’t breathe ya die but I thought about dyin’ ‘cause then Pa wouldn’t have ta talk to me."

Pa rolled his eyes and pursed his lips to keep from laughing at Joe’s serious confession.

Joe looked at me with all the earnestness he could muster. "I don’t figure runnin’ off’s such a good idea, do you?"

I shook my head and smiled at him. "No, I don’t, little brother."

"What’s Molly runnin’ away from, Adam?"

Such an innocent question. Such a difficult answer.

"Molly made some bad decisions."

"What kinda decisions?"

Hoss gave me his full attention. Now we were to the part of the story he wanted answers to. "Aidan and Sean told you she was meeting with a boy at that shack?"

"That means she doesn’t know right from wrong," Joe announced. " ‘Cause God says ya shouldn’t do what your ma and pa tell ya not to."

Leave it to Joe to get straight to the heart of something. "How do you know Mr. and Mrs. McNally told her not to meet a boy at the shack?"

He shrugged his shoulders. " ‘Cause Pa’s always telling us to treat girls with respect. And ‘cause he’s always telling Hoss and you that doin’ that kind of thing - sneakin’ around with a girl - is disrespectful of the girl. So if it’s not right for us men then it’s not right for a girl, either."

There was no doubt about it. My little brother’s reasoning power was growing. I spared a look at Pa to see what he thought of "us men." He winked.

I returned to my original thought. "Molly was meeting James Wallace at the shack."

"James Wallace." Hoss made a face indicating he found the idea disgusting. "What was she doing with James Wallace?"

The answer needed to be one Joe could understand. "Things they shouldn’t have done until after they were married."

Joe’s response was unexpected. "Uh oh. Were they - breeding?"

We couldn’t help it. Despite the seriousness of the conversation Pa, Hoss, and I laughed at Joe’s use of an animal husbandry term.

"What?" Joe looked at us in confusion.

I wiped at my eyes. "Yes, Joe, they were - breeding."

Hoss’ mirth faded from his face. "Adam?"

My brother knew. He just needed to hear it from me. "Did Molly - I mean the reason she ran off with James - was it - "

I met his eyes squarely. "She’s with child."

"Uh oh," Joe said again. "God says you shouldn’t have babies ‘til you’re married."

Something like that.

He shook his head. "She’s sure making God sad."

His simple statement was touching. "Yes, she is."

We were quiet but I knew Joe hadn’t asked all his questions. After some thought, he leaned toward me. "But - why’d she run away?"

I repeated my earlier answer. "Because of her problems. She didn’t want her parents to know she’s with child."

He frowned, clearly not understanding. "Aw, Adam, it’s always better if ya tell your ma and pa before they find out from somebody else." He twisted to look at Pa. "Isn’t it?"

Pa nodded but remained silent.

I tried another approach. "The difference between Molly and you is that you work through your problems with Pa. You can talk to him."

Pa wrapped his arms around Joe’s waist as my brother leaned even closer to me. "Ya mean she can’t talk to her ma and pa?"

"She didn’t think she could, no."

Joe pulled back and his face stretched in amazement. "But you can always talk to your ma and pa. Why’d she think she couldn’t talk to ‘em?"

"If you don’t talk to your parents about little things, about everyday things - " I paused to see if he understood and he nodded. "If you aren’t accustomed to talking to your parents about everyday things then when you do have a problem you don’t know how to go to your parents because you haven’t talked to them about everyday things."

"But - well - why wouldn’t ya talk to your ma and pa about - " he repeated my words "- everyday things?"

Pa finger-combed Joe’s hair and added to my explanation. "Sometimes parents don’t know how to listen."

That idea was so ridiculous to Joe that he looked up at Pa and grinned. "You’re teasing."

"No, he ain’t," Hoss assured. "Sometimes they don’t want to listen, either. Back in New Orleans, Adam and I knew some boys whose folks was like that. Didn’t we?"

I nodded.

"Some of those boys, they had people lookin’ after ‘em all the time because their folks were too busy goin’ to parties and having folks over and goin’ to the horse races and things like that." Hoss looked over at Joe. "And some of the boys never wrestled with their pa, and their ma never sang songs for ‘em, and their pa never told ‘em stories, and their ma never told ‘em funny riddles, or played marbles with them, or anything. And their ma and pa didn’t teach ‘em right from wrong. And their pa never tanned their britches when they needed it."

Joe was spellbound. His eyes locked with Hoss’. "Are you makin’ that up?" He rolled his eyes to me. "Is Hoss makin’ that up, Adam?"

"No."

Joe frowned at Hoss. "Well what’d they have a ma and a pa for?"

Hoss shrugged. "Never could figure that out."

I cleared my throat. "Hoss? Would you tell Mrs. Greene and Tess about Molly? They’re probably wondering if she’s all right. And I’d rather they heard about the child from you than from town gossip."

"I’ll ride over there after breakfast."

