A Better Man (by jfclover)

Summary:  Adam’s memories of a humiliating college prank resurface when he slips unannounced into his brother’s room to find Hoss secretly doctoring their young sibling.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  3544


“You’re killing me, Hoss.”

“I ain’t killin’ you, Little Joe, but if Pa finds out what you done, he’ll take a belt to your hide for sure.”

“It wasn’t my fault.”

“It never is, is it?  Who you gonna blame this time?”

“Ouch!”

“Hold still, dang it.  I got a bunch more to go.”

Joe had been late getting home from school and when Hoss stepped out of the barn; he couldn’t help but squint his eyes at the crazy way his young brother rode.  Instead of racing home like a wildcat chasing prey, Little Joe had walked his mount into the yard.  Stiff-legged, the boy stood in his stirrups; his backside never touched the saddle.

“Why you ridin’ like that, Little Joe?  Some new trick?”

His leg muscles were shaky and weak, and Joe knew that dismounting could be even more painful than riding home the way he had.  The trip had been painfully slow, but it couldn’t be helped.  Not after what he’d been through.  “Help me down, will you, Hoss?  Don’t you dare say nothin’ or I’ll—”

“Huh?”

“Just help me down?”

Hoss grabbed his brother by the waist, and Joe slid his leg over the saddle.  The kid’s movements were slow and stiff and as soon as his feet touched the ground, he leaned forward and pressed his hands to his knees.  He sucked in a big gulp of air.

“What’s the matter, boy?  You hurt yourself?”

The race hadn’t been planned, but schoolyard challenges can often be brought to a head when tempers flare and insecurities surface.  Harsh words can alter a boy’s thinking, and he finds himself lost in a battle he can’t control.  At fourteen, a young man’s head is turned in many directions.  He’s in awe of the world around him yet he’s often frightened by what he perceives as a threat.  One day, he’s admiring his best friend’s new squirrel rifle and the next; a new interest takes precedence over a shiny new toy.

She stood in front of the teacher’s desk and while Miss Jones registered the new girl for class, Little Joe propped his elbows on his desk and fixed his chin in the palms of his hands.  He stared at the vision standing before him, but he wasn’t alone.  Every boy over the age of twelve had the same dreamy-eyed look on his face.

“Attention class,” Miss Jones said.  “We have a new student today.  Her name is Sue Ann McAlister, and I’d like you all to give her a warm welcome.”  The older boys clapped and cheered, some even whistled while the girls rolled their eyes in disgust.  “I see an empty chair next to Little Joe Cartwright.  Would you stand, Little Joe?”

After knocking his McGuffey reader to the floor, Joe became paralyzed when his classmates burst into laughter.  His awkward movements betrayed him, and they’d become a true source of embarrassment.  When he reached down to grab the reader, he cracked his elbow on the underside of his desk, and his face reddened as new bouts of laughter rose throughout the small room.

After giving the poor boy a minute to recover, Miss Jones admonished the giggling children before asking anything else of Little Joe.  “Will you show your new classmate to her seat, Joseph?”

“Y—yes, ma’am.”  Praying he didn’t stumble and trip over something unseen, Joe took a deep breath and walked up the center aisle.  Ignoring the muffled snickers, he managed a few simple words.  “Follow me,” he said.

Miss Jones had singled him out.  At first, he was pleased, but he’d made a fool of himself, and that wasn’t the worst of it.  The story would gain momentum during lunch and by the end of the day, he’d be the laughingstock of everyone in his class.  Pa said he was going through an awkward stage, but Pa’s words meant nothing, not when he’d embarrassed himself in front of the prettiest girl in the territory.

As the week progressed, any young man with relatively good eyesight had made his way across the schoolyard and introduced himself to Sue Ann during their lunch break.  Not wanting to be left out, Joe had apologized to her for his clumsiness, said he’d caught his toe on the leg of the desk.  Only a small white lie, but she’d smiled at him and that was all it took for him to plan his next move—the annual spring picnic—but there was one big obstacle in his way.  Tommy Winthrop had eyes for her too.

Tommy and Little Joe had been schoolyard enemies longer than anyone could remember.  Tommy was fifteen, a head taller, and thirty pounds heavier.  He scowled more than he smiled.  He knew how to throw his weight around, and his taunts hurt more than Joe would ever let on, but this was different.  Sue Ann McAlister heard everything Tommy said.

“Ain’t no girl wants to be seen on the arm of a hundred-pound weakling, Little Joe.”

“Knock it off, Tommy.”

“You man enough to make me?”

“I’m not fighting you.”

“Are you man enough to race me?”

Joe hesitated.  “Race?”

“Yeah, little boy.  If I win, you back off.  If you win, I’m as good as gone, and you can ask Sue Ann to the picnic.”

