Ben sank to the chair behind his desk, the cushioned upholstery hugging his aching back. It had been a long day. He and Daniel spent the morning getting supplies in Virginia City, and the afternoon sorting cattle. Now Ben needed to get caught up on paperwork before the boys arrived home from hither and yon for supper. He pulled out a ledger and pencil, only half listening to his brother.
“I want to thank you for making the time to show me Lake Tahoe today. She’s a fine example of the beauty of God’s work.”
“Yes, she is,” Ben agreed, his attention already absorbed in his bookwork. “The boys and I have enjoyed many happy hours on her shores. We’ve eaten a fair number of picnic lunches there, and fished there more times than I can recall. And it was on the shore we visited today where I taught all three of them to swim.”
“She’d be the perfect host for a repentance and baptism ceremony.”
Although Ben thought Daniel’s phrasing was rather odd – he knew what a baptism was, of course, but he’d never heard it called a “repentance and baptism ceremony” before – he didn’t dwell on it. Preoccupied with adding a column of figures, he simply gave a distracted, “Yes, it would be,” and didn’t notice that Daniel walked toward the kitchen.
Ben was left alone long enough to have made some progress with his work, when Daniel’s voice brought his nose from his ledger.
“Benjamin, your Chinaman made lemonade.”
Ben glanced up, taking the glass his brother handed him.
“Thank you. Hop Sing always seems to know what we need before we ask for it.”
Daniel took a seat in a chair across from Ben’s desk. When he was settled and had taken a sip from his own glass of lemonade, Ben said, “You know, our ‘Chinaman,’ as you call him, has a name.”
Daniel frowned. “You’re making a mistake by indulging him.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “Hop Sing?”
“What does Little Joe have to do with how we refer to Hop Sing?”
“Joseph appears to have a lot to do with everything that goes on in this house.”
Ben leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh, massaging his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. If any one of his sons were present, they’d have been able to warn Daniel that this posture was a sign you were getting on Ben Cartwright’s nerves.
When Ben had reminded himself ten times over that he didn’t want a falling out with his brother, he stopped rubbing his forehead and calmly addressed the man.
“As I mentioned the day you arrived, Hop Sing has been with us since before Joe was born. Joseph was just a little boy when his mother died, and I needed someone to take over the role of mother, if you will, during those times I was working somewhere on the ranch and couldn’t have a five-year-old with me. Therefore, he feels a strong affection for Hop Sing. I realize Little Joe was disrespectful to you, Daniel, but please try and understand that from his point of view, you’re being disrespectful each time you call Hop Sing Chinaman.”
Daniel didn’t respond the way Ben expected him to. There was no lecture regarding what the Bible said about the yellow race, and no lecture about a young pup in need of learning to hold his tongue and respect his elders. Instead, Daniel smiled. Something Ben didn’t often see him do.
“Benjamin, if I haven’t told you this, I’m proud of you.”
Ben was momentarily taken aback by this rare compliment.
“Well. . .well now, thank you. Thank you, Daniel. Coming from you, that means a lot.”
“As you know, I had great concerns when you spoke of coming West all those years ago. And although I don’t cotton to many of the ways out here, you’ve handled yourself honorably. You’ve accumulated much wealth, but you’ve remained a humble man. You’ve remembered where you came from.”
“I always try to. All we were taught on that little farm back in Ohio is an important part of me.”
“And it appears you’ve upheld those teachings. As well, your neighbors and the town’s people speak highly of you. And from what I gather, you give generously to your church and its causes.”
“I believe that if a man is able to, he should give back some of his good fortune to those in need. I’ve done my best to instill that in my sons, as well.”
Daniel nodded. “Adam and Eric are fine men. Adam is intelligent and capable. A steady young man in both his thinking and his actions.”
“Adam’s always been reliable,” Ben smiled. “Even when he was just a boy.”
“And Eric. . .he has a righteous soul. He’s a good Christian man and a hard worker.”
“Hoss is all of those things and many more. I rely on him just as much as I do Adam, only in different ways, as befitting their different personalities.”
“The Lord has blessed you with two sons you can be proud of, Benjamin. Sons who will take care of you in your old age as loving sons should.”
Ben chuckled. “Well, I hope my old age is a few years off yet.”
“Perhaps the Lord will see fit to bless you with good health as he has blessed me.”
“Perhaps he will. But the Lord hasn’t blessed me with just two sons I can be proud of,” Ben reminded his brother. “He’s blessed me with three.”
“And now you come to the heart of my concern.”
of your concern?”
“And why does Little Joe cause you concern?”
me concern, Benjamin, because he obviously causes you none.”
“You’re blind to Joseph’s doings.”
“He has a lot of Pa in him.”
“Pa?” Ben frowned. “What does Pa have to do with this discussion?”
“In letters you’ve written to me over the years, you’ve said Joseph takes after his mother.”
“That may be so, but he also takes after our pa.”
“And if he does, what would be so wrong with that?”
“Pa was high-spirited. Maybe you don’t remember those spirits as well as I do, because they’d been tamed some by the time you came along. But if it hadn’t been for Ma. . .”
“If it hadn’t been for Ma what?”
“I don’t know what, other than to say it would have led to no good. He enjoyed his liquor, and he never happened upon a card game that he didn’t sit down and join, and there were times when he didn’t come home and Ma wasn’t sure where he was.”
Ben’s disbelief was plain to hear. “Wasn’t sure where he was, or wasn’t sure when he was due back? There’s a difference, you know.”
“Maybe so. But you know as well I do that he wasn’t a God-fearing man. I remember walking to church with Ma, and her telling me that if we prayed hard enough for Pa, that someday he’d come with us. Only he never did. And not long after that the babies died one by one.”
“You can’t blame Pa for those deaths, Daniel. Our brothers and sisters died due to illness and misfortune, not because of anything Pa did or didn’t do.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered why the Lord took so much from him?”
“No, I haven’t. I’ve always thought that after a lot of heartache, the Lord blessed Pa and Ma with six more children who thrived, just like you thrived.”
“You’re entitled to your views. But as for me, I believe the Lord was punishing our pa. Unfortunately, Ma was punished right along with him, and she didn’t deserve that.”
Ben remained silent a long moment, gathering his thoughts before finally speaking them out loud.
“I won’t argue when you say Pa was high-spirited. His liveliness is one of my fondest memories of him. And yes, I suppose you’re right. Pa had a…thirst for things a preacher wouldn’t approve of. But he always provided for us, Daniel. We never went hungry, or wanted for a warm fire, or a roof over our heads, or shoes on our feet when winter came, or sound guidance at his knee.” Ben chuckled. “And sometimes across his knee, as well. And when he’d walk in the door at night and swing us over his head one by one, and rub that wild tangle of hair into our bellies while laughing in that funny way he had that made everyone laugh right along with him--”
“The laugh your Joseph inherited.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
“I don’t suppose it would be if that was the only trait of our pa’s your youngest possessed.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I will always honor the memory of our father, Benjamin, as the Bible says I must. But nonetheless, I shall not lie to myself about his faults, nor forget them.”
“We all have our faults.”
“We do, but we can overcome them by using the Bible as our guide and the Lord as our compass. That’s all Ma ever wanted from Pa, and for as much as he loved her, it was the one thing he could never bring himself to do.”
Ben didn’t make a response to his brother. Obviously, their memories of their father differed. But Ben couldn’t in good conscience tell Daniel his memories were wrong. Memories are based on so many things, from perspective, to an individual’s personality, to in this case; the fact that Daniel was fourteen years older than Ben, and remembered their father when Pa wasn’t much older than Little Joe was right now.
Did Ben think that if Joe married tomorrow and had a child soon thereafter that his parenting skills might be lacking now and again? Of course they would. There was no getting around the fact that an eighteen-year-old boy has some wild oats to sew. By God’s own hand, Ben believed, a thirty-year-old made a far different father than an eighteen-year-old did. Pa was still several months short of his nineteenth birthday when Daniel was born. He was thirty-three when Ben came along. That was quite a stretch of years to mature and change, and settle into the “Weston Ways” as Pa used to say when teasing Ma about how she’d driven some of “that ole devil clean on outta me.”
Daniel interrupted Ben’s thoughts.
“It is said the son often pays for the sins of the father. It’s my fear that sometimes the Lord makes the grandsons pay for the sins of the grandfather, unless we, as fathers, take matters into our own hands and correct them. As the Bible says, we are given free will to follow the Lord, or to turn from Him. It’s our choice.”
“Daniel, come on now. You’re making Pa sound like. . .well, like someone he wasn’t.”
“He sinned, Benjamin. That’s why so many children were taken from him.”
“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” Ben quoted from the Bible.
“That’s true, but only the sinner who repents earns the Lord’s forgiveness.”
Ben started to stand. He suddenly felt the need to see how Hop Sing was getting along with the supper preparations. He smiled at his brother. The same polite smile he used when any guest annoyed him.
“As the father of three sons, I well understand that sometimes brothers disagree. So on this subject, we’ll disagree and leave it as such.”
“Benjamin, please sit for a moment longer. On this one thing hear me out. Please don’t let your stubbornness get in the way.”
Ben reluctantly sat back down. “What one thing?”
“Don’t allow Joseph’s charm and easy smile to blind you to the facts.”
“You need to break that boy before it’s too late, just like you’d break an unruly colt.”
“Daniel, I’m confused by just what you think needs breaking where Little Joe is concerned.”
“You have no control over him. You think you do, he allows you to think it, but you don’t. He’s secretive. He comes home at all hours of the night. He arrived at the stage after being involved in a brawl like a common street thug. He daydreams when he should be listening to the preacher, and--”
“In other words, he’s a normal eighteen-year-old boy.”
“That may be so, but I doubt you had these same challenges with Adam or Eric.”
“Joseph isn’t a reproduction of his brothers, any more than Adam and Hoss are reproductions of each other. And just like their father, none of them is perfect. Why sometimes I think Adam takes life far too seriously. And sometimes I wish Hoss’s soft-heart didn’t mean that he was vulnerable to every ne’er-do-well with a sad story. And yes, sometimes I wish Little Joe’s high spirits, as you phrase it, didn’t lead him into trouble. But I treasure each of my sons for who they are, and wouldn’t change a one of them even if God gave me that opportunity.”
“See, Benjamin, this is what I’m so concerned about. That you won’t listen to me with an open mind.”
“My mind is open, but I think I know Little Joe better than you do.”
“That may be so, but it may also be the reason why you only see the good in him and not the evil.”
“Evil? Daniel, begging your pardon, but I think that’s a harsh word to attach to my son. Little Joe isn’t evil.”
“Evil is often hidden. That’s the way Satan works.”
“I’m sure it is, but I have no worries about evil where Joseph is concerned. Foolish pranks, yes. Impulsive decisions, yes. Times when his temper gets the best of him, yes. Those are the things I worry about. But evil – no. That thought has never crossed my mind.”
“Well, perhaps it should before it’s too late.”
The man leaned forward with intensity burning in his brown eyes. “Benjamin, I beg of you. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”
Ben’s brow furrowed with puzzlement. “Mistakes?”
“Don’t think that just because you’re a good Christian and a God-fearing man, that Satan can’t dwell in your house.”
