Up in Smoke
Hoss' and Adam's childhood memories by BJCarter
"You'd better let him go, Hoss." Adam continued to read his book as he lay in his bunk.
"Not till he says he did it," Hoss vowed.
Adam put his left hand behind his head and looked across the room where Hoss had Little Joe in a choke hold. "He doesn't look to me like he can breathe, much less say anything."
"I'll get it out of him one way or the other," Hoss said and Little Joe tried to kick him in the shin.
Adam returned to his book. He never interfered when he knew Pa was close by. And right now he had a feeling Pa was getting closer by the minute.
"What is going on in here?!"
Yep. There he was in the doorway. Barefoot, pants on but suspenders down, no shirt over his long johns. And madder than a wet hornet. Adam was going to enjoy this one.
"Hoss, let go of your brother now."
Hoss obeyed and Joe immediately gasped and rubbed at his neck. Adam suspected the antics were as much for sympathy as anything.
Pa's strong hands went to his hips and he frowned at Hoss. "Answer my question."
Bet he forgot the question.
"Why were you choking your brother?"
"Cause he won't admit it was him."
"It wasn't me!" Joe croaked, his head titled back to look into Pa's face.
"What wasn't you?"
"The bear." Hoss answered for Joe.
"The bear," Pa repeated.
"But I wasn't a bear!" Joe squeaked.
"Would you get a drink of water?" Ben requested and, as Little Joe padded out of the room in his night shirt, Ben looked over to his oldest who lay smiling in his bunk. "And would you please tell me what is going on?"
Adam kept his right thumb in his book to mark his place and rose on his right elbow. "When Hoss and I were out marking trees for the smokehouse today he went down to the creek for a drink and he thought he heard a bear -"
"Dang it, I did hear a bear," Hoss snapped.
Adam gave a slight nod of acknowledgement and looked back at Pa. "I didn't hear it and I told him it was probably just Joe pulling a prank."
Pa leaned against the doorjamb. "Adam, I hardly think Little Joe is capable of sounding like a bear."
Hoss jabbed a finger Adam's way. "That's what I said!"
"And what I said," Adam replied in reasoned tones, "was that Joe's pretty good at imitating your voice already -"
Ben pointed to his chest. "Mine?"
Adam's lips inched upwards at the edges and his blue eyes sparkled. "He's got it down pretty good, Pa. And if he was by that creek the rocks on the bluff side could give him a pretty good echo."
Pa frowned at Hoss. "So you were trying to get the truth by squeezing the life out of him?"
"Aw, Pa, I would have let go before he passed out or anything."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Sometimes Pa's dry humor made it hard for Adam to keep a straight face.
"He was practically killing me," Joe protested as he returned, mug in hand.
Hoss bent at the waist. "If I had a notion to kill you, I could do it like that." He snapped his fingers in Little Joe's face.
Adam looked down. If Hoss thought that would intimidate their youngest brother he was in for a big surprise.
"Oh, yeah?" Joe's chin jutted out. "Well, I can wait until you're asleep and then -"
"None of that," Pa said.
Joe's hand flew up to point at Hoss. "Well he started it."
Pa ignored Joe's remark.
"Did you go down to the creek and pretend to be a bear?"
"How? When I wasn't with you I was helping Hop Sing in the garden."
Pa's eyes roved to Adam. "And your answer to that would be?"
Hoss stuck out his chest. "See, there? I did hear a bear."
Adam shook his head and lay down. "Right."
"He still don't believe me," Hoss said angrily. "Pa, make him believe me."
"Hoss, I've had about all this I'm going to put up with for one night. Do you understand me?"
He did. They all did.
Ben closed the door behind him and made a decision as he walked to his bedroom. They were all weary of the work they'd been putting in and tired of each other's company. Tomorrow, after they finished their early chores, they would take the day off.
Little Joe knew he wasn't being punished but that was about all he understood. Why wouldn't Pa let him be with Adam and Hoss today? Not that he'd had any chance to see them. Adam had already shaved before Joe woke up. And Adam and Hoss had finished their chores so early that they were leaving on their horses when Joe entered the house after gathering the eggs.
He didn't mind being with Pa, exactly. It was just
"I've been thinking that maybe you can use some time on your own, too," Pa said as they neared Eagle Station. "So, here's some money. You've been a good hand this month."
Wow! Little Joe counted the coins in his hand and was still dreaming of all the different ways he could spend them when Pa set the wagon brake at the livery. Little Joe jumped down.
"Joseph," Pa called.
He obediently turned around.
"Meet me here in two hours and stay out of trouble." Pa said it seriously but then he smiled.
Joe nodded and ran to the store.
"Hello, Little Joe," Mrs. Orowitz greeted him when he stepped inside, rattling the coins in his pocket. "What can I do for you today?"
"I think I'd like -" His eyes roved from the candy to a set of toy soldiers. He didn't have enough money for the soldiers but he knew if he saved his money, the way Adam did, it would add up and he could buy the soldiers someday. Oh well, right now he'd as soon have candy as soldiers. "I think I'll take some candy, please."
"Well, hey there, Little Joe," Shelby said. She held up five cigars for Mrs. Orowitz to see and then placed the money on the counter. "What are you up to today?"
"Pa and me are taking the day off," Joe answered importantly.
"Is that so? And what are you planning to do with all this here free time you've got?"
Little Joe shrugged.
"Well, I seen you eyeing those toy soldiers there. If soldiering interests you a couple of boys are playing back behind the newspaper office. Looked like some real serious warfare going on and it sure as heck looked like they could use a leader."
"Gee, Miss Sterret. Thanks."
"Don't mention it." She nodded her head. "Ruth."
"Little Joe?" Mrs. Orowitz asked gently from behind the counter. "Which of the candies would you prefer?"
He placed three of his coins on the counter. "I guess as much of that, that and that as that will buy."
He was stepping out of the Mercantile, indulging his sweet tooth and wondering how he would ever explain to Pa that he'd spent all his money on candy when his boot toe struck something and sent it skittering. He bent down and picked it up.
It looked like the ones Miss Sterret had just bought. He started to run after her but then remembered one of Hoss' favorite sayings: finders keepers, losers weepers. Hoss was a pretty happy person so he must do a lot of finding and keeping.
Little Joe stuck the cigar in his pocket and ran off to join Weldon and the others.
"Aw, Ben, don't worry. There ain't that many places the little feller could be," Shelby said when she found Ben searching for Little Joe several hours later.
"There are some places I'd just as soon never find him." Ben put his hands on his hips and both of them unwillingly looked toward Jack Wolf's.
Shelby shook her head. "Nah, he ain't that curious - yet."
"Yet?" Ben choked.
Shelby winked through her cigar smoke. "Come on, the afternoon poker game's about to start. I'll buy you a cup of coffee and we can watch it."
Ben caught a movement from the side of his eye. Little Joe ran toward them, holding his hat on with his left hand.
