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What Was Benjamin Thinkin'?

By Texas2002

 

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

Rating: G

This story follows "The Trouble With Words"…and, by the way, oops: according to a "Bonanza" episode Little Joe was probably born in the Spring rather than in the Fall as I stated in the last story. Thanks to Virginia City Gal for the reference to the "bear story". And thank you to Kierin for her dedication to "the cause".

 

"I think Pa could have cracked their heads together the way Adam and Little Joe were going at each other," Hoss Cartwright laughed as he drove the wagon toward Eagle Station. Barbara joined his laughter from her place on the seat beside him and patted her hands together for warmth in the early afternoon air.

"There’s no telling how long it would have gone on if you hadn’t found those ropes under Ben’s bed," she observed.

"That’s for sure ‘cause Pa wasn’t likely to tell us."

Barbara shrugged one shoulder of her heavy coat and pulled her scarf closer. "You know, Hoss, when your father and Angus were young sailors and they made the rounds of the different pubs, your father was known for being able to get out of any knots he was tied in."

Hoss tilted his head and considered this newfound knowledge. "Figure that’s something a man stays good at?"

"Having watched your father work knots for amusement in the evening, I’d say a man stays good at it as long as he practices." Barbara shaded her eyes and looked at the mountains. One morning here the air would be bracing and full of the smell of leaves, reminding her of days in New England. And the next morning would be sharp and dry and foreboding as clouds boiled over the peaks.

Hoss pulled the horses up a bit so they wouldn’t gain too much speed going into the curve ahead. He then took his left hand away from the reins long enough to pull up his collar. "Are you sure you want to sit outside and sketch while I take care of the chores Pa gave me?"

"Of course. The light is absolutely wonderful."

"If you sit in one place too long you might freeze, ma’am."

Barbara tucked the blanket around her legs. "I appreciate your concern, Hoss, but I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time. She blew on her mittens. "You’re going fast so you can freeze me onto this wooden seat, aren’t you?"

"I’m going fast so we can get to town before my nose falls off my face."

"You are just like your father," Barbara said.

Hoss blushed underneath the pink the cool air had brought to his cheeks. "Me? Nah, everybody knows Adam’s like Pa."

"Perhaps I should qualify what I mean," Barbara said. She shifted again and spoke through her scarf. "You are like your father was at your age. Well, you are tamer. But you have that same big heart and good nature. That didn’t keep him from being a scrapper though."

Hoss frowned and glanced around, glad to note they weren’t far from town. "Scrapper, ma’am?"

"There was little Angus or Ben liked better than a friendly fight whether it was arm wrestling or boxing."

"That so?" Hoss asked thoughtfully.

Barbara decided the only way to keep her hands warm was to sit on them and that got a raised eyebrow from her young companion. "Ben and the local constabulary were not strangers," she added. She saw Hoss mouth the word "constabulary" and smiled under her scarf. "The police."

"He wouldn’t take much to me getting in trouble."

"Of course not," Barbara answered quickly. "It’s different here. You don’t have local law enforcement. A man who gets into trouble here is more likely to be hanged by a mob or dragged through the streets or shot dead and then beheaded. Ben would never forgive himself if his lack of guidance led to something like that for one of his sons."

Her words settled deep inside Hoss: in a place where he had memories of Pa holding him on his lap and reading to him; where he could still feel the warmth of the kitchen and hear Ma singing songs in French as he sat carefully peeling vegetables for her; where he would always be grateful to Adam for grabbing his arm and pulling him back as a carriage thundered around the corner in New Orleans – right before Pa had popped him on the tail and snapped his fingers for Hoss to walk at his side. From the time Hoss had been old enough to understand right from wrong - and he couldn’t rightly remember when he hadn’t known the difference - Pa had always told him when he corrected, and definitely when he punished, it was because he wanted Hoss to be the best man he could be. Hoss had never doubted Pa but now, after what Barbara had told him, he thought maybe he understood it a little better. There was a lot at stake when you got into trouble when you were a man.

Hoss left Barbara by the Town Hall and drove the team to the Trading Post where he handed Eli the money Pa had entrusted to him and then gave Eli the list Pa and Hop Sing had written up the night before. While Ruth boxed up the smaller items, Hoss carried the sacks to the wagon and then tucked the mail inside his jacket. After that he headed out to obey Pa’s written orders and then, anxious to return home for dinner, looked for Barbara. The only problem was she wasn’t where he’d left her. Not that he was surprised: she would have been frozen if she had been. So he checked a few places. She’d been in the Trading Post but had left. She’d been at the livery to see if Big Dan could make two new leather fasteners for a case she had and then, according to Big Dan, she’d headed to the bank. Hoss began to wonder if he would ever catch up with her until, at the bank, one of the clerks pulled him aside.

"She met Mr. Wolf in here," he said in a hushed voice. "And they left together. I watched ‘em through the window and they went into his hotel."

Hoss didn’t even want to think what Pa would do to him if something happened to Barbara on account of Jack Wolf. He quickly thanked the clerk and then walked as quickly as he could down the street to the hotel. It took every bit of determination he had to open that door and step inside. Much to his surprise, things were quiet. Well – it was quiet downstairs and that probably meant there was plenty goin’ on upstairs. He closed his mind to those thoughts and looked around again. That was when Barbara waved to him from one of the back tables.

Jack was sitting at the table with her, leaning back in his chair, smiling like a fox in a hen house. "Come join us," he invited in that smooth voice of his.

"Yes, please do," Barbara added. "You look cold. A cup of coffee will do you good."

Hoss pulled off his hat and stood awkwardly near the empty side of the table. "We really oughta be gettin’ back, ma’am."

"Oh, accommodate the lady, Hoss. What will a cup of coffee hurt?" Jack beckoned to someone behind Hoss. "It’ll warm you up before the ride home."

Hoss pulled out a chair and sat down, making a point of being closer to Barbara than Jack. The cup and saucer the lady placed before him were small and fancy so Hoss had to hold them kind of funny. He sipped the coffee and then looked down at the dark liquid. It was, without a doubt, the best he’d ever tasted. Barbara held a serving of pie toward him and he accepted it. It was as good as what Ma used to make, light pastry full of dried peaches. He also finished another cup of coffee.

"We do need to be leaving now," Barbara announced and Jack hastened to his feet as she did, pulling out her chair. "Thank you for the delicious food, Jack."

"The pleasure has been mine. Thank you for your company. It has brightened this most dreary day considerably." Jack held her coat and then offered her her scarf. "I hope you will accept my dinner offer soon."

Dinner offer? Hoss looked from Barbara to Jack and back to Barbara as he pulled on his gloves. Pa really wasn’t gonna like this.

"Having sampled your cook’s work, I would enjoy that. How about Wednesday?" Barbara said and Hoss wondered if it was his imagination she was imitating Jack’s speech.

Outside, Hoss bent toward her as he carried her art kit. "Don’t you know what kind of place that is?"

"Yes, I believe Joseph called it a bawdy house." She gave him a wink. If Hoss had ever seen a woman sashay as she walked, Barbara did. "And I had my eyes wide open. I can hardly wait to start sketching."

"Ma’am, I don’t know that the – fellas who go there want their – well –"

Barbara laughed aloud and people around them looked their way. "I’ll change their features, never you mind." She looped her left arm around Hoss’ right arm. "And I won’t tell your father we visited Jack if you don’t."

Hoss nodded. "That’d be fine with me, ma’am."

 

 

Little Joe stormed into the house, slammed the door and would have stomped to the washbasin but Pa’s voice brought him up short.

"Would you close the door correctly, please?" he asked from the table where Adam and he were discussing wintering over the cattle.

Little Joe stomped back to the door, closed it and then turned for the washbasin. Pa caught sight of his face. "What happened to you?"

Like he couldn’t tell. "I been in a fight," Little Joe answered shortly and turned back toward the washbasin to rinse his face.

"A fight."

Why was Pa always repeating? You’d think he couldn’t hear good or something.

"Who with?"

If Little Joe had said that Adam would have corrected him to say "with whom". How come Adam never corrected Pa?

"Joseph, who with?" Pa asked.

Little Joe splashed water on his face and then sucked in his breath when the raw skin stung. "Sean and Aidan."

"Both of them?" Pa’s chair creaked.

"Yeah."

"And how do they look?"

Joe gingerly toweled his face dry, barely tapping it. " ‘Bout like me."

Now Adam got into it. "You fought both of them at once?"

Little Joe turned and squinted the eye that didn’t hurt. Pa had his chair tipped back and Adam was leaning his lower arms on the table

"They ain’t gonna lick me," Little Joe declared.

Adam gave him one thing: the kid had brass.

Then Pa was back to questioning him. He tapped his pencil on the tabletop. "What was the fight about?"

Little Joe’s temper showed no sign of waning and his hands formed fists. "They called me ‘Francis’."

Oh no. Adam’s left eyebrow rose and he tightened his lips.

"And what is wrong with that?" Pa asked.

Little Joe’s indignation brought color to his face and he threw his arms into the air. "It’s a girl’s name!"

"No, it isn’t," Pa answered. "It’s your name and you’re not a girl."

Although he was across the room, Little Joe leaned forward in accusation. "Ma and you never should’ve done it to me."

Adam slid his hand over his mouth. The little wildcat was not backing down.

"There are a lot of famous men named Francis," Pa defended. "Francis Scott Key wrote the poem about the flag still waving in the War of 1812. And there’s the philosopher Francis Bacon."

"Francis Bacon!" Little Joe exploded. "That’s the dumbest name I ever heard!"

"Joseph," Pa put down his pencil and fought for patience. "Francis is a perfectly fine name."

Closing on the table, Little Joe was not convinced. "Oh yeah?" he challenged. "Then how come it ain’t YOUR name?"

Adam wasn’t sure he could keep from laughing much longer.

Pa leaned back in dumbfounded surprise. "What?"

Little Joe crossed his arms. "If Francis is such a high and mighty good name how come you don’t use it?"

"Because my parents named me Benjamin."

"Well anybody that calls ME Francis is gonna get a punch in the mouth," Little Joe swore.

Pa straightened. "I will not have you fighting."

His youngest son’s eyes blazed. He was not backing down. "I’ll fight if they call me Francis."

Pa stood. "No you will not."