“I’m sure he can.” Ben chuckled and added, “Though I can’t say I’ve ever seen any signs of him.”
“Don’t make light of this. As your eldest brother, I’m attempting to counsel you.”
“And I appreciate that counsel. However, I don’t appreciate you speaking ill of Pa, or implying that Little Joe is up to no good.”
Daniel hesitated a long moment, then leaned back and gave a reluctant nod. “As you wish. This is your home, and I’m just a visitor.”
“You’re more than a visitor. You’re my brother.”
“But a visiting brother nonetheless. Therefore, I shall keep my opinions to myself. But you can’t stop me from praying for you and Joseph.”
“And I won’t ask you to.”
“Very well then.” Daniel stood. “I believe I’ll go to my room and rest before dinner.”
“You’re more than welcome to do so. I’ll let you know when the food is on the table.”
As his brother started to walk away, Ben got to his feet and stepped around the desk.
“Daniel? No hard feelings?”
The man turned around, meeting Ben’s eyes while shaking his head.
“No hard feelings. You must guide your sons as you see fit. It’s not my place to tell you otherwise. ”
Ben nodded his thanks. He watched as Daniel headed for the guestroom. Upon hearing the door close, he turned toward the table where the liquor decanter sat. Not for the first time since his brother arrived, Ben longed for something stronger than lemonade. Unlike other days, however, today Ben acted on that longing. He poured brandy into a glass, then returned to his desk and slowly sat back down with the air of a man preoccupied by his thoughts.
The paperwork Ben planned on completing went untouched. He sipped his drink while mulling over the recent conversation with his brother. In more ways than not, Ben supposed it shouldn’t surprise him to discover Daniel blamed their father for things that were out of Pa’s control. Some of Ben’s earliest memories of his eldest brother involved the man claiming that some sin or the other had brought misfortune. It didn’t matter if lack of rain caused it to be a bad year for crops, or if a neighbor fell from a haymow and broke an arm, or if a child drowned while playing in the river. According to Daniel, sin was always to blame for these hardships. As though God kept a tally sheet of even the smallest human transgressions, and made certain you eventually paid for all of your wrongdoings. That was far from how Ben felt things worked. He’d always thought of God as a loving, forgiving father. But there was little use in arguing that point with Daniel, whose position on the subject evidently hadn’t changed in the years since Ben had last been with him.
And then there were those mistakes Daniel spoke of.
“Benjamin, I beg of you. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”
What had he meant by that? Daniel never admitted to mistakes of any kind. Since arriving, he’d spoken frequently of God and business – both store business, and then ranching business as his knowledge of the Ponderosa expanded – but little else. When Ben had offered his sympathy over Danny’s and Clara’s deaths, Daniel refused to be drawn into a conversation about either of them. He referred to Clara’s passing as “God’s will,” given her years of frail health, and to Danny’s passing as an “unspeakable tragedy.” Which was exactly how Ben would feel about the deaths of any of his sons, so overall, he hadn’t found it odd that Daniel avoided mentioning the boy.
As to the event that caused Danny’s death, Ben didn’t know. In a letter written a few days after their nephew’s funeral, John supplied scant details. Details that hadn’t amounted to more than, “Danny’s death was swift and unexpected. He injured his head in a fall, Ben, and died shortly thereafter. This was likely a blessing, as it’s my understanding nothing could have been done to save him. Daniel seems to be holding up well, but I’m afraid the boy’s passing will cause Clara’s health to decline further. Ruth is also taking his death hard. She and Danny were especially close.”
Evidently John’s prediction about the decline of Clara’s health proved true, since she died just a few months after her only son. The son Daniel wanted for so many years, and whose birth he’d rejoiced in far more than Daniel had ever rejoiced in anything before or since. But somewhere as the years passed mistakes were made. Daniel admitted it just a few minutes ago, but what mistakes? Mistakes regarding the raising of Danny? Or mistakes in his relationship with Clara? Or mistakes that had nothing to do with his family? With Daniel, it was difficult to guess. Heaven knew that if he forgot to put money in the collection plate one Sunday twenty years ago, he’d consider that a mistake God was just waiting for the opportunity to punish him for.
Ben would have spent more time puzzling over those unspoken of mistakes, while trying to tie them into the blame Daniel directed at their pa along with his concerns for Little Joe’s moral character, but then Adam entered the house full of news from the timber camp. On the heels of Adam’s arrival, Hoss came in wondering what was for supper after spending the afternoon inspecting Cartwright grazing land.
Therefore, in short order, things unspoken of didn’t seem important any longer. With a fresh glass of lemonade in hand, Ben sat down with his sons in the great room and listened to the accounts of their day while waiting for Little Joe to come home.
Daniel knelt beside his bed, eyes closed, elbows propped upward resting on the mattress, hands clasped, and head bowed in prayer. The prayer was nothing new. It was the same prayer he’d been taking to God since his arrival on the Ponderosa. The prayer was for both Joseph and Benjamin. A prayer asking God to drive the evil from that boy. A prayer asking God to make Benjamin see that the evil existed before it was too late.
After he’d said amen, Daniel struggled to his feet. Despite his good health, it was no longer easy to rise from a hard floor after prayer. He walked stiffly to the rocking chair in the corner, took his Bible off the small round table next to the chair, and sat down. He could hear men’s voices through his closed door and assumed his nephews had returned home. He didn’t bother to join them. When supper was ready they’d let him know. Until then, he’d spend time alone in quiet contemplation.
The unopened Bible lay in Daniel’s lap as he gently rocked back and forth, a breeze blowing in through the open windows kept the room comfortable despite the warmth of the day.
As Ben had done earlier, Daniel mulled over the conversation he’d shared with his brother. There was an old saying about not being able to catch flies with vinegar, which was why Daniel had done his best to let only honey roll off his tongue. That thought brought a small smile to his lips. It was something Ma had often said to him.
“Daniel, you have an honest tongue and you speak your mind. While the Lord smiles on those who are truthful, the truth must sometimes be softened to avoid offense. Remember, son, that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”
And so, in heeding that long ago advice, Daniel had tried to soften the truth with Benjamin this afternoon, but to no avail. Perhaps plain old vinegar would be the only thing that would get through to his brother. On the other hand, Daniel had employed blunt honesty on numerous occasions since arriving and it had done him no good. Benjamin’s mind was closed where Joseph was concerned. Therefore, though Daniel had a lot more he could have said to his brother, there was little point in being anything but agreeable. Obviously, Satan not only had a grip on the son, but on the father as well.
As he sat rocking, Proverbs 22:6 ran through Daniel’s head.
Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.
It was a noteworthy verse. One Benjamin would do well to remember and put into practice.
Daniel thought some more, then gave a firm nod. Perhaps this is why God sent him here. If Benjamin was not going to train up his youngest child in the way he should go, then perhaps God was leaving that job to Daniel.
A job Daniel was more than willing to take on, just like he’d taken it on with his own son – consequences not withstanding.
The only way Joe Cartwright had to judge how long he’d been in the hole was by tracking the path the sun traveled above him. His pocket watch was in one of his saddlebags, as was just about anything else that might have been useful to him. A length of rope, a small pickaxe like miners carry, and his canteen – the canteen sitting beside his saddlebags somewhere far above him – that was what Joe wanted most after being in this damn hole all afternoon. His canteen, and the lunch Hop Sing packed for him. He’d give up three months worth of Saturday nights in Virginia City to drain half the canteen in one gulping swallow, and gobble down his sandwich in two ravenous bites. His hunger had grown far beyond the growling and gnawing point, to the point of causing the kind of pounding in his head that Joe normally experienced after a few too many with Tuck and Mitch at the Silver Dollar.
Joe gingerly moved his head back and forth, trying to loosen the stiff muscles in his neck. He’d been craning his head upward most of the afternoon. And as though he wasn’t suffering from enough maladies, his throat was sore from yelling for help. Not that he’d wanted to yell for help. He had too much pride for that. But after three hours of trying to claw his way out of the deep hole, all he’d gotten for his efforts was dirt in his eyes, dirt in his hair, and a throat that he swore was drier than the Mojave Desert. It was right about then that Joe set his pride aside and decided hollering; “Help! Hey, somebody, help me! Help, I’m down here!” was the only choice left him.
Joe shivered. His shirt. He’d give up another month of Saturday nights in Virginia City for his shirt too, but like his canteen and lunch sack, his shirt wasn’t at hand. He shouldn’t be cold. It had been a hot day and he’d spent most of the afternoon exerting himself, but now that dusk was falling, the temperature was dropping. Not dangerously so for most men, but dangerous for a young man in a stressful situation who hadn’t eaten in twelve hours, nor had water in over six, and was trapped below ground surrounded by dirt walls that were rapidly cooling with the disappearance of the sun.
As twilight began to streak the sky pale pink above Joe’s head, he sank to the dirt floor with exhaustion. His throat was raw, his voice was raspy, his head hurt, and dirt clumped beneath his fingernails. There wasn’t enough room for Joe to sit with his legs spread out in front of him. He was forced to sit with his knees tucked against his chest, which would be okay for a while, but if he was here until morning he’d likely have a hard time getting out of this position and standing.
Joe tried to guess at the time as a chill from the damp dirt beneath him crept in through the seat of his trousers, and then guess exactly when his father would send one of his brothers to look for him. They would have expected him home for supper at six. He’d probably be granted an hour’s leeway, maybe a little longer, considering it was never easy to predict how long a job on the ranch might tie a fellow up. But based on the fading daylight, Joe assumed that it wouldn’t be too long before Pa started wondering where he was. Even so, it would be well past dark before Adam or Hoss got here. In the meantime, there wasn’t much Joe could do but sit and wait. On the off chance that someone was traveling past – one of the Ponderosa ranch hands perhaps – Joe decided to yell for help again. If he’d been wearing his gun belt, he could have saved his voice and fired off a shot or two. But he’d removed the belt when its leather grew too hot around his waist, and now, like everything else Joe might have made good use of, his gun was out of reach.
His yelling was nothing other than an effort in futility. His voice came out in barely more than a raspy whisper, and even then, it cracked and changed octaves like it hadn’t done since he was thirteen.
The laughter came on the heels of Joe’s cry for help.
“Hey, Joe, you sound like a girl!”
“Yeah, Joe, my brother’s right! You sound like a girl. Like a scared little girl who’s afraid of the dark!”
Joe jumped to his feet.
“Charlie! Paul! Get me outta here! You’ve had your fun. Now come on, get me out!”
All Joe got for his demands was more laughter that was then followed by more taunts.
“Sounds like one of our baby sisters, don’t he, Charlie?”
“Hell, Paul, even our sisters wouldn’t yell like that. Reckon that just goes to prove Joe Cartwright ain’t nearly as tough as everyone ‘round here thinks.”
“Maybe we’d better head on into the Silver Dollar and spread the word around ‘bout what a sissy Little Joe is.”
“Sounds good to me, brother. Hey, Joe, we’ll have a drink on you, buddy! See ya’ later!”
“Yeah, Joe, see ya’ ‘round, friend!”
