Settling the Score (Julee)

Summary:  Ben discovers his fair method of doling out the least desirable jobs isn’t as fair as he’d thought.  With their “match trick” gone astray, Adam and Little Joe have reason to worry!  This was one of my first stories written several years ago.  Hope it gives you a chuckle!
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating: G
Word Count: 8,748


Ben Cartwright sat at the head of the table and quietly drank his morning coffee as he listened to his sons discuss their plans for the fall social that night. He had a favor to ask, but decided it would be worthwhile to glean a little information first.

“You takin’ Bessie Sue?” Joe asked Hoss between bites. Hoss had been sparking Bessie Sue all summer and it was beginning to worry him. The thought of having that big gal for a sister-in-law made him feel sort of nauseous and he knew Adam felt the same. He supposed she was pretty enough, but heck, it would be more like having another brother than a sister.

Hoss shook his head and speared the last piece of ham. “Nope, I decided Bessie Sue is gettin’ a might too greedy with my time.”

Smiling, Adam joined the conversation. “Well, you can’t blame her,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “A big, handsome, strapping fella like you is a fine catch for any gal and Bessie Sue knows it.”

His fork poised half way to his mouth, Hoss interrupted his breakfast long enough to give Adam a sunny smile. “You know something, Adam? You’re right,” he said with a nod. “But I ain’t ready to settle down, so I figure I best steer clear for a while. I wouldn’t want her gettin’ any silly notions.” He frowned a moment and then went on to finish his breakfast, all thoughts of Bessie Sue disappearing.

Thankful their brother didn’t harbor any serious intentions, Adam and Joe exchanged a brief but relieved glance.

“Good thinking,” Adam said, getting back to his own breakfast. He should’ve known Hoss wasn’t in love; he hadn’t tripped over anything all summer. Little Joe, on the other hand, was walking around with his head in the clouds, mooning over not one, but three young ladies. He took a sip of coffee and cast him a curious glance. “So what about you, Joe? Who’d you decide to take?”

Joe’s eyes brightened. After debating the charms of his three best girls, he’d finally come up with the perfect plan, or so he hoped. “Well, brother, being the kind hearted person that I am, I just hated the thought of hurtin’ anyone’s feelings, so I decided to go alone.” His declaration was paired with a self-satisfied smirk. “That way I can dance with all the girls and everyone will be happy.”

Adam chuckled and shook his head in amusement. He had a feeling all the boyish charm in the world wasn’t gonna be enough to soothe all those ruffled feathers.

At the other end of the table, Ben was also shaking his head, but it wasn’t out of amusement. He didn’t like the idea of Little Joe stringing those poor girls along. That boy, he thought, raising a disapproving eyebrow. He needs a good talking to, but it’ll have to be later, right now I’ve got one more son to find out about. He shifted his attention to his eldest. “Adam? You haven’t told us your plans. Are you taking anyone?”

Adam flushed and shook his head. “Uh, no, I didn’t ask anyone either,” he replied, avoiding eye contact. He didn’t want to tell his father, but he planned to duck out of the dance early. He was supposed to meet Clair at the Silver Dollar and while his father respected him as an adult, he didn’t think he would entirely approve.

Ben’s eyes narrowed as he appraised his son’s face. Apparently, Little Joe wasn’t the only son in need of some fatherly advice. He heaved an inward sigh. Adam wasn’t too keen on unsolicited advice these days, but there were some things a father couldn’t ignore. That was a conversation for another time, though. “Well, for once, I’m glad none of you are sparking anyone,” he said glancing around the table.

Three pairs of curious, but wary eyes instantly landed on him.

“I ran into Paul yesterday,” he continued. “He said his niece, Lydia, is here visiting and he was hoping one of you boys could take her to the dance and introduce her around.”

With a groan, Joe shook his head in misery while Hoss stared at his plate in dismay and Adam studied the design on his coffee cup; none of them willing to meet their father’s gaze and possibly draw his unwanted attention.

Disappointed by their lack of enthusiasm, Ben gave an exasperated sigh. “Boys,” he admonished, “I’m sure she’s a very lovely girl and since none of you are spoken for tonight, you have no reason to object. Besides, Paul’s not only our doctor, he’s a good friend and we owe him a great deal.” He finished in a tone that brooked no nonsense. “Now who’s it gonna be?”

Joe was the first to speak up. “Well, I think it oughta be Adam,” he said, eager to offer his brother’s services instead of his own.

“Me? Why me?” Adam asked testily, annoyed at the possibility of having to change his plans.

“As the oldest, you should set a good example,” he replied reasonably.

Adam gave a smug smile. “Yes, well, there’s no point in my setting a good example if you don’t learn by it, now is there?”

Laughing, Hoss nodded. “He’s got a point, Joe.”

Making a sour face, Joe easily turned the tables on Hoss. “Well, what about you, big brother? You’re the one who wants to teach Bessie Sue a lesson. Here’s your chance.”

This time it was Adam’s turn to nod. He knew Joe would never give in, but if they teamed up, maybe they could convince Hoss. “You know, Hoss, that isn’t a bad idea. If Bessie Sue sees you with another woman, she’s bound to get the hint.”

“Oh, she’ll get the hint all right and I’ll get a black eye. No thanks!”

“Aw c’mon!” Joe shouted, growing increasingly frustrated with his uncooperative brothers.

“All right, that’s enough!” Ben said, stepping in to prevent a yelling match. “We’ll just settle this our usual way, but I must say I’m disappointed in all three of you.” Eyeing his sons, he tossed his napkin on the table and went to get the matches.

Shamed into silence, Hoss toyed with his food while Adam and Joe toyed with their water glasses, their eyes twinkling as they guardedly dipped their fingers into the water.