"Hey, Pa! Miss Sterret."
"Where've you been, son?"
Little Joe motioned vaguely down the street. "Playing soldiers." He stuck out his chest. "I was the general."
Shelby grinned. "Lose any men?"
"Only Weldon. His ma needed him to watch his sister."
"Well, we should to be getting back." Ben looked at Shelby. "Rain check on the coffee?"
"Any time, Ben." She pulled Joe's hat down over his eyes. "See you, Short Tail."
It seemed to Little Joe that every time he had something fun he wanted to do he couldn't get away from anyone. He spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep the cigar hidden but by the next morning he had a plan.
What he figured he could do was wander off to the hill where the pines and rocks were and then he'd be all alone in that little cave he'd found. The only problem was he'd told Pa about the cave when they were riding into town yesterday. So he'd have to wait for Pa to be gone -
"Joseph," Ben said.
Little Joe looked up from his lunch plate wondering if Pa had been reading his mind.
"I'll be gone a little while and I'm leaving Adam in charge."
"Oh, yeah, sure Pa," Little Joe said in relief.
"And Adam, tomorrow Hoss and you can take the wagon and pick up that smokehouse lumber you cut."
Adam's blue eyes twinkled with mischief. "Unless Hoss is scared to go back."
Hoss frowned from across the table. "I'm telling you that was a bear I heard."
Ben left his boys squabbling amicably.
Now was his chance!
Little Joe had waited for what seemed like hours until Hop Sing went out to tend his herb garden. He slipped into the house to start the cigar by the fireplace. He kept lighting the end and lighting the end but nothing happened.
It wasn't fair. Miss Sterret made it look like there was nothing to it.
He glanced over his shoulder. Any minute now, Hop Sing would be back. In desperation, he grabbed a slender piece of kindling, got it lighted in the fire and then dashed from the house.
Oh gee. What was he thinking? If Adam caught him with a piece of burning wood in his hand he was a goner.
"Hoss? Can you help me here?" Adam's voice carried from over by the corral.
Shoot! Now he'd never make it to the trees and the cave. An ember from the burning kindling dropped at his boots and he quickly stepped on it. The only thing he could do was run for the outhouse, hoping to heaven no one saw him carrying the cigar in one hand and the fire in the other.
He closed and latched the outhouse door and waved his hand in front of his face. There was one thing about it - if he could ever get the cigar burning he didn't have to worry about anyone smelling it - fact was it might improve the air.
He leaned against the wall and frowned at the cigar. Something looked different about this and the ones Miss Sterret smoked.
That was it. The end was tapered instead of straight. He bit through it and it seemed to swell in his mouth. He gagged and couldn't spit it fast enough down the hole. Odors drifted back to him and he fought again to keep his lunch down.
Slumping against the wall, he eased the stump of kindling to the end of the cigar and sucked the way he'd seen Pa do with his pipe. Nothing happened until the fourth or fifth time and then it was like he'd inhaled pepper, hay dust and wood smoke all at the same time. He coughed hard enough to make his sides hurt and his head started leaving his neck. He slid to the ground and sat very still until the outhouse walls were straight again.
How come he was having so much trouble with this? If a girl could do it, he could. He sucked again. His head floated. He coughed and gagged and stuck his tongue out, wiping it on his arm, trying to get the taste out of his mouth. How could something smell that good and then, when you burned it, hurt so bad? What was it about all those grown up things? Like coffee - it smelled good, too - but the taste!
Little Joe held his stomach. The outhouse walls no longer tilted, they were weaving back and forth. Some of them even started breathing.
He took another coughing fit and then heard something he couldn't believe.
It couldn't be!
"Son, are you alright?"
He just thought he'd felt sick before.
"Uh - yeah, Pa - I'm fine."
"You don't sound fine, son."
"Uh - I think I ate wrong or something."
Ben tilted his head and fought a laugh. "Ate wrong?"
"Uh - yeah."
Ben shook his head. Did the youngster really think he couldn't smell the cigar smoke out here?
Little Joe frowned at the dead cigar. He would have to wait for another day to try this. But where could he put it in the meantime? He didn't dare keep it under his mattress again. It smelled to high heaven now that he had actually gotten it to burn a little.
Best thing he could do is hide it in here. But where?
That was it. The place in the corner where the leaves and pine needles blew in every time you opened the door. He hid the cigar there; confident no one would find it.
He needed some fresh air fast.
Little Joe bolted from the outhouse straight into Pa who put his big, strong hands on Little Joe's shoulders.
"I thought you might help me in the barn a few minutes."
"Uh - sure, Pa."
Ben had to give the boy one thing - he had "try". He gave it his best even if he was walking like a sea-sick sailor. Matter of fact, if his color got any grayer he'd probably be up with a real stomach upset during the night.
Lord, what was it about boys and tobacco? When Adam had been a kid he'd become so ill after sneaking Ben's pipe that he'd vomited for half a day. And Hoss had bitten off the end of a cigar and accidentally swallowed it when he was about seven. Poor Marie had been sure he would die of poisoning and Ben swore if the boy didn't die he would give him the hiding of his life. He'd spoken out of anger, which was a mistake, and the little guy had watched Ben warily for a week before he was sure his pa wasn't going to kill him.
Adam and Hoss had survived and Ben guessed this one would, too. He patted Joe on the shoulder and, since the boy seemed to have forgotten where the barn was for the moment, motioned in the correct direction.
Ben had just turned out his lamp when Little Joe's yell caused him to sit bolt upright.
"Pa! Hoss! Adam!"
What was he doing outside?
"Hop Sing! Come quick! Fire!"
Ben pulled on his pants and ran outside. The outhouse was flaming like a candle, with sparks shooting into the still night air. Thank God for that. No breeze. He could see Adam throwing water from a bucket. Ben grabbed a bucket and filled it at the pump, handing it to Adam as he ran back. He dropped the empty bucket, Ben filled it and Hoss grabbed it. The next thing Ben knew Hop Sing was there with another empty bucket.
Adam stepped back and twisted his lips. "Forget it, it's gone."
Hoss stared at the blackened lumber blankly. Ben wasn't sure his middle son was fully awake - he'd forgotten to pull on his pants. "What happened?"
"What did you do with that cigar?" Ben asked.
All their eyes turned to Little Joe who stood slightly apart from them in his night shirt.
Little Joe froze like a rabbit under a hawk's shadow. "Cigar?"
Adam looked down and Hoss frowned.
"You were smoking a cigar in the outhouse this afternoon."
"I never had any cigar, Pa," Little Joe vowed. Then he added a word that made Ben flinch inside. "Honest."
Lord, Ben thought, please help Joe admit the truth. I don't want to punish him for lying.
Little Joe's eyes lit with inspiration.
"You know what it was? I saw it. It was one of those flaming stars Adam was reading about."
Adam laughed and ran his hand through his hair. "Little Joe, if Haley's Comet hit that outhouse we wouldn't be here."