Joe wanted to yell for Paul and Charlie not to go. He wanted to yell for them to stay and help him, but he wasn’t going to beg. He’d die down here in this godforsaken hole before he’d sink to begging for any kind of help from anyone – and most especially not from those two lowdown snakes.
The young man sunk back to the cold dirt. He ran his dirty hands through his hair while giving a heavy sigh, and trying not to think of the hot supper waiting for him at home, along with a glass of Hop Sing’s lemonade to wash it down with.
The dining room table had been cleared and the supper dishes washed – all but Joe’s that is. His place was still set, and the basket of rolls was covered with a white cloth and resting in front of his empty plate. Well over an hour ago now, Hop Sing had saved portions of the meal for Joe, preventing Hoss from having third helpings.
“Hey, Hop Sing, don’t take all that away!” Hoss protested after polishing off his second round of food. “If ya’ want my opinion, the fella’ who don’t show up for supper don’t get fed.”
“Hop Sing no ask you opinion.” The housekeeper looked at Ben for approval. “I put food in warmer for Little Joe.”
“Yes, Hop Sing, thank you. I’m sure he’ll be along soon.”
“I agree with Eric,” Daniel stated from the end of the table. “If Joseph is late and misses supper, he should go without.”
“Well, I don’t agree with Eric.” Ben’s eyes traveled from Hoss to Daniel. “As I’ve told you previously, my sons work long and hard. None of them goes without a meal.”
Daniel gave a disapproving “humph,” but didn’t say any more. Hoss shot his father a sheepish smile.
“Sorry, Pa. I was just funnin’. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
Ben nodded his understanding. “I know you didn’t.”
Unfortunately, your uncle doesn’t possess a sense of humor, nor would he recognize humor if it bit him in the. . .
Ben let his thought trail off, doing his best not to be disrespectful to his eldest brother, even when that disrespect wasn’t spoken out loud.
Once the meal was over, Ben led his family to the front porch. It wasn’t until the sun began to set that worry for Little Joe surfaced. It wasn’t unusual for Ben or his sons to be late in arriving home for supper. Especially during the summer months when the days were long and so much work needed to be done. But as twilight took over for the sun, Ben stood and walked to the edge of the porch.
Adam glanced up from the table where he and Hoss sat playing checkers.
“He’ll be along in a few minutes, Pa.”
“I’m sure he will be.”
But when Adam’s prediction of a “few minutes” turned into twenty more minutes passing without Little Joe’s arrival, Ben’s worry increased. He supposed he was being foolish. After all, if it were Adam or Hoss who still weren’t home he wouldn’t be ready to send someone searching for them. But the missing son was Little Joe, who had only recently begun to enjoy the freedoms adulthood brought a young man, and who had a knack for finding trouble even when he wasn’t looking for it.
Ben turned and faced the checker players. “Adam, Hoss. I want you to saddle your horses and go look for your little brother.”
“Yes, Adam, look for him.”
Ben didn’t see Adam roll his eyes at Hoss as the two men stood up from their game; nonetheless, he knew that action had taken place. As though Adam was saying, “Once again we get sent to save the kid’s hide.”
Well, maybe that was the case. But then, as far as Ben was concerned, that came with the territory when you were a big brother. He glanced at his own big brother who sat staring at him with a disapproving frown – judging his parenting skills once again, Ben was certain, and finding them lacking in some way. Not for the first time in his life, Ben wished he had the kind of relationship with Daniel that Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe shared.
Ben gave his oldest a playful slap on the back as Adam passed. “Yes, son, once again you get sent to track down Joseph. The woes of being a big brother.”
Ben walked along with his sons to the barn, wanting to be out of Daniel’s hearing range.
“Adam, you take the trail to that dam. Maybe Joe’s still up there.”
“Maybe,” Adam agreed dubiously. From the doubt in his voice, Ben knew Adam didn’t think it likely Joe was still working on the dam this late into the night. But perhaps he’d worked until the sun began to set and was just now heading home.
“And, Hoss,” Ben said quietly, “I want you to go to Virginia City and have a look around the places. . .well, the places you know Little Joe to frequent when his father and brothers aren’t with him.”
Hoss grinned and nodded. “Don’t you worry none, Pa. I know just where them places is.”
The big man didn’t elaborate, and Ben thought of how lucky Little Joe was to have such a loyal brother. Ben figured if he knew some of Joe’s secret haunts he’d likely skin that young scallywag alive.
Ben got a lantern for Adam as his sons saddled their horses. Adam secured the lantern to his saddle horn, then climbed on Sport. The boys left the ranch yard, promising their father that one of them would return with Little Joe in tow safe and sound.
He might not be so sound if I find out he headed off to Virginia City after he cleared that dam and got involved in a poker game.
Normally, Ben would have said that out loud to his two older sons, which would have caused them to laugh as they rode away, but by now Daniel was standing at his right shoulder so he refrained from saying anything other than, “Thanks, boys,” as Adam and Hoss headed their horses in opposite directions and rode away.
“Always worrying about Joseph, is that it, Benjamin?”
Ben shook himself from his thoughts. “Pardon?”
“Joseph. You always appear to be worrying about him.”
“I wouldn’t say I always worry about him.”
“But more so than you do your older boys.”
Ben shrugged. “He’s quite a bit younger than Adam and Hoss. Not as mature.”
“Not having good judgment, or the ability to make righteous choices?”
“Little Joe possesses both of those attributes.”
“Then why do you worry so about him?”
“It’s as I told you, he’s young. He has some growing up to do yet, as we all did when we were just eighteen.”
“Benjamin, don’t ignore this any longer, please.”
“Your worry over Joseph. The fact that you’ve had to send his brothers to look for him – and not for the first time I gather. Take it as the sign it is.”
“Sign from God. He wants you to open your eyes to what’s right in front of you.”
Ben turned around and walked toward the door.
“All that’s in front of me, Daniel, is an empty house. When my sons return, it will be full again like it should be. In the meantime, let’s go inside. We never did eat any of that carrot cake Hop Sing made. If we don’t have some now, we might not get any. I’m sure the boys will be hungry when they get back. If I know Hoss, he’ll polish off half that cake before he goes to bed.”
As Ben led the way into the house, he tried not to let his worry over Little Joe’s whereabouts show. After all, he wanted to enjoy his cake, rather than have his dessert sour in his stomach while his brother lectured him about signs from God.
Both rider and horse were mindful of their limited visibility as they traveled the route to the dam Adam discovered days earlier.
“Should have just taken care of it myself,” the man grumbled with a yawn. “If I had, I’d be home in bed right now instead of being sent after an errant little brother. If Hoss finds that kid at a poker table, or in some saloon girl’s room, I swear the kick I give him in the seat of his britches will land him all the way in Carson City.”
Adam’s annoyance with Little Joe changed to concern when he heard a familiar whinny break the nighttime quiet. Cochise must have heard him approaching and recognized Sport’s scent.
The man tethered Sport next to Cochise. He grabbed the lantern from his saddle horn, took a match from the book in his shirt pocket, and struck it. He lit the lantern, raised his arm, and shined the light around.
Adam used the light to look over Cochise. The horse seemed fine, albeit restless as he tossed his head and moved from foot to foot. As the lantern traveled with Adam’s movements, it landed on a pile of paraphernalia. Adam bent down, eyeing Joe’s saddlebags, canteen, hat, shirt, gun belt, and the lunch sack still filled with a sandwich, beef jerky, two cornbread muffins, an apple, and three cookies. He picked the shirt up and studied it. He didn’t see any tears in it, or any blood on it, which brought him some relief.
He stood, using the lantern to cast as much light as possible on the area.
“Joe? Little Joe?”
He started toward the stream. Joe was a good swimmer and the water wasn’t very deep here, but if he’d slipped on a rock, fallen and hit his head, or if he’d become overheated and passed out. . .
“Joe?” Adam’s voice grew louder with each questioning call. “Joe?” The lantern’s light revealed Joe had been working on the dam at some point during the day. The top quarter of it was dismantled, with the branches Joe tore out of it piled on the shoreline. Adam looked around.
“Little Joe! Little Joe, where are you? Joe!”
Adam didn’t hear the first two responses he received, and almost didn’t hear the third.
He squinted into the night, not certain if he’d heard a person, or if the raspy sound was nothing more than a small animal scurrying into the underbrush.
“Over here,” came the return yell, if one could refer to it as such. It sounded more like the way a man spoke when he was laid up with the croup.
“Over where?” Adam peered into the darkness.
“Here! Down here, Adam!”
“Down. . .?”
“Be careful! Don’t fall in.”
“Fall in?” Adam mumbled, while making his way toward the sound of his brother’s voice. “What the. . .”
Joe squinted as the light shined down, assaulting his eyes.
Adam knew it was a dumb question, but it was the only one that came to mind.
“What are you doing down there?”
“Digging for worms, what the hell do you think I’m doin’ down here? I fell in this godforsaken pit sometime around noon.”
Adam didn’t chide Joe for his choice of language that Pa wouldn’t approve of. After all, Adam imagined he’d engage in some choice language of his own if he’d spent most of the day in a hole.
“Are you all right?”
“Just hungry, thirsty, cold, and my head feels like I had a heck of a good time in Virginia City that I don’t have the pleasure of remembering.”
Adam chuckled. “I bet it does.”
The man set the lantern down, then got on his belly, extending a hand into Joe’s tomb.
“Here. Grab my hand and I’ll pull you up.”
It took Joe a few seconds to get to his feet. It was too dark for Adam to tell if he was in pain from some injury he wasn’t revealing, or if he was just stiff from sitting for too long.
Adam felt a hand clasp his.
He wasn’t kidding when he said he was cold.
“Okay, Joe, on three. One. . .two. . .three.”
Adam pulled, but he barely made progress before Joe’s hand slipped from his grasp.
“Sorry. I couldn’t hold on.”
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s try again. Once more, on three.”
Adam counted to three, but just like their previous attempt, Little Joe couldn’t hang on. In addition to that, the earth beneath Adam’s chest was crumbling, showering his brother with dirt.
“Be careful, Adam. If that gives way you’ll be down here with me, and I can tell ya’ right now, there ain’t room enough for the both of us in this hole.”
“I’ll take your word on that. Besides, I don’t fancy being stuck down there until sometime after dawn when Pa comes looking for us. How about you?”
“I haven’t fancied bein’ stuck down here for as long as I already have been, so no, I sure don’t fancy bein’ down here until tomorrow morning. By then, I’ll be able to out eat Hoss at his hungriest.”
“I’m sure you will. All right, hang on a few more minutes. I’ll be back.”
“Where you goin?”
“To get Sport and a rope.”
Within five minutes, Adam had a length of sturdy rope secured around his saddle horn. He threw the other end down to Joe.
“Tie it around your waist, then tell me when you’re ready.”
When Joe didn’t protest Adam’s instruction to tie the rope around his waist, Adam knew his brother was as tired and weak as he’d surmised. Under normal circumstances, Little Joe would have grabbed onto the rope and scurried up that dirt wall as though he were a mole.
“Okay, I’m ready.”
“All right. We’re gonna take it slow and easy. If you feel any pain, call out and I’ll stop.”
“I’m not hurt, Adam.”
“You might be and just don’t know it yet.”
“Well I’m not. So come on, get me outta here.”