At fourteen, Joe wasn’t blind to the opposite sex, and Sue Ann McAlister had become the girl of his dreams.  He‘d been on his best behavior in class and had even offered the young lady Hop Sing’s prize-winning sugar cookies at lunch.  He’d starve to death if he had too.  The brown-eyed, brown-haired beauty had captured his heart and with Tommy out of the way, Sue Ann might accept his invitation to the spring picnic.

“You’re on,” Joe said.

“Saddle that fleabag of yours after school, and we’ll race down to the old cottonwood and back.  Winner takes all.”

“I’ll be ready.”

*****

“These prickles is worse than cactus needles,” Hoss said.  “How’d you land in such a big ol’ patch of thistles anyhow, Little Joe?”

“It wasn’t my idea?  Ouch!  Take it easy, Hoss.”

“You won’t be sittin’ a saddle for a week or more, young’un.”

“What’s this all about?”  The unexpected voice turned heads.  Both brothers looked up when Adam slipped into Joe’s room unannounced.  Standing beside Hoss, he clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward for a closer look.  “Ooh,” he said.  “That looks a mite painful.”

Sprawled face down; his trousers lowered to his knees, Joe could only lift his head from the bed.  “You ain’t gonna tell Pa, are you, Adam?”

“I don’t know yet,” he said.  Making sure Joe could see him clearly; Adam stood upright and crossed his arms, a pose guaranteed to irritate his youngest brother.  “What’s in it for me?”

“Huh?  Ouch!”

“Huh?”

“Stay out of this, Hoss,” Adam said.  “This is between Joe and me.”

“You’re blackmailing me?”

“I wouldn’t call it blackmail.  I’d call it a fair trade.”

“Ain’t you done yet, Hoss?”

“Just a few more.  If you’d quit squirmin’ around so much, I could concentrate better on all these little ones.”

Joe tried to relax.  It was bad enough that Hoss had to pluck out every embedded sticker, but did Adam have to stand there and watch?

“What do you want from me, Adam?”

“A blanket question?”

“A what?”

“Nothing you’d understand.”

“Fine,” Joe said.  “Let’s talk, big brother.”

“All right.”

“How about this?”  Joe said.  “I promise not to tell Pa about you and that—that Miss Caroline, and you’ll have no reason to mention Hoss’ doctorin’.”

The kid was bluffing, wasn’t he?  Adam shifted his stance.  Though he was curious about this twist in the conversation, he realized he’d better pay close attention to the kid’s unexpected statement.  “What about her?”

“Well, she’s a mighty pretty gal, big brother, but didn’t I overhear Pa tell you she wasn’t—that she wasn’t the right kind of—that he wished you’d find yourself a different kind of woman to court?”

“Whoever I decide to court isn’t any of your business, little brother.”

“Then I guess you won’t mind if I tell Pa I saw you walking her to the boarding house where all those kind of ladies live, right?”

Though his face flushed, Adam kept his wits about him.  He was nearly twice the kid’s age and if he couldn’t outfox a mere boy . . .

“Maybe you don’t care if Pa knows that I saw you walk through the front door with Miss Caroline or how long you stayed inside before you came back out.”

“Just what were you doing on D Street, little boy?”

“Watching the ladies go in and out.”  Joe’s eyes remained closed but a smile crossed his face.

“That’s the last one,” Hoss said.  “At least it’s the last one I can see.”

“It’s about time,” Joe grumbled.  He started to move off the bed when Hoss pushed him back down.

“Not so fast, Little Joe.  I gotta put some salve on them spots or they’re bound to fester and . . . just hold still.”

Joe sighed overloud and flopped back into position.  “Hurry up, will ya.  Pa could be home any minute.”

“If you tell me how you got into this fix,” Adam said, “I suppose I wouldn’t have to mention anything to Pa.”

“Thought you’d see it my way.”

Outfoxed by a fourteen-year-old boy.  Adam held back a smile.  The kid was growing up fast, too fast for his own good, but when did he learn the art of weaseling?

“All done, shortshanks.  You can pull them britches up now.”

Joe stood from the bed, fastened his trousers, and pulled his suspenders up over his shoulders.  “Thanks, Hoss.  I owe you one.”

When his young brother tried to move past him, Adam thrust out his left arm and pressed his hand to Joe’s chest.  “I’m waiting.”

“It wasn’t my fault.”

Hoss rolled his eyes.

“It was that—that Tommy Winthrop,” Joe said.  “He’s the one who done this to me.”

“Yeah?”  Adam replied.  “How do you figure?”  He’d heard all about the race from his friend Ross, but he was anxious to hear the kid’s rendition.  It was bound to be a tainted account.  Joe’s explanations usually were.