Neither one of them had anymore questions so I slouched down into the settee and watched the fire. Pa always says a person doesn’t understand something until he can explain it to someone else. In telling my brothers about Molly I had accepted the truth. Her behavior was the result of a lack of morals. Morals that I had been taught by example - morals I could not ignore without losing a part of myself. Molly and I were as different as James and I were.

"You wh-at?" Pa asked. As he often does, he made the last word into extra syllables when his question led into a soft laugh.

My family’s reflective mood had passed. Something interesting was afoot and I sat up and paid attention.

Hoss cast a teasing look at our little brother. "What Joe means is he pretty much had a tug-of-war with little ole Webster. And Webster won."

Joe was incensed - which meant Hoss had hit the nail on the head. His chin jutted and he squinted his eyes. "I slipped, is all."

Pa looked toward me and placed his left hand over the lower half of his face to hide his smile. He couldn’t hide the laughter in his eyes, though.

"Yeah, you slipped." Hoss laughed. "You slipped all over that pen with your heels dug in." He looked at Pa. "And then Buttercup figured Joe’d had enough fun with Webster and she butted Joe’s behind."

Joe wasn’t about to let Hoss have the last word. "It didn’t hurt," he maintained.

Hoss grinned. "How come ya yelled and grabbed the seat of your pants, then?"

Joe pulled himself from Pa’s right arm and stomped over to Hoss - David facing Goliath. "I didn’t holler."

"Um hum."

"And she didn’t butt me. She just kinda nudged me outta the way."

Hoss held up his hands. "Whatever you say, little brother." He tilted his head. "But you probably oughta grow some muscles before you try to halter Webster again."

Joe’s fists balled and for half a second I thought he was going to hit anywhere he could reach on Hoss. But Hoss put a big hand on either side of Joe’s ribs and lifted him in the air. Joe’s bare feet dangled.

"You weren’t thinking about doin’ somethin’ dumb, were ya?" Hoss lifted Joe a little higher.

I expected our brother to lose his temper then. But he’s as unpredictable as Pa is at times. "Sure looks different from up here," he said in surprise. He shook his head at Hoss. "Someday I’m gonna see it just like this."

Hoss gently lowered Joe to the hide rug. "Whatever you say."

Joe put his hands on his hips and craned his neck. "You just wait and see."

"I’ll wait all right."

"Pa." Joe turned on his heels. "Don’t ya figure I’m gonna be tall as Hoss?"

Our father pursed his lips. "Well, Little Joe - Hoss’ mother was a taller woman than your mother was."

"Yeah, but we’ve got the same pa, ain’t we?"

"I certainly hope so," Pa said dryly.

"So, what’s Ma got to do with it?"

Hoss’ voice took on a mock-serious tone. "It’s kinda the difference in crossing two full-sized horses and crossing a full-sized horse with a pony."

Joe’s eyes flashed and he turned on his heels again to peer up at Hoss. "I ain’t no pony."

Hoss patted Joe on the head. "No, ya ain’t no pony - yet."

My little brother wanted a comeback so badly I could feel it in the air. He walked back to Pa with his face full of frustration. In less than a minute Hoss and he were allies, though.

"Hey, Pa," Hoss said slowly. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the rock fireplace. "I think I know what ya did wrong in that tug-of-war with Mr. McNally."

Pa blinked in surprise.

"And," Hoss continued, "I’d be glad to show ya."

"Oh you would?" Pa watched Hoss closely. "And how would you be glad to do show me?"

"A tug-of-war with you."

Pa laughed and shook his head. "I don’t think so."

"You afraid?" Hoss taunted.

"Yeah, Pa." Joe smirked from where he had once again seated himself across Pa’s knees. "You afraid?"

Pa tweaked Joe’s freckled nose. "No, I’m not afraid. I don’t feel any need to prove myself."

"He’s afraid," Hoss said.

"Yeah," Joe agreed. "Sure is sad, ain’t it? Never thought Pa was afraid of nothin’."

"Much less one of his own sons," Hoss taunted.

I leaned my head back and crossed my arms. "Oooohh."

Pa shook his head. "I am not afraid of my own sons."

Hoss shoved the poker into the logs to stir them up. "Whatever you say, Pa." He turned his back to the logs under the pretense of getting warm. "Pa’s afraid I’ll beat him."

"I doubt that," I said. "I’ve never known Pa to be afraid of anything - except Ma." Pa hit me with a knuckle in my upper arm.

Hoss grinned. "He knows I’m bigger than him and he knows I can whip ‘im with one hand."

Ut oh. Hoss had no idea what he’d just stepped into.

Joe and I caught each other’s eyes.

I mouthed, "Spinach on Pa" to which Joe mouthed, "Carrots on Hoss." We nodded our heads in agreement.

"A one-armed tug-of-war." Pa had a wicked smile. "We’ll face off in the morning. Care to put your money where your mouth is?"

Hoss gave Pa such a shocked look it was comical. "Pa! You know we ain’t supposed ta bet!"

"Oh, I’m not talking about betting," Pa assured. "I’m talking about betting."

 

The end