“Joe. . .”
“Yeah, yeah. If I hurt anywhere, I’ll let you know.”
“Is that a promise?”
“It’s a promise.”
“Okay then. Are you ready?”
“More than you can imagine, big brother.”
“Here we go.”
Adam slowly walked Sport away from the hole, listening for any cries of pain from Joe. No indications of pain came, however, and within a few seconds Adam was instructing Sport to stop. Joe had made it halfway out of the hole, but didn’t have the strength to get out the rest of the way.
Adam ran back to the hole, grabbed Joe under the arms, and finished pulling him out. He knelt beside his prone brother, concerned when Joe didn’t immediately get to his feet.
“Here, let me get that rope off of you.”
Adam gently turned his brother over, using the light from the nearby lantern to study Joe as he did so. Both legs and arms appeared to be at normal angles, and Adam didn’t see blood anywhere. Mostly, all he saw was dirt. Smudges of dirt on Joe’s face and bare chest, and streaks of dirt on his trousers.
Adam patted a cold shoulder as he slipped the rope from Joe’s waist. “Are you all right?”
Joe nodded. “Just tired.” The young man’s eyes were blood shot, but Adam wasn’t certain how much of that discoloration was from the weariness Joe just spoke of, versus irritation from dirt.
“You stay here and rest a minute while I get your shirt and canteen.”
Joe nodded his thanks as his eyes drifted closed.
When Adam returned, he helped Little Joe sit up. With Joe’s back resting against his chest, Adam uncapped the canteen and handed it to his brother.
“Here, but take it easy. Don’t drink it all in one gulp.”
“That’s all I’ve been dreaming about doing for the past ten hours.”
“I’m sure that’s the case, but nonetheless, go easy. You don’t want to throw it back up.”
Adam suspected his brother practiced a good deal of restraint where the water was concerned simply to appease him. When he’d drained the canteen dry, Adam filled it again in the stream. Joe drank it half empty, then grabbed the sandwich Adam held out to him.
“You should probably wash your hands first.”
That suggestion went unheeded, as did Adam’s command of, “Slow down, Joe,” as his brother gobbled the sandwich in four bites, and then gobbled each one of the cookies Adam handed him in two bites. Adam’s prediction that the sandwich and cookies would be thrown up given the speed with which Joe ate them proved untrue. By the time Adam handed Joe his shirt, the young man seemed a bit stronger. Adam helped Little Joe to his feet, then stuck close as Joe made his way to the stream where he knelt to rinse his hands and face.
While Joe did that, Adam filled his brother’s canteen one last time. If it weren’t for the fact Pa would worry if they didn’t arrive home yet that night, Adam would have made camp there. Joe’s pinched features told Adam his brother’s headache was paining him more than the young man acknowledged. In addition to that, he could barely put one foot in front of the other as he walked toward Cochise, and Adam didn’t miss the shivers despite the shirt Joe was now wearing.
Adam grabbed Sport’s reins and walked the horse to where Joe was untying Cochise. He handed Joe his canteen, hat, and gun belt, before bending to pick up the saddlebags. He tossed them over Cochise’s rump; then reached into one of his own saddlebags.
“If I needed it, I’d have been wearing it, now wouldn’t I?”
“I dunno. I guess.”
“You guessed correctly. Now put it on, and then we’ll head home. The sooner we get there, the sooner you can eat supper and go to bed.”
“Supper?” Joe said, as he shouldered into Adam’s jacket. It was too big for him, but he didn’t complain. “By the time we get home breakfast’ll only be a few hours away.”
“Then I’m sure Hop Sing will be happy to scramble you a plateful of eggs, and flip you a few flapjacks while he’s at it, if that’s what you prefer.”
“That’s what I prefer. Along with a hot bath and some of them headache powders he keeps on hand.”
“I’m sure it can all be arranged. And Hoss will thank you, by the way.”
“Thank me? For what?”
“He was hankering for your helping of food at the dinner table. While you eat your eggs, he can get your plate out of the warmer and have himself a late night snack.”
Considering it would be after midnight before they got home, Joe acknowledged the truth to Adam’s words.
“You’re probably right about that.”
“I know I’m right about it.”
“Speaking of Hoss, where is he?”
“Pa sent him to Virginia City. You know our father when it comes to your whereabouts. He wanted to cover all possibilities.”
Joe chuckled. “For as much as I’d love to be sitting at a poker table right about now with a cold beer in front of me, guess I won’t be givin’ Pa anything to get riled over tonight.”
“For which Pa will be grateful, I’m sure.”
While Joe climbed in his saddle, Adam blew out the lantern and got on Sport.
As Adam headed for home with Joe riding beside him, he glanced back into the blackness. He had a lot of questions he wanted to ask Little Joe about the origins of that hole, and exactly how he ended up falling into it, but by the weary slump to his kid brother’s shoulders, along with the voice that was only half its normal strength, Adam decided questions could wait until Joe had both some hot food and a dose of headache powder in his stomach.
Footsteps on the porch brought Ben out of his chair. Hoss met his father’s eyes as he entered the house and shut the door behind him.
“Sorry, Pa. No sign of ‘im.”
“Did you look everywhere?”
“Yes, sir.” Hoss removed his gun belt and hat. He hung the hat on a wall hook then rolled up the gun belt, placing it on the sideboard. “Everywhere I know ta’ look, that is. Asked around some too. No one’s seen him.”
Although the last thing Ben had wanted tonight was for Hoss to find his younger brother seated at a poker table in Virginia City, especially given Daniel’s looming presence at his elbow, Hoss’s announcement prompted renewed worry. There was no reason for Little Joe to be working on that dam so late into the evening. If he hadn’t completed his task as suppertime came and went, he would have headed home before dark with plans to return the following day to finish the job.
Ben glanced at the Grandfather clock. Twenty minutes past midnight. His lips tightened with concern.
“I hope Adam’s run across him.”
“I’m sure he has, Pa. They’re probably on their way home as we’re standin’ here. No use in worryin’ ‘til we got somethin’ to worry about. Ain’t that what you always say?”
Ben gave his middle son a slight smile. “Yes, that is what I always say. But sometimes it’s easier to say than to put into practice.”
“Especially when your worry is centered on Joseph, is that it, Benjamin?”
Ben took a deep breath before facing his brother. “I worry about all of my sons now and again.”
“Tell yourself that if it makes you feel better. But deep down you and I – and our Lord – know the truth.”
Hoss didn’t appear to take notice of his uncle’s remark, which didn’t surprise Ben. Neither Adam nor Hoss seemed bothered by Daniel’s presence, nor bothered by the way he often brought Joe to task. He supposed that was because they still thought of Joe as their baby brother. As a boy still in need of guidance from his elders, as opposed to a young man who had the right not to be asked to repeat the preacher’s sermon word for word, or supply chapter and verse of whatever obscure Bible passages Daniel was intent on quoting at the dinner table. Or more likely, they just enjoyed the humor those moments provided at their younger brother’s expense, as older brothers were often noted to do.
Well, some older brothers, Ben thought ruefully with regard to the older brother standing beside him.
Thankfully, any debate over the time Ben spent worrying about Little Joe versus time spent worrying about Adam and Hoss ended when more footsteps were heard crossing the porch.
Ben opened the door before his sons had a chance to enter the house.
“Boys. . .Little Joe, are you all right? What kept you so late? Did you run into some kind of trouble taking apart that--”
It wasn’t until the brothers stepped into the foyer and Joe could be viewed under the glow of the lamps that Ben knew his youngest son had, in fact, run into some kind of trouble. Dirt streaked his face and neck, and his eyes were red and watering as though irritated by foreign matter. When he took his hat off, his hair held a coating of fine gray dust. And when Ben caught sight of Joe’s hands as he set his gun belt on the sideboard, he saw dirt clumped beneath his nails and raw, torn skin on the tips of his fingers.
Exhaustion glowed dully from Little Joe’s bloodshot eyes as he gave an involuntary shiver beneath Adam’s jacket. He shot his father a tired smile.
“I’m okay, Pa. Nothin’ a hot bath and some sleep won’t cure.”
“But what happened? How did you get in this condition? What--”
Behind Little Joe’s back, Adam subtly shook his head at his father.
“Pa, Joe hasn’t had a decent meal since breakfast and he’s got a pretty fierce headache because of it. Why don’t we let him clean up and eat before we start asking a lot of questions.”
Ben’s eyes met Adam’s. In those few seconds he picked up on the silent message his eldest was sending that indicated Joe’s physical condition needed tending to before further inquiries were made. Ben nodded.
“Yes. . .yes, I can see that’s a good idea, Adam. Hop Sing!”
Joe winced at his father’s yell. Ben placed a gentle hand on Little Joe’s arm.
“Sorry about that, son.”
Joe mustered up a teasing grin and admonished his father with a line Ben had often used on his sons when they were young and roughhousing in the great room.
“Just keep it down to a dull roar, would ya’, Pa?”
Daniel “tsked tsked” at what Ben assumed the man took to be Joe’s impertinence. He ignored his brother, not bothering to explain the family joke.
Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen in his nightshirt and robe, thought too alert to have been sleeping. Like Ben, he’d no doubt been worried about Little Joe.
The houseman took Little Joe’s other arm, and along with Ben, ushered the young man toward the kitchen.
“Come, Little Joe. Water all ready heating for bath, and Hop Sing keep supper warm.”
“I’d kinda like some scrambled eggs if you don’t mind,” came Joe’s tentative request. “And maybe a couple of flapjacks to go along with ‘em?”
“Hop Sing no mind. Mr. Hoss can finish Little Joe’s supper while Little Joe eat breakfast.”
“Sounds just dandy to me, Hop Sing. Me an’ Adam’s gonna see ta’ the horses first. Then I’ll be ready for that there midnight snack ya’ mentioned.”
“I’m sure we can all share in a little snack of some sort while Little Joe eats,” Ben said. “You boys go on and tend to the horses. I’ll help Hop Sing with the bath water. Uh...Daniel…” Ben paused in his march to the kitchen and turned to address his brother. “It’s been a long day for you. You’re welcome to call it a night if you’d prefer. We’ll keep things down to a “dull roar” as Little Joe said. Besides, after he’s cleaned up and has had a bite to eat we’ll be turning in too.”
“No, Benjamin, that’s all right. I’m wide-awake. I’ll just wait out here until your family is ready to gather at the table. I can offer a prayer of thanks for Joseph’s safe return before he has his meal.”
Ben heard Joe give a quiet groan of despair at the thought of sitting through one of Daniel’s lengthy prayers. He couldn’t say he blamed his son for that. He wanted to give a groan or two as well.
“All right then,” Ben reluctantly agreed for lack of anything to say other than, “Please, not tonight.”
Ben left his oldest sons to their chores and left his brother in the dining room while resuming his trek to the kitchen with Little Joe.
By the time Adam and Hoss returned to the house, Joe was in the tub in the summer kitchen washing the dirt off his body and out of his hair. Ben was coming down the stairs with clean clothes for his youngest. Hop Sing was scrambling eggs and flipping flapjacks. And Uncle Daniel. . .well, Uncle Daniel was seated at the dining room table waiting to pray.
