The Haircut or a Day in Town (by Becky)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,700


 

It had all started so simply.  His father had made such an ordinary request that morning.  It shouldn’t have been any problem.  It shouldn’t have turned into a disaster.  Adam sighed as he jammed his hat down a little more firmly on his head, slung his packed saddlebags over his shoulder and picked up his bedroll.  He looked around his room one more time, memories almost overcoming him, almost making him change his mind.  It was hard to go, but he couldn’t stay, couldn’t bear to see the expression on his father’s face—

But the clearest memory of all was how it had all begun.  Pa has only himself to blame….


*****


It was that time again, and it looked like it was his turn.  Adam Cartwright dropped his face into his hands with a soft moan, thereby blocking his view of his father at the other end of the breakfast table.  “Does it have to be today?” he muttered.  Does it have to be me? he thought.  “There’s the south range that has to be checked now that all those settlers are going along the Placerville road, and we need to lay in some meat to smoke for the winter, and what about that pasture near Spooner Lake that you wanted checked on—”

“Adam,” his father spoke firmly, “you’re twenty-two; you’re a grown man, now.”

True.

“He’s just a boy.”

Also true.

“It’s just a haircut.”

“Just?”  He glowered at his father from under thunderous black brows.  “Then you won’t mind taking him.”

Ben’s gaze never wavered.  “I have other work to do.”  He thought for a moment.  “Here.  At home.”

“Right.”  Adam sat up, leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his thick raven locks.  “What about Hoss?”

“Hoss is busy today.”  Ben rose, and his voice took on a chiding tone.  “I can’t believe you’re making such a fuss over a little errand.  You’ve been begging for a chance to go into town; now you have it.  All you have to do is get Little Joe’s hair cut.”

“Pa, the last time I took him that mule stampeded right through Mr. Miller’s store.  Remember, you said it was the most expensive haircut anyone in the territory had ever had.”

Ben looked at him askance.  “Little Joe’s hair had nothing to do with that poorly trained animal.”

“You weren’t there,” Adam stated baldly.  “And the time before that, somehow the jail mysteriously caught fire.”

“You know the sheriff decided that was a cigar butt someone hadn’t put out properly.”

Adam didn’t bother to answer, just carefully inspected his spoon.

Ben finally exploded.  “All right, I know he’s a handful.  But surely you can outsmart him . . .”

Adam raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Ben slumped.  “Just . . . do your best.”

*****

What was it about Joe and haircuts? Adam wondered as he drove the small buckboard along the trail, the boy seated next to him.  No other kid in town — heck, no kid he’d ever heard of — had an aversion to being barbered like his youngest brother.  He’d always been a little wiggle-worm, but Adam had found when he’d returned from college this past summer that Joe would rather clean the stalls, the pig-pen and the outhouse than sit in a barber chair for five minutes while someone clipped his curls.

He glanced sideways at the youngster who was chattering happily with no clue of the torture his older brother would inflict on him later today.

Adam removed his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, then resettled the hat more firmly on his head. He ran his fingers thoughtfully over his chin and considered getting a shave.  He didn’t really need one, but maybe if Joe thought that was the reason they were going to the barber, maybe if he saw how relaxing Adam found the experience, maybe if he could convince Joe to just slide onto the chair . . .  He sighed.  Maybe he’d have better luck convincing Hoss to give up his dinner.

It was worth a try, though.  Ben had come up with a list of errands for them to run, including a stop at the mercantile for a new jacket for Joe, so he wouldn’t be suspicious.

“Hey, Joe,” Adam interrupted the steady flow of his brother’s one-sided conversation.

Joe looked up at him and removed his child-sized hat, wiped his forehead, and resettled his hat in perfect imitation of his older brother.

Adam groaned silently.  Why was it every time they had a good day together something would have to ruin it?  “I want to get a shave while we’re in town.”

Joe reached a small hand up to run his fingers lightly over his brother’s jaw.  “Does a beard grow that fast, Adam?  I thought you already shaved this morning.”

Adam’s face dimpled in a smile.  “I did.  But sometimes it’s nice to have someone else do it for you.”  His eyes got dreamy.  “Nice hot towels, thick shaving cream, you just lie back in the chair and relax . . .”

Joe snorted.  “Sounds boring to me.”

“Nope,” Adam disagreed happily.  “It’s a little piece of heaven.”

In spite of himself, Joe looked intrigued.  Adam decided to try sinking the hook in a bit deeper.

