Word Count: 2230
His shirt ringed with sweat, Little Joe took a long, satisfying, drink from his canteen and then impulsively poured some water over his head to cool off. “Boy, will I be glad when this job’s done,” he exclaimed to his brothers.
Hoss nodded and took off his work gloves. “Yeah, me too,” he said, wiping the sweat from his eyes. “I didn’t figure on there bein’ this much work.”
Adam smiled ruefully. He was fairly certain Pa figured on it. Against his wishes, they’d taken a mid-week trip into town and, thanks to Hoss’ enjoyment of a good ruckus, had ended up in the midst of a barroom brawl. Consequently, he and his brothers had shown up at the breakfast table bruised and bleary-eyed, but instead of raising the roof with an ear-splitting lecture, Pa had merely suggested they load up the wagon and check out the fence line in the east pasture. “Yes, well, something tells me Pa knew the extent of it.”
Joe gave him a curious look. “What do you mean by that, Adam?”
“Yeah,” Hoss said, scrunching his face and wondering the same. As far as he knew, Pa had been in a pretty good mood this morning, considering the little disagreement they’d had last night…and how late they’d gotten in…and how late they’d been to breakfast…and how banged up they were. Oh no! He gulped and waited to hear what Adam had to say with a sinking feeling.
Adam grinned at Hoss’ pained expression. He could see his middle brother was having second thoughts about their supposed good fortune. “I mean our bruises didn’t go unnoticed,” he said, pulling his shirt from his pants and letting it hang loose, “and while Pa may not know the particulars, I’d bet my last dollar we’re being treated to the proverbial slap on the wrist.”
Hoss didn’t know what proverbial meant but he got the gist of it and nodded miserably. “Yeah, I reckon you’re probably right. We told Pa we’d be fit for a full day’s work and it’d be just like him to make us prove it. Dadburnit! No wonder, he didn’t yell.”
Joe scowled, not wanting to believe it. “Aw, come on you two,” he entreated. “He didn’t yell because we’re all adults, plain and simple. One thing’s got nothing to do with the other. It just so happened the fence needed a lot of work…and it was just bad luck we had to chase down a few strays before we could get started…and that we had to use the team horses — all on an exceptionally hot day.”
Adam and Hoss both gave him a humorous look, neither answering.
“What?” Joe exclaimed earnestly. “Is that so farfetched?”
Adam shook his head and smiled. When it came to matters of importance, he had no doubt Pa respected him as a man, but when it came to dumb trouble like this, he also knew the years had a way of disappearing and one way or another he’d be held accountable, especially if he’d thrown in with his younger brothers. With Joe being seventeen, there was no question about it. “Under the circumstances, I’d say he’s letting us wallow in our own foolishness, little brother.”
Joe heard the confidence in his brother’s voice and let out a defeated sigh. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, his oldest brother was generally right when it came to second guessing Pa. “Well, at least we didn’t have to sit through a lecture.”
“Oh, he’ll get around to it,” Adam replied. “He always does.”
“Great,” Joe muttered. “Something to look forward to.”
Hoss chuckled and gave him a slap on the back. “Cheer up, little brother; even if Pa does get to hollerin’, ol’ Adam here is gonna get the worst of it.” He smiled at Adam, his eyes twinkling. “As the oldest and self-proclaimed wisest, he should’ve set a better example.”
Joe’s eyes widened and a mischievous smile lit his face. “That’s right,” he said, nodding. “If older brother hadn’t sent Jeff Bonner sailing over the bar with a round-house punch to the jaw, I never would’ve done the same to Rick’s sorry hide.”
Adam rolled his eyes. The truth was he had used bad judgment, not so much by fighting, but by siding with his brothers against Pa in the first place. There was no blaming them for that, though; he’d had his own reasons for wanting to take an impromptu trip into town. But did his plans pan out? Did he get to track down the captivating woman he’d shared the stage with last week? No! Thanks to Hoss, he’d had to fatten a few lips, and he was just about to remind him of it when he spotted some riders closing in on them from across the meadow. His eyes narrowed. “Looks like we’ve got company,” he announced as he kept an eye on the approaching men and retrieved a rifle.
Hoss and Joe followed his gaze and then hastily picked up their guns from the back of the wagon, feeling the same unease as their brother. “Who do you reckon it is?” Hoss asked.
Joe shook his head. “There’s six of ‘em, but I can’t make anyone out. They’re kickin’ up too much dust.”
Adam stared hard at the men and their mounts, looking for something that might identify them. “They’re coming in fast, all right.”
Hoss took up a position behind the wagon and motioned for his brothers to do the same before they were all caught out in the open. “Too fast, if you ask me; maybe somebody’s ridin’ their tail.”
“Or maybe they’re on somebody’s tail,” Adam said, suddenly relaxing his stance and smiling. “That fella on the right is Roy.”
Joe squinted. “Yeah, and the Zimmerman brothers are with him.”
Hoss frowned. They might not be in any danger, but something bad had happened. “Must be a posse then; nothin’ else would get Lane and Mark to shut down the smithy in the middle of the day.”
Adam nodded, and after trading a sober look with his brothers, he stepped around the wire and poles scattered on the ground and hailed the sheriff.
Roy waved and rode up alongside him. Despite the serious nature of his business, he couldn’t resist a little teasing. “Well now,” he exclaimed, his mouth twitching into a little smile, “I’m kinda surprised to see you boys workin’ so hard. I thought for sure you’d be nursing your bruises after that spectacle last night.”