“He goaded me, Adam.  He made fun of me in front of the whole class.  He called me names in front of—in front of everyone.  What other choice did I have?  I had to run the race.  I know Pa don’t take to racin’, but I couldn’t back down.  I couldn’t let—let anyone think I was a coward.”

Adam knew what it was like to be goaded, to be teased, to be different than his peers, and Joe was no different.  He was small for his age.  As far as height and weight, younger boys had passed him by a long time ago.  His young brother lived with three men who towered over his small frame, and Adam knew Joe often felt inferior, even around those he loved and trusted.  But Joe wasn’t the first Cartwright son to feel that way.

Hoss was Joe’s exact opposite, and his struggles came at an earlier age.  He was larger than any of his schoolmates, and he was teased probably more often than Joe although he’d never complained, it wasn’t his way.  Pa was too busy in those days to worry about his ever-growing son, and that’s when Adam had stepped in and tried his best to keep his younger brother’s passion for life from damaging his tender soul.

Adam had also experienced humiliation.  The trouble began during his first full week of college.  He was an outsider, a skinny kid from Nevada, a kid who, according to his classmates, didn’t wear the right clothes and didn’t speak the right language.  He was a rancher’s son, the eldest son, and he wasn’t accustomed to a daily dressing down or practical jokes from his peers.  Never letting on in his letters home, he took on most challenges, and it was no surprise to him that Joe had done the same.

Their blood ran thick.  Their tempers were—well, Adam had learned to control his, but the way Joe had failed to mention any names other than the Winthrop boy, Adam suspected a pretty girl had overheard Tommy’s remarks.

“So how’d you land in a patch of thistles?”

“I told you already, Adam.  It was Tommy,” Joe repeated.  “Down by the old Cottonwood, those things are everywhere, three feet tall in places.  Might as well be a cluster of big old cactuses.  They’re just as painful.”

“Okay, go on.”

“Tommy knew where the worst of ‘em were, and that’s when he rode right up next to me and bumped me with his big fat leg.  I tried to steer my horse out of the way but he kept right beside me, and then he—he shoved my shoulder, Adam.  Shoved me right out of the saddle, just so he could ask Sue Ann McAlis—“

“—to the annual spring picnic,” Adam finished.

“Yeah,” Joe admitted.  “It ain’t fair, Adam.”

“No, it isn’t fair, but it happened and there isn’t much you can do about it, is there?”

“No, but I’d sure like to.”

With narrowed eyes, Adam looked up at Hoss, and Hoss was no dummy.  He got the message loud and clear.  Big brother was drumming up a plan.  It was payback time for Tommy, and Hoss gave a gentle nod to his conniving older brother.

*****

The spring picnic had become a yearly event.  Early morning races were followed by games and contests.  Pies and pickles and quilts were all judged by a select group of volunteers who gathered each year at sunrise in Jim Crowley’s herd-free meadow.  Proud to have the celebration on his land, Jim had installed an outhouse just off the grassy meadow for his once-a-year visitors.

Early morning clouds gave way to blue skies and bright sunshine, and it seemed as though everyone living in Storey County had driven to Jim’s for the annual event.  Carrying blankets and baskets of food, Ben and his sons found a spot by the small icy stream that ran on the northernmost edge of the festivities.

“How’s this, boys?”

“Looks good, Pa,” Joe answered.  At least they were far enough away from the main booths and games that he could make himself invisible to his schoolmates.

Adam had kept his promise.  He hadn’t told his father about the race or about Joe’s unfortunate accident but, unlike Adam, he had something up his sleeve although he hadn’t let on to his youngest sibling.  As soon as most of the crowd, including the Cartwrights, had finished lunch, Adam nudged Joe’s shoulder.

“Time to check out the games, little brother.”

Adam glanced at Hoss.  “Everything ready?”

“Yep.”

“You two go ahead,” Joe said.  “I’ll stay here and keep Pa company.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Hoss said.  He reached for his young brother’s arm and hauled him to his feet.

“Hoss, I really don’t wanna—”

“You’re comin’ with me, Little Joe.  Don’t give me no bother.”

“Come on, Joe,” Adam insisted.  “You’ll enjoy yourself more than you know.”

Adam Cartwright wasn’t one to carry a grudge, but certain memories were hard to dismiss—one being a college prank that had embarrassed him more than he wanted to admit.  He’d never written his father about issues he could handle himself; besides, hadn’t he been encouraged to fight his own battles.  But, when a man was made a fool of, he often found ways to even the score.

He’d been a few years older than Joe, and his situation hadn’t included a girl or the school bully, but a friend—or the young man Adam considered a friend.  Robert James Emery, Boston-bred, had gathered a group of classmates and—let’s just say, there was the school’s flagpole and a certain someone’s undergarments had been stolen and hoisted to the top of the pole for everyone to gape at on their way to class the following morning.