“Of course, you’re too little to appreciate—”

“Hey!” was the predictable response.  “Who says I’m too little?”

Adam flicked his own finger over Joe’s child-soft cheek.  “I don’t know.  There might be a little fuzz there . . .”

Joe swiped his brother’s hand away and looked at him suspiciously.

“Nah, not enough to make it worthwhile,” Adam finished.

“There is, too!” argued Joe, rubbing his cheek.

“Nope, I’m going to enjoy this on my own.”

Joe grumbled under his breath while Adam congratulated himself.  He’d given Joe something to occupy his mind — something to try to talk his brother into.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  Hopefully it would keep him from coming up with any other trouble.

*****

Deciding to make a day of it, Adam headed for the livery stable.  He arranged with Tom Wilson for the care of their horses, then looked around for his little brother.  He found him leaning over the edge of Wilson’s water tank, on the verge of falling in.

“That’s for the stock,” Adam commented as he grabbed his brother’s belt just in time and swung him to the ground.  “I don’t think they’d appreciate the taste of Joe-flavored water.”

Joe laughed.  “Hey, Adam, you’re almost as strong as Hoss.”

“Nobody’s as strong as Hoss,” Adam smiled.  Even at fifteen, his middle brother could outwork anyone on the Ponderosa.  He shook his head.  Coming back home from four years at college had been an adjustment in more ways than he’d expected.  “Let’s go get some of this boring stuff done for Pa, then we’ll stop by Sam’s bakery.”

Joe’s eyes grew wide.  “Really?  Can I have one of those chocolate cake things he makes?”

“Ladyfingers,” Adam told him.  “Why do you think I chose it?” he asked.

Joe grabbed his brother’s arm and started dragging him out of the livery.  “C’mon, then, where first?”

“General Store, Post office, feed store, then the lawyer’s—”

Joe groaned, then manfully took a deep breath.  “I can do it, if it means going to Sam’s.”

“Attaboy.”  Adam clapped him on the back.  “Just keep thinking about the ladyfingers.”

They walked side by side down the street, Joe deep in thought.  “Why’d they call ‘em that?”

“Why do you think?”

“Well, they’re long like fingers, but they’re fat and they have chocolate on their ends.  I don’t know no ladies with fingers like that.  Except maybe Mrs. Lewis,” he said thoughtfully.

Adam manfully choked back a laugh at the thought of the big prissy woman who ran the dress shop dipping her fingers in chocolate.  It really wouldn’t do to encourage Joe — uh-oh, too late.  Joe had started with that infectious giggle of his and it would take a stronger man than he to resist.  The two Cartwrights walked side by side to Gordon’s General Store, for once in perfect harmony.

*****

They dropped their shopping list off with Mr. Gordon for later pickup and then retrieved the mail for the ranch, and Adam only had to grab Joe by the collar twice — once to keep him from getting run down by the stage that was coming through on its morning run and the second time when he and the son of another rancher in town for the day almost tipped over a stack of paint tins as they played bank robbers.

Adam let him carry the packet of letters as they headed over to the feed store.  He placed their order for some special grain he and Hoss had talked their father into trying on the horses and arranged to come back and pick it up later that week when it arrived from Sacramento.  He then rescued the pile of mail from a barrel of seed where Joe had dumped it when he saw some brand new puppies trying to escape from the storeroom.

Their first conflict of the day began when Joe asked to stay with the puppies while Adam went to the lawyer’s office.

“But, Adam, I’ll be fine here.  I can stay out of the way, and as soon as you’re finished you just come back and get me.”  It seemed perfectly reasonable to him.

Just about any other child, and it would be a reasonable request.  Even a good idea.  But Adam knew all too well that although Joe had a heart of gold, no one could get into trouble faster and with such good intentions as his little brother.

“Nope, you just come along and be quiet, and I’ll finish as fast as I can.”  He tried to herd Joe out the door, but Joe slipped under his arm and ran back to the storeroom.  “Joe!” Adam called.  “Get back here.”

“Just a minute, I have to make sure they’re all in their box.”

Adam leaned against the doorframe, trying not to tap his foot.  “Now, Joe.”

“Oh, all right.”  He dragged over to his brother.  “But I don’t see why I can’t—”

Adam gave him a friendly swat and guided him out the door.  “Because we’re staying together today, little brother.  Just the two of us.”

Joe perked up.  “That’s right.  Just the two of us.”  And he held himself as tall as he could and stretched his legs to try to match his brother’s long stride.