Fully aware Roy could have thrown them in jail in addition to the heavy fine he’d levied against them, Adam held his tongue, but couldn’t help the dry smile.
The men, as did Roy, let out a low chuckle. “Yeah,” Lane said, ribbing him some more, “you fellas must’ve smashed every stick of furniture and every bottle in the place. I saw Cosmo this morning and he was still cussing you out. Says you’re gonna end up owing him close to five hunnerd dollars.”
Adam flushed, uncomfortable at having caused such damage and more than a little embarrassed that it seemed to be common knowledge. He glanced up at Roy, hoping to change the subject. “Surely, that’s not what brought you out here, is it?”
The fun over, Roy sobered. “No, I’m sorry to say it’s something a might more serious. Three men robbed the bank this morning and got away with close to fifty thousand dollars. Me and the boys tracked them to the mesa, but with it bein’ so rocky around those parts, we lost their trail.”
“Sounds like they know the territory,” Joe commented.
Hoss’ expression darkened. It was wrong any way you looked at it, but the idea of robbing from folks you knew was something that made his blood boil. “Anyone get hurt?”
Roy nodded. “They beat Mr. Weems pretty bad. Doc Martin’s not sure if he’ll make it.”
Adam gave Roy a grim look. “You want us to scout around with you?”
Roy shook his head. “No, I just wanted to warn you,” he said, signaling to the men to head out again. “I rode by the house earlier, so your Pa knows to keep a look out.”
Adam nodded and watched the posse ride off with a thoughtful expression. It was likely Pa would worry, but if they got a move on, they could finish the repairs and still get back to the ranch before it got to be too late. As it was, they’d be back after dark anyway. “All right you two, let’s get back to work; these post holes aren’t gonna dig themselves.”
Back at the ranch, Ben sat at his desk, the ledgers open but ignored. It was well after sundown and his mind was on his sons. Where are they? They should be home by now. Standing up, he peered out the window, his thoughts worriedly drifting to the men who’d robbed the bank. Desperate men. Men who wouldn’t hesitate to kill. Seeing no sign of the wagon, he sat down heavily in his chair.
Hop Sing came from the kitchen with a pot of coffee. “Don’t worry,” he said to Ben, smiling and pouring him a cup. “Boys be home soon, you’ll see.”
Ben gratefully took it. “Thank you, Hop Sing, but I’m not worried,” he said, dismissing the idea as preposterous. “I’m just annoyed. They know what time we eat.”
Hop Sing shook his head, not fooled by his boss’s demeanor. “Why you look for trouble?” he asked. “Bad men probably long gone by now.”
Startled by his directness, Ben eyed Hop Sing but didn’t keep up the pretense. He admitted his worries with a brief nod. “I suppose you’re right,” he said feeling a little foolish.
Hop Sing nodded and then headed back to the kitchen knowing full well the worries of a father were not so easily alleviated. Mr. Cartwright wouldn’t stop worrying until those boys showed up safe and sound, but it didn’t hurt to try.
He’s right, the boys are fine, Ben thought firmly. He’d sent them out to do a job and that’s exactly what they were doing. He sipped his coffee and was still trying to convince himself of it when he heard the wagon pulling into the yard. He let out a relieved sigh, and after a quick word of thanks, he went to the door. He found his sons on the porch, stomping their boots and knocking the dust off their clothes.
“Hi Pa,” Adam said with an apologetic smile. “Sorry we’re late, but we had an awful lot of work to do…as I’m sure you know.”
A bit of humor sparked in Ben’s eyes while his middle son went on to explain. “Yeah, a whole bunch of steers strayed through that break in the fence line. We had to round ‘em all up before we could even get started.”
“But don’t you worry, Pa,” Joe added with a smile, “we got ‘em all back where they belong and finished sinkin’ them new poles.”
Ben nodded. It was just ordinary chatter, but it made his eyes shine. He was glad for the darkness lest his sons think him a silly old fool. “Good, good,” he answered, “now go on, get inside; supper’s almost ready.”
Hoss sniffed the air appreciatively. “Hey Pa, is that roast pork I smell?”
Ben smiled. “Roast pork and sweet potatoes,” he replied, giving Hoss an affectionate pat on the arm as he shooed him in the door. “Now go on, get washed up.” Turning to Little Joe, he gave his youngest son a gentle swat. “That goes for you too, young man. Hop Sing will have a fit if that meat dries up.”
“Yes sir,” Joe said with a grin as he hurried into the house, leaving Adam behind.
Adam eyed his father as they went through the door. The fact that he was awfully glad to see them hadn’t escaped his notice. “Are you all right?”
Ben put his arm across Adam’s shoulders. “Of course I am,” he replied pleasantly. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Adam said, drawing his words out. “I just thought you might’ve been worried. We saw Roy and he mentioned he’d come by the house.”
“Now Adam, I know perfectly well you boys can take care of yourselves.” It was a truthful, albeit evasive, answer and they both knew it.
A small smile played at the corners of Adam’s mouth as he dared to press the issue. “Sure you do,” he said, sounding unconvinced, “and I suppose that’s why you seemed so happy to see us, right?”
Ben nodded slowly. No matter how old his sons were, he’d worry in times of trouble. It was a father’s prerogative, just like it was a father’s prerogative to sometimes set his wayward sons straight. “You’re right, I am happy to see you boys,” he said, his voice noticeably gruff now. “I believe you three have a lecture coming and I intend to deliver it just as soon as we’re done with supper!”