“Now, the first to drop his match, will be the girl’s escort,” Ben explained as he came back with the matches and distributed them, “and I don’t want any complaints. Understood?”

Nodding, the boys got to their feet and put their matches together as Ben struck another match to set them aflame. Temporarily mesmerized, they all watched in silence. It wasn’t long, though, before Hoss began to wince. The tiny flame was licking at his fingers and as much as he wanted to hang on, he finally had to throw his match down with a yelp. “Dadburnit!” he exclaimed, disgusted. “I’m gettin’ awful tired of losin’!”

Blowing out his match and tossing it on the table, Joe shot Adam a quick wink. Without a hint of guilt, Adam did the same.

“Now, Hoss, I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time,” Ben said, attempting to pacify him. “But in the meantime, I’d appreciate it if you all got to work. There’s a lot to be done before tonight.”

Their plans intact and their good moods restored, Adam and Joe walked to the sideboard to retrieve their guns.

Scowling at his grinning brothers, Hoss picked up his gun belt and strapped it on. “You want us to move the herd to the lower pasture, Pa?”

Getting no answer, Hoss gave his father a quizzical look and prompted him again. “Pa?”

Ben fingered the spent matches his other two sons had carelessly thrown on the table and gave a distracted nod. “Uh, yes, I want you to move the herd, but I have something else in mind for your brothers.”

Adam looked up in surprise as he tightened his gun belt. “What do you mean, Pa? You know that isn’t a one man job.”

Ben spared Adam a glance, but his mind was already working to shuffle the men. “Hoss,” he said, clapping him on the back, “I want you to team up with Jake and Kip today…and don’t let Jake give you any guff…tell him we’ve got another two weeks to get those horses ready for the army.” It wasn’t the best plan, but it would serve his purpose.

With a nod, Hoss plunked his hat on his head and headed out the door. “Sure, Pa, whatever you say.” He wasn’t certain, but for some reason he had a funny feeling he was doing him a favor.

Puzzled, Adam confronted his father. “So why the sudden change in plans?” he asked with a hint of irritation in his voice. He’d put a lot of effort into preparing an efficient work schedule and didn’t appreciate his father, boss or not, arbitrarily changing it for no apparent reason.

“Because I want you,” he said poking Adam in the chest, “and you,” he said poking Joe, “to paint the barn.”

Astonished, Adam and Joe glanced at each other in disbelief.

“You’re kidding?” Adam finally managed to say. He didn’t know what his father was thinking, but this was no time to paint the barn for pete’s sake; every crew on the ranch was already working shorthanded.

Ben eyed his son, recognizing his combative stance. “I assure you, I’m quite serious,” he said firmly.

With a look of determination, Adam held his ground, prepared to do battle. “Pa—” he began, but got no further.

“Adam,” Ben said cutting him off, “I don’t intend to argue about this. I’ve made up my mind and the last time I checked I was still the boss of this ranch.” He paired his words with a sharp look.

Stung by his remark, Adam bit back an angry retort and looked away. It was obvious, his father, not his boss had come up with this dreaded chore as some sort of ridiculous punishment…of that he was certain…but why?

Unwilling to give in gracefully, Little Joe took up the argument. “But, Pa, you can’t be serious,” he exclaimed, his voice rising. “You know the dance is tonight. We’ll be worn out and smelling like turpentine. It’s not fair!”

Eyes narrowing, Ben held up the still damp matches and unleashed his anger. “On the contrary, Joseph, I’d say it’s a very fitting punishment for the school boy prank you two played on your brother!” His voice thundered and his eyes blazed as he looked back and forth between his sons. “And I’m quite certain this wasn’t the first time, was it?”

Wincing, Adam lowered his head and rubbed the back of his neck, the look on his father’s face making him feel as if he were twelve-years-old again and about to get a tanning. Well, it was nice while it lasted, he thought to himself.

Eyes wide, Joe swallowed nervously as he desperately tried to figure a way out. “Prank? Uh, what prank?” he asked with a practiced look of innocence.

Ben’s hands moved to his hips and he glared at his youngest son. “I think we all know the answer to that one, Joseph, so I suggest you drop the pretense and go find yourself a paintbrush.” He pointed towards the door. “Now!”

Startled into action, Little Joe scurried to obey with a respectful, “yes sir.”

Satisfied, Ben shifted his glare to Adam. “You too,” he commanded. “Unless, of course, you prefer I tell your brother. I’m sure he’d take great pleasure in exacting his own revenge.”

Knowing exactly what Hoss would do if he ever found out, Adam traded an alarmed look with Joe, who was still hovering by the door, hoping for a different outcome.

Ben didn’t miss the look and his eyes glinted with humor. While Hoss would never seriously hurt his brothers, he wasn’t above making them squirm.

Realizing he’d been bested, Adam gave a nod of defeat. “Red or brown?” he asked with a sigh.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ben answered with a wry smile. “Why don’t you surprise me?”

Adam lifted his eyebrows and a small smile played at the corners of his mouth as he traded a look with his father before heading off to do his assigned punishment.

Ben shut the door behind him and chuckled.

*****

His sleeves rolled up, Adam carefully poured a measure of red paint into the brown and stirred it until it was thoroughly mixed. Satisfied with the color, he handed the bucket over to Joe and then bent to mix up another batch.

Taking it, Joe heaved a disgruntled sigh. “Why don’t we just paint it red and really surprise Pa?”

Adam quirked an eyebrow in Joe’s direction. “You don’t really want to paint this barn twice, do you?”

“I don’t want to paint it at all,” he grumbled, wiping the dust and grime from the back of his neck. After a backbreaking morning of sanding and scraping, they were both covered in a layer of sweat, wood particles and old paint chips.

“Neither do I, but since we don’t have any choice, let’s get started.” He squinted up at the peak. “You want me to do the loft?”