Little Joe looked up at him, his shoulders squared in anger. "I’m gonna sock ‘em in the mouth and you can’t stop me."

Uh oh. Adam looked at Hop Sing, who was over by the fireside, and licked his lower lip.

"Have you forgotten who you’re talking to, young man?" Pa’s temper started rising.

But Little Joe hardly paid attention. "You can give me a tanning AFTER I punch ‘em but you can’t stop me from doing it," he said defiantly. "If you didn’t want me to fight you shouldn’t have given me a girl’s name."

Pa bent forward at the waist and made eye contact with the hotheaded youngster. He had seen Marie like this more than once – but her fits of temper had been over what she perceived as injustices done to others. Joseph had never put on such a display.

"Uh – Pa," Adam’s voice was as soft as the two combatants’ were loud. "I think I know something about this."

They both whirled to face him and he shifted on the chair seat. "When Sean and Aidan locked me in the shack I thought Joe had something to do with it. And when they wouldn’t let me out I finally yelled at Joe and – well – I called him Joseph Francis."

The boy slammed his open palms on the table and glared at Adam. "You told ‘em?"

Adam ran his right hand through his hair. "I didn’t know I was telling them, Joe. I was angry and –" He stopped and corrected himself. "No, I knew I was telling them. I wanted to get back at you."

Little Joe shook his head. "That’s the meanest thing you ever done."

"Did," Adam corrected.

"And you better quit telling me what to say or I’ll sock you in the mouth!"

"Joseph," Pa turned him by his left arm and spoke in that low voice that meant Joe’s backside was in danger of being upside across Pa’s knees. "I may not be able to make you listen but I can sure make you feel. Do I make myself clear?"

Little Joe started to jerk on his left arm and before he knew what he was doing Adam exclaimed, "Joe, please don’t!"

The beseeching tone in his voice caught Joe’s attention and the youngster lowered his arm.

Adam pushed back his chair and stood. "I’m sorry I let the McNally boys know your middle name." He gave his little brother a slight shrug. "Truth told I’ve always been glad Pa didn’t saddle me with it. I said and did things in anger and I’m sorry for the way I hurt you."

Ben watched as the quiet words gentled Little Joe’s anger. His youngest son rested his right hand on Ben’s, silently asking to be released, and turned as Adam put on his coat. "Where’re ya goin’?"

"I need to make things right with Mr. and Mrs. McNally. If I don’t get back in time would you give the horses their feed, please?"

Little Joe walked to his brother and nodded. Adam sat on his heels and rested his hands on either side of the small shoulders. "If I could take it back I would. But I can’t and I’m sorry. What I’m hoping is you’ll make me proud by ignoring them when they tease you about it. Don’t give them the power to make you angry because if you do they win a lot more than a fistfight. Understand?"

Little Joe nodded.

Adam stood, smiling at him. "If you come up with any questions we’ll talk about them after dinner, all right?"

To Ben’s utter amazement, Little Joe smiled in return – his anger completely banked. Maybe he ought to ask Adam to rear this one.

 

 

Adam worried so much about what he would say to the McNallys he paid little attention to Beauty. Luckily she was a well-trained horse and followed the beaten trail that delivered him to the front of the McNally home. Adam slid out of the saddle, hitched her reins to the iron loop on the fence and then walked to the front door.

"Oh – uh - Adam." Molly greeted him with a lack of enthusiasm that indicated she had been expecting someone else.

"Adam!" Angus called. "Come in, lad. Come in! Warm yerself by the fire."

Adam quickly took off his hat and stood awkwardly a moment before approaching the chairs where Mr. and Mrs. McNally sat – he reading a newspaper and she sewing. Everyone was looking for reasons to be inside these days.

"This latest article of yours is quite interestin’," Angus praised.

"Thank you, sir."

Angus lowered the paper to his lap. "Why was the boy calling him sir instead of Angus? "Somethin’ wrong, lad? Benjamin need ‘elp?"

Adam shook his head and sighed. "Ma’am, sir, I apologize."

The hand in which Julia held her needle stopped in mid-air. "Whatever for?"

"It’s not my place to punish someone else’s children. And I shouldn’t have taken out my anger on them."

The two parents stared at him in disbelief before Angus spoke. "There was no ‘arm in what ya did, Adam."

"Pa’s taught me differently, sir."

Angus tilted his head. "And did Benjamin tell ya to apologize?"

Adam shook his head again.

Julia spoke softly as she bent to place her mending in a large basket. "You feel guilty for what you did?"

"Yes, ma’am."

She smiled gently and Adam thought, not for the first time, what a pretty woman she was. "And what would alleviate you guilt?"

Adam shifted from boot to boot. "I’m not sure, ma’am."

"Can you find it in your heart to forgive yourself if we forgive you?" Her question was complicated, making a quick answer impossible. She folded her hands in her lap. "As far as we are concerned there is nothing to forgive." Adam started to speak but she held up her left hand. "However, I can tell you feel guilty about your actions. So if we can assuage your guilt by granting our forgiveness consider it given."

"I shouldn’t have –" Adam began but Mrs. McNally stood.

"No more discussion. How about a cup of coffee?"

"No thank you. I need to get back home."

Angus pointed to the chair his wife had vacated and arched a brow. "Did ya know the boys ‘ad a fight today?"

Adam looked down at the floor and nodded.

"Would ya know what it was about?" Angus continued.

Adam nodded.

"Saints above," Angus declared. "It must take Benjamin a month a Sundays to get a story outta ya. Could ya ‘elp me along a bit ‘ere?"

Not wanting to get on the wrong side of Angus’ temper, Adam looked up. "They fought over Joe’s name."

Angus pulled back. "Why Joseph’s a good name. ‘Twas Benjamin’s father’s name."

"That’s not all his name." Adam turned his hat by the brim. "It’s Joseph Francis."

Angus leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. "Stars, what was Benjamin thinkin’ pegging a lad with a name like that? He’ll be fightin’ ‘is whole life."

"Francis is a fine name," Julia remarked from the stove. She used a thick piece of cloth to lift the coffee pot and pour the liquid into a china cup.

"No, darlin’, it’s a miserable name for a lad." Angus uncovered his face. "How’d they find out about this?"

Adam explained what he had done at the shack and Angus leaned back, shaking his head. "The saints only know where this will end – if it does. I’ll talk to the boys and put a little fear of God in ‘em but it’s never stopped ‘em before." He shook his head. "Francis. Aw fer the love of all that’s holy what was Benjamin thinkin’?"

It was probably best not to mention Ma had had a hand in choosing Little Joe’s name. Adam stood quickly and thanked them for their time. Julia placed her coffee cup on a sideboard and walked him to the front door.

"Remember," she said as she put a hand on his forearm, "forgive yourself."

Adam snugged his hat. "Yes, ma’am." But it was going to take some time. Riding home he resolved he would never lose control like he had that night. He had let his temper take over and he had used his strength incorrectly. Pa was right – you should never punish a child when you were angry.

 

 

Ben looked up from his plate and, not for the first time during her visit, asked Barbara, "You what?"

"I’m having dinner with Jack tomorrow evening at his hotel."

"You not like what I prepare?" Hop Sing asked worriedly.

Barbara smiled fondly. "You know I do." She twirled her fork and gave Ben a teasing look. "I like his stories."

"His stories." Ben felt his temper rising and took a deep breath. His sons were all unusually interested in their dinners, to the point of not looking up. "Which stories? The ones about killing Indians? The ones about shooting buffalo? The ones about having contracts with women to – to –" Another glance at his boys. "To take care of some men’s animal instincts? Which stories, Barb?"

Down went her fork and she leaned toward him, her eyes sparking with determination. "Oh come now. Half his stories aren’t true and the other half are exaggeration. I like to see how far he’ll go to impress me."

Ben leaned toward her until they were almost nose-to-nose. "Seeing how far he’ll go is what worries me."

She picked the fork back up and waved it at him. "I have been taking care of myself for a long time."

But he wasn’t backing down. He had known men like Jack back east and he had met many more in New Orleans. Despite her bravado, Ben doubted Barb had had to handle herself with anyone like Jack Wolf. "You can have dinner with him on one condition."

"What?!" she shrieked and leaned back, throwing her fork to the tabletop. "Don’t you go treating me like one of your children, Benjamin Cartwright."

Ben ignored her attempt to change the subject. "You can have dinner with him. But I will drive you there and I will bring you home."

"Jack wants to bring me home." Her protest was not near a match for his temper.

"I’m sure he does. But he’s not going to."

Barb crossed her arms. "And how do you intend to stop us?"

Ben pointed his left index finger at her. "I could make your bottom so sore you couldn’t ride in the buggy much less sit down to dinner with Jack." His sons’ heads came up in unison and they looked from Pa to Barbara to Pa in disbelief.

"You wouldn’t," she nearly hissed.

The boys noted she hadn’t said he couldn’t.

"I can also sit at the table beside you," Pa promised.

"That wouldn’t bother either one of us."

Pa smiled like a satisfied cat, the way he sometimes did when he had caught one of his sons doing something they shouldn’t. "It might not bother you but believe me it would tie a big knot in Jack Wolf’s plans."

Barb threw her napkin to the tabletop. "You are without a doubt the most stubborn, opinionated, inconsiderate man I have ever had the misfortune to know."

Ben gave a curt nod and stood as she left the table.

Adam watched her leave the room and walk to Pa’s room. "So what are you going to do, Pa?" he asked softly.

Pa smiled as he sat and turned his attention back to his meal. "I’ve been wanting to try the food at Jack’s hotel. I think tomorrow night might be the right time." He took a pinch of salt from the saltcellar on the table and sprinkled it on the meat.

"She ain’t gonna like it," Hoss warned.

"I don’t care what she likes," Pa replied.

And all three knew he meant it.

 

 

Little Joe raised his head and looked at Hoss. He spoke softly as they stood in the far corner of the barn. "I got it all figured. We go into town after Pa rides out and we look through the window at Jack’s hotel. Then when they’re ‘bout halfway done we gotta get back home ‘cause we have to tend the horses before Pa and Barbara get back." He was proud of the idea but felt no reason to tell Hoss it had taken him the better part of the day to work it out.

"It might not be Barbara and Pa," Hoss corrected. "It could be Barbara and Mr. Wolf."

Little Joe shook his head. "Nah, it’ll be Pa and Barbara."