"Well then it was those outlaws."
"Outlaws?" Hoss frowned. "Why would outlaws want to burn down our outhouse?"
"Outlaws don't have to have reasons. They do stuff because they're mean," Joe said, flinging his arms wide, lost in his imagination. "But they got burned up with the outhouse when the lightning hit."
Everyone looked up at the bright stars piercing the black, cloudless sky.
"It was just one really big lightning," Joe finished.
That was it. Ben had heard enough. "Boys, get to bed. Thank you, Hop Sing."
With a lantern in his hand, Ben kicked around in the debris to be sure there were no sparks.
This had Joseph written all over it and it had something to do with that stupid cigar. Why hadn't he just told the truth? Now Ben would have to wait for Little Joe's conscience to kick in. And then he'd have to punish him for lying.
"Adam?" Hoss whispered from his upper bunk. "You awake?"
"Is Little Joe?"
Adam raised his head to check. "No."
"You sure he ain't faking it?"
"Adam, this thing tonight. You could tell Little Joe was lying to Pa about that cigar and it got me thinking. See, I ain't told him anything yet and well "
"Not telling is the same as lying," Adam recited.
"Yeah. I figure I'd better come up with some way to tell him."
"Probably be a good idea."
What do you mean no?"
"You're going to ask me to tell Pa for you and my answer is no."
"Dang it, Adam, sometimes you aren't much of a brother."
After a few minutes, Hoss said, "Adam?"
In his bunk, Adam put his hands behind his head and smiled. He knew what was coming. It was an old habit with them, based on Ma's rule that you never went to bed fussing. "Yes, Hoss?"
"I didn't mean that about you not being much of a brother."
"Good night, Hoss."
The next morning at breakfast Ben watched Joe for any signs that his conscience was bothering him but his youngest son was his usual self. To Ben's deep consternation, the other two behaved oddly.
Now what on earth was that about?
His first answer came from his oldest.
Adam was checking over his bridle when he looked up to find Ben's eyes on him.
"You know." He said flatly.
"Know what?" Ben asked.
"You don't?" Adam's blue eyes filled with surprise.
Ben fought the impulse to laugh. There was something in that look of pure astonishment that made him look more like six than 21. "No, Adam, I don't know what you're talking about."
He leaned against the barn wall. "I'm mad at myself because I knew better - and because you've warned me about it."
"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Ben said, trying to respect the young man's emerging adulthood.
Adam looked Pa in the eye. "I'd rather you heard it from me than from someone in town."
Ben put aside the cloth he'd been using and leaned his elbow on the saddle. "Alright."
"You know that bridle I've been wanting at the livery?"
"Well, I thought I could make the rest of the money fast. I sat in on a game at Shelby's." Adam held his hands up, palms toward Ben, and briefly closed his eyes. "I thought I had it all figured out, Pa. I read this book on the mathematics of gambling and it sounded pretty easy in the book."
Ben's heart ached for his son. This was not going to be good. "How much did you lose?"
"I got out with two dollars." He slapped his hand against his leg. "I can't believe I was that stupid."
"Stupid has nothing to do with it, son. Those other players had a lot more experience."
Adam needed some reassurance and Ben knew what would help.
"To be a successful card player you need what they call a poker face, Adam. One that doesn't show any emotion. In other words, a face that can lie. And even though you lost your money, I'm proud my son doesn't have a face that can lie."
The smile came to his eyes first and then to his mouth. Adam quietly sidestepped to his saddle.
"It's a tough lesson, isn't it?" Ben asked.
"Hopefully you'll learn faster than I did."
Adam blinked in surprise and laughed. "What?"
"I got taken for a cleaning when I was about Hoss' age and then years later on a riverboat docked at New Orleans."
"New Orleans? When you were -"
"Old enough to know better," Ben said for him.
They laughed together and got back to work.
After lunch, Ben noticed Hoss leaving the house with something hidden under his shirt and decided to follow him. His middle son was never good at being secretive - it ran counter to his open nature.
Following him to the barn, Ben waited outside until he heard Hoss' voice and soft laughter. He couldn't imagine who Hoss was talking to - well, maybe he could - and the sounds were a little suspicious. If he didn't know better he'd say someone was rolling in hay.
Ben stepped into the barn but didn't see his son anywhere.
"Dang!" came a whisper.
He was up in the hayloft.
Did Ben really want to pursue this?
He climbed the ladder and, when his waist was even with the loft floor, Hoss gave him a cherub's smile. Straw stuck to his shirt sleeves, areas of his pants and a short piece or two peeked from his curly hair.
Ben glanced around. "What's going on?"
If he only had a penny for every time he'd heard that response.
"Who were you talking to?" Ben stepped from the ladder to the loft and Hoss' eyes shot to a hay bale behind his father.
"Abigail and John Adams," he answered.
Ben frowned. He'd had about all the lying he was going to tolerate.
"Honest, Pa, I was talking to Abigail and John Adams. I was going to ask you if I could keep them, I just wanted them to get a little bigger so you could see that they'd earn their keep catching mice. Tess says they even catch grasshoppers and locusts and you know when those crickets get in the house and drive you crazy at night? Well we could let Abigail or John Adams in and they'd take care of that cricket like that." He snapped his fingers in Pa's face. "And then you wouldn't be muttering and hitting your toe and stamping all through the house and Hop Sing wouldn't be telling you crickets are good luck and Joe wouldn't get the giggles in bed so bad that Adam and me can't shut him up and then he gets the hiccoughs and then Adam gets to laughing and -"
"You have kittens up here?" Ben asked.
Hoss looked down. "Yes, Pa." Then he looked up again, which of course meant Ben was looking up at him. "But, Pa, I swear they're the cutest little things you ever saw."
Ben looked over the edge worriedly. "Aren't you afraid they'll fall?"
"Well, I've been trying to work on a pen for them just so nothing'll get to them at night. But it's kind of hard doing anything around here without you knowing about it."
Ben grinned at Hoss' discomfort and sat down on the hay bale. "Alright. Let's see Abigail and John Adams."
Hoss was right. They were two of the cutest kittens Ben had ever seen. In fact, he had seen them. They were from one of Margaret's cats' litters. Ben dragged a piece of hay by his boots and the kittens pounced on it, snapping it and then tumbling with each other over his boot top. "Their wrestling reminds me of Adam and you when you were little."
"Adam says I was never little."
Ben looked at his son and put on his most serious face. "I have one question for you, Hoss."
"Are they Greenes or Cartwrights?"
Hoss' face filled with laughter. "I figure they're Cartwrights if it's okay with you, Pa."
Ben stood and slapped his shoulder. "Just do me a favor? Leave the rabbits out in the wild."
"Sure, Pa. No problem."
Joe's conscience finally hit him the next morning. Ben recognized all the signs.