*****

The meeting dragged on much longer than Adam had anticipated as he found himself embroiled in a discussion over some technical points in the papers he’d come to pick up.  He’d taken a quick look at them, but something didn’t seem quite right and one question led to another.  By the time he’d gotten across to Bill Stewart what his father wanted and asked the lawyer to redo the papers, Joe had obviously run out of patience.  He was no longer seated in the outside office.

Adam groaned.

“It’s not that bad,” said the lawyer.  “Just come by last thing before you leave town, and I’ll have them ready for you.”

“That’s not the problem,” he said, and rubbed his forehead.

Stewart cast a quick look around the office, as well, and smiled sympathetically.  “Your brother.”

“My brother.”

“I wish you luck,” he said, clapping him on the back.

“Thanks.  I’m going to need all I can get.”  He grabbed his hat and the packet of mail and headed out to begin his search.

He didn’t have to look far.  As he suspected, Joe had gone back to Miller’s Feed and Grain to play with the puppies.  Even if he hadn’t thought to look there, he would have suspected his brother’s presence just by the smiling faces leaving the store.  The sound of Joe’s laughter simply confirmed it.  He entered the cool dark building again and leaned against the door of the storeroom, enjoying the sight of his little brother rolling on the floor with little dogs climbing all over him.

Joe looked up with trepidation that quickly turned back to a grin when he saw the smile on his brother’s face.  Adam could be a real stick-in-the-mud sometimes, but when he was feeling playful, Joe loved being with him more than just about anyone.  Joe climbed to his feet and handed one of the puppies to him.

Adam held it close to his chest, and his eyes softened as he stroked the black and tan pup, offering it his complete attention.

Joe looked up at him hopefully.  “Mr. Miller says they’re ready to leave their mama.”

Adam raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, he does, does he?”  He looked back at the pup who was nuzzling at his shirt collar, trying to see if there was anything interesting underneath.

Joe was quick to notice the longing in Adam’s expression.  He looked down at the floor, trying to hide a grin.  “Hoss’ birthday is coming up . . .”  Surely that would be an acceptable reason to take the dog home.

“Oh, I don’t know . . .”

“C’mon, Adam.  It’s the perfect gift for him.  Besides, every boy should have a dog.”  Joe conveniently failed to mention that his middle brother, at almost sixteen, would vehemently deny being a boy.

Adam suddenly remembered a puppy he’d wanted desperately when he and his father were just starting out on their trip west with the wagon train from St. Joseph.  Even at six years of age he’d known better than to ask, but his Pa must have seen something in his expression because he’d put an arm around his shoulders and ever so gently turned him away.

He stroked the pup’s long, soft ears between his fingers and ruthlessly pushed his sensible conscience aside. Hoss wasn’t going to have to grow up without a dog, like he had.  “All right, find out how much Mr. Miller wants for him.”

“Yippee!” yelled Joe.

The pup reached up and licked Adam on the nose, just like he knew he was now part of the family.  “I’m sure I’m going to regret this,” he smiled ruefully.

*****

They left the dog at Mr. Miller’s until they were ready to go home, Adam squelching Joe’s protests by reminding him that Sam wouldn’t let an animal within twenty yards of his bakery.  That made three stops they had to make just before leaving town:  the General Store for their supplies, the lawyer, and now the dog.

As they settled into their chairs in the dining area of the small restaurant, Adam silently congratulated himself on how well the day was going.  No disasters so far.  He sniffed appreciatively at the aromas emanating from the kitchen and smiled when Suzanne brought him a cup of coffee without being asked.  She set a glass of milk in front of Joe, and when he started to protest she silenced him with a quick, whispered, “For dipping the ladyfingers.”

Joe grinned up at her and didn’t even protest when she ruffled his curls, saying, “Such a big strong boy you’re getting to be.”

Adam gazed at his brother thoughtfully, reminded he somehow had to get those curls shortened.  Joe caught his glance and scowled.

“I ain’t gettin’ no haircut,” he stated.

Adam’s heart sank.  “Who said anything about a haircut?”

“I can see what you’re thinking.”

“Oho, so now you’re a mind-reader?”

“Uh-huh.  And I ain’t gonna do it.”

Adam leaned back in his chair and studied his youngest brother.  His fellow classmates back East had sworn that no one was more stubborn than Adam Cartwright, but they’d never met Little Joe.  He tried to remember any instances in Boston where he’d backed down once he’d taken a position.  He chuckled.  It hadn’t happened often.