Despite the lateness of the hour and the weariness clinging to him like a heavy fog, Joe had to admit the warm bath and hot meal, along with several grimaced swallows of the bitter headache powders Hop Sing mixed in a glass of water, left him feeling a lot better than when he’d walked in the door. He was no longer shivering as he sat at the table barefoot, wearing a pair of clean trousers and a shirt he hadn’t bothered to button. Uncle Daniel had started to comment on his state of undress, but Pa cut him off.
“It’s not important tonight, Daniel. It’s long past any regular dining hours around here. I highly doubt we’ll have visitors coming to the front door at one-thirty in the morning.”
Pa had helped Joe rinse out his eyes after he finished bathing and was dressed. He’d leaned backwards over the sink while Pa poured a cup of water in each eye, irrigating them as best he could. The only thing that still hurt somewhat besides Joe’s head, were his fingertips where the skin was scraped raw. But at least the fingers were clean and didn’t look infected. Or so Pa said when he studied them under the glow of a kitchen lamp.
No questions were asked of Joe at that time, nor while he ate. Pa must have been taking Adam’s advice with regard to Joe getting a meal into his stomach before he told his family what happened. Of course, it was a wonder Joe was eating at all, considering Uncle Daniel’s prayer of thanks threatened to go on until dawn. Pa didn’t admonish Joe when he silently picked up his fork during the prayer and shoveled in three mouthfuls of eggs. Uncle Daniel’s eyes were closed so he didn’t see this transgression, and while Pa shook his head at Joe, his lips were curved in a smile and there was a twinkle in his eyes, as though he enjoyed watching Joe outsmart the old man at his own game.
While Joe ate the breakfast Hop Sing had made for him, Hoss ate Joe’s leftover supper, Adam ate a sandwich, and Pa and Uncle Daniel ate a few of the cookies Hop Sing piled on a plate and placed in the middle of the table. When the meal was finished and Hop Sing had cleared the dishes away, Pa leaned back in his chair.
“Little Joe, unless you’re too tired to discuss it, I’d like to know what happened out there today.”
“I’m not too tired, Pa. I. . . .uh. . .I. . .well Pa. . .I. . . ” Joe’s eyes flicked from his father to his brothers. He hated the thought of being a tattletale and not working this out for himself. Even more, he hated the thought of once again being perceived as the son and the little brother who always needed to be bailed out of trouble. But the hard truth of the matter was; he had no idea how to put a stop to Paul and Charlie’s pranks without his family’s help.
Joe’s eyes returned to his father. He worried his lower lip a moment. “It’s. . .it’s the Dunns, Pa.”
“The Dunns. Paul and Charlie. They’re the ones behind it.”
“Behind what, son?”
“Behind everything!” Joe knew he shouldn’t lose his temper, but he was tired, and his head still hurt, and he was sick of being kicked around by Paul and Charlie. “Behind me endin’ up in that hole today, and behind me takin’ that tumble off Cochise a while back, and then Cochise disappearing on me, and Adam’s lost hammer, and me gettin’ jumped by those boys in that alley--”
“What boys?” Pa asked. “When?”
“The day Uncle Daniel arrived. In the alley behind the Silver Dollar. A buncha miners’ kids. Paul and Charlie put ‘em up to it. Na. . .someone who knows it on good authority told me so.”
“Hold up there a minute, Little Joe. Slow down, son. I don’t know half of what you’re talking about. Adam’s hammer? Cochise disappearing? You ending up in a hole today?” Pa looked at Adam, who nodded confirmation of the last statement.
“I don’t know how he got down there, Pa, but he was in a hole when I found him.”
“I just told you how I got down there! Paul and Charlie!”
“Did they throw you down there?”
“No, they didn’t throw me! But I know they’re the ones who dug it and then covered it up so I’d fall in. I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who constructed that dam too.”
“Oh, Joe,” Adam stated with skepticism, “I don’t think so. How could they have known you’d be the one who was sent to take the dam apart? It could have just as easily been Hoss or me up there today instead of you.”
“Well I don’t care what you think. It’s what I know.” Joe looked at his father. “And if you hadn’t gone to Mr. Dunn in the first place after I asked you not to, none of this would have happened.”
“So you’re saying all these. . .these pranks Paul and Charlie are pulling on you, are my fault?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’,” Joe confirmed with more impertinence than he probably should have been using. Nonetheless, everything he said was true, and it made him angry that his father had put him in this position. He felt like the boy who was a constant target of the schoolyard bullies, and not only was it a feeling Joe Cartwright wasn’t accustomed to, it was also a feeling he didn’t enjoy. “If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have spent all day in that damn hole and--”
“Joseph!” Uncle Daniel yelled from the other end of the table. “I’ve heard far more than enough of this, young man. You should have a strap taken to your backside for speaking to your father with such an uncivil tongue. You should have that smart mouth washed out with a bar of lye soap. You should--”
It was a good thing Pa stepped in then, because Joe was on the verge of telling the old man to go to hell, consequences be damned.
“Daniel, please. Allow me to take care of this.”
“I would if I thought you’d actually punish this young upstart for the disgraceful attitude he brings to his father’s table. But I know you won’t, Benjamin. I know you’ll only coddle him, and spoil him, and--”
“Daniel, look. I don’t mean to be rude, but this is a private family matter. Something I’d like to discuss alone with my sons.”
There was a long pause while Uncle Daniel studied Pa, and then shifted his eyes to Joe, before finally returning them to Pa again.
“So you’re asking me to retire to my room?”
Pa nodded. “That’s what I’m asking. I apologize for our heated discussion here this evening, but sometimes discussions in this house progress in that fashion for a short period of time.”
allow such insolence on the part of Joseph, is that it?”
“As I said, sometimes discussions get heated around here. We always work things out in the end, however, and none of my boys, including Little Joe, crosses a line he knows I won’t stand for.” Pa’s eyes shifted to Joe. “And if a son of mine would cross that line, rest assured I’ll put him in his place by reminding him of just who’s the head wolf in this pack.”
Joe dropped his eyes to the table. “Sorry, Pa.”
Pa didn’t say anything to Joe. Instead, he waited silently until his brother finally stood.
“All right then, as you wish, Benjamin. I’ll retire for the night.”
“Thank you. Good night.”
Daniel gave a tight nod. “Good night.”
Adam and Hoss said good night to their uncle, but Joe’s voice was noticeably absent. He didn’t care if the old man thought he was rude for not bidding him good night. And besides, Uncle Daniel didn’t include Joe in the good nights he offered to Adam and Hoss, so Joe figured they were even in that regard.
Pa waited a full five minutes after Uncle Daniel entered his room before standing and indicating to his sons that they’d continue the discussion in the great room.
“Let’s try and keep our voices down so your uncle can sleep.”
Joe didn’t think his father was so much concerned about Uncle Daniel getting his rest, as he was concerned that the man would overhear their conversation if it grew loud again.
Joe was too uptight to sit, so while his father sat in his favorite chair, and Adam and Hoss sat on the settee, Joe paced back and forth in front of the fireplace.
“Okay, Little Joe, tell me again – and calmly this time while using a respectful tone of voice – exactly what’s going on between you and the Dunns.”
“Nothin’s going on ‘cause of me, Pa. It’s them making trouble.”
“All right. Then tell me, please.”
Joe ran a hand through his still damp curls as he once again told about his run-ins with Paul and Charlie. He was more thorough in the telling this time, giving his father and brothers a better idea as to what had been occurring ever since Pa visited Jim Dunn.
When Joe finished, Pa sat quietly contemplating all he’d just learned. When he finally spoke, he didn’t inform Joe of what he was going to do, but instead said, “Little Joe, since my visit to Jim apparently had the opposite affect of what I’d hoped and only antagonized the situation further, what would you like me to do this time?”
Joe was caught by surprise. He wasn’t expecting his father to ask his opinion. This was the kind of thing Pa would ask Adam or Hoss. When a situation involved Joe, Pa usually stated what he was going to do and then did it, with no amount of pleading on Joe’s part changing his mind. Maybe this is what happened when your pa finally started to recognize you were no longer a boy. Maybe this was the start of a change where Joe and his father were concerned. Trouble was though, Joe ended up feeling like a little kid anyway, because he had no solution to offer.
“I. . .I don’t know, Pa.”
“Well now, ifin’ ya’ ask me, I think me and Adam should go over there and have us a visit with Paul and Charlie like I wanted to do back when they first started causin’ ya’ trouble, little brother.”
“I don’t think it would hurt for us to give it a try,” Adam stated.
Pa shook his head. “No, boys. This is Joe’s decision to make, not yours.”
When Joe still didn’t having any suggestions for his father, Pa said, “You know, Joe, just because a young man’s father wants to help him through a rough patch, doesn’t mean the father isn’t recognizing his son is growing up and is capable of taking care of himself.”
“And sometimes it takes someone else. . .a friend or a family member, to help a person out of a jam. Sometimes it helps to have a. . .well, a mediator of sorts.”
“But it didn’t help the last time.”
“No, it didn’t,” Pa acknowledged. “So perhaps this time I need to talk to Jim a little more forcefully. Let him know that we Cartwrights don’t stand for being bullied.”
Joe gave a rueful smile. “I think in this situation, Pa, I’m the one who’s supposed to stand up for myself and demand that Paul and Charlie quit bullying me.”
“So is that what you want to do?”
Joe thought a moment. “Yeah. . .yeah, I guess it is. Only so far, I haven’t had much luck at it.”
“Then how about if you and I ride over to the Dunn ranch together and meet with Jim and his boys. You can have your say, and then I’ll have mine.”
“Just you and me?”
Ben glanced briefly at Adam and Hoss, then looked back at Joe and smiled. “Yes, son, just you and me.”
“Do you think it’ll do any good?”
“I’m not going to lie to you. I honestly don’t know. But I will tell you this. The pranks Paul and Charlie are pulling on you have reached a dangerous level. I won’t have your wellbeing put at risk over timber contracts. Jim and those boys of his need to understand that.”
Anticipation over finally being able to take some kind of action shone
from Joe’s eyes. “When are we leaving?”
laughed. “Well, not right now. I think
we’d better get some sleep first, don’t you?”
As the Grandfather clock chimed indicating it was two-thirty in the morning, Joe blushed at his eagerness.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, sure, Pa. I guess we’d better get a few hours of sleep, huh?”
“I think that would be a good idea.”
“Come on, boys, let’s head for bed. I have a feeling daylight will come far too early for all of us.”
Hoss stretched and yawned as he stood. “I have a feelin’ you’re right about that, Pa.”
“Me too,” Adam agreed, stifling a yawn of his own.
The men trooped upstairs with Little Joe leading the way. Soon, the house was dark and quiet; its residents asleep save for the one in the guest room on the main floor, who was pondering all he’d overheard.
Adam spent the morning straightening the tack room. It was just the kind of job he needed following a long day, and then an equally long night. As Pa predicted it would, dawn arrived too early. But then, it always did when a man got only a few hours of sleep.