Adam always wanted to speak with Ben in private. Hoss was a little less sure of himself and had required Marie's help, or protection, at times. Joseph, from the time he could talk, had believed in safety in numbers.
As his mother had often pointed out, her Petit Josef also had the mistaken belief that confession brought automatic absolution.
Most of the time it did. But not about lying. And not this time.
Trying to look his most positive, Little Joe cleared his throat at the breakfast table. "Pa?"
Here it came. Adam smiled and Hoss ducked his head.
"Yes?" Ben watched him over his coffee mug.
The youngster sat straight in his chair with his small hands resting on the edge of the table. His flapjacks hadn't been touched. "Pa, I know something about the fire."
Ben put down the mug and scooted his chair back. "I'm listening."
"See, the day we went into town I went to the Orowitz's store and I bought some candy and Miss Sterret was buying cigars. And when I left the store one of the cigars was on the sidewalk there. I guess she dropped it or something. So I put it in my pocket."
"Why did you put it in your pocket?"
"Well, you know, that saying of Hoss': finders keeper, losers weepers."
Ben leaned back slightly and Hoss studiously avoided making eye contact. "Go on."
"Well see, I tried to light it in here when Hop Sing was in his garden but I couldn't so I took a firestick to the outhouse -"
Little Joe took a deep breath. "So, anyhow, I got it going but it wasn't easy like Miss Sterret makes it look. And then you showed up and I had to hide it and I buried it in the leaves and stuff there just inside the door."
Adam and Hoss groaned in unison.
Little Joe turned to them. "What?"
"You should've buried it in dirt," Hoss said from experience. "Just like a campfire."
Joe looked to Adam who always knew everything. His oldest brother raised his dark eyebrows and said, "Just like a campfire."
Little Joe turned back to Pa expectantly. Pa had to be proud of him, right? After all, he had told him the truth. And Pa was big on telling the truth.
His surprise came swiftly and sternly as Pa said, "You'll pay Shelby for the cigar and apologize too her for taking what you knew was hers and you will also help Adam with the new outhouse without complaining or slacking."
That hardly sounded fair but it didn't seem like a good time to argue with Pa or bring up the fact that he'd spent all his money.
Little Joe pushed his chair back from the table, hoping to hide his disappointment.
"And I want to see you in the barn about your lying."
Little Joe's backside tingled at Pa's words. Oh, gee.
Dagnabit, this just wasn't right.
It was times like this that Hoss missed Ma more than anything. She would have followed Pa outside and, in that gentle way of hers, talked to him about Little Joe's lying. She wouldn't have talked Pa out of the punishment, she'd never been able to do that, but sometimes there was less of it after Ma stepped in. Unless, of course, you were dumb enough to get in trouble with her. Then that French temper of hers made Pa seem like one of those puff pastries she made.
Well, she wasn't here. And Adam was sitting by the fireplace, finishing his breakfast coffee and drawing on that tablet of his like he didn't have a care in the world. Adam ought to be the one to go talk to Pa. He was a lot better at arguing with Pa, at making sense, and he knew how to argue with Pa without it getting personal. But it didn't look like he was going to do anything. Hoss pushed to his feet and stomped out the front door.
If no one else in this family would stand up for his baby brother by golly he would. It was his duty. After all, wasn't Pa always telling him to watch after Little Joe? Well, sir, he'd watch out for him starting right now.
"Pa," Hoss angrily grabbed his father's arm and turned him from the corral. Even through the thick shirt and long johns, he felt the coiled muscle that had knocked a man out cold in a bare-knuckle fight and pretty much cleared the tent at the faith healer's last appearance.
Ben looked down at Hoss' hand and the 17-year-old quickly released his grip.
Dang! This wasn't going at all good.
Hoss shoved his hands in his front pockets. "Pa, we gotta talk."
Ben studied his son a moment - Hoss' eyebrows were pulled down until his forehead wrinkled between them.
"It's about Little Joe."
Ben sigh was so deep that his shirt caved in.
"What's he done now?"
"It's not what he's done, Pa. Well, I mean he burned down the outhouse, but shoot Pa, we were kinda needing a new one anyhow."
Ben's face darkened.
Hoss hastened to speak, hoping to get himself out of this in one piece. "Pa, it's just - well - I figure I know what you're fixing to do to Little Joe for lying to you but I just don't think he needs a tanning."
Ben squinted at his middle son and repeated his words. "You don't think he needs a tanning?"
"No, Pa, I think he's pretty miserable about what he did already"
Ben leaned back against the corral in surprise. Was this the same Hoss who had been choking his brother only a few days ago? What was it about these three that they could threaten one another but were so protective of each other? He was both proud and frustrated with them.
"Tell, me, Hoss, do you happen to remember when you learned what the consequences of lying are?"
Lying, oh yeah, there were consequences.
Just thinking about it made Hoss' stomach jump and his bottom tingle. Funny how the past would bump into the present sometimes. Maybe that was another reason it had been so hard to tell Pa about the kittens in the barn.
He must have been about 11 years old, although he never looked 11, back when they were traveling west. They were camped near a small town for the night and could hear some very loud noises drifting over the night. Some sounded like music, some laughter and, most strange of all, animal noises. Joe, too, was questioning Pa about the sounds that went on late into the night.
The next day they all went into town and such excitement the boys had never seen! A circus was in town. Of course, Ma had told the boys about the circus. She had seen several in New Orleans as a girl. Pa too, having traveled all over the world by ship, had seen the circus many times. But this was the first time any of his sons had been this close to a REAL circus. Off the wagon they jumped and took off to look at th posters covering the wooden posts up and down main street. Pa had to round Hoss and Joe up to get the supplies and them into the wagon and get back to camp.
That evening, Ma and Pa decided he would take them to the circus. Ma stayed back at the wagon with Adam who had decided, at the wise old age of 15, that he was too old for such silliness. Marie gave Joe and Hoss one last warning about the dangers of the animals, and they were off.
The brothers had eyes as big as the moon itself watching the clowns, jugglers, tumblers, and trick riders. But, when the man came out with a whip and chair and the big cats called tigers, they almost dropped their peanuts. Never had they been so excited. Pa too, was impressed at the show this far from the big cities. He had such a wonderful time watching his boys that he almost missed the action in the ring. Finally the night had to end and Ben took two very happy young boys home. They made so much noise when they got back to the wagon, telling Ma about everything they'd seen, often at the same time, they woke up Adam, who crankily told them to get quiet. Pa told Adam to mind his manners. He did.
Hoss ask Pa if they could go back again and see the animals just one more time. "No, son, we have to be moving again by tomorrow".
As they lay in their bedrolls that night, Hoss ask Joe, "Do you think those big tigers would really eat a man, like that ringmaster fella said?"
"Of course, that is why he had to have that chair and whip, don't you know nothin'?" was his little brother's reply.
The longer Hoss laid there the more he just had to see those animals one more time. As long as Pa didn't know and he was back by morning, what could be the harm?