Joe shook his head. “Nah,” he said, breaking into a mischievous grin. “I better do it. You’re gettin’ kind of old to be climbing up on them tall ladders.”

Smiling in amusement, Adam dipped his brush and got started on the lower section. “You just make sure you do a good job.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Joe called as he started up the ladder.

*****

In need of a break, Ben got to his feet and looked out the window. “They had better be doing a good job,” he muttered as he surveyed the barn with a critical eye. Impressed, his expression softened and he let out a chuckle at the sight of his paint splattered sons. He had to admit, it was a hot day for such a toilsome task, but when he thought of all the dirty jobs Hoss had gotten stuck with, he didn’t feel one bit sorry for them. In fact, this little chore didn’t even begin to settle the score. Sitting back down, he poured himself a glass of lemonade and smiled at the turn of events. He certainly didn’t condone the boys’ actions, but in this case, he thought it might just work out for the best. Paul said Lydia was a pretty girl in her mid-twenties with a sweet disposition and just a tad shy around men. She sounded perfect for Hoss; his kindhearted son who was just a tad shy himself. Smiling, he got back to his letter.

*****

Weary from the day’s work, Joe straightened his back and stretched out his sore muscles. Painting sure does call for some awkward positions, he thought with a pained expression. His arms ached, his back ached, his neck ached and somehow he’d gotten paint in his mouth. Taking a swig of water from the canteen, he swished it around and spit it out. “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to call it quits. What do you think?” he asked, glancing hopefully at his brother. It was late afternoon and if they started cleaning up now, they’d have plenty of time to take a bath and get ready for the dance.

Adam glanced at the sky and shook his head. “I think we’ve got another hour of daylight left, and if we don’t use it, Pa’ll have our hides.”

Joe groaned. “I won’t be able to move, much less dance, after another hour.”

“Sure you will,” Adam said with a knowing smile. “Once you get a look at all those lovely young ladies at the dance, you’ll perk right up.”

Joe gave him a slow smile. “Yeah,” he replied, brightening at the thought. Whistling, he dipped his brush and got back to work, happily contemplating the night ahead.

Adam chuckled, amazed at how quick Little Joe could bounce back. It’s gonna take a hot bath and a shot of brandy to revive me, he thought, rubbing his stiff neck.

Riding into the yard, Hoss gave a look of surprise at the sight of his brothers busily painting the barn. Dismounting, he tethered Chubb and gave a low chuckle. “Well, well, well,” he said hitching his thumbs in his vest and sauntering over, “what’d you fellas do ta deserve this?”

Assuming an air of innocence, Joe shrugged. “Nothin’.”

“Yeah right,” Hoss muttered, not buying the innocent act. “Now, I know you two ain’t paintin’ this barn for the fun of it, so what gives?”

Adam exchanged a quick glance with Joe before speaking up. “Nothing gives,” he said casually. “Pa wanted the barn painted.” He shrugged. “So we’re paintin’ it.”

Hoss looked back and forth between his brothers with a skeptical eye. “Shrug all yuh want, but I ain’t buyin’ it,” he declared with a shake of his head. He’d been in enough scrapes with his brothers to know when they were hiding something and this was definitely one of those times.

“Suit yourself,” Adam replied, getting back to work.

Spurned by his lead, Joe did the same, hoping his big galoot of a brother wouldn’t figure anything out.

Irked at being ignored, Hoss shrugged indifferently. “Well, I reckon if you fellas don’t wanna tell me, you don’t gotta,” he remarked, walking slowly back to the house. But dadburnit, I sure wish yuh would.

“He’s not foolin’ me,” Joe exclaimed as soon as Hoss was out of earshot. “He’s dyin’ to know and he’s not gonna give up until he finds out…and when he does…he’s gonna pound us!”

Adam nodded in agreement. “He’s curious all right.”

“You don’t think Pa will tell him, do you?”

Adam shook his head. “Nah, if he wanted to do that, he would have said something this morning.”

“I s’pose,” Joe said suddenly mystified as to why Pa didn’t set things straight and let Hoss off the hook with Lydia. “Hey Adam?” he asked, tapping his brother on the arm. “How come Pa’s not making the two of us take Doc Martin’s niece to the dance?”

Adam gave Joe a thoughtful look. “You know, I’ve been wondering about that myself,” he answered, “and there’s only one thing that makes sense.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

Adam raised an eyebrow and gave a little smile. “I think the lovely Miss Lydia Martin must be just that…lovely.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed in dismay. “You mean to tell me we got caught pulling a prank that…that…we didn’t even need to pull!”

Adam shrugged. “Neither one of us really gave Lydia much thought, did we?”

“No, I guess not,” Joe admitted, scratching his head.

Adam gave him a rueful look. “Maybe we should have.”

*****

Hoss Cartwright stood in the midst of the festivities looking absolutely miserable. He liked Doc Martin well enough, but there was just no telling what his niece was going to be like. What if she’s one of them uppity gals from back east, he thought, scrunching up his face in dismay. Dadburnit, I don’t know nothin’ about poetry and such; Adam oughta be doin’ this, not me!

With a shake of his head, Ben put a calming hand on his son’s shoulder. “For goodness sake, Hoss, wipe that look off your face. You’re about to meet a pretty girl, not swallow a spoon full of castor oil.”

Hoss gave his father a weak smile. It was the best he could do under the circumstances.

Not wanting to make him any more nervous than he already was, Ben resisted the urge to roll his eyes and gave his son a reassuring nod instead. Well, at least he doesn’t look like a seasick sailor anymore. Sighing to himself, he scanned the hall and spotted Paul and his niece coming in through the door. “Come on, son, they’re here.”

Nodding, Hoss dutifully followed him across the room.