“Don’t laugh at me,” pouted Joe.

He raised a hand in denial.  “I was laughing at me, not you.”

Joe’s face relaxed and returned to its normal inquisitiveness.  “About what?”

Adam propped his elbows on his table, rested his chin on the backs of his hands and studied Joe.  His brother was distracted for the moment while Suzanne brought over a plate of the delicious little cakes and set them right in front of him.  Adam reached across the table for a couple, setting one on the saucer for his coffee.  He chewed thoughtfully on the other while he wondered if he should really tell his little brother what he was thinking, or if it would just set a bad example.  But the last time he’d rebelled and someone had successfully talked him out of the course he’d decided to take, they’d succeeded only because they’d talked to him with honesty and had used reasoned argument.  He smiled.  Maybe that was the only way to find out what was going on in the imaginative brain that was hiding behind those bright green eyes.  “I was just trying to remember the last time I did something once I’d set my mind against it.”

Joe grinned.  “Oh, I can tell you that.  When Pa told you not to go hunting last week because the fence needed work.”  He reached for another ladyfinger and almost upset his milk, but Adam caught it just in time and moved it a little farther from the edge of the table without comment.

“You’re right,” he laughed.  “But if we don’t count Pa…”

“I can’t believe you’d do anything you didn’t want to,” Joe said with childish envy for his oldest brother’s grownup status.

“Oh, I have, believe me.”

“Like what?”

“Well, going to bed, for one thing.”

“But you go to bed when you want to.  Pa doesn’t tell you.”

Adam sighed.  “I tell myself.  And that’s harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take last night.  I wanted to finish reading a chapter in that new book I have, The Count of Monte Cristo.”  He leaned forward suddenly, and his face came alive as he launched into a description of the story.  “Edmund Dantes was trying to escape from prison in a burial sack.  You see, his friend had just died and he knew the guards would take the body outside to bury it.  He figured he could switch places, and then dig his way out of the grave before he suffocated.  He hid his friend in his bed under his blankets and climbed into the sack and it worked.  The guards took him; but then they tied something heavy around his feet and tossed him in the ocean instead!”

Joe leaned forward onto the table, the last half-eaten ladyfinger forgotten in his hand.  “What happened?  Did he escape?”

Adam sighed in frustration.  “I don’t know.  Right then the clock chimed and reminded me what time it was.  I knew I had to get up this morning, and I couldn’t be all worn out today, so even though I wanted to stay up, I had to send myself to bed.”

Joe’s eyes were round with wonder.  “Wow.  I never thought about it that way.”

“How do you think Pa learned to get things done on time?”

Adam could practically see the thoughts turning in the boy’s head.  He finally looked up.  “His Pa?”

Adam nodded.  “And Captain Stoddard, my grandfather, when he was on board ship.”  He shuddered at the thought of having to work for the Captain.  As his only grandchild, Adam had usually been able to wheedle the old man into approving — or at least ignoring — most of his adventures, but once or twice he’d crossed the line and had found out quickly enough that the old sailing master was no pushover.

“Grandfather’s a tough old man, Joe, and I’d say he’s mellowed since Pa worked for him.  I can’t imagine there was much in the way of slacking off on the ship.  So you see, we all have to do things we don’t want to do.”

“Well, I ain’t gettin’ no haircut,” Joe said, a stubborn glint in his eyes.  He finally remembered the last treat and stuffed it into his mouth, mumbling, “It’ll ruin things.”

Interesting.  That was the first time Joe had given even a hint of a reason for his obstinate attitude.  Adam casually drank some more coffee.  “Ruin things?” he asked quietly, more determined than ever to get at the root of Joe’s haircut problem.

But Joe had turned thoughtful again.  “Do they have books like that here in town?”

“Like what, buddy?” he asked, allowing himself to be temporarily sidetracked.

“Excitin’.  With lots going on.  And heroes and escapes and stuff.”

“Well, I don’t know.” He considered the collection he’d seen at Whittaker’s Mercantile last time he’d been in.  There might be something there to tempt a boy of Joe’s age to read.

Joe stood up, impatient again.  “Let’s get going, Adam.  I want to hurry up so we can go get Samson.”

“Samson?” said Adam, confused.

“The dog, Adam, the dog,” Joe said with disdain for his brother’s defective memory.

“Oh, right,” Adam said.  He got up and tossed some coins on the table.  “Isn’t he a little small for that name?”