Hoss paused a moment before putting what he was worried about into words. "What’ll we tell Hop Sing – and Adam?"

Little Joe hadn’t thought about that but after a little consideration the answer came in a flash. "I know! We’ll tell ‘em Mrs. Greene’s asked us for dinner."

"But," Hoss asked hesitantly, "what’re we gonna do for real food?"

Little Joe shrugged. "Ya get something at the tradin’ post and put it on the bill."

Hoss smiled and patted Little Joe’s back. "Look busy until Pa leaves," he said and they hastened toward their chores.

There was a considerable fight when it came time for Barbara to leave for town. She was perfectly capable of driving the buggy team but Pa was having none of it, just as he’d told her. The boys watched from a safe distance so they wouldn’t get hit by any excess Pa anger and then grinned when Pa won and helped Barbara into the carriage.

"We have to give ‘em time to get way ahead of us," Hoss advised and then turned toward the barn. The wind had shifted earlier in the day and it was unusually warm and a bit strong. As a result the animals were spooked and Hoss felt a little unsettled himself. Or maybe it was knowing he was doing something he shouldn’t. If he got caught Pa would have a piece of his hide. But by the same token he didn’t want to miss watching Pa make Jack Wolf’s meal with Barbara miserable. He was willing to take the risk.

Little Joe, on the other hand, was experiencing serious reservations – mainly based on the spanking he’d received the last time he’d gone into town without permission. "Pa’s not gonna like this," he said worriedly.

"Pa’ll never know," Hoss shot back. He sounded a lot more confident than he felt. "If you want to stay do it. But I’m going to town."

Little Joe didn’t want to miss out. But he went into the saddle slowly. Dread and adventure mixed inside him until he thought he’d be sick.

"Where are you two going?" Adam asked when they pulled up beside the porch where he leaned against the end post.

"Uh – " Hoss and Little Joe exchanged looks as Hoss spoke. "Mrs. Greene asked us over to dinner."

"Dinner," Adam said. "Why didn’t you tell Pa?"

"We kinda forgot."

"Forgot," Adam repeated.

Hoss frowned. His older brother wasn’t only starting to act like Pa lately he was starting to sound like him.

"Did you forget to tell Hop Sing, too?"

Both his younger brothers nodded.

Adam shrugged. "It’s your hides, not mine."

"We won’t be late," Hoss assured and then directed his horse toward the trail.

He and Little Joe rode wordlessly toward town so their voices wouldn’t carry. They also kept their horses to a slow walk and made the least noise possible.

"Now what’re we gonna do?" Hoss asked when they reached the outskirts of town.

"We’ll tie the horses here in the trees," Little Joe answered. "You go to the trading post. I’ll wait here."

Despite trying to think on the bright side of things, once they were in town Little Joe started worrying about all the things that could go wrong with his plan. His knees were kind of shaky as he considered what Pa would do to him if he found out Little Joe had ridden into town without permission. The memory of the crack of those thirty licks Adam had gotten the other day still sent shivers all through Joe.

He sat on the ground, leaned back against a tree trunk, and pulled up his knees. He sure would feel better if this was one of Adam’s plans. Adam and Little Joe had gotten away with all kinds of shenanigans in the past because Adam had been at this a long time and his plans didn’t hardly ever go bad. Leastways not any Joe knew about.

A few minutes later Hoss ran to him, bent at the waist like he didn’t want anyone to see him and carrying a bundle wrapped in paper. "We’ve gotta move the horses – fast!"

Little Joe looked at him in confusion. Hoss grabbed his horse’s reins and hissed. "I said fast. Not next week."

His younger brother pushed to his feet and unhitched Paint, half-running to follow Hoss to a nearby low spot where a creek ran in the springtime. The creekbed was dry now and Little Joe noticed it also sheltered them from the strong, dry wind.

"You’re gonna whut?" Shelby’s voice drifted to them as Ben’s sons peeked over the edge of the gully. "Much as I respect ya, Ben, there ain’t no way ya can out shoot me."

"What in tarnation’s going on?" Hoss whispered as Pa appeared.

"Sounds like something about a shooting contest between Pa and Shelby."

"A shooting -!" Hoss swallowed his sentence as he realized silence was all that could save them from Pa now.

"Pa doesn’t know how to shoot nothin’ but a rifle," Little Joe muttered.

"Uh oh," Hoss motioned to the gathering crowd. Right at the front stood Barbara with her arm looped around Jack Wolf’s. "This ain’t good. I ain’t never seen Mr. Wolf bring out the best in Pa. Remember how they got in that fight?"

Little Joe remembered. "This is gonna be real bad," he predicted.

He stood on his tiptoes to see better. Sure enough Miss Sterret was checking her side-arm and Joe noticed, with no small amount of worry, Mr. Wolf was wearing his and he was standing right behind Pa.

Big Dan looked over at Shelby and Pa as he held several bottles by their necks. "Ready?" he asked.

Shelby handed Pa her pistol, Jack handed Pa another, and Pa nodded silently to Big Dan.

The boys squinted their eyes as Big Dan threw one bottle and then the other toward the dry creekbed more than thirty feet away from them. Their eyes then rounded as Pa fired the pistols at almost the same time and the bottles shattered into shards in mid-air.

"AHHH!" Little Joe screamed as he ducked down with his arms protecting the back of his head, although there had been no danger to either of them.

Hoss moaned and shrank down.

"What was that?!" Shelby exclaimed. "Did ya hit some kinda animal, Ben?"

Pa returned the pistols to Shelby and Jack without even turning. Then he and Big Dan started toward the creekbank.

"Let’s run!" Hoss whispered. "Fast."

Little Joe motioned to the horses. "And how do we keep them quiet?"

"We run off and come back for ‘em later."

Joe’s eyes rolled. "You think Pa isn’t going to recognize –"

"Well, I’ll be danged." Big Dan’s voice boomed down on them and Ben’s sons looked up meekly.

Pa frowned and his jaw was set so tightly dynamite couldn’t have loosened it. "Do you want to tell me what you are doing?"

Hoss held up the package from the trading post. "Uh – eatin’ dinner?"

Pa’s hands went to either side of his waist and Hoss looked down. If ever there was a time for prayer, this was it.

"Dinner," Pa repeated. "What happened to Hop Sing?"

Hoss gave Pa a sickly grin. "We thought he’d like the night off."

"The night off."


"Yes, sir."

"Joseph, are you hurt?"

Little Joe uncurled and lowered his arms. "No, Pa." Leastways not yet.

Pa pointed to the horses. "Get home."

Hoss didn’t need to hear anymore. He stood and winced at the scathing look Pa gave him. As for Little Joe, since he had recovered from his initial fear of being killed by the shattered, falling bottles, he looked way up at Pa. "I didn’t know you could shoot like that."

Pa frowned at him. "But you do know what I can do to your behind, don’t you?"

Little Joe silently backed to Paint as he kept his eyes on Pa.

"Well, Ben," Jack Wolf said in a cheerful voice. "I amend my earlier statement. Just because a man chooses not to wear a pistol doesn’t mean he can’t use one."

Pa shot a look Jack’s way that held deep warning.

"Now, my dear - " Jack turned his attention to Barbara. "Shall we enjoy the evening’s repast I’ve been looking forward to?"

The last thing Hoss and Little Joe heard as they rode out of town was Shelby inviting Pa into her place for a free drink.

 

 

Adam’s dark blue eyes filled with skepticism the more his little brother talked. "He what?"

"He held those guns up and blasted. One! Two! And them bottles were gone," Little Joe answered breathlessly.

Hoss nodded for emphasis. "He didn’t aim or nothin’, Adam. Sorta swung those pistols up and the next thing ya knew those bottles were splinters."

Adam tilted his head, not sure his brothers weren’t joking with him. He shifted on the settee and considered Hoss and Little Joe. "The only pistol Pa has is over there." He motioned to the hutch where Pa kept the one that had been his father’s – and which he planned to give Little Joe someday because he was named for Pa’s father.

"You don’t understand," Little Joe continued, resting his hands trustingly on his oldest brother’s knees. "Shel – Miss Sterrett gave ‘im hers and then Mr. Wolf, he loaned Pa his."

Adam frowned. Now he was sure they were leading him on. "You expect me to believe Pa shot two guns he’d never used before without even aiming and he hit both moving targets?"

Hoss grinned widely and slapped his right hand against his leg. "Yep, that’s what he did."

The rational part of Adam’s mind fought for control. Pa, who was against the use of firearms, showing off in front of the entire town? It didn’t make sense. Although – there was one way it made sense. Jack Wolf could get under Pa’s skin faster than a raw wood splinter. Most of the time Pa ignored Jack, except for that brawl behind the town hall during the Autumn Festival. Glory had that been something to see!

"So." Adam leaned back and crossed his right ankle to his left knee. "Pa saw you, hum?" He tried to keep the gloating out of his voice and watched the smiles disappear from his brothers’ faces.

"Yeah, well -" Hoss admitted slowly. He felt behind him for the arms of the chair to the left of the fireplace and eased down. "Adam?" he asked after staring into space. "How d’you figure we oughta handle this?"

Sitting in the opposite chair enjoying the quiet before bedtime, Hop Sing shared a brief glance with Adam. "Think father will decide how to handle," he remarked.

Hop Sing had not felt the least bit guilty watching Hoss and Little Joe eat the meager meal Hoss had purchased in town. The family rule had always been clear: if you planned to be late for dinner let Hop Sing know or go hungry. He was, as Mr. Cartwright said, no one’s servant. Hop Sing took care of the house and food so the rest of the family could tend the ranch. No job was more or less important than any other and they were all to be treated with courtesy and respect. At first Hop Sing had thought perhaps these were big words. He had quickly learned what Mr. Cartwright said, he meant.

Little Joe sat to Adam’s left and shifted slightly to rest his back. "Do you figure there’s anything we can maybe say so he won’t be so mad?"

Adam’s eyes drifted across the boy’s face. He was looking up, silently seeking help or at least comfort. "What I have learned," Adam said, "is to be quiet when he is lecturing – only speak when he expects an answer and don’t volunteer a thing. Don’t start with excuses; be ready to give an explanation though. Put some "sirs" in there when you answer him. More than anything, look him in the eyes and stand straight."

"I can’t remember all that," Little Joe argued.