Quietly he eased out of bed and grabbed his boots and made off to the road that went back into town. They were not to far away and he made the trip quickly.
It was a bright, beautiful day as the sun came up the next morning. Everyone was up early getting ready get back on the road to the new home Pa had been promising they were going to find.
Hoss was not moving around as fast as usual, in fact he seemed still half asleep. First Ben attributed it to the excitement of the evening before, after all it was still all the two boys could talk about during breakfast. But as the morning got underway, he could see no change in the way Hoss was acting. An 11 year old should not still be needing a nap, but Marie thought it was best so they sent Hoss to the back of the wagon for a short nap. He did not even complain about it either.
A little while later as they were still making ready the wagon, a group of men on horseback rode up. They were polite and were looking for one of the tigers that had escaped from the circus last night after the performance. They did not want to alarm anyone, but said to be on the lookout, just in case. Ben was quite sure that if he had seen a tiger anywhere around he would have recognized it!
He turned to his boys and asked if they had seen any sign of the missing animal. Adam and Joe were quick to say "no"; Joe even added he would be glad to help the men search for it. The look on Pa's face let him know that was never going to happen.
Hoss, on the other hand, never really answered the question. Ben decided he would rephrase his question and ask directly. "Hoss, have you seen a tiger since we were at the circus last night?"
Not a good sign he answered with two more questions. "Do you mean here in camp, and do you mean one of those big cats the man was popping his whip at?"
"Uh .no, sir."
They finished the packing and were off. Adam and Hoss riding on the oxen in front, Ma and Pa with Joseph on the wagon seat. It was a long day and evening was closing in when they stopped for the night. Hoss was still acting out of character, but after all he was an 11 year old. Every time anyone went to the back of the wagon, there was Hoss to help get what was needed.
After supper they sat around the fire, Pa read from the Bible and the night was very still. Suddenly a strange sound came from the back of the wagon - groaning, growling, snarling.
Ma had already put Little Joe to bed at the front of the wagon. She looked at Pa. "Ben, you do not think ze tiger could be in there with Joseph do you?"
Pa got up and started toward the wagon and up jumped Hoss. "Where you going Pa?"
"To the back of the wagon."
"Let me go look for you."
"Eric, is there a reason you don't want me near the end of this wagon?"
"Well, no sir."
Ben stepped to the end of the wagon. He moved blankets, boxes, empty lanterns--suddenly out of the back of the wagon came a ball of fur, claws, green eyes and fury. It hit Pa right in the chest and knocked him heels over head. Ma came running, Adam jumped up and ran with Hoss on his heels. Ben was white as a sheet and trying to get to his feet. Little Joe woke up startled by all the noise. The horse and oxen were about to panic.
Ben yelled at Adam to go steady down the livestock and the 15 year old ran to obey. Slowly the camp calmed down enough for Ben to see the green eyes that attacked him looking back at him from a bush on the side of the road. He grabbed the powder loaded gun from the wagon and aimed but Hoss jumped up and ran toward the green eyes, screaming all the while "Don't shoot!!"
Falling into the bush he came out with a kitten, a tiger kitten. Pa was shaking, Ma was calming a frightened Little Joe, and Adam was on his knees laughing his head off.
There stood Hoss with a stripped baby tiger, crying and begging Pa not to shoot it.
It took a while for the camp to settle that night. The boys were sent to bed and Marie and Ben climbed into their bed under the wagon. Marie started to giggle, but not so loud that the boys could hear. Ben was still way to mad to find humor in the situation.
The next day Pa got up and had Hoss bring him the tiger cub. "Son, we are going to talk about this when I get back," he warned. "A LONG talk." With that he rode back in the direction of the town they had left.
Hoss had all day to think about the fact that he had lied to Pa about the tiger - after all not telling everything was a lie. He had lied to the townsfolks about the tiger, and he had no idea what he was going to say to Pa when he got back.
Adam understood, he told Hoss, "Well you know he won't shoot you anyway."
This resulted in a stern look from Ma and a quick exit from Adam.
It was late in the evening when Pa got back. Ma was the first to greet him and started right in trying to get him to go easy on young Eric. Pa was having nothing to do with that idea.
He went over to where Hoss was sitting. "Son, I want the whole story, and I want it now." The tone of voice and the look on his face was enough to freeze water.
Marie quickly took Adam and Little Joe to the far side of the camp.
Hoss told Pa about sneaking out of camp, going back to the circus, and finding the cub, and it was so cute and little, and well as he left it just followed him home, honest.
That did it- Pa turned scarlet.
OK, truth this time.
He overheard the men that owned the animals say they might have to kill the kitten so the mother would start performing again. He had to save the baby.
Pa told him the men would not kill off the kitten. It was worth too much money to them. The fact of the matter was, he still was not satisfied with the answer he got when he asked then men in town why they did not tell him it was a cub and not a full grown tiger that was missing.
And the part he did not tell his son was that when he took the cub back, he had said he found it. It troubled Ben to stretch the truth even that much, but it was to protect his son. The same son he was proud of for wanting to protect the cub and caring so much for animals. At this age, any punishment should come from him, not strangers.
But he could not take the lying - not for any reason. After all he was raising a man and that man must know the consequences for lying.
Hoss decided this was not the time to remind Pa that what he had asked was if he had seen one of the "big" tigers that morning, not a cub. That might push Pa over the edge and that was never a good thing to do.
Pa sent Hoss to bed that night knowing tomorrow would be a day he and his son would not soon forget.
The next morning while Adam, Joe and Ma were packing, Pa went out in the thicket with Hoss.
Adam told Hoss later he had tried real hard not to hear what was going on with Hoss - he knew too well since he had been there a few times himself and the memory was not that pleasant.
As Hoss and Pa came back to camp, Hoss with tears in his eyes and sporting a freshly tanned bottom, they all knew it was the kind of memory Hoss would keep, too, and someday be reminded of it.
A day like today when he was hoping Pa wouldn't do to Little Joe what he'd done to him.
Hoss pulled his eyes from the pines and looked at Pa. "I remember when I learned, Pa. It was a real hard lesson."
One of Pa's brows rose. "Now it's Little Joe's turn."
His shoulders slumped and he turned away. Dadgumit, for such a patient man Pa could sure be hard-headed some times.
Hoss met Adam as his older brother stepped off the porch.
"Hoss, would you hitch up the wagon?" Adam asked.
Hoss started to remind Adam that he wasn't his hired hand when he noticed his eyes were directed toward Pa.
"You figure to talk to him?"
Adam tilted his head back. "Maybe." He waited until Hoss walked away before crossing to the corral. If this didn't go well there was no need for Hoss to hear it.
Ben looked up from the horse trough he was inspecting for a leak. He smiled. "You're light enough on your feet to sneak up on a wild turkey."
"Have to try it sometime." Adam slapped his hat against his left thigh. Ben recognized that habit. His oldest son was nervous about something.