Surprisingly, Little Joe was the first one out of bed that morning. Not only was that action out of character for Joe on a night when he’d gotten eight hours of sleep, it was especially out of character on a night when he’d gotten just four. Adam assumed his brother’s new “early to rise” habit wouldn’t last long, and was brought on by a bad case of the jitters over the thought of meeting with Jim Dunn and his boys. However, Little Joe would never admit to that, and neither Adam nor Hoss tried to force an admission from him, meaning the potential for several rounds of teasing went by the wayside during breakfast. In part, because Adam and Hoss knew their father would put a quick end to it. And in part because the three Cartwright siblings generally stuck to their own personal unwritten code of, “you never kick a brother when he’s down – or at least not too hard.”
Pa and Joe left shortly after breakfast, headed for the Dunn ranch. How long they’d be gone, Adam couldn’t predict. If things went well they might be asked to stay for lunch. If such an invitation were extended, they wouldn’t return home until mid-afternoon. Adam expected to see them earlier than that, however. Given what Paul and Charlie had been putting Little Joe through, he didn’t foresee this meeting Pa had in mind producing a successful outcome.
Adam wasn’t a man who usually restored to strong-arming someone into compliance if more diplomatic measures could be employed. But in this situation, he wasn’t so certain Hoss was wrong. Maybe Paul and Charlie did need to be roughed up a bit and reminded that two against one wasn’t playing fair to begin with, and that endangering Joe’s life went beyond a few pranks pulled in retaliation over lost timber contracts. Maybe he and Hoss would yet be paying the Dunn brothers a visit before this was all over, regardless of whether Pa approved or not.
For the time being, Adam shook off his concerns about the Dunns and concentrated on the task he’d assigned himself. Hoss was in Virginia City running errands. He’d driven out of the yard on a buckboard ten minutes after Pa and Little Joe left. Adam had no doubt his middle brother would find reason to eat in town. More than one Virginia City café catered to the big man’s appetite. And the likeable, good-natured Hoss could generally talk a waitress out of an extra piece of pie at no additional cost. That alone was incentive enough for Hoss to skip lunch on the Ponderosa today.
Adam didn’t turn around when he heard footsteps joining him in this room located at the far end of the barn.
“I was just thinking about you. Figured you’d eat lunch in town. What happened? No pie to be had today?”
“Quite the contrary. I think your Chinaman just put a pie in the oven.”
Adam turned. “Oh. . .Uncle Daniel. Hello. I’m sorry. I thought you were Hoss.”
“I believe Eric’s still in Virginia City.”
Adam nodded. “I assume so. He usually eats lunch there if Pa sends him on errands.”
“At least he doesn’t spend his time in town getting into trouble.”
“Like young Joseph does.”
“I wouldn’t say Joe gets into trouble every time he goes to town.”
“That’s the conclusion I’ve reached.”
“Then perhaps we’ve given you the wrong impression.” Adam returned to his work, feeling his uncle at his right elbow. “You know, Uncle Daniel, Hoss and I sometimes take our teasing further than we should. You can’t always put stock in the things we josh Little Joe about.”
“So you’re saying you and Eric are liars?”
“No. . .no, I wouldn’t exactly phrase it that way. We tend to. . .exaggerate now and again where Joe is concerned.” Adam shot his uncle a smile. “It’s what older brothers do, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
Of course you don’t, Adam thought with sarcasm-laced resignation. My assumption that you might have possessed a sense of humor at some point in the distant past is apparently a foolish one.
“I see. Well, perhaps Hoss and I should think more carefully before we speak.”
“Don’t apologize, Adam. I understand completely.”
“I do. I didn’t get the wrong impression at all. Rest assured, I’ve had the right impression since the moment I arrived here. Joseph is a young man straddling the line.”
“The line between good and evil.”
Adam weighed his words carefully before replying.
“No disrespect intended, Uncle Daniel, but Little Joe doesn’t engage in activities I define as evil. Activities that are reckless, yes. Activities that sometimes border stupid, yes – at least in my opinion. But not evil. Joe isn’t evil and never could be. He’s a hot tempered kid who raises a little more hel. . .heck at times than Pa approves of, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Given time, I know he’ll grow up to be a man who’s highly regarded.”
“You sound like your father.”
“Defending Joseph as though he’s the prodigal son.”
Adam had to admit this was a reversal of roles for him of sorts. Usually, he was the one complaining to Pa about Joe’s transgressions, as opposed to defending them. Nonetheless, despite Uncle Daniel being Pa’s brother, he was still an outsider as far as Adam was concerned. While Adam might think Joe could use a little more discipline than Pa often imparted upon him, that wasn’t something he’d voice out loud to his uncle. His loyalty to Little Joe ran too deep to do otherwise. What went on within the walls of the ranch house was private, as Pa often said, and best kept that way. It was one thing to share his aggravations about Joe with his father or Hoss, but quite another to take them to anyone else. . .or to tolerate them from anyone else either.
“I’m not defending Joe. My father will tell you I’m generally the last one to do that. All I’m saying is that he’s not evil by any meaning of the word.”
“The perhaps you and I define it differently.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps we do.”
Silence prevailed for a moment, then; “I apologize if I’ve upset you, Adam. You’ve grown up to be a fine man. An honorable man. I know your father is very proud of you, as any father would be.”
“Thank you. That’s a generous compliment.”
“And a well deserved one from what I’ve seen.”
Uncle Daniel let the conversation die for a few moments, seemingly content to watch Adam work. However, Adam had a feeling the man had more on his mind. It didn’t take long to discover he was correct.
“I couldn’t help but overhear some things that were said last night after I retired to my room.”
Adam didn’t accuse his uncle of eavesdropping, but then, he didn’t completely let the man off the hook either.
“Oh really?” Adam questioned while he swept the floor. “We tried to keep our voices down.”
“I’m sure you did. But my hearing is still quite good for a man of my years.”
“Yes, well, that’s the case. Anyway, I’m curious, Adam. Who are these “Dunn boys,” I heard so much said about?”
“Paul and Charlie.”
“I believe that was their names, yes.”
“Their father owns a ranch to the west of here that borders a small portion of the Ponderosa. Little Joe went to school with them.”
“Their friends of his then?”
“I wouldn’t exactly call them friends. At least not currently.”
“When Joe was a kid in school he used to pal around with them some. As far as I know he always got along with them fine. They weren’t amongst his closest friends – maybe more of school chums, you might say, but he never had trouble with them.”
Adam nodded. “Until recently.”
“There was something said about timber contracts, and a man named Jim?”
“Jim is Jim Dunn. Paul and Charlie’s father.”
Adam briefly explained the situation with the timber contracts that was apparently the catalyst to the problems Little Joe was now experiencing at the hands of Paul and Charlie.
“Has Joseph antagonized the situation in some way?”
Adam finished sweeping and hung the broom back on the peg where it belonged. It would remain there until the next time Hoss or Joe used it for something, and then it was anyone’s guess as to where it would be found.
“Little Joe won’t back down from a fight, if that’s what you’re asking. But on the other hand, he doesn’t go around deliberately starting one either.”
“Does he engage in peculiar behavior that might have provoked the Dunn brothers?”
“Yes, you know. Does he do things you consider odd? Things you might not even recognize as odd if given only cursory scrutiny.”
Adam chuckled. “My youngest brother is both odd and peculiar at times.” Just as quickly as that statement came from his mouth, Adam rectified it, remembering that Uncle Daniel didn’t exactly have a knack for recognizing humor. “But then, Little Joe would say the same about me if given the opportunity.
“Anyway, to answer your question, I’m sure Joe hasn’t provoked them. As far as I know, until this timber issue arose, he rarely ran across Paul or Charlie now that they’re all out of school.”
“But you aren’t with your brother every minute.”
“Well, no. Of course I’m not.”
“So you wouldn’t know that for certain.”
“If you’re insinuating that Little Joe is somehow to blame for the pranks Paul and Charlie have been pulling on him, then I’m sorry to disagree with you, Uncle Daniel, when I say you’re wrong. If Joe was doing any provoking, he’d have come clean about it to Pa.”
“Or so you think.”
“I don’t think it, Sir. I know it.”
A tense silence filled the tack room. As far as Adam was concerned, there was nothing else to say on the subject. When his uncle finally broke the silence, it wasn’t with his normal strength of voice. His tone was soft, and Adam heard a trace of sorrow in it that surprised him.
“This is the way it started with my Danny, you know.”
“Other boys making fun of him. Other boys lying in wait to beat him up. Boys delaying him in arriving home by pulling pranks on him, just like happened to Joseph when you found him in that hole.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Bullies – well, I’ve never had any use for them myself.”
“Under normal circumstances, I don’t either. However, I’ve come to learn that sometimes there’s a good reason for their actions.”
“I can’t imagine a good reason for lying in wait to terrorize an innocent boy.”
“Perhaps not as innocent as you think, Adam.”
Adam wasn’t sure if his uncle was talking about Danny or Little Joe, but either way, it didn’t make much difference. He didn’t like hearing the man insinuate that a bully’s actions could sometimes be justified.
“Regardless, I’m sorry to hear that Danny was picked on. As far as what’s going on between Little Joe and the Dunns, Pa will get things worked out today.”
“From the sounds of things, Ben thought he had things worked out some time ago.”
“He did. But perhaps the meeting Pa has planned with all parties present will bring about positive results.”
“Perhaps,” Uncle Daniel acknowledged in a tone that voiced his underlying doubt. “However, if Satan isn’t driven out of Joseph, there is little hope for success.”
Adam almost laughed. He’d heard it said on more than one occasion that Little Joe Cartwright was full of the devil. The way Uncle Daniel said it was different, though. He said it with an intensity that left a man feeling it wasn’t just a light-hearted expression pegged on a boy who had a penchant for mischief, and too much charm for his own good.
“I don’t think we have to be concerned about driving Satan out of Little Joe.”
“You don’t? Why not?”
“Because I don’t think Satan resides within him, that’s why.”
“I was foolish enough to think the same about Danny. Please don’t put blinders on like your father has where Joseph is concerned. Help him turn his life around now, before it’s too late. Help him walk the right path.”
“Uncle Daniel, when it comes to Joe Cartwright, I learned a long time ago that there’s no use in demanding he follow any particular path. He won’t travel it until he’s good and ready. And besides, allow me to assure you that Little Joe isn’t on the wrong path by any means.”
“I had hoped to enlist your help, Adam, but I can see that I’ll make no more progress with you than I made with your father.”
“Help in doing exactly what, Sir?”
“Never mind.” Uncle Daniel shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” In a rare show of affection, Daniel reached out and gave Adam’s arm a fatherly pat. “I will turn to the only course left me.”
“And just what course is that?”
“Prayer, son. Prayer. For you see, when no one else will listen, the Lord is always there to hear the smallest of whispers.”
“I’ve heard it said.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“I’ll see you at lunch?”
“Yes,” Adam confirmed. “I’ll be in at noon.”
“Good. I shall enjoy your company, as I always do.”
Adam watched the man turn and exit the tack room. His eyes followed his uncle until Daniel had walked through the barn and out into the ranch yard. He headed toward the house, where Adam assumed he was going to pray, or bark orders at Hop Sing, or read his Bible, or engage in whatever it was Uncle Daniel did when Pa wasn’t keeping him occupied.