“Small don’t mean nothin’,” Joe said.  “Someone can be small and still be brave and strong.”

Adam looked down at his brother thoughtfully, then put an arm around his shoulders.  “They sure can,” he said.  “Samson it is.”

Joe’s words in mind, Adam made their next stop the mercantile.  Mr. Whittaker cringed at the sight of Joe, but his wife simply pushed him out of the way and crossed over to talk to the boy.

“And what can we do for you gents today?” she asked pleasantly.

Adam smiled at her.  “Joe needs a new jacket and a few other things.”

She measured her young customer by eye and nodded. “My, you are growing big and strong, aren’t you?”  She gave his head a quick, fond stroke and turned back to Adam.  “Yes, he’s grown quite a bit since the last time we fitted him.  What kind of jacket were you thinking of?  Church?”

“No!” stated Joe so emphatically that Adam had to hide a grin behind his hand.

“A work jacket, Mrs. Whittaker.”

She held a finger to her lips in thought.  “I think I have just the thing.  Come with me, young man.”

While Adam allowed himself to be distracted by a stack of books, Mrs. Whittaker led Joe to a stack of folded clothing and started to lift several items off of a bit of green fabric.  The boy grabbed at a sleeve and pulled, toppling the entire pile onto the floor.  He held the jacket up to his front and turned to Adam, oblivious of the mess behind him.  “Look, Adam!  Isn’t it great?”

Adam stuck a finger in the book he was reading to mark his place and looked up.  “Yeah, great,” Adam said, shaking his head ruefully.

“What?” Joe asked, all innocence.

Adam twirled his finger in a silent request for him to turn around.

“Oh.  I’m sorry, Mrs. Whittaker, but this jacket is just perfect.”  He looked soulfully up at her.

She was no more immune to that winsome expression than any other woman.  “Oh, no matter, Little Joe; I’ll have it cleaned up in a wink.”

“Joe . . .” Adam said warningly.

A little guilty, Joe started picking the clothes up off the floor.  “No, let me, ma’am.  Adam’s right; it was my fault.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little gentleman!” she exclaimed.

Joe grinned up at her.  “Well, sometimes.”

She ruffled his hair and though he ducked, Adam could see he was pleased at the attention.

Deciding he’d better pay more attention to his little brother, he set the book down and cleared his throat.  “We’ll need a couple of shirts, a pair of pants . . .” he paused thoughtfully.  “Joe, how are your boots doing?”

Joe held a foot up in the air and waggled it, nearly taking out a display of canned tomatoes.  His face knotted in puzzlement, he answered, “These toes are feelin’ a little squished, Adam, but my other foot is fine.”

“That’s how your feet grow, Joe.  One’s always a little bigger than the other.  Let’s see what we can find.”  He started going through a table of boots, but what made his eyes light up weren’t Joe-sized, but a pair of beautifully polished, hand-tooled, black, man-sized boots.  And it looked like they would fit him perfectly.  Oblivious of Joe’s current search for a pair of pants that would go with his new jacket, he sat on a chair conveniently placed for just this purpose and tried the boots on.  He stood, stomped his feet a couple of times and looked up happily just in time to see his little brother disappear under a pile of jeans that was falling from the shelves.

“Joe!” he yelled.

His brother’s curly head appeared and that childish giggle started again.  “You shoulda seen your face, Adam,” he laughed and bounded to his feet.

“It’s Mrs. Whittaker’s face I’m worried about, little buddy,” Adam warned softly.

“Oh.  I did it again, huh?”

“Let’s just get this cleaned up, all right?” Adam answered and started folding the clothes.  Joe tried to help, but Adam had to redo so many of them that, with an exasperated sigh, he sent his little brother to look at the boots.

They managed to buy the clothes, jacket and two pairs of boots — Adam couldn’t resist the black pair — without any more disasters.  He even managed to tuck a lurid dime novel and a small toy into his package while Joe stared hungrily at the candy selection.  He pestered Adam to buy some, “for Hoss,” he said.  Adam cast such a look of mock sorrow at him that Joe giggled and admitted he wanted some for their trip home, too.  When Adam finally gave in, he spent an inordinate amount of time choosing just the right chocolates.  He astounded all the adults by then offering the biggest piece to Mrs. Whittaker with his apologies for the mess he’d made.

They made arrangements to come back later to pick up the clothes — they both wore their new boots, and Joe slid happily into his new jacket — and Adam had to remind himself there were now four stops to make before heading home.