"Then remember to look him in the eyes and say ‘sir’."

"Ya – ya think he’s gonna make me stand?"

"He always does when he lectures. Sitting down is disrespectful unless he tells you to." He looked up in surprise as his youngest brother stood and walked toward the front door. "Where are you going?" he asked.

Joe reached for his coat. "I’m gonna see if I can get one of the horses to kick up in the stall and kill me," came the morose answer.

"You’d do better to high-tail it to bed and get to sleep before Pa gets home," Adam advised. The moment he finished his sentence Hoss stood, thinking it was a good idea.

"He’ll wake me up and bust me in my long johns," Joe predicted.

Adam looked down so he could hide his smile. "If he’s really mad those long johns will be bunched around your ankles."

Little Joe’s face paled. Pa wouldn’t do that. Would he? Then again, Adam knew Pa pretty well. Joe whimpered, dropped his coat on the table by the door, and dragged his boots as he followed Hoss into the bunkroom.

"Sometimes," Hop Sing observed, "you worry little brother greatly."

Adam sighed. "If it helps keep him in line it’s worth it."

"He has much spirit," Hop Sing said.

"Enough for a couple of boys," Adam agreed.

 

 

"Uh oh." Little Joe sat up in his bunk and turned his head toward the barn. "Pa’s back."

Hoss pulled his covers up to his chin. "Sounds like Barbara and him are arguing again."

"Wonder if they ever stopped?" Adam asked no one in particular as he laid his book in front of him.

"We gotta pretend to be asleep," Little Joe whispered to Hoss. "Act like you’re snoring."

"Little Joe." Adam eased to his right elbow and looked up toward the bunk where his brother lay. He could only see the top of Joe’s chestnut hair. "Hoss and I may not always be able to tell when you’re asleep but Pa hasn’t been fooled by you yet."

"He’s gonna clobber us," Hoss predicted.

"You maybe," Little Joe muttered. "He’s got somethin’ different in mind for me."

"I don’t hear Barbara coming in." Hoss was puzzled.

Adam listened closely. "Sounds like there’s some discussion going on in the barn."

"Can ya make it out?" Hoss asked.

Adam shook his head even though his middle brother couldn’t see him. "Maybe it’s just as well."

Little Joe started counting slowly, hoping he would get to sleep. But the more he counted the more he worried. He wrapped his covers around him as tightly as he could. Maybe he could make it so Pa couldn’t get a hold of him. Nevertheless, he jumped when he heard the front door open and Barbara and Pa enter the living room almost shouting.

"There’s no reason for that," Pa said angrily.

"There is plenty of reason, Benjamin." Little Joe could imagine Barbara with her hands at her waist. "I need more room to do my work and your family needs their privacy."

"Barbara, that boarding house –"

"I will not listen to another word."

"I don’t like the thought of you being close to –"

"Jack?" Barbara interrupted. "You have made your feelings about Jack perfectly clear. Angus and you were absolute fools tonight. I don’t know when I have been more embarrassed. I have said all I intend to on the subject. Good night."

"Barbara –"

The only response was the closing of the door to Pa’s room. In no time, Little Joe heard Pa’s boot-falls going toward the door and then the sound of knocking. No answer. Pa said something under his breath that sounded like a word that could get you in trouble and then he was for sure coming to the bunkroom. Oh geez. Little Joe squeezed his eyes as tight as he could. The door opened and closed and then the chair creaked.

Joe’s skin broke into a million goose bumps. Please don’t do it here in front of Adam and Hoss, Pa? Please don’t?

"Looks like your dinner didn’t go as well as you had hoped," Adam observed.

How did Adam get up the nerve to talk to Pa that way? Little Joe would never understand his oldest brother if he lived to be a hundred. His nose twitched as a smell like Miss Sterret’s saloon reached him.

"The food was fine," Pa grumbled. Little Joe heard a boot hit the floor.

"So Barbara’s moving to the boarding house?" Adam continued.

Another boot hit the floor. "Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Hoss sat up in surprise. "What’s her hurry?"

Joe opened one eye a little bit so he could see Pa. He was a mess! His shirt had all kinds of food on it and there were dark stains, too.

"She thinks it’s time she had a place where she can work."

"Well – but – cain’t she work here?" Hoss asked.

"She wants more room. More space to let the oil paintings dry." Pa unbuttoned the top of his shirt. He pulled it off and opened the side door and tossed the shirt onto the porch. "You’ll need to help her pack and then take her into town, Hoss. But I don’t want you wasting time. You get back here as soon as you can."

"Yes, sir."

Pa bent over the washbasin and scrubbed his bare chest. After he dried off, he removed his belt and unbuttoned his trousers. "And Joseph, you can quit pretending to be asleep."

Geez, how did Pa do that?

Pa turned his attention to the top bunks.

The sky blue eyes that met Pa’s squinted and Hoss gulped.

"Joe and you will do Adam’s late chores tomorrow."

"Aw, Pa – " Hoss quickly reconsidered his response.

Shoot, Little Joe thought, that was nothing. Doing Adam’s chores one afternoon when it could’ve been a whole lot worse? He was safe after all. Joe un-tucked his covers and rolled to his stomach, stashing his pillow under his head and neck. The next thing he knew, Pa flipped up the quilt and gave him a hard smack on the bottom. Little Joe quickly rolled to his left side - facing Pa and looking him square in the eyes the way Adam had told him to. His right hand protected the area that was stinging like he’d sat on an ant bed. He was finding out all kinds of things about Pa tonight ‘cause he’d never known Pa’s left hand was so strong!

Pa’s eyebrows shot up. "Do we need to have another talk about going to town without permission?"

Little Joe shook his head until he was almost dizzy. "No, sir – Pa, sir - No, sir, Pa – sir."

Adam rubbed his forehead. Typical Little Joe – either don’t pay attention or overdo it.

A little worried Pa’s single swat wasn’t the end of it, Little Joe looked over the edge of his bunk. Pa lay down on his back. He didn’t have on a shirt and he’d unbuttoned his trousers but forgotten to take them off. He rested his right arm across his eyes and let his left arm hang off the bunk. "The first one who whispers will chop kindling for a week," he warned sternly.

Adam put his book on the table and blew out the candle and the bunkroom was amazingly quiet considering three of its occupants were wide-awake wondering what had happened at Jack’s.

 

 

Barbara was her usual cheerful self the next morning at breakfast but it didn’t escape Hoss’ notice that Pa was not at the table.

"He eat early," Hop Sing explained. "Has chores far from house."

Yeah, Hoss thought. He didn’t want another argument with Barbara – which was pretty much what happened whenever they got together these days.

"The boarding house owner told me you had lived there," she said to Adam.

"Yes, ma’am. Before Eli gave us the deed for this." Somehow it was easier to say it that way than to say ‘before Ma died’.

"But Mr. Wolf wasn’t here then," Little Joe piped up, brighter than anybody had a right to be in the morning. "He came to Eagle Station and rented the livery and then next thing we knew he was building the hotel so the stage’d come. Hoss and Adam worked for him."

Barb straightened her back and looked first at Hoss and then gave Adam a hard study that reminded him a bit too much of Pa. Those Cartwrights back east must have been a formidable group. "You worked for Jack?"

"Well – yes, ma’am. Until – well – " Adam couldn’t think of any other way to say it. "Until the day the stage arrived and two of the women who worked for Jack stepped out."

Barb slid her fork under her eggs. "So you understand what kind of women are there. You understand what your father objects so strongly to?"

Adam caught his breath in surprise. "If you agree with him, why are you spending so much time with Jack?"

After chewing, she responded. "As I explained, I am interested in his stories. Your articles for the newspaper are true, Adam, they are journalism. I intend to start a series of stories based on composites."

"Com-whats?" Little Joe asked.

"I’ve already met several interesting people. Big Dan has some delightful stories once you can get him talking. Shelby has told me all sorts of tales about people who have frequented her establishment. I plan to take what I’ve been told and make up stories using parts from each one. I’ll invent new names and change their yarns enough so no one will recognize them. But the folks back in St. Louis and other places will enjoy the articles."

Little Joe leaned on his elbows. "Pa’d have to let me read those, wouldn’t he Adam, ‘cause those’d be in the newspaper and he’s all the time telling me I oughta read more?"

Adam pursed his lips. "You better ask Pa about that, little brother."

"Well I don’t see how he can ‘ject – ‘specially since Barbara’s doing it."

Hoss hadn’t paid much attention to the conversation. He was more concerned about something else. "Hop Sing, you think Pa’ll be back in time to tell Barbara goodbye?"

She waved her left hand as if Hoss’ worries were of no consequence. "We said what we had to say last night."

But he was not to be deterred. "Thing is, ma’am, Pa don’t let us go to bed without settlin’ up and I cain’t believe he ain’t gonna apologize to you."

Barbara put down her fork. "How do you know I shouldn’t apologize to him?"

Hoss knew he was blushing. He could feel himself getting warmer and for once he couldn’t blame the meal. "It’s just sometimes Pa gets kinda set about something and –"

"Hoss." Barbara waited for him to look up. "Your father and I both behaved badly last night. The next time we see each other in town we will have cooled off and we will be able to make our peace. Our problem is not yours. Understand?"

He guessed his family was too close for him to grasp what she meant. What was one person’s problem was always everyone’s. All the same he nodded and he didn’t bring up the subject again until they had packed her things and were on the way to town in the wagon with Little Joe riding in the back humming some song that never seemed to end.

The warmer weather was holding and Hoss was mighty grateful for it. The last time Barbara and he had ridden into town he’d about frozen. This day all he needed was his corduroy jacket and even that was unbuttoned.

"Ma’am? Could I ask you something?" He spoke slowly.

Barbara thought back to her own childhood and how many times she had been instructed to say ‘may’ instead of ‘can’ or ‘could’. While she understood the need for proper speech it seemed to her having obedient, cheerful, cooperative sons like Ben’s was more important. "Of course," she answered.

"Did Pa and Mr. Wolf get in a fight or something last night?"

She tightened her lips, pulling them in. How much would Ben want his sons to know? By the same token, how much would their friends hear and relay to them based on gossip?

Behind them Little Joe lowered his humming and tried not to act as interested as he was.

"Jack and I went to the hotel for dinner after your father’s shooting exhibition," she answered. "I’m not sure where Ben was for a little while but finally he showed up at the hotel dining room with Angus."