Adam mulled over the recent conversation with his uncle. As Adam had learned was often the case where Daniel Cartwright was concerned, it was laced with religious references that made little sense given the circumstances – everything from the prodigal son to Satan.
Adam chuckled a bit when he recalled the old man asking him if Little Joe engaged in peculiar behavior. He knew he shouldn’t harbor such thoughts about his father’s brother, but as he walked out to the corral, Adam couldn’t help but think that if anyone around here was peculiar, it was Uncle Daniel.
Ben and Little Joe sat at the Dunn family’s dining room table. Seated across from them were Paul, Jim, and Charlie. Nan Henning was asked to bring coffee and cookies. Out of politeness, Ben accepted the refreshments he’d have preferred to bypass in favor of getting to the heart of this visit.
Ben briefly took note of the shy smile Nan gave Little Joe when she placed a saucer and coffee cup in front of him, and was surprised to see the shy smile Joe gave her in return. A smile that actually caused him to drop his eyes; then subtly watch her exit the room. Not that Joseph wasn’t always charming with the fairer sex. Generally, he was too charming for his own good, as far as Ben was concerned. But this smile was different. It wasn’t his usual “devil may care” grin, designed to disarm even the most mature and experienced of women. Nor was it simply a friendly, “How do you do, Miss?” kind of smile that was accompanied by the polite tip of a cowboy hat. The type he’d normally give to a girl he’d gone to school with, but had never expressed any romantic interest in. This smile – well, it was different. Had time allowed for it, Ben would have pondered further what he’d seen pass between the young couple, and maybe even figured out just who the mystery girl was Joe danced with in Virginia City last Saturday night.
But any thought Ben might have wanted to give to what he’d seen transpire was quickly chased from his mind. The atmosphere in the Dunn home was different today from what it had been when Ben visited last month. The younger children greeted Ben and Joe with enthusiasm. Ben had assumed that event boded well. After all, it was a far more positive beginning than last time, when the little ones ran and hid, and the older children shot him dark scowls. However, Ben soon discovered that the Dunn children’s behavior wasn’t a good predictor of what awaited Little Joe and him inside.
Paul and Charlie hadn’t been in the house. When Ben told Jim he’d like to meet with him and his two oldest sons, the man acted surprised at the request. “Act” being the optimal word. And bad acting at that. Jim had no future in the theatre.
“The boys are busy this morning, Ben. I gave them a long list of chores to complete.”
Just by glancing at Joe’s face, Ben knew what his son was thinking.
Busy my eye. They’re probably off somewhere plotting the next prank they’re gonna pull on me.
“I’m sorry to derail Paul and Charlie from their tasks, but I think it’s important all of us take part in a. . .father and son discussion, if you will.”
Jim raised an eyebrow. “Father and son discussion?”
“My last visit doesn’t seem to have put an end to the trouble brewing between your boys and Little Joe. Perhaps if all five of us talk about it, we can get things resolved.”
“I already spoke to the boys, just like you asked me to. Do you really think this is necessary? I’ve got a lot to get done today, Ben, just as I’m sure you do.”
“I recognize we’re all busy this time of year. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s to either of our benefits to ignore the situation any longer.”
“Oh. So now we have a “situation,” do we?”
“Yes, Jim, it appears we do.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “One that you intend to blame my boys for?”
“I’m not here to blame anyone. I’m here hoping that, with assistance from you and me, our sons can get this worked out before someone gets hurt.”
The man’s eyes shifted from Ben to Joe, then back again before he finally shook his head with disgust, opened the front door, and called to a brown-headed boy who was filling horse troughs.
“Glen, get Paul and Charlie! Tell them to come to the house. No dawdling!”
The fourteen year old sprinted across the ranch yard and around the corner of the barn. Ben wasn’t sure of his final destination – smoke house, wood shed, carriage house, a corral, the tool shed – it could have been any one of those places that was close enough for a lanky teenager to reach quickly on foot.
Before the awkward silence could lengthen while they waited in the foyer for Paul and Charlie, Rilla came down the stairs with Henry and Nora clinging to each hand, followed by seven-year-old Daphne and nine-year-old Polly. All of them were dressed in their Sunday best, Rilla wearing a small-brimmed pink hat and dainty white gloves.
“Oh, Ben. Little Joe. Hello. I didn’t realize we had visitors.”
Ben smiled. “Good morning, Rilla.”
“Ma’am,” Joe nodded politely.
Rilla turned to her husband. “Do you need me to stay?”
“No, no. You go ahead with your plans. Nan can get us anything we need.”
“Yes, please,” Ben said. “Don’t alter your day for us. Little Joe and I won’t hear of it.”
“Besides,” Jim smiled indulgently, “it’s just man talk. Nothing that you’d be interested in, dear.” Jim escorted his wife and children to the door. Ben thought he seemed rather hasty about it, as though he was anxious to get Rilla out of the house before any discussion could begin that she might overhear. “Enjoy your visit with Estelle. Tell Frank I said hello.”
“I’ll do that.”
Jim bent, kissing Daphne and Polly on their cheeks.
“Mind your manners at the tea party, girls. Show Mrs. Parker what grown up ladies you are.”
In unison, the girls promised, “We will, Papa.”
He chucked Henry under the chin, and then lifted Nora’s hat to place a kiss on the top of her blond head. “Behave yourselves for Mama. Have fun playing with Mary and Frankie.”
“We will, Papa,” Nora assured.
“Will, Papa,” Henry nodded gravely. Ben smiled briefly, the solemn brown-eyed two-year-old reminding him of Adam at the same age.
As Rilla and the children went out the door, Paul and Charlie came in.
“Glen, help your mother get Nora and Henry in the buggy.”
“Then keep everyone else busy outside. Your brothers and I will be tied up for a little while having a . . .um. . .discussion with Mr.Cartwright and Little Joe.”
Ben silently observed as Paul and Charlie openly taunted Little Joe by elbowing one another and smiling like a couple of jackals, evidently not caring that Ben was witnessing it as well.
“Hear that, Paul,” Charlie stage-whispered, “we’re having a discussion.”
“Yep, I heard. Sure wish Mr. Cartwright and Little Joe would pay us a visit more often for one of these here discussions, ‘cause then we’d get outta doin’ a whole passel of work.”
At the risk of thinking like his oldest brother, Ben couldn’t believe the impertinence Jim was allowing from these two pups. While Ben would never claim that Little Joe didn’t sometimes let his temper and sharp tongue get the best of him, his son would never be openly disrespectful to a visiting neighbor, nor foolish enough to behave in such a mocking manner in front of his father.
But Jim seemed intent on pretending he didn’t notice his sons’ behavior as he led the way to the dining room and called for Nan to bring refreshments. His oldest daughter, Marjorie, whom Ben guessed was somewhere between twelve and thirteen now, assisted Nan.
Jim held off conversation until a plate of cookies, along with another plate holding slices of current cake, was resting in the middle of the table, and everyone had coffee.
“Ben, Little Joe, help yourselves.” Jim and his boys filled their plates with cookies. He dismissed Nan, telling her if they needed anything else he’d call.
The girl nodded. “Yes, Mr. Dunn.” She shot Joe one final, quick smile, then returned to the kitchen.
“Margie, go outside and keep an eye on the younger boys until I’m done here.”
If Marjorie found the prospect of being in charge of Timmy, Matthew and Gerald boring at best, trying at worst, or in any way an inconvenience, she didn’t voice it. She replied, “Yes, Papa,” in a dutiful tone, and headed for the foyer.
Jim waited until Nan was in the kitchen, and his daughter out the front door and across the porch, before speaking again.
“So, Ben,” Jim said as he bit into a cookie, “you said something about the five of us needing to have a father and son discussion?”
“Yes. Before someone gets seriously injured.”
“It seems as though Little Joe has had several run-ins with Paul and Charlie. Not the least of which left him beaten up in an alley behind the Silver Dollar, and falling into a hole so deep that he’d still be down there if Adam hadn’t found him.”
“Falling into a hole?”
“And what exactly did my boys have to do with Little Joe falling into a hole?”
Fire shone from Joe’s eyes. “They dug it, that’s what they had to do with it.”
“Joseph,” Ben warned with just that one word.
Jim looked at Little Joe. “And how do you claim to know my sons dug this hole your father speaks of?”
“Because they showed up after I’d been in it for a good half a day.”
“If you were down in a hole, how were you able to see them?”
“I didn’t see them. I heard them. They called to me.”
Ben watched as Jim looked from one of his sons to the other. Charlie slumped in his chair with an air of indifference about him and a sly smirk on his face, while he crammed cookies into his mouth like a famished five-year-old, crumbs clinging to his lips and shirtfront. Paul’s eyes shifted to meet his father’s, as though seeking guidance as to what to say or not to say. Ben didn’t miss the slight shake of Jim’s head. That action clearly telling Paul to keep his mouth shut and let his father do all the talking.
Jim leaned back in his chair and gave Joe a patronizing smile. “Just because my boys called to you, doesn’t mean they dug the hole you had the misfortune of stumbling upon.”
“I know they dug it.”
“Uh huh. Just like you somehow know they instigated the fight you apparently got yourself involved in at the Silver Dollar.”
“I didn’t get myself involved in anything. I was jumped by a buncha’ miners’ kids.”
“See there then. Miners’ kids. You said so yourself. I could sit here all day long and still not be able to figure out how you and your father arrived at the outlandish conclusion that my sons had anything to do with that.” Jim looked at Ben. “If you ask me, it sounds like Little Joe got himself involved in some sort of trouble he doesn’t want to confess to you, Ben, and is using my boys as scapegoats.”
Joe was half way to his feet when Ben clasped a hand on his forearm and ordered quietly, “Sit down, Joseph.”
“Pa. . .”
“Joseph. Sit down.”
“See there, Ben. The boy’s got a temper. You’ve told me so on more than one occasion.”
“Yes, he has a temper, but that doesn’t make him a liar.”
“I never said he was a liar. I simply said that perhaps these. . .stories Little Joe is telling about Paul and Charlie have no basis in fact. Perhaps he’s trying to cover up some kind of mischief he’s getting into.”
This time Joe couldn’t keep his sarcastic comment to himself.
“Yeah, like I’d throw myself down a hole.”
Ben didn’t chastise Little Joe for his rudeness. The arrogance radiating from Jim and his boys made being anything other than rude difficult. It was as if a challenge was being issued. A challenge that, even given Jim’s sudden silence, Ben could hear clearly.
Just what are you gonna do about it, Ben? About any of it.
Finally, Ben was seeing matters for what they really were. His visit here weeks ago hadn’t put a stop to anything. Actually, like Little Joe feared it would, his visit probably made things worse. Jim had simply said all the right things then. Soothed Ben’s ruffled feathers by giving false assurances. Just like today, it had all been an act.
Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly before speaking.
“Jim, I won’t have your boys harassing my son over something that’s strictly between you and me.”
“Those timber contracts.”
“I never said a word about those contracts.”
“You don’t have to say a word about them. All of a sudden it’s clear to me what game you’re playing. Well, let me tell you something, if you want to play games, you play them with me. You don’t play them using my son as your pawn.”
“Those are mighty strong words, Ben.”
“Yes, they are. They’re strong words because if they aren’t giving you the message, then allow me to. Call off your boys, and call them off now.”