Paul Martin smiled in approval as he caught sight of Ben Cartwright making his way through the crowd with Hoss in tow. As a protective uncle, he couldn’t think of a better escort for Lydia than Ben’s middle boy; an honorable, hardworking young man who wasn’t too forward with the ladies. Perfect, he thought, considering Hoss in a new light.

“Hello, Paul,” Ben said, extending his hand.

Smiling, Paul shook it. “Evening, Ben,good to see you.” He drew his niece to his side. “Lydia, I want you to meet Mr. Cartwright and his son, Hoss. They’re very good friends of mine.”

“Lydia, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Ben said warmly. “I hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright, it’s very nice to meet you,” she said, smiling, “and you too…um…Hoss?”

Hoss gave a little nod. “Yes’m, you heard right,” he said returning her smile, “and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” Very pleased, he thought, feeling an instant attraction to this pretty little gal. She sure is something, what with her honey blonde hair, big brown eyes, and cute little nose, he marveled. He couldn’t help but notice how her dress fit real nice too.

Pleased with the besotted look on Hoss’s face, Ben spoke up, eager to give his son a helping hand. “Uh, Hoss, perhaps Lydia would like to dance. The music sounds very inviting tonight.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, of course,” he stammered, reddening as he offered her his arm. “May I have this dance Miss Lydia?”

Looking up at the tall, handsome man beside her, Lydia noticed he was blushing and melted. “Yes, that would be nice,” she replied. Her heart hammering, she took his arm. Smiling, Hoss led her to the dance floor and shyly took her in his arms, making a mental note to thank his older brother for insisting he learn something besides square dancing. A dreamy smile crossed his face as he noticed the faint scent of lavender in her hair. Yes sir, this evenin’ is shapin’ up to be real nice, he thought, real nice.

*****

As the music came to an end, Adam politely excused himself from Barbara with a charming smile and a promise to return for another dance. Wanting a breath of fresh air, he headed for the door but stopped at the sight of Little Joe standing by the punch bowl, his face indignant. Joining him, Adam gave a little smile. “I take it the ladies didn’t fully appreciate your plan,” he remarked, his eyes twinkling.

Acknowledging his brother with a sideways glance, Joe gave a seemingly unconcerned shrug. “No, but I’m not worried,” he declared with certainty. “They’ll get tired of playin’ hard to get.”

Adam grinned as he observed the ladies in question taking a turn across the dance floor with their respective partners. “I don’t know, they all look pretty happy to me, but then, that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? For everyone to be happy.”

“Aw, shut up,” Joe said, scowling.

Adam’s eyebrows lifted in amusement. Little Joe’s pride seemed to be hurting a whole lot more than his heart. He stepped closer and spoke quietly. “You do realize you insulted the ladies, don’t you?”

Joe shot him an incredulous look. “What makes you say that?” he asked, his eyes wide.

Adam gave a little shake of his head. Little Joe considered himself a ladies’ man, but at eighteen he still had a few things to learn. “Look Joe, you kept the girls waiting for weeks, hoping for an invitation, and then you decided to go alone, expecting them to be at your beck and call. It’s no wonder they’re avoiding you like the plague.”

Frowning, Joe gave it some thought. He hated to admit it, but Adam was right. He’d taken the girls for granted. “I, uh, see what you mean,” he said with a sheepish grin. “What do you think I oughta do?”

“Well, you might try apologizing, but I’d give it a few days if I were you.”

His hopes for a fun evening dashed, he nodded dejectedly. “Yeah, maybe I’ll just head over to the Bucket of Blood for a drink.” He heaved a sigh and glanced at the couples on the dance floor one last time. “Hey, you know something, Adam? You were right. Turns out Doc Martin’s niece is real cute, isn’t she?” He smiled to himself and his eyes sparked with interest.

Adam followed his gaze over to where Hoss and Lydia were stepping in time to the music. Lydia’s cheeks were flushed and she wore a bright smile. He watched them a moment and then turned back to Joe. “Forget it, Joe. She’s off limits.”

Joe looked at him in dismay. “Why?”

“Because Hoss is smitten and if you even think of cutting in on him after that stunt we pulled this morning, Pa will nail your hide to the wall.”

“Aw c’mon,” he said doubtfully. “He just met her.”

“I’d listen to your brother if I were you,” came their father’s deep voice from behind, surprising them both. “He’s absolutely right. Hoss is smitten and I will have your hide if you ruin his evening.” Stepping between his sons, he gave Little Joe a piercing look. “Understand?”

Joe flushed and hurried to make amends. He knew from experience, Pa didn’t make empty threats and he sure didn’t want to get stuck slinging manure or digging post holes for the next month. “You don’t have to worry about me, Pa. I wouldn’t dream of cuttin’ in on Hoss, no sir, he deserves to have that pretty little gal all to himself.” He finished with a firm nod.

Ben eyed Joe, letting him know exactly what he thought of his cock and bull story. “You’re right, Joseph, and that’s precisely why I want your help.”

“My help?” he squeaked, glancing worriedly at Adam.

Adam shrugged. He sympathized, but in light of their recent fall from grace, Pa had them both over a barrel.

Coming to the same conclusion, Joe gave a weak smile and nodded. “Sure, Pa, whatever you want.”

“Well, what I want,” he said pleasantly, “is for you to spend the rest of the evening with Bessie Sue.”

Unable to contain his laughter, Adam chuckled out loud while Little Joe gasped in disbelief. “Bessie Sue! You gotta be kidding!”

Annoyed Joe was drawing unnecessary attention, Ben took his arm and drew him near. “Now just settle down and let me explain,” he said, speaking in a conspiratorial manner. “You see, Bessie Sue is a little upset with Hoss and I’m afraid she might cause an unpleasant scene.”