"Uh oh," Joe said and immediately wished he had stayed quiet.

Hoss looked over his right shoulder at the boy and frowned. "You know better than to interrupt."

Any other time Little Joe would have come back with a smart answer. But he wanted to hear what Barbara had to say. And anyhow he could get back at Hoss later.

"I assume you know how Angus is," she said after a moment. "He likes his whisky. Ben had a beer he nursed during the entire meal but I lost count of the number of drinks Angus had and I think he did, too. They were at the table next to ours. Ben sat so he could look straight at Jack and when he focused, Angus could look at me. They seemed to be enjoying their meal – talking and laughing – until one of Jack’s girls started stroking Angus’ hair, sliding her hands on his shoulders. Angus wasn’t completely drunk. He looked like an angry bull and he stood up saying something along the lines of ‘Stars above, woman, what do you think you’re doing?’ "

Barbara shifted on the wagon seat and unbuttoned her coat. What an amazing country this was – freezing your breath one day and a few days later teasing you as if spring were upon you instead of autumn. The trees weren’t fooled. They were dropping leaves so quickly in the wind it sounded like rain.

"And then it all fell apart," she said after a deep sigh. "When Angus bolted to his feet he upset the table and everything dumped onto your father. Ben threw his arms into the air and his chair went over backwards and broke underneath him. When he finally stood he was a horrible mess with food all over him and he reeked of Angus’ whisky and his beer. Jack’s temper got the better of him. He stood and ordered Angus out."

Hoss thought a moment when Barbara paused. "Wonder why he didn’t tell Pa to leave?"

Barbara looked to her right to hide her smile. "I don’t think much of anyone would have challenged your father after he showed what he could do with a pistol."

"But – well – he don’t carry one, ma’am," Hoss argued.

She gave him a meaningful look. "He’s also good with his fists."

Hoss’ pride was evident as his chest swelled. "Yes, ma’am, he can take care of himself and anyone else."

It was time to wrap up the story. "When Jack ordered Angus out of the hotel Jack pulled his pistol."

Little Joe couldn’t help himself. "He was wearing it at the table?"

"Oh, yes," Barbara answered. "Men like Jack always wear their pistol and they sit facing the door, with their back to the wall. Anyhow, your father was concerned about Angus. He told me we were leaving. I told him we were not. He took my arm and told me not to argue. I told him he was free to leave but I was staying. He tried glaring at me but it didn’t work. So, he took Angus and they left. The best I could tell he helped Angus into the buggy, tied Angus’ horse behind it and then took Angus home. Jack brought me home and we pulled up in the yard right behind Ben. Jack helped me from the carriage, thanked me for a lovely evening, tipped his hat and left. Ben was livid and we had a discussion in the barn about the plans I had made to move to the boarding house. And I believe you know the rest."

Hoss watched the team carefully. "Ya mean Mr. Wolf drove you home?" No wonder Pa had been fit to be tied.

"It was such a pretty night. No clouds, lovely stars, and the air cool enough to need a wrap but not a heavy coat. We talked all the way to the Ponderosa once Jack recovered his sense of humor. I believe hearing us enjoying ourselves as we approached the house was the final straw for your father."

Hoss could imagine it had been. Boy had he and Little Joe been lucky Pa hadn’t taken some hide off both their tails.

"Geez, Pa got in a mess of trouble," Joe said quietly.

Barbara turned to her left and looked over her shoulder. "If you’re smart you won’t mention it to him."

"No, ma’am," Joe promised.

 

 

Hoss hadn’t expected much help out of Little Joe and he didn’t get it. His little brother was more in the way than anything else as Hoss moved items to Barbara’s new living quarters so it was with a sense of relief Hoss said yes, Joe could go look for Wendell. After a caution about not being gone too long, Hoss happily watched him run down the wooden sidewalk.

He had no more unloaded the last trunk, and told Barbara he wouldn’t let her pay him for his work, than Wendell came running.

"Hoss!" he yelled. "Hoss! Little Joe’s fightin’ Lewis!"

Lewis? Lordy that boy was almost as big as Adam. Hoss followed Wendell to the alley behind the livery and sure enough there they were, rolling in the dirt. Thankfully they weren’t swinging fists because Lewis would have knocked Joe to the moon. Hoss pulled them apart, careful to stand away from any angry hands. He’d started to warn them about the dangers of fighting when Little Joe let out a shriek. Then another and another. He danced around, trying to break free of Hoss’ tight grip while his other hand reached behind him to shield his bottom. Hoss looked away from Little Joe’s strange display. Lo and behold there stood Barbara with a switch in her hand and she was flailing it across Little Joe’s behind and upper legs so hard she was beating the dirt from his trousers. Hoss eased his grip on Lewis and the older boy flat out disappeared from view. Little Joe jumped all around Hoss as the switching continued, howling the whole time, until he finally had the sense to stand with his back to Hoss’ front.

Barbara tossed the switch aside. "You can tell your father or I can tell him the next time I see him. The choice is yours."

Hoss leaned his head forward. He knew what that fire in Little Joe's eyes was about: he was as mad as a body could get. "You got no right!"

Barbara bent her knees and reached to retrieve the switch. Little Joe lowered his voice. "No, ma’am, please don’t."

Giving Little Joe a stern look, she issued a reminder. "You tell Benjamin or I will." With that she thanked Hoss again for his work and walked to the boarding house.

Hoss’ little brother rubbed the back of his left hand under his nose. "She shouldn’t have." His voice held plenty of sulk.

"You’d better quit feeling sorry for yourself and start thinkin’ what you’re gonna tell Pa."

 

Ben’s arms stopped in mid-air as he took in the sight of his youngest son standing in the doorway to his bedroom. He had one boot propped on top of the other and was dirtier than Ben had seen him in quite a while.

"Did you manage to do that taking care of Adam’s chores?" He finished hanging the shirts beside an extra pair of trousers on the pegs opposite his bed.

"I got dirty in town." Little Joe’s voice was hard to hear. He looked down and rubbed his left hand up and down his thigh.

"In town."

The boy nodded.

Ben crossed his arms and tilted his head, trying to see his youngest son’s face. "How did you get dirty in town?"

"I got in a wrestlin’ match with Lewis." The voice was even softer this time.

"A wrestling match."

"Yes, Pa."

"What started this – wrestling match?"

Little Joe’s head came up and his eyes were full of worry. "It wasn’t a fight, Pa, honest. We kinda rolled around in the dirt is all."

"And what started this rolling around in the dirt?"

Aggravation flashed in the eyes that had held worry only a moment before. "It’s all your fault," Joe accused.

"My fault?" Ben leaned his hips against the foot of his bed and wondered how he’d become involved in Joe’s disobedience. His answer was quick in coming.

"If you hadn’t named me Francis none of it would’ve happened."

So that was it. "Lewis called you Francis."

Joe threw his arms up in exasperation as he walked to stand in front of Pa. "Him and everybody else knows now. I’m gonna be fightin’ the rest of my life."

"No you will not, young man."

Joe’s chin jutted and his small hands formed fists. "Ain’t nobody gonna get away with callin’ me that name."

"If you get it out of your head it is a girl’s name your life will be a lot easier," Ben advised. "Otherwise it will be filled with tannings."

Joe stepped back and shook his head. "You can’t tan me."

"I what?" Ben couldn’t believe what his son had said.

"I already got a terrible whipping from Barbara."

Ben frowned. Barbara had spoken to him several times in private about how strict he was with the boys. "You need to let them have a little fun," she had advised, not knowing they could have plenty of fun – on his terms. Now his youngest son stood before him saying Barbara had whipped him? Not any old whipping but a terrible one?

He walked to the door and closed it. "What do you mean she whipped you?" His chair was nearby and he sat down.

"Pa, it was something awful." Joe whimpered. "She had this big old switch and she hit me all over the place and Hoss had a hold of me and he wouldn’t let go and she kept hitting me and I was hollering and then she said she’d start all over again and I was scared she was gonna kill me."

"Kill you."

Joe nodded, his expression wounded. He walked to Ben and put his hands behind him. "Pa, no lady’s ever whipped me."

"Your mother gave you a few swats," Ben said, amused by his son’s acting ability. Apparently Adam wasn’t the only talented one in the family. He guessed it did no good to wonder how many times in the past they had fooled him.

"But she was my ma."

"So you don’t think Barbara should have used that switch on you?" Ben watched his son lower his head and look from the tops of his eyes, playing for sympathy. "And that switching still hurts?"

Joe swiped at his nose and made a pitiful sound.

Ben couldn’t resist any longer. "Take down your pants and let me see your bottom."

The boy looked up full of fight. "No!"

"If it’s hurting that badly, son, you may have welts. Hop Sing probably has a salve I could put on you."

Little Joe backed up, his lips tight before he spoke. "I don’t want no salve and you ain’t seeing my behind."

Ben licked his lower lip and held his head to one side. "So it’s not hurting as much as it was when you started telling me about it?"

Pausing at the door with his hand on the door latch, his anger barely checked, Joe came close to making a face. "You’re meaner than Adam," he pronounced.

Ben inclined his head. "Possibly."

As Joe pulled open the door, Ben pointed at the little imp. "No more fights, Joseph."

"They’re your fault."

"But it’s your behind. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah?"

Little Joe immediately made eye contact and corrected himself. "Yes, sir – Pa, sir –yes, Pa – sir."

Whoever had advised Joe ‘sir’ was a good word had forgotten to warn him about overusing it.

 

 

Despite the fact he’d lost the argument with Barbara – not an easy thing for Ben to accept– he had to admit having his room back was nice. He didn’t have to try to fall asleep before Hoss launched into his thunderous snores. No wishing Adam would blow out the candle and quit reading until all hours of the night. And particularly no listening to Little Joe’s talking in his sleep; it wasn’t advisable for a father to hear his son muttering about the things he’d done that his father didn’t know about. Apparently the boys were as relieved to have their privacy back. He’d heard them chattering and laughing as he’d read by the fireside. Finally he’d called out it was late but they hadn’t stopped. They’d simply whispered and muffled giggles. He wouldn’t have spoiled their fun for anything.

The experience of sharing the bunkroom had left him with one resolve. As soon as they could manage it, Adam would have his own room. And then later they would build one for Hoss. Maybe by then Joe would be old enough to not panic about not having his older brothers sleeping nearby.