"Pa -" he said again and ran his hand through his hair.
Ben stood up and leaned his elbow on the corral. Why was it that the more anxious his sons became the more they said "Pa"?
Adam bit his lower lip and looked from the tops of his eyes - a mannerism so like Elizabeth it sometimes startled Ben all these years later. "You know a lot more about being a pa than I do and I don't mean any disrespect -"
Ben frowned. "But?"
Adam raised his chin. "Little Joe's not tough like Hoss and I are."
"No, not as tough as you two are - he's 12 years old."
"What I mean is, he's not as tough as we were when we were 12."
Interesting how different their memories were, Ben thought.
Adam squinted slightly. "You were hard on me."
Ben nodded. "Yes, I was."
"And you weren't real easy on Hoss."
"No, I wasn't."
"But, well, Little Joe's different, Pa."
"Little Joe should be allowed to lie without paying any consequences?" Ben asked. "Do you happen to remember when you learned the consequences for lying?"
Oh, what a question. Did he remember when he learned the consequences of lying? He remembered them only too well.
"I guess I wish Joe didn't have to learn, Pa."
Ben nodded. "So do I. But I'd be doing him no favor by letting him get away with it. You're old enough to understand that."
Hoss pulled the wagon up and Adam silently climbed in beside him.
"Well?" Hoss asked once they were out of earshot.
Adam gave a shake of his head, "He's going to tan Little Joe," he said remembering the day he learned lying was one of the most unpardonable of sins in his father's book, especially when it involved other people.
One of Ma's distant cousins was having a wedding near Natchez and the whole family went to help out. Ma was going to show the cook how to make the wonderful French desserts she was so good at, Pa was helping them built an outdoor pavilion, and, best of all Adam and Hoss got to see what another school was like. That was where the trouble began.
It didn't take the boys long to make friends with the locals. Hoss missed Adam though, and as the older boys teased him about his "little" brother hanging around them all the time, Adam started making sure he got away from Hoss as much as possible.
One evening when Adam was late getting home, Ma scolded him. At 12, he considered himself too big for her to be ordering around anymore and he didn't take the scolding in the best frame of mind.
What he didn't know was Pa heard him sass Ma.
Later that night Pa laid down the law to Adam about his responsibilities and respecting Ma. Adam was sure Ma had told Pa and he was spittin' mad.
The next day after school the boys gathered in the livery loft, telling jokes Adam didn't fully understand and spinning tales about the local girls. Some of the boys started teasing the younger ones about being "green behind the ears" when it came to girls.
Adam remembered just enough talk about how wild it was in some parts of New Orleans to start his own story. He told about how he had been in a few of the sporting houses. He repeated some of the stories the boys in New Orleans had told him and they had the desired effect. The brags got bigger and he became the center of attention- a new experience for him. It didn't take long before he ran out of material, though. And that was when the unthinkable happened - right in the middle of one of his "whoppers" he got even with Ma and said she'd met Pa in a sporting house.
The word spread like wildfire from son to father and around the town. Not only was Mrs. Cartwright French, she had worked in a New Orleans sporting house. The whole atmosphere of the town changed. Men stared at her and no longer tipped their hats and people stopped speaking when Pa entered a room.
Ma was very upset. She could not understand the sudden change in the way she and her family were being treated. Pa asked the boys if they knew anything or had heard something they needed to tell him. Hoss was quick to tell Pa he didn't know anything. Three year old Joe shook his head, causing Pa to smile. Adam was not as quick, but his answer was the same, "No, Pa"
That night after they were in bed, Hoss asked Adam, what was going on. He knew his brother and could feel the tension in Adam.
"Nothing," Adam told him. "If I told you anything, you might have to lie about it, too."
Hoss stopped asking anything from Adam.
The next day at school, Adam got into a fight with one of the older boys who had passed on his tall tale. The teacher used a hickory switch on both of them and kept them after school. When Ben came to meet his sons to go home, Hoss told him Adam couldn't go for a while because he had to stay after.
Ben walked Hoss home and then waited for Adam.
"Trouble at school, son?" he asked.
"Yeah, Pa, a fight with another boy." Adam's blue eyes looked down at the ground and his hand moved through his mop of dark hair. "Can we talk about it later, Pa? I have chores to do."
Ben would let it pass for a while. He had the feeling it was not going to be a story he was anxious to hear.
Part of the answer came when Tante Jeanette arrived. She found Pa as he worked on the pavilion and rushed to them. "Oh, Benjamin, have you heard these things they say? They are most horrible."
Pa's eyes went to his sister-in-law. "Stories?"
"Oh but they are terrible. They say you met Marie - well - that Marie was a lady of the evening, Benjamin." It was as close as Jeanette could come to expressing the unthinkable.
Ben's temper flared like the smokestacks of a Mississippi riverboat. "When I find out who started that talk -"
The answer was swift and painful, like being kicked in the stomach by a mule. "But, Benjamin, the story comes from Adam."
"Are you sure?"
Ben found Adam coming back from feeding the chickens.
"Well, son, what is this I hear about you telling people where I met your ma?"
Adam was in complete shock. He took one look at the stern statement on Pa's face and said, "I don't know what you mean, Pa - honest."
Ben had prayed that his oldest would tell him the truth and not add to the lies already told, but his hopes were dashed with that one word - "honest". Now would come the waiting game to see when Adam's conscience took hold and made him tell the truth.
The next two days were the hardest Adam ever faced. Ma was mad, Pa was mad, Tante Jeanette kept giving him looks of disapproval, Hoss felt left out, and Little Joe could not have acted happier. After the fight in school the other boys were not speaking to him either because he had won the fight with a boy much bigger and older and, to tell the TRUTH, they were afraid of him.
He could not take it any longer. That morning instead of going to school he went down by the stream near the town. He was sitting there away from everyone when Pa came looking for him. It was what he had planned anyway, alone and away from everybody, just Pa and him to talk it over.
Pa sat down and never said a word. Adam teared up and the words came out like an explosion. He'd had no idea what trouble he was starting with just one little story.
"Did your ma do anything to justify what you said?" Pa asked.
Adam wanted to say that she told on him, but thought better of it. Pa was already so angry there was no point adding fuel to the fire. And there was no excuse for telling lies about someone. He knew that. "No, Pa."
Pa told Adam he would have to apologize to his Ma, and set things straight in school. This would mean getting up in front of the class and telling that he had lied about everything.
Adam thought Pa was being too hard. "We don't live here, why do I have to do that? I'll tell Ma I am sorry, because I am, but not those guys at school. They started it by telling everyone what I said."
Pa took a long deep breath for patience. "Son, a man takes responsibility for what he has done, said, and told others to do. I want you to grow up to be a man that can be trusted by his word. All lies have consequences and the bigger the lie, the worse the consequence. Do you understand?"