*****

Beginning to wonder if he was going to survive this trip, Adam led the way to the newspaper office where Pa wanted them to place a legal notice.  He’d finally given in to Joe’s repeated requests to retrieve Samson on the way, but had immediate cause to regret it when the pup got loose from Joe at the paper, and in the process of chasing it, managed to knock over one of the carefully sorted trays of type.

Adam tried to insist — with a glare at his young brother — that he and Joe would pick them up, but the typesetter shooed them outside with more haste than grace.  At Adam’s insistence, Joe sadly took the pup back to the Feed and Grain to pick up later.  They stood on the boardwalk outside, Joe drooping and despondent while Adam rubbed his forehead.  He could feel a pain starting right behind his eyes.

Joe looked up at him with sly sympathy.  “Do you need some coffee, Adam?” he asked, oh, so innocently.

More like a powder from Doc Martin’s, he thought to himself, and grimaced at the thought of the abuse he’d take from his brother if they stepped anywhere near the doctor’s house.  Taking Joe to see Paul Martin was almost as bad as trying to get his hair cut.  Almost.  “Yeah,” Adam smiled, knowing what his brother was up to.  “Maybe a trip to Mrs. Volking’s restaurant for lunch—”

He smiled when Joe interrupted him with a whoop.  “Can we have some pie, too?  She makes the best pie, that yellow one with the white stuff on top, can we have some of that, too, Adam, can we, please?”

Adam ruffled his little brother’s curls, earning a brief scowl before the boy remembered he was trying to talk him into something.  Adam laughed; Joe’s thoughts were as clear on his face as if they were printed on a broadside.  “Yes, if you eat enough lunch, you can have pie, too.”

He strode down the boardwalk, Joe almost dancing in circles around him.  “How much is enough, Adam?  Two bites of everything?  Three?  Not four, not if she has sauerkraut this time.  I don’t like sauerkraut, even if you pile mashed potatoes all over it and pour gravy on it, it still tastes awful.  How can anyone eat that stuff?  Did you ever have it when you were a kid?”

“Only once, when some German folks put us up overnight while we were traveling west,” Adam answered, almost breathless himself from the barrage of Joe’s questions.  He held the door to the restaurant for Joe and smiled at Gerda, daughter of the German family who ran the restaurant.  She waved the Cartwrights to a table by the window, and Adam made sure Joe sat in the chair furthest from any other customers.  He congratulated himself on remembering that when his little brother was as happy and enthusiastic as he was now, somehow bits of his food managed to end up on anyone sitting near.

“Did you eat it?” Joe asked, wrinkling his nose.

Adam flicked his brother under the chin.  “Yes, I did, and I was glad to have it.  It’s amazing how good something can taste when you’re hungry.”

Joe’s eyes got as round as saucers.  “Gee, Adam, you musta not eaten for days!”

*****

They emerged from Mrs. Volking’s restaurant relatively unscathed — Adam ignored the remains of the whipped topping that had adorned the front of his shirt; only the baptism of strangers counted — and set out on the next errand, Hop Sing’s shorter shopping list.  The long list had been given by Mr. Gordon at the General Store to his stockroom assistant, Zeb Robertson, a huge man with a long mane of curly blonde hair that made him look like he’d just come down from the mountains.  Zeb would pile their big items to one side of the stockroom, ready to be loaded when they came by with the wagon on their way home.  Joe loved to watch the big man as he loaded the huge sacks of grain, his eyes wide with awe as the huge biceps flexed.

But first, they had to take care of Hop Sing’s shorter list, which was unreadable, even by the highly educated Adam Cartwright, because it was in Chinese.

Chinatown was one of Little Joe’s favorite places to visit.  He understood a few words here and there, but mostly he was fascinated by the different smells and just the general look of everything in this small community.  He practically dragged his older brother to Li Chang’s little shop, knowing that Hop Sing preferred the old man’s herbs to anyone else’s.

The Oriental greeted them with a short bow and words of welcome, which both Cartwrights returned, their bow calculated to just the right degree, thanks to Hop Sing’s coaching.  The old man’s eyes lit up at their courtesy.  “And how can Li Chang help honorable Cartwrights today?” he asked.

Adam pulled the list from his pocket, but it was Joe who spoke first.  “Hop Sing asked us to get these things for him so’s he could make a good dinner for Hoss,” he said importantly.