Jim offered a phony smile. “Ben, Ben, Ben. Now come on. You seem to think this mischief my sons are supposedly engaged in with Little Joe is my doing. I can’t keep an eye on these boys all the time. I have a ranch to run. Besides, don’t you think it’s about time Little Joe learns to fight his own battles, instead of you fighting them for him.”
Once again, Little Joe’s temper got the best of him and he shot from his chair. This time, Ben stood with him, putting a restraining arm across his son’s chest. Before Joe could respond to Jim’s insult, Ben leveled a cold stare at his neighbor.
“I’m sorry those timber contracts have driven a wedge between us. Believe me, I wouldn’t have submitted a bid if I’d known you wouldn’t understand it was nothing more than business. But what’s done is done. In the meantime, you and your boys don’t want to ignite my ornery side. I’m asking you as a friend and a neighbor to put an end to the foolishness your boys are engaging in. If you don’t, and my son. . .any of my sons, gets hurt, I’ll hold you personally responsible. And what I do after that. . .well what I do after that, might be something we’ll both regret.”
Ben didn’t wait for a response. He nodded toward the foyer.
“Joseph, it’s time for us to go.”
Joe shot a hard glance at Paul and Charlie that didn’t intimidate them nearly as much as he probably hoped it would. The two sat wearing twin smirks, as though they’d enjoyed the show, and were already wondering what their pa would put them up to next.
As Ben and Joe grabbed their hats from the hooks by the door, Jim called, “If you want my advice, Ben, you should quit babying Little Joe! Let him be a man and take care of himself for a change.”
Ben ushered Joe out the door before the young man could race back into the dining room and knock Jim out of his chair. As Ben and Joe walked across the front porch, ridicule-laced laughter drifted out the open front windows, doing nothing to quell Ben’s anger, or his concerns.
For the time being, however, he pushed those feelings aside to instead be the image of strong, self-assured father as he and Joe reached their mounts.
“Come on, Little Joe, let’s head back the Ponderosa.”
“But, Pa. . .”
“Joseph, come along. We’ll discuss this further at home.”
If Joe had an opinion to the contrary, he didn’t voice it. After a brief moment of hesitation, he followed Ben’s orders, swung onto Cochise’s back, and rode away from the Dunn ranch with his father at his side.
“No, absolutely not! I won’t agree to it!”
“Young man, I think you’ve forgotten who you’re talking to. You will agree to it, because I’m not giving you a choice.”
“Pa, I’m not gonna have Adam or Hoss followin’ me around like I’m five years old. Like I need some kinda babysitter. I can fight my own battles for cryin’ out loud!”
“Joseph, don’t parrot back to me what you heard Jim Dunn say. As a matter of fact, forget what you heard him say. His opinion doesn’t hold an ounce of weight with me right now, and it shouldn’t hold any with you, either.”
“His opinion has nothing to do with this. I just don’t want one of my brothers tagging along after me for the rest of the summer.”
“It won’t be for the rest of the summer, Little Joe. Just until all of this blows over.”
“You can’t predict how soon that’ll be anymore than I can.”
“No. . .no, I can’t. Nonetheless, if we don’t give Paul and Charlie the opportunity to corner you alone, then perhaps they’ll grow tired of their games.”
“Yeah, while they spend all their free time spreading the word around Virginia City that Joe Cartwright has a couple of nursemaids at his side in the form of his older brothers.”
“Besides, why am I the only one who’s gotta stick close to the house, and then have an escort anytime I go farther than the ranch yard? You told Mr. Dunn you don’t want any of your sons hurt. Paul and Charlie could just as easily start targeting Adam or Hoss.”
“I suppose they could, but I don’t think they will.”
“I just don’t think they will, son.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Because I’m the youngest and smallest, is that it? Because you think I can’t take care of myself.”
When Ben didn’t immediately respond, his son spun away from him to pace the open area behind the settee, his boot heels making sharp angry clacks against the wood floor.
They were alone in the house. Lunch was still on the table, waiting for Ben and Little Joe to eat, but as of yet, neither one of them had shown an interest in the food. Before Hop Sing had stepped outside to work in his herb garden, he said Hoss wasn’t back from town yet, and that Adam left after lunch to check on the crew falling a stand of timber on the north ridge. Ben didn’t know where Daniel was. Perhaps Hop Sing neglected to mention he’d gone with Adam.
Ben thought a moment longer before replying to his son. He knew Joe was sensitive about his small stature when compared to the larger physiques his brothers possessed. And as for being the youngest. . .well, Ben had yet to meet a baby of the family who didn’t chafe over his position now and again. Joe didn’t realize it yet, but he’d grow out of all that given time. There would come a day a few years down the road when he’d thicken through the shoulders and chest as a boy’s body gave way to a man’s. As for being the baby of the family – Joe would never be able to change his birth order, but someday it wouldn’t seem so important. Someday he’d achieve successes and accomplishments in his own right that made him feel equal to his older brothers. That no longer left him feeling like the kid who was forever playing catch-up to the siblings born six and twelve years before him.
But, for now, Ben silently acknowledged that Joe was the youngest and the smallest, and just like those factors played a role with animals out in the wild, those factors made him far more vulnerable to bullies like Paul and Charlie Dunn than either Adam or Hoss were. When Ben finally spoke, he weighed his words carefully.
“It’s not that I don’t think you can take care of yourself, Joe. However, Paul and Charlie seem intent on causing trouble for only you. After our meeting today, I suspect that’s Jim’s doing.”
“Because he thinks Adam’s too smart for them and Hoss is too big. So we’re right back to me bein’ the stupid, weak Cartwright who can’t fight his own battles.”
“You’re neither of those things, young man. And I’ve never thought you can’t fight your own battles. But sometimes the battles grow too large for one man to handle. He has to call in reinforcements. That’s all this is, Little Joe. Reinforcements. Just for a while, son. Just until things calm down.”
Joe stopped his pacing. He looked at his father, questioning in the type of incredulous tone only a teenager can muster.
“So I can’t go anywhere alone?”
“I’d prefer that you don’t.”
“Not to Tuck’s?”
“Not to Mitch’s?”
“No. Not unless Hoss, or Adam, or I ride along with you.”
“Not to Virginia City, either?”
“What. . .what if I have a date?”
“Then Adam or Hoss can escort you to the young lady’s home, wait until the date ends, and escort you back here.”
“Oh, come on, Pa. No! There’s no way I’m havin’ my brothers tag along when I go courtin’.”
“Little Joe, I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’ll have to be for now. Besides, I wasn’t aware that you’re currently seeing someone.”
“I. . .I. . .I’m not.” Joe ran a flustered hand through his hair. “I mean. . .I might be. . .I could. . . oh never mind. I’m not.”
“Which is it?” Ben questioned with humor. Humor his youngest didn’t share in, given his sharp denial.
“Then the question of your brothers providing an escort is neither here nor there, is it.”
Joe scowled. “I hate it when you do that.”
“Play your “father” trump card like that.”
“Well, I hate it when you’re stubborn and unreasonable. Both of which you’re being at this moment.”
“You’d be stubborn and reasonable, too, if you were placed under house arrest.”
“I didn’t say anything about you being under house arrest, and you know it. For all of our sakes, don’t make this out to be worse than it is, Joseph.”
“You wouldn’t do this to Adam or Hoss.”
“Little Joe. . .”
Joe ignored the warning in his father’s voice.
“Well you wouldn’t. And you’d never let us do it to you. You’d never let us insist you be escorted everywhere you go.”
“I might, if I felt my life was in danger.”
“No you wouldn’t, and you know it.”
“Joe. . .”
“Come on, Pa. Admit it. You wouldn’t--”
“Joseph, I’m warning you right now, it’s not a good idea to keep poking a bear with a stick just for the sake of seeing if he’ll wake up from hibernation.”
“Well, you wouldn’t and--”
“Joseph, enough! I don’t want to hear any more about it!”
“Fine! You don’t wanna hear any more about it! That can be arranged.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the barn, Pa! I’m goin’ to the barn!”
As Joe jammed his hat on his head he promised, “I’m just goin’ to the barn. Nowhere else. Just to the godda. . .just to the barn.”
“Watch your mouth, Joseph.”
Joe hesitated, then mumbled with eyes focused on the floor, “Yes, Pa. Sorry.”
“And before you go, let’s eat lunch.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Look, Pa, I’m already doin’ what you ask by sticking close to the house and letting Adam or Hoss go with me if I leave the ranch yard. Can’t I at least choose if I wanna eat or not?”
Ben sighed. “Yes, I suppose you can. All right then. Go on. If you get hungry, come into the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich.”
As Joe reached out to touch the doorknob Ben said, “Little Joe. . .”
Joe slowly turned around.
“It won’t be as bad as it seems right now, son. Given time, things will work out all right.”
Joe responded with all the glumness a young man his age could possess at the thought of the freedom he’d just lost. “Yeah. . .yeah, sure they will.”
Ben followed his youngest outside, stopping on the porch and watching as Joe crossed the dusty yard and entered the barn. He startled when a voice spoke from a chair situated in the shadows of a far corner of the porch.
“There are more reasons than I can count as to why that boy needs a good old-fashioned thrashing, Benjamin.”
“Daniel, not now please. It’s been a long enough day as it is.”
“Then you don’t want my opinion on what needs to be done to drive the devil out of Joseph?”
“No, I don’t. I appreciate your concern, but I’ll handle this the way I see fit.”
“The way you see fit doesn’t appear to be doing much good. Those Dunn boys are picking on Joseph for a reason.”
“Yes, they are. Unfortunately, the reason has nothing to do with Little Joe, and everything to do with me.”
“Don’t take on blame that isn’t yours to bear. Place the blame squarely where it belongs.”
“And just where is that?”
“On Joseph’s shoulders.”
“On Little Joe’s shoulders? Daniel, forgive me for saying so, but ever since you arrived you’ve had something against Joe. You passed judgment on him before you even gave yourself the chance to get to know him.”
Daniel stood and walked toward his brother. “If I passed judgment, it’s because I see things in him you refuse to.”
“Yes, I know,” Ben acknowledged in a tone that said he was growing weary of his brother, and would like to put him on the next stage bound for Ohio. “You see Pa in him, and evil in him, and numerous other things I’m supposedly turning a blind eye to. Well right now, I can’t see much of anything because I’m hungry. Very hungry. It’s past two o’clock. Perhaps after I’ve had some lunch my vision will clear.”
Ben went into the house, not inviting his brother to join him. It was the first time he’d been openly rude to Daniel. In some ways, that made him feel guilty, because he thought of how his actions would have hurt his mother. In other ways, he didn’t care, because he thought of how his father would laugh at his remorse while saying, “Ben, I can’t say as I blame you. That oldest brother of yours could manage to get under the hide of the Lord Himself and cause a rash the size of the ocean as he festered away telling God how to do His job.”
Thinking of his pa brought a smile to Ben’s face. As he began to make a sandwich with the fixings Hop Sing had left out, Ben decided he’d better enjoy the lighthearted moment while he could. He had a feeling that until this thing with the Dunns blew over for good, lighthearted moments would be few and far between.