He understood. He didn't want to, but he did. So after they got home, Adam went looking for Ma and found her with the cook in the kitchen. Adam spoke to her quickly and sincerely. He told her how he thought she told Pa on him, and how one thing led to another and how sorry he was and he would never do it again.
He knew from past experience she would be mad, but forgiving as always. He was in for a shock. Not only was she mad, she had one of her French knives in her hand. The knife with the big, broad blade like a paddle.
Ma walked over to Adam, put her hands on his shoulders and turned him around. She pushed him over and as she did so whacked the seat of his pants with the flat, broad side of the knife.
The shock was almost more than Adam could take. He stood up, turned back and looked at her with tears in his eyes.
Ma laid down the knife. She held out her arms and pulled him close to her so she could kiss his forehead. "We shall not mention this again, mon fils. I love you and I forgive you."
Adam made his speech about lying in school the next day, and then got to tell the teacher and class good-bye since they would be leaving the day after the wedding.
That was the best part-he did not have to see them ever again.
When he got home that evening he felt like his old self again, smiling and with the weight of the world off his shoulders, picking on Hoss and Little Joe. The lies were all straightened out and everything was great. Ma even let him have one of the pastries they would have at the wedding.
At least his happiness lasted until Pa walked in and said, "Adam, I need to see you in the shed out back."
Once at the shed, Adam waited for Pa to come in. Surely Pa wasn't going to give him a tanning after all he had been through.
Surely he had been punished enough. Besides he'd just turned 12 and he was too old for that kind of thing.
Pa came through the door and if Adam had any hopes this was over the look on Pa's face put an end to them. He had his belt in his hand and that could only mean one thing.
He remembered that tanning very well. It was burned into his memory to this day. He had never lied to Pa, or anyone else, again. And he guessed that was what Pa, in his wisdom, knew Little Joe had to learn. He would have to face the consequences of his lying, too.
As much as Pa loved them, it must take all his strength to teach that lesson.
What he wanted to do was go hide in his cave but Little Joe knew better than to leave the area near the house. Not that Pa had said he couldn't. But, then again, he didn't have to. Little Joe knew.
He retreated to his bed and stared at the bottom of the bunk above his. This was the worst part of it. The waiting.
Sometimes Pa gave him that look that could stop a charging grizzly at a hundred paces and he even yelled when he just couldn't take it anymore. But he always calmed down pretty fast. And they never went to bed without working things out.
But there was a reason he was making Little Joe wait right now. Part of it was so Adam and Hoss wouldn't be around. For that Little Joe was grateful. And part of it was because Pa didn't believe in punishing any of them when he was angry. Little Joe guessed he was grateful for that. But the biggest reason was because Pa expected him to think about what he'd done. And for that Little Joe wasn't so grateful.
He didn't want to think back to when Pa had asked him straight out about the cigar and he'd lied and said he didn't have one.
He'd known it was wrong to play with that cigar - he should have given it back to Miss Sterret - but he'd been afraid to admit what he'd done the night of the fire. After all, he'd been standing there in just his nightshirt. Pa would have bent him over and laid the flat of his hand right across Little Joe's backside. There was no way Adam and Hoss wouldn't have heard what was happening even if they'd been back in the bunkroom. And Little Joe couldn't live with that kind of humiliation.
At least this way Adam and Hoss would be gone in the wagon to get the lumber. And Hop Sing would be here in the house - maybe he wouldn't hear anything happening in the barn.
He didn't have to think long about this one. He lied to Pa about having the cigar. That's why he was getting Pa's belt for sure.
Little Joe rolled off the bunk, screwed up his courage and walked to the barn from the back of the house.
Ben leaned on the corral and rubbed his forehead. Both of them, Hoss and Adam, worried about Joe. Understanding that lying was wrong. But trying to tell their pa, each in his own way, that their youngest brother was sorry. Trying to tell him how much it hurt them to think of him hurting Little Joe. Did either one of them understand how much he disliked this - even if it had to be done?
Then again, maybe he could meet them halfway. Maybe it didn't have to be done the way he'd done it before.
He waited until there was no sign of the wagon and then called out, "Joseph!"
"I'm here, Pa." His youngest stood in the barn doorway, anxious eyes watching as his pa walked to him.
Ben pulled off his gloves and laid them on the top rail of a stall.
"So, have you thought about it?" he asked, his voice even.
"I shouldn't have lied to you when you asked me about the cigar."
Ben kept eye contact. "And why did you lie to me?"
Little Joe glanced away and his eyes dulled. "Cause I was afraid."
"Afraid of what, son?"
"Afraid cause you'd know I'd been smoking."
Ben shook his head slowly. "Joseph, I already knew you'd been smoking."
Little Joe gave him the same incredulous look Adam had the day before. "You did?" he whispered.
"I wouldn't have spanked you for that. I would have done exactly what I've already done: told you to pay Shelby for the cigar, apologize to her for taking it, and to help Adam build the new outhouse."
Little Joe's shoulders slumped. "But now I'm in trouble for lying to you."
"Now you're in trouble for lying," Ben repeated. He sat down on the tack box and looked up at the youngster. He could see the awful truth sinking into Little Joe's thoughts - if he hadn't lied that night it wouldn't have come to this.
"Son," Ben said, "there are some very important things in a family. One is love. Another is respect for each other." He waited a moment. "And another is being able to trust each other. The older you get, the more I'll need to trust you to go camping and hunting by yourself, to travel to Sacramento or San Francisco and handle business for the ranch, I'll need you to hire men to work for us and at times I may ask you to head up work crews."
Little Joe's eyes grew larger and larger as Pa related the adult jobs he would be taking on.
"But I can't trust you if you lie to me," Ben said. "That's one of the consequences, Joseph. There are others, and none of them are good."
Little Joe knew that word 'consequences'. They'd discussed it lots of times. He wasn't going to start crying like some baby. Pa wasn't treating him that way and he wouldn't act that way.
He did his best but before it was over tears stung his cheeks and his bottom was scorched.
He stood in front of Pa, waiting to be excused and silently promising himself he would never, ever lie to Pa about anything again as long as he lived. The disappointment in Pa's eyes hurt as much as the spanking.
Well, almost as much.
"Joseph," Pa said so gently Little Joe wasn't sure he'd heard him at first. He wiped the back of his hand across his eyes and looked up.
"Son, I don't always care for what you've done but don't ever doubt that I love you."
It wasn't fair. He was fighting so hard not to be a baby but Pa's kind words and the way he kissed the top of Little Joe's head snapped something inside him. He threw his arms around Pa's waist and cried as hard as he had when Ma died. And Pa held him close and let him cry himself out. How could Pa's hand be so hard when it spanked him and so gentle when it rubbed his back?
Little Joe woke slowly from his nap, wondering what the constant thud sound was outside. Yawning, he walked to one of the windows. Adam and Hoss were back and they were unloading the wagon. From the position of the sun, Little Joe knew it wouldn't be long until dinnertime.