Ben buckled his belt and stepped into the living room, surprised to see his sons lazing around so early in the morning. Joe lay on his back on the hide rug, his boots propped on one of the chairs. Ben lifted them. "Boots off the furniture, Joseph," he reminded.

His son gave him an affronted look but obeyed.

"Don’t you boys have enough to keep you busy?" Ben asked pointedly.

Adam nodded, not looking up from the newspaper he held. "Morning chores are done. We’re waiting on breakfast and for you to tell us what we’re doing today."

Ben heard his voice rise in disbelief and looked to Hoss who sat on the settee, petting Abigail. "All the chores?"

"Yes, sir. We slept a whole lot better with it bein’ just us."

Ben sat down in the chair from which he had removed Joe’s boots. A moment later he felt something on his thigh and raised an eyebrow at Joe’s crossed sock feet.

"You didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout socks, Pa. Just boots," Joe reminded.

When had he lost control of these three?

"How long are you gonna soak that shirt of yours in the water tub?" Adam asked from behind the paper.

Ben lowered Joe’s feet to the floor and crossed his right ankle to his left knee. His eldest was up to something. "Any particular reason you’re concerned about that shirt?"

"Well, it’s making that side of the house smell like a saloon."

Hoss quickly looked down at his knees and Joe stifled a laugh.

So that was it. Hoss and Joe had heard the story in town or –

"What did Barbara tell you?" He tried to fill his voice with authority but none of the boys responded. Every last one of them reflected mischief in his unique way.

Hoss shrugged. "Oh, how your dinner landed in your lap and then you took Angus home."

Adam put down the paper then and Ben braced himself. The deep blue eyes were far too amused. "Why do you think that girl was interested in Angus instead of you?"

Ben slapped his hands on the chair arms and stood up. "That is enough from all of you."

Hoss grinned at Adam. "Seems to me it’d kinda hurt a fella’s feelin’s if a pretty woman like that didn’t warm up to him."

Ben turned his back on them as he walked to the fireplace to pour a cup of coffee and heard the uncontrolled, muffled laughs. As he stood, holding his coffee mug, he kept his back to all three. It wouldn’t do to let them see him smiling.

 

 

"Mornin’ Benjamin," Angus called out as he stopped his wagon near the corral. "How are ya this fine mornin’?"

Morning? Ben glanced around. They’d been up for hours and would be having lunch soon. "Good. You?"

"Ah, a sight better. How could a friend like you let a friend like me get in such a state as th’other night?" Aidan and Sean climbed out of the back of the wagon and took off at a run.

Ben leaned on the top rail of the corral. "I learned a long time ago not to try to stop you, Angus."

That brought a laugh of recognition. "So ‘ave you the saws I asked to borrow?"

"Adam put them on the front porch for you first thing this morning," Ben motioned.

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Smoke barked furiously behind the barn. Ben ran and Angus followed on his heels. As he rounded the corner Ben saw what he had half-expected – though he couldn’t believe it had taken the boys so little time. Adam held Joe and Aidan apart while Sean stood spread-eagled against the side of the barn, eyeing a snarling Smoke.

"I said STOP IT!" Adam ordered. Aidan obeyed. But Little Joe twisted and tried to get free of the grasp his oldest brother had on his shirt collar.

"What’s the meaning of this?" Ben stormed. Little Joe wilted back into what he perceived as the protection of Adam’s side. "Answer me."

Joe looked up to Adam – who released him - and then to Pa with a worried frown. His voice barely came to him as he answered, "He called me a name."

"A name."

There was a brief nod of the head.

"What name?"

"Francis," Adam answered for his brother.

Ben grabbed Little Joe by the upper part of his right arm, turned him, and delivered two swats to the seat of the boy’s pants before the small hands came back to protect his bottom from further assault. "Wait for me in my room." Ben pointed to the house. "Now."

Tear-filled eyes met his. "But Pa – "

The hand that had given two swats rose for more. Joe ran to the back door.

"What ‘ave I told ya about this infernal teasin’?" Angus snapped at his boys. "Get in th’ wagon."

They sprinted to obey his command and Adam bent at the waist to dust his trousers.

Angus let out a heavy sigh. "Benjamin, don’t be too hard on Little Joe. What were ya thinkin’ tagging a boy with a name like Francis? Stars above, he’ll be brawlin’ the rest of ‘is life every time someone dares speak it."

Ben closed his eyes. Couldn’t he have one ally?

After Angus had turned the wagon and was on his way home, Ben ran his left hand through his hair. It was time to deal with Joseph.

The moment Pa entered the bedroom Little Joe shot to his feet from where he had been sitting on the side of the bed.

"I must not have spanked you hard enough," Pa remarked, unaware of the stinging Joe still felt. And the humiliation.

"Pa – I gotta – "

Pa gave him the "be silent" look and Little Joe obeyed - especially when Pa’s hands went to either side of his waist.

"Joe, you have explained to me how much you dislike your middle name. I respect that. I have explained to you fighting is not the solution. You are not respecting that or obeying me."

Little Joe’s knees wobbled and he stepped back toward the bed so they wouldn’t fold on him.

"Adam explained when you allow others to provoke you you are giving them power. Do you want Aidan and Sean to be stronger than you are?"

Was he supposed to answer? His hands shook so much he hid them behind his back. If he didn’t get outside soon he was gonna be in more trouble.

"Joseph?" Pa asked.

"Yes, sir, Pa?"

"Will you stop fighting or will you be disrespectful and disobedient?"

What did Pa expect him to say? That he was gonna be dis-respectful? He might not always use the good sense Pa told him God had given him but he sure as heck wasn’t gonna stand this close to Pa and say he figured he’d go ahead and be dis-obedient.

"Well?" Pa prompted.

"I don’t wanna be dis-respectful," Little Joe admitted. "Or not do what you say."

"And who is the only one who can control that?"

"Me."

"You," Pa said. He held out his left hand and tapped three other fingers with his right index finger as he listed the names. "Not Sean. Not Aidan. Not Lewis. Not anyone else you know." He motioned with his hand. "Go to your room until dinner."

In his panic Little Joe grabbed Pa’s left wrist. "I can’t, Pa."

Pa’s blue eyes squinted with no small amount of aggravation. "You can’t?"

"No, Pa – sir. I gotta do my chores."

"Why aren’t they finished?"

" ‘Cause of the fight and then you ordered me in here and then – well – we had to talk." Little Joe unintentionally pulled at Pa’s wrist the way he had when he’d been younger. "Please, Pa?"

Pa’s right hand came his way and Little Joe flinched, thinking Pa was going to turn him again and whack his behind. But Pa’s fingers combed through Little Joe’s hair instead. "I don’t know how you get so dirty in one day," he said affectionately. "Take care of your chores."

Little Joe released Pa’s wrist. "I don’t wanna be dis-respectful but it is your fault."

"Take my warning seriously, young man."

The boy nodded silently and backed from the room, then ran to the front door, pausing only for his light coat.

Adam turned from the fireplace mantle with a look of relief. His eyebrows arched as his hand closed around his latest book. "That’s not how I thought he would come out of there."

Ben shrugged. "I gave you some slack when you were his age."

Adam shook his head. "Must have been your other first son."

 

 

After dinner Ben returned to his room and closed the door so he could have some privacy while he rummaged around in Marie’s trunk. Several times he sat on his chair and indulged in a happy memory as he held a hat, a small Wedgwood plate from England, and a fan an earlier suitor had brought her from India. But finally he found what he was looking for – the fabric bag in which she had kept her yarn and knitting needles. There was a lesson in these two items if Joseph would keep his mind open to the possibility.

This time when Ben entered the living room Joe sat beside Adam on the settee with a chair pulled nearby and his boots propped on the chair. The moment the boy caught sight of Ben he sat up and swung his feet down, watching his father with no small amount of concern evident. Then he saw the knitting needles and yarn in Ben’s hands.

"What’s that?" Little Joe motioned.

Adam gave Joe a look he usually reserved for stupid cows. "What does it look like? It’s Ma’s knitting needles and some of the yarn she used." Hop Sing smiled as he peeled apples.

"Well – what are you doing with it?" Little Joe demanded.

Pa sat in one of the chairs. "I thought I’d knit for a while."

"Knit!" Joe exclaimed. "Girls knit!"

Pa wrapped the yarn around the needle and shook his head. "I learned to knit when I was at sea. I can assure you none of the men I served with were girls."

Little Joe rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "How come sailors would knit?"

"It’s a little like knot-tying but you use these two pieces of metal." Pa looked up as Hoss pulled a dining chair closer, fascinated by the movement of the yarn onto the needle. He sat astride the chair with his arms on top of the back.

"Slow down so I can see better," he requested and Ben looked at him from the sides of his eyes. He shouldn’t be surprised. Despite his large hands, Hoss was the one who loved to weave elaborate horsehair hatbands.

"Pa," Little Joe said in aggravation. "Why’d those sailors knit?"

"The voyages were long and it helped pass the time. We knitted thick sweaters that kept us warm and a little drier than our other clothes. Some of the men knitted items they sold or traded when we made port."

"What’d you do?" Hoss asked while his eyes followed Pa’s hands.

"Knitted sweaters. If you work at it long enough you can knit a sweater or even a blanket for your bed or to put around your shoulders when it gets cold."

"Aw Pa," Hoss blushed as he spoke. "I’d look funny in a sweater. I ain’t done that since you made me wear one out there on the prairie."

"They kept us warm," Adam reminded.

"I mostly wore it ‘cause Pa said I had to and I was a whole lot littler than he was."

Adam grinned at Pa. "That’s been a while."

Hoss frowned in concentration. "What’re you doing now?" Pa slowed down again and smiled as Hoss pointed. "It looks kinda like scales on a fish."

Pa held it up to the lantern light with a look of dismay. "It’s not supposed to."

Adam and Hop Sing laughed but Little Joe was determined not to join in the fun. He uncrossed his arms and faked a yawn of boredom.

"Hey, Pa." Hoss’ face split with a grin. "Would socks made that way keep my feet plenty warm in the winter in bed?"

Pa gave the light pink yarn a squint. "I think we’d better use a different color, don’t you?"

Little Joe quickly sat straight. "Why?" he challenged.