“So what’s that got to do with me?” Joe asked with a sinking feeling.

Adam grinned, unable to resist a cheeky remark. “Yeah, Pa, what do you want him to do? Hog tie her?”

“Of course not,” Ben replied, giving Adam an irritated look. “I just want him to make sure Bessie Sue has an enjoyable evening.” Turning back to Joe, he continued. “Just have a few dances with her…offer her some refreshments…anything to keep her mind off Hoss and Lydia.”

Adam glanced at the happy couple and smiled. He could see his father’s point. Bessie Sue was bound to confront Hoss and it would be a shame if Lydia got caught in the middle. “Sorry, Joe, but I think Pa’s right.”

Ben eyes twinkled at the unexpected support. “I’m glad you feel that way, Adam, because I expect you to help out too.”

“Oh, now, Pa!” Adam protested, neither pleased with his father’s declaration nor his brother’s annoying cackle.

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Now, Adam, you just said I was right, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” he said drawing the word out with a sigh, “but I’m sure Little Joe is quite capable of handling it on his own.”

“Hold on, Adam,” Joe said with a devious grin. “You know it takes two men to fill Hoss’ shoes.”

Ignoring him, Adam turned to his father for a private word. “Look, Pa, I’m…uh…already spoken for tonight,” he said quietly, hoping to leave it at that.

Ben’s eyes narrowed and he gave Adam a curt nod. “I’ll see to it word gets to Clair,” he said with a slight edge to his voice. “I’m sure she’ll understand.”

Adam stared at him in surprise.

“Adam, I’m your father,” he said by way of explanation. “Did you really think your involvement with this girl wouldn’t come to my attention?” Holding his son’s gaze, he waited for the full impact of his words to sink in.

Adam shifted his weight and lowered his eyes, uncomfortable under his father’s scrutiny. He’d kept quiet about Clair, hoping to resolve the situation himself; but he should’ve known Pa would hear about it and in all likelihood misunderstand. After all, it wasn’t everyday Adam Cartwright draped a possessive arm around a saloon girl and declared loudly, for all to hear, that she was his and his alone. He could imagine the town gossip. Well, I can’t do anything about it now, but come tomorrow I’ll fill him in on everything, including my decision to help this girl no matter what the cost to my own reputation. He liked Clair. Aside from her wit and charm she had the courage and strength to face her personal hardships head on. Unfortunately, being young and naïve and alone in the world, she’d taken the wrong path. He hoped to get her set up with some friends in San Francisco; but in the meantime, he’d do whatever it took to protect her innocence, even if it meant playing the part of a possessive lover. Glancing at Little Joe, he wasn’t surprised to see him grinning from ear to ear. No doubt waiting for the fireworks, he thought, shooting him a look of warning.

Joe’s grin only grew wider. He knew better than to tease Adam about Clair, leastways in front of Pa, but he couldn’t help smiling at his brother’s discomfort. That is, until realization struck. Eyes widening, his smile disappeared as he stole a look at his father, wondering if he knew about his most recent transgression. He’d lost a hefty sum at the poker tables and hoped that hadn’t come to Pa’s attention.

Satisfied he’d secured Adam’s cooperation, Ben shifted his attention to his youngest. He’d caught his worried frown and knew exactly what he was thinking. He smiled to himself and let him squirm a minute before giving them both a verbal nudge in Bessie Sue’s direction. “Boys, I believe the lady is over by the door.”

Easily spotting Bessie Sue, they set off in her direction without another word, both glad to escape. Once out of earshot, Adam gave Joe a sideways glance. “This just isn’t our day, is it?”

“You got that right,” Joe muttered.

*****

Trailing behind Adam, Joe tugged nervously on his collar. From the look on Bessie Sue’s face, she was madder than a wet hen. Doggonit! Hoss better appreciate this, he thought irritably as he watched his middle brother head outside with Lydia. He found it impossible to stay mad, though. Seeing the goofy look on Hoss’ face, he couldn’t help but giggle.

Adam glanced over his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

“Hoss,” he said, gesturing towards the door, “he looks like he’s been pole axed!”

Adam watched Hoss disappear through the door with Lydia. Well, at least he’s got enough sense to take her outside for a moonlight stroll, he thought with a chuckle. Shifting his gaze to Bessie Sue, his smile faded. Unfortunately, she hadn’t missed a thing and was downright furious. “This isn’t gonna be easy,” he said raising his chin in the direction of Bessie Sue. “She looks like she wants to skin Hoss with a dull knife.”

Taking a look, Joe unintentionally made eye contact with her. “Uh oh!” he gulped, stepping behind Adam. “She’s headin’ this way and it looks like she wants to skin us with a dull knife.”

Adam drew a deep breath. He wasn’t looking forward to this any more than Joe, but managed a pleasant smile. “Bessie Sue, good evening,” he said greeting her warmly.

“Good evenin’ my foot!” she declared huffily, her blue eyes flashing. “Do you know what that low-down brother of yours is doin’?”

“Uh, no, what?” Adam asked calmly.

“Two-timing me, that’s what!” she declared poking him hard in the chest.

“What?” Joe exclaimed with exaggerated disbelief. “Hoss wouldn’t do that!”

Bessie Sue turned her flashing eyes on Joe, making him take a step back. “Well he’s been dancin’ all evening with some puny little gal, no bigger than a tadpole, and now he’s gone outside with her!”

Rubbing his sore chest, Adam nodded, hoping to appease her. “You’re right, of course, but if you’ll permit me,” he said speaking softly and taking her hand, “I can explain.”

Somewhat mollified by his soft tone and gentle touch, Bessie Sue gave a little nod. “All right, go on,” she conceded, willing to hear him out.