Li Chang took the list from Adam and perused it thoughtfully.

“Do you understand what he wants?” asked Joe, worried.  “I tried to read it, but I couldn’t find any words.  I can read, you know.  I’m learning in school.”

“Yes, little one, Li Chang can read exactly what Hop Sing need.”  He showed the list to the boy.  “You cannot read list because it written in Chinese.  You see this drawing?”

Adam had been standing back, watching his little brother charm the old man, but at this he stepped forward to see where Li Chang was pointing.

“Uh-huh,” replied Joe.  “It looks like a house.”

Li Chang smiled and took a small bottle full of dried leaves from his shelf.  “It is symbol for fo-ti-tieng.  Give you long life.”  He looked at Adam with a gleam in his eye and winked, ever so slightly.  “Make you very strong.”

Adam raised an eyebrow at him and regarded the bottle with renewed interest.

Joe looked at the paper, then the label on the bottle.  He looked at the old man for permission, then took the bottle and carefully studied what he thought of as the picture on it, comparing the sweeping strokes with the picture on their cook’s list.  While Li Chang started to pull small bottles and packets from his shelves, Joe showed it to Adam and spoke slowly, cautiously.  “They don’t look exactly the same.”

“Well, buddy, your writing doesn’t look just like mine, either.”

“That’s ‘cause I’m still learning,” Joe answered.

“How about mine and Pa’s?”

“Yeah, I can read yours, but I can’t always read Pa’s.”

Adam smiled.  “Maybe that’s because he didn’t have Mr. Talbot for a teacher.”

Joe handed the bottle to him and asked, “Did he make you write your letters over and over and over ‘til they were perfect?”

“Well,” and Adam scratched at the back of his head in thought, “I’d already learned my letters by that time, but I had to write a few reports over again because he said he couldn’t read them.  I learned pretty quick to be more careful.  And it was a good thing I did, because the professors in Boston were even pickier.”  He shuddered a bit theatrically.  “I sure didn’t want to rewrite any of those reports — they could be as much as fifty pages long.”

“Gee!” Joe stared at him in awe.  “And here I thought you were having fun all that time.”

Adam laughed and ruffled his little brother’s hair.  “I had some fun, sure, but it was a lot of schoolwork, too.”

The boy looked down at his feet and rubbed a hand along the side of his jeans. “Was it worth it?” he asked in a small voice.

Adam’s brows drew together in concern, and he crouched down so he could see Joe’s eyes.  “Worth what, little buddy?”

Joe turned his gaze aside.  “Leavin’ us.”  His soft voice was filled with longing.

Adam sighed. “C’mere.”  He drew the boy into his arms, gently brushing the long curls away from his face.  He chose not to answer the question Joe had asked, but rather the one in his heart, the one that shone with pain from the boy’s sparkling emerald eyes.  “If I could have learned what I needed by staying here, nothing would have dragged me away from you, Joe.  If even St. Louis or San Francisco had what I needed, I never would have gone that far.  There just wasn’t any other way.  I missed you so much, little buddy, sometimes I thought my heart would break.”

Tears shimmered on the boy’s lashes.  “You never said that when you wrote.”

“Maybe I should have,” he answered carefully.  “I just didn’t want to make you as sad as I was.  I wanted you to be happy when you got my letters, like I was when I got one from you.”

“Did they?  My letters — did they make you happy, I mean?”

He drew his little brother in close, wrapped him in his arms and tucked the curly head under his chin. His words were just a breath of sorrowful air.  “Oh, Joe, sometimes they were the only thing that kept me going.  I remember one you wrote, when you said you were proud of me for all the things I was learning. I don’t know how you knew I needed to hear that. School was really hard and I was missing you and Pa and Hoss so much — I didn’t have much longer before I could come home, and I could barely stand it.  Reading those words from you, though, that my youngest brother was proud of me . . . well, it gave me the strength to keep going.”  He grinned suddenly and pushed Joe away just a bit so he could look at him. “Kinda like cheering me on at the end of a race.”

“Yeah?” The corner of Joe’s mouth lifted in a small smile.

“Yeah,” Adam said definitely. He waited patiently, though, since Joe didn’t move from the circle of his arms, but lifted a small hand tentatively to touch his hair.

“How come you keep your hair so short?” Joe asked finally.

Adam blinked in surprise.  That wasn’t what he expected to hear.  “It’s easier to take care of that way.”

Joe tilted his head to the side thoughtfully.  “An’ you don’t feel bad when you get it cut?”