"Well – because – " Pa stammered.

His youngest son’s chin jutted out and, if he could have, he would have crowed. "‘Cause pink’s a girl color. Say it."

Pa looked down at the knitting needles. "I was thinking pink wouldn’t go well with any of Hoss’ long johns."

"You was not –"

"Were not," Adam mildly corrected.

Little Joe pointed to his oldest brother. "See, Adam says you wasn’t either."

"That’s not –" Adam began.

Pa had heard enough. He handed the needles to Hoss. "Pull that loose end to unravel it and I’ll go find something green or blue."

" ‘Cause those aren’t girl colors," Little Joe called after him.

"I’m about to make your bottom red," Pa answered from his bedroom.

"Why? ‘Cause I’m right?"

Adam held his right index finger to his lips.

But Little Joe sucked in a breath and started again. "You could make those socks yella."

Hoss stopped unraveling the yarn and blinked at Little Joe. "That’s not somethin’ ta say even when you’re teasin’."

"Who’s teasin’?" Little Joe stood. Now his chin jutted and his chest was full like a robin’s in the spring.

His brother put down the knitting needles. "Are you saying I’m yella?

"I’m saying any fella who’d sit there doing a girl thing like that is."

Adam’s eyes slid closed. He’d done all the warning he could.

Pa walked back into the living room purposefully and never took his eyes off Little Joe as he handed Hoss a ball of blue yarn. "That’s enough, Little Joe," he said in that deep voice that always meant trouble as he raised his left arm and pointed to the bunkroom. "You need time by yourself. Go to bed."

Go to bed? Little Joe’s eyes shot to the windows. It wasn’t even full dark outside yet!

Pa’s voice went low. "Do I make myself clear?"

Little Joe turned on his heel to stomp to his bunk but Pa caught up with him in three steps and once again his big left hand closed on Joe’s right arm. Joe tried to turn around, knowing all the time it wasn’t gonna help if Pa decided to give him swats with the flat of his hand.

But it was Pa’s eyes that threatened to have Joe’s hide. "What did you forget?"

Little Joe’s eyes rolled to one side as he quickly searched his memory. His bravado a bit shaky he finally asked, "Forget?"

"When I give an order or I ask if I have made myself clear, my sons do not turn around and walk away. What is the correct response?"

Pa was standing there big as God waiting for an answer but Little Joe’s throat was so tight he didn’t know if he could talk.

"What is the correct thing to say, Joseph?"

Little Joe knew if he didn’t answer now he’d get Pa’s belt for sure. "Say yes, Pa or yes, sir."

"Did you say that when I sent you to your room?"

Little Joe bit at his lip before answering. "I don’t think so."

"Would you care to change that?"

"Yes, sir – Pa, sir – yes, Pa – sir."

Pa released his arm, which was good because it felt half dead. Little Joe slowly, carefully walked to the bunkroom and then with painstaking care closed the door behind him.

Why was Pa so hard to get along with lately? Seemed he was in a bad mood all the time. He didn’t take it out on Hoss. They still teased and pulled jokes on each other. And he didn’t take it out on Adam. ‘Course Adam was perfect. Pa was taking it all out on Joe and that wasn’t fair. He’d never done anything to rile Pa – leastways not much.

Boot-falls approached and the door opened and there was Pa. He frowned at Little Joe for sitting on the edge of his bunk.

"Do I need to help you get ready for bed?"

Little Joe shook his head. "No, sir, Pa."

When Pa closed the door Little Joe threw his wadded up shirt at it in aggravation.

 

 

"Shelby?" Barbara said in surprise as she opened the door and the cold air and snow poured in. "Holy Toledo, what are you doing out in this storm?" She closed the door behind the saloon owner and watched her stamp the snow from her clothing, then shake it from her hat. "Sit down and I’ll pour a cup of coffee for you."

"Got anythang ta bring it around?" Shelby asked with a grin.

Barbara lifted a bottle of amber liquid and Shelby nodded. "That’ll do." She sat in one of the chairs at the table and smiled at the artwork Barbara had scattered all around the room. "I figured since my business is shut down I might as well see how that paintin’s comin’ along."

"There it is," Barbara motioned to an easel with the coffee cup. "It’s drying and we ought to be able to hang it in a few days."

"It’s a mighty fine paintin’ Barbara." Shelby took the cup, added some liquor, and took a long drink. "Dang but if you don’t make a good cuppa coffee, too." She squinted. "Ya don’t need a job, do ya?"

Barbara laughed as she sat across from Shelby, and then grinned at the fact that they were both in their pants and men’s shirts. "How many dresses do you have?" she asked.

Shelby thought about it a long time and then said. "One. You?"

"Five."

"Five? What fer? You cain’t wear but one at a time!"

"That’s what I like about you, Shelby. You’re practical and you have a good business head."

"What-cha mean is I’m dancing one step ahead of Jack Wolf." Shelby grinned knowingly.

Barbara propped her feet on a chair and Shelby followed her example. "You know not to turn your back on him, don’t you?" Barbara poured some of the warming liquid into her coffee.

Shelby’s eyes widened. "Yer tellin’ me that? He’s been practically squirin’ you all around town."

"And he’s not near as smart as he thinks he is."

Shelby leaned her forearms on the table. "That’s for dang sure. He’s smarter. I’ve seen his kind so many places I’ve done lost count. Even thought I loved a couple of ‘em. But when the law come callin’ they had a way of forgettin’ all them pretty words and they lit out like a spooked cat."

Barbara glanced down. "Wonder what it is that attracts us to men like that."

"They’re dangerous," Shelby answered simply. And then she laughed.

Barbara laughed with her and the sound of the wind outside seemed to fade.

"Ya ever had feelin’s fer a man that was solid and dependable?" Shelby lit a cigar.

"Um hum," Barbara answered slowly. "He was married and had five kids. I did him a favor and got out of town."

"Five kids!" Shelby exclaimed. "Sounds to me like ya did yerself a favor." She looked around the room. "You got any playin’ cards?"

Barbara reached into the pocket of her nearby coat. "What’s your pleasure?"

"How about a little poker. Just for fun."

"You shuffle."

Shelby took the deck and puffed on her cigar.

"I meant it," Barbara said softly. "Don’t turn your back on Jack Wolf."

Shelby gave her a sketched salute. "Don’t you either."

 

 

Lord but Eagle Station’s roads were a mess after the snow from the unusual storm several days ago. Ruts in the mud looked like they could suck an entire wagon wheel into their depths. And no matter how slow a pace Ben held his horse to the animal splattered the sopping wet dirt everywhere. Yet another reason for not living in town, he thought.

Not that the Ponderosa was much better. The corral resembled a pit; the low part of the front meadow was still holding water he kept warning Joe to stay out of but somehow Paint always wanted to go through it; and this morning he had turned the corner toward the back of the barn after early chores and found Adam and Hoss rolling in the mud, laughing as if they were children. They had sat up with their legs spread and their knees pulled up, twins except for some minor details like size and coloring. But both their faces had been filled by grins.

"I’m not even going to ask," he had said softly and returned to the front of the barn. He had been able to hear them laughing and grunting again and he had wondered if they had considered how cold the well water would be when they had to wash off.

Then he had saddled his horse, anxious to check on Barbara and be sure she didn’t need anything after the storm. He needed to set something straight with her, too.

Ben waited until the majority of the customers left the trading post before he leaned over the counter toward Ruth and quietly asked, "What’s a good gift to give a woman when you want to apologize?"

A voice he knew well came from his left side. "Candy."

He looked down into his cousin’s bright eyes.

"How much?" he asked Barbara.

She shrugged. "Probably a quarter of a pound."

"Which one?" He smiled at her easy way. She looked especially pretty in the green dress she wore, with her hair pulled back by a green ribbon.

She pointed and Ruth nodded and smiled, as she understood what they were discussing.

Once they were outside the building, Ben placed the wrapped candy in Barbara’s hand. "I’m sorry for every time I bossed you and embarrassed you and yelled at you and all my other sins."

"Oh my," Barbara shook her head. "If you’re apologizing for all that then we need at least five pounds of candy."

Ben laughed and put his arm around her shoulders. "I miss you."

"I miss you, too. Come to my abode and I’ll serve you lunch." She looked up at him saucily. "That is if you promise not to dump it all on the floor and break my furniture."

"If we weren’t in public I’d swat your behind."

Barbara winked at him. "I wouldn’t feel a thing through all these abominable underclothes."

"Women are lucky that way," he observed as they stepped off the wooden sidewalk and crossed the alley.

"Having to wear all these underskirts?" she asked in amazement.

"Well, no." She heard the plotting in his voice. "But sometimes there’s something to be said for having a bit more cloth protecting your skin."

She took a candy from the paper cone and offered him one. "Is that so?"

Ben shook his head at the candy and took her elbow as they went up the steps to the next sidewalk. "Um hum. Especially when your cousin uses a switch on you."

Barbara stopped and pulled her shoulders back. "What kind of overblown story did Joseph tell you?"

He shook his head sadly. "Oh, Barbara, you whipped him so badly he knew you were going to kill him and then you threatened to do it again and the entire time Hoss held his arm and wouldn’t let go and Joe was hollering and it was awful."

Her eyes widened with amazement and then she laughed so hard she had to hold one side. "And did he go for sympathy?"

Ben chuckled. "I’m beginning to wonder how many times he’s fooled me before. You’ve never seen such a good performer."

Barbara held her neck erect. "There’s me."

He opened the door for her. "But you are in a class by yourself."

"So what’s you pleasure?" Barbara asked as they entered her room. "Bread and cheese with some dried fruit? Some smoked ham? Hot coffee?"

It was the last Ben heard of what she said for several minutes. Her claim she needed more room for her work had not been an exaggeration. Except for one area which was curtained off, and behind which Ben assumed was her bed, paintings were on the floor and propped against the walls. Several more were in easels and then there were sketches and pencil drawings strewn everywhere.