“Well, you see that little gal is Doc Martin’s visiting niece and I’m afraid my father, wanting to be neighborly, arranged for Hoss to be her escort, but I can assure you Hoss wasn’t in favor of it.” It was a truthful, albeit misleading statement, but it wasn’t his fault if Bessie Sue drew her own conclusions.

Bessie Sue eyed him, unconvinced. “Well, then, how come you or Little Joe didn’t do it?” she asked suspiciously, pulling her hand back. “After all, Hoss is spoke for.”

Adam’s eyes widened ever so slightly at her remark. “Uh…well…because,” he said glancing at Joe, “my brother and I were forced to take on a particularly demanding job today and we weren’t sure if we’d feel up to dancing tonight.”

Little Joe shook his head in admiration, amazed at how Adam could spin a tale without really telling a lie. Bet that little trick got him into a peck of trouble as a kid though. He knew first hand Pa didn’t appreciate anything short of the whole truth. Just thinking about it made his backside prickle.

“Well, you both look fit as a fiddle to me!” Bessie Sue declared, glancing back and forth between them with a discerning eye. “But I suppose it’d be impolite to pawn her off on one of you now.” Frowning, she gave a little sigh.

“I’m afraid so,” Adam said commiserating with her.

Bessie Sue gave another little sigh of disappointment and nodded in resignation.

Adam glanced at Joe and gave a little jerk of his head towards Bessie Sue, hoping he’d ask her to dance.

Getting the message, Joe promptly ignored it by taking a sudden interest in his boots.

Having no other choice, Adam bowed slightly and held out his hand. “Bessie Sue? May I have this dance?” he asked graciously.

Bessie Sue gave him a thoughtful look and then smiled. “Well, sure! Ain’t no reason why we can’t have a good time, is there?” In answer to her own question, she eagerly took his arm and set off for the dance floor, dragging him along.

“Oh no! he thought with a groan as the music began, not the Virginia reel!

Grinning, Joe tapped his foot to the music and watched Bessie Sue hook elbows with Adam, energetically swinging him first to the left and then to the right in response to the caller’s instructions. Bet ol’ Adam wishes he could do-si-do right out the door, he laughed to himself.

“Well, how do you like that!” an indignant voice exclaimed from behind.

Startled, Joe gave a jump and turned around. “Oh, hi, Harv,” he said with a friendly smile, “havin’ a good time?”

“No, I ain’t and I got your brother to thank for it!” he exclaimed with disdain. He’d been trying to work up the nerve to ask Bessie Sue for a dance all evening and then Adam had come along and just…just…stole her right out from under him!

Joe shook his head, clueless. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

“Bessie Sue, that’s what!” he declared, red-faced and indignant. “I’m sweet on her, but that brother of yours didn’t even give me a chance!”

Joe’s eyes widened in surprise and he smiled broadly. “That’s great!” he exclaimed, giving him a pat on the back. What luck! If  Harv and Bessie Sue get together, me and Adam are off the hook!

Harv frowned. “What’s so all fired great about it?” he asked hotly, gesturing to Adam and Bessie Sue.

Joe shook his head, eager to set him straight. “Look, Harv, you got it all wrong. Adam ain’t sweet on her, he’s just bein’ friendly.”

“Well, he sure coulda fooled me,” he said doubtfully, “what with the way he was holdin’ her hand an all.”

With a sweep of his hand, Joe waved Harv’s doubts aside. “Trust me, he was just bein’ mannerly. It doesn’t mean a thing. You just go ahead and ask Bessie Sue for the next dance. I guarantee you Adam won’t mind,” he said with a crafty little smile.

Harv wavered. “Well, I reckon you know him better’n me, but….”

“But what?” Joe asked impatiently.

“What if she don’t like me?” he blurted out, a worried frown on his face.

Stifling the urge to roll his eyes, Joe gave him a reassuring slap on the arm, eager to build his confidence. “Of course she’ll like you, what’s not to like? You’re a big, handsome, hardworking fella…just the kind of man Bessie Sue likes…and you own your own place…what more could a girl ask for?”

“You really think so?”

“I know so,” he replied firmly as he spotted Adam and Bessie Sue making their way over. “Now look…here they come…just smile and ask her to dance…there’s nothing to it.”

Harv nodded, a smile frozen on his face.

With a look of dismay, Joe didn’t waste any time extolling Harv’s virtues. “Bessie Sue! Adam! You know Harv don’t you? He owns the Bar B…a real nice little spread.” He gave a firm nod and prattled on. “Plenty of good grazing land…a couple hundred head of cattle…a sturdy little house…built it himself too. Yep, Harv here is one heck of a rancher,” he concluded with a smile.

Adam gave Harv a friendly nod before turning a quizzical look to Joe. What’s he up to? he wondered.

Joe gave him a quick wink as Bessie Sue offered her greetings. “Howdy, Harv, good to see you…and Joe’s right…the Bar B is a real nice place,” she said earnestly.

Harv beamed, but said nothing, unable to find his voice.

Shaking his head in exasperation, Joe gave him a sharp poke in the ribs.

“Ow!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do that for?”

Joe gave him a meaningful glance in Bessie Sue’s direction. Gathering up his courage, Harv gave a little nod, squared his shoulders and smiled at Bessie Sue. “Uh…what I mean is…thank you Bessie Sue and it’s good to see you too…real good!” Proud of himself, he kept on smiling, basking in her attention.

That’s it, Joe thought happily, now just ask her to dance and we’ll be off the hook. With a confident smile and a wink to Adam, he waited, but Harv didn’t say anything more and an awkward silence filled the air. Seeing his plan crumble, Joe gave a little shake of his head and sprang into action, unwilling to leave his fate in Harv’s hands. “Uh, Bessie Sue, Harv here was wondering if you’d like to dance. Isn’t that right, Harv?