Pa would expect him to sit at the dinner table without complaining. It was another of the consequences. He could put a pillow in his chair but that was what little kids did. That would be too embarrassing even if they weren't having company.
But his backside hurt worse than his thumb had that time he'd hit it with the hammer.
That was it!
The time he'd hit his thumb so bad, Pa told him to hold his hand in the water trough. The cool water had helped a whole bunch.
But it wasn't like he could just sit with his bare bottom in one of the water troughs. He didn't even want to think of the kidding Adam and Hoss would give him about that.
What he could do, though, was go to the pond. He could walk there in no time, even as sore as he was. The pond was fed from a spring that came right out of the rocks and it was cold all the time. Pa said the water came from high up in the mountains where the snow hardly ever melted. The pond was so clear you could see all the rocks on the bottom and the water was safe enough to drink and not give you a bellyache. In fact, it was where they'd gotten their drinking water before they'd dug the well.
Little Joe made his way through the thick stand of pines and onto the grass clearing. He stood looking at the pond a minute to be sure no animals were drinking nearby and then walked to the narrow rocky strand which served as the shore. He peeled off his clothes and waded naked into the water that was as clear as glass.
Gee it was cold.
Little Joe gasped as the water went above his knees. That must be some cold snow up on those mountains! His teeth began to chatter and every bit of his skin, every bit of it, was covered in bumps. He wasn't sure he could go any deeper but he had to if it was going to soothe his scorched butt. This water was either going to soothe it or freeze it off.
Okay, there was only one way to do this. Little Joe took a deep breath for courage, blew it all out, and dove headfirst into the deeper water. He bobbed back up a moment later with a shout.
He had never, in his whole life, been so cold. Glad that Pa had taught him how to swim almost as soon as he could walk, he did his strongest stroke around the point to an area where the pond was still in full daylight. That was when the idea hit him. It was his bottom that needed the cooling off. So he flipped on his back and floated with the sun on his front. That was better. He could feel the water pulling the heat from his tail while the sun warmed him like a low fire.
He didn't exactly drift off to sleep. But he did lose track of time for a little while. He could tell by the position of the sun. The last thing he needed was for Pa to get cross with him for being late to dinner. He swam back to shore and couldn't believe his eyes.
Ben paused in pacing off the size of the smokehouse and squinted uphill. What the devil was that? It looked for the world like - it was. Little Joe was coming down the slope in a buttoned torn shirt, no pants and apparently no long johns, no socks and holding one boot. All that saved his dignity was the fact that the shirt went halfway to his bare knees.
The 12 year old was white with anger.
"What happened to you?" Ben asked in bewilderment. Despite his concern, the boy's appearance was so comical he had to fight not to laugh.
"It was Adam and Hoss!" Little Joe raved. "I was swimming in the pond and -"
"The pond? Son, the pond's too cold for swimming."
"No it isn't," he said angrily. "I was swimming and when I came out they'd scattered my clothes all over the place! I can't even find my boot, Pa, and this is all shredded."
Joe's yelling had carried to the side of the house and Adam appeared with Hoss behind him. "What's wrong?" he asked, his eyes widening as he saw his little brother.
Ben made a quick grab and caught Little Joe under the arms.
"What happened to you?" Hoss howled with laughter.
It was the wrong thing to do.
Little Joe turned into a kicking, thrashing tiger.
"Joseph," Ben said. "Joseph, listen to me."
"I'm gonna kill you if it takes me the rest of my life!" Little Joe yelled.
Adam's eyebrows shot up and Hoss took a step back.
"Joseph," Ben said sternly, "Adam and Hoss have been here with me all afternoon. They could not have taken your clothes."
The boy went very still in his arms and Ben released him but kept a close eye for any sign of impending movement.
Little Joe looked from his brothers to Pa and down to his tattered shirt. "Well, if they didn't, who did?"
"I don't think it was a 'who', little brother," Hoss said.
Adam rolled his eyes. "I suppose you think it was your bear."
Hoss put his hands on either side of his waist. "You have a better idea?"
Adam studied the rips in Little Joe's shirt a moment and when his eyes met his youngest brothers, Little Joe's heart went into his throat. "You think it was a bear, too?" he asked.
Adam squinted. "I think there's a good chance, yes."
"How come he didn't try to get you?" Hoss asked.
"He was swimming," Ben explained.
"In the pond?!" Adam and Hoss yelped
"It's not that cold," Little Joe said cockily and walked to the house.
"Not that cold?" Adam repeated. "Is he crazy? A man could freeze off his -"
Ben smiled at the sudden stop in Adam's sentence. "Yes, son?"
His oldest blushed with modesty. "Well, you know."
Ben grinned at Hoss. "Yes, I think we do."
Ben had one more chore he wanted to finish before sundown and, seeing how close Hop Sing was to having dinner ready, told him to tell the boys to start without him.
Punishing one of the boys always bothered him - even as rarely as he had to, it left him with a sour stomach that took hours to settle. He always hoped a stern look or a sharp lecture would get the point across. But when punishment had to be given, it was best done quickly and always with compassion and correction. He owed that much to the men his boys would become someday - the men they were becoming a little more quickly each day.
Finally stepping into the house he washed his hands and then paused to enjoy that rarest of treats-watching his sons without them knowing. Hop Sing was filling plates and Hoss was excitedly telling him about Little Joe's adventure. Adam was leaning against the wall, sketching in a drawing pad.
When Little Joe entered from the bunkroom, wearing a fresh set of clothes, Hop Sing looked at the three and said, "Father say he have one more chore. Say for you to start."
Adam obeyed out of habit, but not before tearing a sheet from the pad and taking it to the table with him. Hop Sing sat down and had to caution Hoss, who was waving his big hands around, not to upset the dish of rabbit and rice. Ben watched closely as Little Joe pulled out his chair, trying to make his discomfort no more obvious than necessary as he sat down. It didn't escape his notice that Adam, too, watched his brother carefully.
It seemed to Ben that Hoss was taking a lot longer to tell about Little Joe's near miss with the bear than it had taken Little Joe to live it - he was making the thing into a dime novel. The only time he paused was to tell Hop Sing how good the dinner was.
While Hoss talked, Adam looked from the tops of his eyes and slid the piece of paper across the table to Little Joe.
The boy took one look at it and shoved it angrily back at his oldest brother.
"What's that?" Hoss asked, suddenly aware he was missing something.
"This," Adam said with uncharacteristic bragging in his voice, "is the Adam Cartwright plan for the new and improved, Ponderosa two-holer. Fully guaranteed against comets, lightning strikes and marauding outlaws."
The room went as quiet as the pines before a storm and Ben held his breath. Oh, Lord, please don't let them start fighting at the dinner table.
"You forgot something," Joe said to his oldest brother.
"What's that?" Adam asked.
Ben smiled with affection as Little Joe said good-naturedly, "You better make it cigar proof."