Not only had his long johns been stolen while he soaked a bath, casually thumbing through the school’s newest edition of Shakespeare plays, his new suit of clothes had been taken and displayed on crisscrossed sticks in the courtyard of the school’s headmaster.  So, with a small cotton towel wrapped around his waist, he’d only had one choice.  Recover his clothes.

Carrying a burlap sack, Hoss met up with his two brothers.  He’d already set the stage for disaster when he’d bought and then doctored a jar of pickles Sue Ann had entered in the contest.  Thinking any woman would be pleased to have her escort buy her prized entry, Hoss had handed the jar to Tommy Winthrop.

“I done ate Miss Sissy’s jar already, Tom, and I can’t eat no more,” Hoss had said.  “These here is Sue Ann McAlister’s.  You want ‘em?”

“Gee, thanks, Hoss,” he said.  “I didn’t think you’d be speakin’ to me after—uh, never mind.  Just forget it.”

“Enjoy ‘em, Tommy.”

*****

Nudging his little brother past all the games and whatnot, Adam steered him toward the fork in the creek and Jim’s newly constructed outhouse.

“Why we heading down here,” Joe complained.  “I ain’t gotta go.”

“Mind your elders, little brother,” Hoss said.

Squatting down behind a leafy scrub, Hoss and Adam and Little Joe waited until the time was right.  Adding Hop Sing’s hot chili paste to Sue Ann’s pickles had done the trick, and it wasn’t more than five minutes later when they each spotted Tommy running across the meadow and straight toward the wooden structure.

“Now, Hoss,” Adam directed.

Not only had the headmaster admonished him for being careless, it seemed as though half the student body had watched him scale the six-foot stone wall to retrieve his suit of clothes from the private courtyard.  The long johns he could live without.  He’d buy another pair before admitting the red flannel undergarment had been his.

Hoss untied the slipknot and tossed the open burlap bag inside the outhouse door then slipped back and scrunched down next to his brothers.  “Watch this, Little Joe.”

Joe had been left in the dark, and when Adam noticed Sue Ann McAlister heading their way, he began to regret his decision to “even the score.”  As if he were still a child, he closed his eyes.  If he couldn’t see her, she wasn’t there.  The outhouse door flew open and, with his pants tangled around his ankles, Tommy Winthrop ran hell-bent for leather down toward the fork in the stream.

“What the heck was that?”  Joe cried.

“Remember that ol’ hoot-owl that took up lodgin’ in the barn?”  Hoss said between bouts of laughter.

“That’s what you had in the bag?”

“That’s right, little brother.  Scared your big friend clear outta his britches.”

When Joe spotted Sue Ann, he sprang to his feet.  “No,” he groaned then flew out from behind the stringy scrub and quickly grabbed the young lady’s hand, Tommy’s girl.

“Hey, Sue Ann.”

“Hi, Joe.  Did you see Tommy come this way?”

“Tom?  No, you must’ve seen someone else?  Tommy’s just over that hill playing horseshoes,” he lied.  “How ‘bout we go find something to drink.  I’m as dry as—”

“Are you sure?  I could’ve sworn I saw him.”

“Come on,” Joe said, turning her away from the stream.  “I’m really thirsty.  How ‘bout you?”

“Well, I guess it would be okay.”

“Good.  And, if we’re lucky, there might be some leftover brownies.  Sure would go good with a cool glass of Hop Sing’s sweet lemonade.”

Sue Ann had been another man’s prize, but her soft, sweet voice still warmed Joe’s heart.  She’d been the first girl to turn his head but after all was said and done, he realized the race had been a stupid idea all along.  He should’ve gone after her; he should’ve made his play.  Maybe he stood a chance after all, especially if Tommy had been the only other fella who’d asked her.

Hoss turned toward Adam.  “Look, big, brother.  Don’t that beat all?”

“Looks like our chivalrous young brother just saved the damsel from witnessing her knight’s humiliation.”

“Huh?”

Adam clapped Hoss’ back.  How foolish he’d been to butt into Joe’s private affairs.  He chuckled softly.  Twice in one week, his young brother had bested him.  “Little brother’s growing up,” he said.

“Little Joe done the right thing, didn’t he, Adam?”

Revenge is a dish best served cold.  No, Adam thought.  He’d been wrong.  He’d let an old college prank fester for . . . how many years?  Too long.  He’d never “settled the score,” and that’s what had prompted his uncalled-for behavior.  He’d jumped the gun when Joe’s affairs were none of his business, something Joe had to work out himself without interference from big brother.

“Yeah,” Adam conceded.  “He did the right thing, Hoss.”  And, with a wry smile, he noted, “Little Joe’s a better man than I.”

***The End***

8-2016

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