A look of sheer panic flickered across his face, but he managed a little nod. “Yes’m,” he answered, casting her a hopeful glance.

Giving him a quick once over, Bessie Sue wondered why she never took note of him before. He sure is pleasin’ to the eye, she thought. Not quite as big and strong as Hoss, but a girl in my position has to keep her options open. “Well sure, Harv, I’d love to,” she replied with just a moment’s hesitation, “that is, if Adam don’t mind.”

Harv’s look was sheer venom, but Adam merely shrugged it off in his haste to get shed of Bessie Sue. “No, not at all,” he replied, “have a good time.”

Smiling, Bessie Sue took Harv’s arm.

Adam watched them disappear into the crowd and then turned to Joe, extending his hand. “Nice work,” he said with an appreciative smile.

Grinning, Joe shook his hand, silently congratulating himself. “Thank you, brother. I thought you’d appreciate it.”

“Oh, I do,” he replied without hesitation. “I just hope Hoss does.”

Joe gave him a puzzled look. “Well, why wouldn’t he? He said she was gettin’ to be a nuisance, didn’t he?”

Adam gave a little shrug and headed for the punch bowl, leaving Joe to ponder the situation. He’d worked up a thirst with all that dancing.

Joe watched him go. He hated it when Adam made those cryptic remarks; it always made him nervous.

*****

Having said goodnight to Lydia and Doc Martin, Hoss loosened his tie and sighed contentedly as he walked beside his father to their horses. That was the nicest evening I’ve had in a long time, he thought with a smile.

Noticing the spring in his son’s step, Ben smiled. “I take it you and Lydia had a good time.”

Hoss gave his father a little nod. “We sure did,” he answered in a soft tone. “Miss Lydia turned out to be a real sweet girl. In fact, I’m takin’ her on a buggy ride tomorrow.”

Listening with interest, Adam and Joe exchanged a smile as they trailed behind.

“You taking her to the lake?” Joe asked, unable to resist a little teasing.

Hoss glanced over his shoulder and nodded. “Well yeah,” he said with a blush. “I was thinkin’ about takin’ her up to the point. It should be real pretty this time of year.”

Adam and Joe traded another smile, knowing the place well. It was one of the prettiest, most romantic spots on the lake.

Seeing Joe open his mouth to comment, Ben gave a little shake of his head; effectively putting a stop to any more teasing. He didn’t want anything to spoil Hoss’s mood. “I’m sure Lydia will enjoy the ride,” he replied, having silenced Joe, “and the company.”

Hoss gave a happy nod, looking forward to tomorrow. “You know, Pa? It sure is funny how things work out sometimes. You reckon it was fate?”

Ben raised a questioning eyebrow. “That you met Lydia?”

“Yeah,” Hoss said thoughtfully. “I mean I was real mad about losin’ this morning, but everything turned out just fine.”

Joe gave a little snort, suddenly remembering how he would be spending his Saturday. Unhappy, he bemoaned his fate without a thought. “You see, Pa? Everything turned out fine. You oughta be thanking us for cheatin’ instead of making us paint the barn.”

Adam turned his head sharply, his eyes wide, too stunned to speak.

Instantly realizing his mistake, Joe covered his eyes and anxiously peered through his fingers as Hoss came to an abrupt halt.

His fists clenched and his face hard, Hoss whirled around to face his brothers. “So that’s it!” he growled, looking back and forth between them. “That’s why you was paintin’ the barn!”

Shooting his father a quick look, Adam nervously cleared his throat and ran a finger around the inside of his collar.

Ben observed the proceedings, but made no move to intervene, willing to let Hoss blow off a little steam.

Seeing he had no intention of stepping in, at least not yet, Adam drew a deep breath and looked Hoss straight in the eye. “All right, so we cheated,” he admitted, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender, “but just remember this…if we hadn’t…you never would’ve met Lydia.”

The anger on Hoss’s face eased just a bit, but his fists remained clenched, wary of his brother’s silver tongue. If Adam’s got something to say, I’ll listen, but I ain’t gonna be played for no fool!

Seizing the opportunity, Adam spoke in a soft and tender voice, hoping to get his brother’s mind back on more pleasant things. “As it turned out…you met a lovely girl…you laughed and talked and held her in your arms…you strolled under the stars on a beautiful moon lit night…maybe even shared a kiss?”

Hoss responded with a slight blush and nod.

Pleased he’d guessed correctly, Adam smiled warmly. “So, you tell me, is there anything for you to be mad about?”

Not wanting to spoil the mood, Joe lowered his eyes to keep from grinning. Sure hope he goes for it, he thought, as he waited on tenterhooks for Hoss’s reaction. Chancing a look, his nerves quieted. Hoss was wavering.

Despite his resolve, Hoss was transported by Adam’s words. His expression softened and a smile lifted at the corners of his mouth. Adam’s right, there ain’t no reason for me to be mad, not with Lydia turning out to be such a sweet girl. Ready to let them off the hook, his generosity came to an abrupt halt as realization suddenly dawned. With eyes blazing, he tossed his brothers a look that clearly indicated his plans to tear them limb from limb, or at least throw ‘em in the horse trough.

Bewildered, Adam and Joe instinctively shrank back from the sudden burst of anger.

Glowering angrily, Hoss threw an accusing glare at his brothers. “That wasn’t the first time you two cheated, was it?” he asked, his tone low and menacing.

Adam chewed on his bottom lip and looked up through lowered lashes while Joe kept his eyes firmly on his feet and gave a little shrug, their guilt readily apparent.

“I knew it!” Hoss exclaimed. “Dadburn yer ornery hides! I’m gonna wallop yuh good!”