He stepped forward slowly, as if he were inside any of the cathedrals he had seen overseas in his earlier years, and remained as silent as he had then. The oil paintings were rich and mysterious as they captured the woods, the ponderosa pines, the tall rises above the glittering streams, and the shadow on the rocks of the well in late afternoon. But her watercolors drew him close. The mountains with that first snow on their peaks, multi-colored leaves filling a pathway, and the back of a young boy kicking at a pile of leaves. He would have recognized that boy anywhere – it was Little Joe in all his youthful abandon. There were more and he slowly walked sideways, holding his hat in his hand. Two more young men he recognized although they were only inches tall and in dark profile against a lake at sunset: one slender, the other tall and heavier. And apparently she’d managed to get Smoke to be quiet at sometime because she had done a watercolor of him sleeping by Adam’s boots while the fireplace burned low behind him.

They were like nothing he had ever seen before in both subject matter and technique. Small wonder she had left England and the formal portraits. Her use of light and her recognition of the normal in life were amazing.

And just as he was sure he would never see anything that surprised him more his eyes fell to pencil drawings on an easel. At first he frowned a bit, focusing on the light lines and then, despite himself, he smiled. She’d done it again – captured the essence of the girls at Jack’s and of Jack himself. But they weren’t particularly flattering sketches. You could tell in a moment Jack, who she had changed slightly, was a braggart. And if the girls had had anymore paint on their faces their cheeks would have sagged with the weight.

Barbara’s hand on his arm brought his attention back to her. "I’m ashamed to admit it but those are my favorites." She leafed behind them. "Well, not my favorites. This is my favorite." She placed a pencil sketch in front of the others and he felt, more than saw, her look up at him. "What do you think, cousin?"

Ben couldn’t speak. There, before him on cream colored paper, was a drawing of his son’s hands touching his from three different sides: Adam’s long, artistic fingers; Hoss’ strong, gentle hand; and Little Joe’s small hand grasping a group of Ben’s fingers as he still sometimes did when he was uncertain.

"How –" Words continued to fail him.

"What did you think I was drawing at the fireside each night?"

Ben smiled and then pulled back slightly as she held it out to him.

"It’s for you." She tilted her head. "I don’t have any candy to give you." She watched him handle it as if it were fine crystal. "I thought Adam might make a frame for it. And if it’s not hanging in the living area when I come for lunch Sunday I will be highly offended."

"Is that worse than being offended?"

Barbara nodded. "You don’t want to see highly offended, trust me."

He grinned at her. "And did I hear you invite yourself over for lunch on Sunday?"

"Dear, I would never be so crass. I’m sure you were the one who extended that invitation. Now can we eat? I’m starving."

Ben enjoyed his sons tremendously but it was nice to have lunch with an adult again and not have to be careful about everything he said. Barbara and he compared their impressions of the different places they had visited overseas and she helped him remember everything from architectural wonders to the problems and misunderstandings that could occur when you didn’t speak the native language and they didn’t speak yours.

"Oh, no!" Barbara laughed as they shared a bottle of wine after their meal. "What did you do?"

Ben, who sat in one chair and had stretched his legs so his boots were propped on the seat of another, traced his finger around the top of his wine glass. "I was so embarrassed," he chuckled. "The man was holding up his fingers bartering and after a while Angus and I realized he thought we wanted to ‘borrow’ his daughter for the night." He looked up at his cousin and shook his head. "And they didn’t think twice about it. The girl looked just as eager as he did."

A devilish smile dimpled her cheeks. "And you?"

Ben laughed deeply. "Are you kidding? I was younger than Hoss is now and had as much experience as Joseph."

"You’re going to have to watch that one, you know."

Ben nearly choked. "Hoss?"

Barbara leaned across the table. "Joseph. Adam is most like you in your better ways and Hoss reminds me so much of you when you were younger. But Joseph –" she threw her hands in the air. "He has the spirit of Marie and you combined. That child will lead you on a chase your other two never dreamed of."

Speaking of his youngest son brought something else to mind. "Barb? What do you think of the name Francis?"

"Oh, it’s a beautiful name. My best friend back in Philadelphia was named Fran." She poured another glass of wine and offered more to Ben but he declined. He had to return home riding straight in the saddle or the questions would never end.

"Fran," he said.

"She was the most lovely girl. She had dark hair and darker eyes and –" Barbara watched Ben close his own eyes and rest his head in his hand. "Is the wine bothering you?"

Ben put his glass on the table and then waved his free hand. "No." When he finally lowered his hand, he gave her a pleading glance. "Haven’t you ever known a man named Francis?"

"Well," she thought a moment. "There’s Francis Bacon, of course."

"No, I mean personally. Have you ever known a man named Francis?"

"I believe there was one in southern – no, he was Franco." She tossed her head lightly and before sipping her wine said, "Nope, never knew a Francis." And then she laughed at her own statement. "In any way."

Ben smiled at her double meaning and then, because they were who they were, he shared his concern about Joe’s fights over his middle name. Barbara had no solutions but she listened. That was almost as good.

"You know," she observed after a comfortable silence. "We’re a pair of odd birds, you and I. I’ve never been married. You’ve been married three times. I consider both of us attractive although I have a better personality. Pray tell, why aren’t we married?"

Ben choked again. He was making a habit of it. "To each other?" he gasped.

"Dear God, surely we would be breaking some sort of law!" She frowned. "Besides we could never be married because we could blackmail each other about what we did as children." She put down her wine glass. "What I meant was, why aren’t we married to other people?"

"It’s too early, Barb. Marie’s only been gone –"

"She’s been dead a year, Ben."

"I have the ranch and the boys. There isn’t time for anything else."

"Those things are your artwork, aren’t they?" Her voice was soft and understanding. "They will possess you no matter what." She sighed deeply and her eyes drifted to one of her paintings. After picking up her wine glass she motioned to it. "That’s the one for Shelby’s place. What do you think?"

Ben hadn’t noticed it before and probably wouldn’t have been able to see it now except for the way he was sitting. He almost wished he hadn’t and he looked away quickly. "It’s good, Barb."

"What’s wrong?"

"Nothing."

"You’re lying through your teeth. Tell me what’s wrong or I’ll kick it out of you."

Ben had to laugh at the threat coming from such a tiny thing as Barbara. He ran his hand through his hair and forced himself to look back at the oil painting. "I was attacked by a bear and Little Joe saved my life by shooting it with a rifle."

"He what!" she exclaimed and spilled a bit of her wine in the process.

"I was attacked by a bear but I didn’t have a rifle like the man in your painting does. You can tell that man will win the battle. But I would have been dead if Joe hadn’t shot the bear that had me."

"Joe shot the bear?"

Ben nodded. "One bullet. If his aim had been less true he would have killed me." He couldn’t begin to comprehend what she was thinking. And maybe it was just as well.

Barbara waited a quarter of an hour after Ben had left, pacing with anticipation, and then she grabbed her coat and walked as quickly as she could to Shelby’s saloon.

 

 

Barbara and Pa were back into their familiar pattern at lunch on Sunday, Adam observed.

"You what?" Pa asked Barb, that vein on his neck starting to pulse.

"I want to show Joe something at Shelby’s place," she answered as if she were taking him to a harmless puppet show.

"Pa don’t allow me in there," Joe said meekly.

"Pa doesn’t allow you," Adam corrected.

"I already told her," his youngest brother said heatedly. "You don’t have to tell her, too."

Adam gave up and returned to his meal.

Barbara laid her hand over Pa’s. "I want you to come with us."

"We – are – not – going," Pa said as sternly as he did slowly.

"I think you should," she said lightly. "It’s something you really must see."

She was relentless and finally, probably just to quiet her, Pa agreed. Adam and Hoss exchanged grins they quickly hid when Pa looked their way.

"What is it, ma’am?" Joe asked as Pa, Barbara and he rode in the buggy toward Eagle Station.

"What it is, young man, is a surprise. And no matter how much you ask you cannot wear me down. I am the queen of that and no one has beaten me yet."

You haven’t spent a lot of time with Joseph, Ben thought to himself. And sure enough his son questioned her until they hitched the buggy to the rail outside Shelby’s.

Ben wasn’t too sure about the advisability of his son being encouraged to go into the saloon. He had a way of finding enough mischief on his own.

"Now, you don’t really have to go inside," Barb said as she squatted down and Joe leaned from the waist with his hands on his knees.

"Who’s peeking under my door?" Shelby laughed.

"Wanted Joe to see your new painting," Barbara answered.

"It’s a right good un, too," Shelby bragged as she turned her back to them and admired the large painting.

Ben wondered what she had done with the one that had been over the bar and then he spied it on the back wall.

"Geez!" Little Joe breathed deeply. "A man’s fightin’ a bear."

"Yes he is," Barb said. "And you know how you make up stories in your mind?"

The boy never took his eyes off the painting. "Yes, ma’am."

"Well, in my story he kills that bear and then he wears the claws for strong medicine like the Indians do."

"Maybe he’s even part Indian," Joe offered.

"I think he’s at least been accepted as a brave by a tribe." Barb winked at Ben and he wondered what she was up to. "Can you read what it’s titled?" she asked.

Joe squinted to compensate for the low light inside. "Something and the bear."

"How about the first word?"

Joe slowly read it to himself once and then exclaimed, "Francis!"

"He was a friend of mine. One of the strongest mountain men I ever knew. One of the first to trap beaver and then he led groups of people through some of the most treacherous passes in the mountains."

"Golly," Little Joe said softly.

Barbara stood slowly. "Shelby and I put it there because she thought it was the best painting she’d ever seen. What do you think?"

Little Joe straightened beside her. "I think it’s real fine." Suddenly his eyes sparked with an idea. "I gotta go get somebody, Pa. Is that okay?"

Ben nodded and once his son was out of earshot he leaned on the doorjamb. "I thought you said you never knew anybody named Francis."

"I didn’t," Barb answered.

Shelby opened the saloon doors and grinned around her cigar. "Shoot, Ben, don’t-cha know a tall tale when ya hear one?"

"Well –" He never finished.

"I figure there’re gonna be all manner of boys peekin’ under these doors to get a looksee at that there paintin’ and they just might decide Little Joe’s middle name ain’t such a bad name after all."

Ben laughed and pushed back the brim of his hat.

"Anyhow," Shelby continued, "there ain’t no harm in bendin’ the truth fer a good cause. I’d hate to see Barbara kill that youngest of yours with a switch."

For the briefest of moments Ben looked at Shelby and saw her as he never had. As soon as he was aware of the sensation, though, it passed and she grinned widely at Barbara.

Barbara smiled back as Shelby and she shook hands.

And Ben decided even after three marriages he had a lot to learn about women.

 

The End ++