Ben reacted with the quickness of an experienced father. “Now just calm down,” he said to Hoss, putting a firm hand on his chest. “You’re not going to wallop anybody!” He didn’t blame Hoss for being angry; he was angry himself, but he wouldn’t stand for any fists being thrown.

“But Pa! What about all them dirty chores I got stuck with? Diggin’ ditches! Clearin’ water holes! And all that dang blasted housework and kitchen duty!”

“I know, I know,” he said, attempting to calm Hoss, “and I agree, they’ve got a lot to answer for, but not here and not like that, understand?”

Hoss gave a begrudging nod and jammed both hands in his pockets. “Yes sir,” he said, glaring at his brothers.

Ben gave him a gentle pat on the arm. “Don’t worry, son, I’ll see to it your brothers settle the score. From here on out, they’ll get every dirty job that comes along.” His declaration was paired with a pointed glare at Adam and Joe.

Adam gave a rueful look, but wisely kept his mouth shut.

Little Joe, unhappy with his father’s announcement, threw caution to the wind. “What!” he shouted in protest. “Just how many dirty jobs do we—”

“Joseph!” Ben said swiftly cutting him off. “It’s late and I don’t want to hear another word about it, so just get moving.” With a firm look, he pointed a finger in the direction of the horses.

“Fine,” Joe muttered, stalking off, “but what about Bessie Sue, don’t that count for anything?”

Hearing his brother’s mutterings, Hoss caught Little Joe by the arm and pulled him back until their faces were just inches apart. “What about Bessie Sue?” he asked suspiciously.

Joe grinned, eager to get in good with Hoss again. “Well, you see, I remembered what you said about Bessie Sue being such a pest, so I decided to help you,” he said with a wink.

Hoss kept a firm grip on his arm. “Help me? How?”

Joe’s grin grew wider; confident he would be pleased. “I fixed her up with Harv,” he announced. Unfortunately, Hoss didn’t react as expected and Joe’s huge grin evaporated at the sudden scowl appearing on his brother’s face. Uh oh! he thought, swallowing hard.

“Harv!” Hoss fumed, giving Joe a shake. “I shoulda known that weasel would try somethin’ behind my back, but I sure never figured on my own kin helpin’ him!”

Joe tried to pull loose, wanting to put some distance between him and his angry brother, but Hoss had an iron grip. “Now, wait a minute, I thought I was helpin’ you!” Joe squeaked, glancing helplessly at his father.

“For pete’s sake, Hoss, let him go!” Ben commanded. “What’s got into you?”

“Well, dadburnit,” Hoss said, blushing furiously, “Joe ain’t got no call messin’ in my…my…love affairs!”

Joe rubbed his sore arm and glanced at Adam, his know-it-all brother, in annoyance.

Catching his eye, Adam gave a little smile while their father attempted to smooth things over with Hoss.

“You’re right, he doesn’t,” Ben agreed, “but I thought you liked Lydia, so there’s no real harm done, is there?”

“Well, sure I like Lydia. I like her a whole lot, but she ain’t gonna be around for more’n a few weeks.”  And thanks to that pesky Little Joe, I’m gonna have to do some pretty fancy talkin’ to woo Bessie Sue back, dadburnit!

“True, those are her plans right now,” he replied, shrugging, “but you never know….” He smiled and let his voice trail off.

Adam looked at his father in amusement. So that’s it; that’s why Pa’s taken such an interest in Hoss and Lydia. He’s matchmaking again.

Hoss responded with a puzzled frown. “What’re you gettin’ at, Pa?”

“Well, if you and Lydia were to…uh… fall in love…well then she’d naturally stay on.”

“Love!” Hoss exclaimed, looking aghast. “I ain’t lookin’ to fall in love!”

Ben’s eyebrows knit into a frown. “Well, why not?” he asked with a hint of annoyance. “You said yourself she’s a wonderful girl.”

“Yes sir, Lydia’s a real nice gal and I reckon she’ll make somebody a real fine wife, but the fact is, that somebody ain’t gonna be me!” Hoss shook his head vehemently to reinforce his point.

Ben looked at him, flabbergasted. “I should’ve known. The three of you are all alike,” he said glancing from son to son in irritation. “Not one of you has any sense when it comes to women!”

Adam raised an eyebrow and traded a look with his brothers. Like it or not, he had a feeling they were all gonna be in for some unsolicited fatherly advice.

With a shake of his head, Ben pointed a second time to the horses. “All right, let’s just get home, shall we? You two,” he said looking at Adam and Joe, “have a full day’s work ahead of you tomorrow.” He shifted his gaze to Hoss. “And you have a buggy ride to go on, but for the life of me, I’m not sure why.”

“Uh Pa,” Hoss said hesitantly, “this don’t change nothin’ does it? I mean you’re still gonna make them two settle up, aren’t yuh?” Nervously fingering the buttons on his shirt, he gave his father a hopeful look, while Adam and Joe paused, awaiting his answer.

His patience worn thin, Ben briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them, his sons had wisely moved out of reach. Striding over to Buck, he gathered his reins and pulled himself into the saddle, wishing at least one of his sons would wise up. With Adam falling for the wrong women, Little Joe falling for too many women, and Hoss not ready to settle down, I’ll never have any grandchildren!

Risking his father’s wrath, Adam rode up alongside him and grinned. “Uh, Pa, maybe you oughta get a few pointers from Little Joe, he seems to be pretty good at matchmaking.”

Raising an eyebrow, Ben gave him a look designed to intimidate. “Keep up that smart talk, boy, and you’ll find yourself digging a new outhouse.” His tone was gruff, but the twinkle in his eye belied the seriousness of his expression.

Adam chuckled and gave Sport a little kick, knowing full well his father’s amusement didn’t change a thing; he and Joe would be settling the score for months to come.

***The End***

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