It was an odd sort of question, but taking advantage of the moment, Adam answered emphatically, “Nope.  In fact, I feel better.  Especially if I have a shave at the same time.  Then I feel happier, cleaner, stronger — like I could take on the world.”  A slight exaggeration, he thought, but all in a good cause.

Joe twisted out of his brother’s arms, his mood swinging suddenly to exuberant.  “Let’s go see if Mr. Robertson is ready to load our supplies.”

The way his little brother could change subjects would have kept the brightest of his professors hopping.  “All right.”  He stood.  “Li Chang?  Have you had time to finish?”

The old man shuffled forward, basket in hand.  “Hop Sing return basket next time he visit.”

Adam pulled out his wallet and handed over the amount Hop Sing had told him.  “Is that enough?”

Li Chang bowed.  “Yes.  If you would be so kind, please tell Hop Sing I look forward to seeing him again.”

Adam bowed in return, Joe just a moment behind. “I’ll make sure he has time to spend with you.”

They left, all three pleased with their visit, though for vastly different reasons.  Li Chang reflected on the courtesy of the Cartwrights to his people, as well as the pleasant feeling of tucking their money into his coffers.  Adam was glad he’d had a chance to ease a worry that he hadn’t known his little brother had.  And Joe — well, Adam would find out soon enough what had made Little Joe Cartwright so happy.

*****

As they approached the General Store, Adam could see Zeb Robertson heaving what looked to be the last of their barrels, sacks and parcels into the alley.  The big man stretched upward and rolled his shoulders, loosening his muscles.

“Adam, Little Joe,” he called out enthusiastically.  “I got it all ready for you.”

“We’ll go get the wagon, then, and be right back.”

Joe tugged at his brother’s arm.  “Can I stay here with Mr. Robertson?  I’ll be good, honest.”

“I don’t think so, Joe.  Mr. Robertson has work to do.”

Zeb lumbered over to them and hunkered down in front of the boy.  “Come to think of it, Adam, I’m ‘bout due for a little rest and ree-laxation.  Maybe Joe, here, could keep me company for a bit.”

“Well—”

“Oh, please?”  Joe turned his most winsome look on his brother.

Adam rolled his eyes.  He was probably going to regret this, but he was as susceptible to that look as anyone else.  The only difference between himself and the rest of the world was that he knew it.  He sighed. Surely with Zeb Robertson right here the boy wouldn’t get into any trouble.  “All right, but you stay right here, and don’t do anything you know you shouldn’t.”

Joe leaped up onto the boardwalk, his face alive with happiness. “I won’t, Adam, I promise.”

And, indeed, when Adam returned with the buckboard, the two of them were still sitting quietly on the bench in front of the store.  Trying not to be obvious about it, he looked carefully around the building for any sign of disaster, but everything appeared to be in fine shape.  No fires, no rampaging mules, no broken windows or hysterical females, and the supplies were still neatly stacked by the wall of the store . . . he was instantly suspicious. “Is everything all right?” he asked cautiously as he climbed down from the seat.

Zeb rose, a veritable mountain next to the slim boy.  He dropped his hand heavily on Joe’s shoulder and patted it awkwardly.  “All’s fine.  We been having a good talk, is all.”

Adam raised an eyebrow in disbelief.  “Are you sure this is my brother you’re talking about?”

Joe giggled, an infectious sound that had both men grinning.  “I was good, Adam, just like I said.  Right, Mr. Robertson?”

Zeb ruffled his hair, running his hand through the curls almost tenderly.  “You were just about an angel, Little Joe.  Yes, indeed, just about.  Now, let’s get them supplies all loaded up an’ get your brother over to the barber for his shave.”

“Yes, sir!”  Joe jumped off the boardwalk, then, as he’d been taught, walked calmly to the horses’ heads to lead them back into the alley.  He’d stay at their heads while the supplies were loaded so that nothing would startle them.

Adam shook his head in wonder as they headed for the first of the cornmeal barrels.  “You must have some kind of magic touch, Zeb.  You kept him sitting quietly for almost twenty minutes.”

Zeb ducked his head.  “Tweren’t nothin’.  He’s a good boy.  Just got a head full of questions, is all.  Good questions, too.”

“Yeah?”  He jumped up into the bed of the wagon, ready to arrange the barrels and bags Zeb started lifting up.

But Zeb just shook his head, and Adam left the subject alone.  Whatever had passed between the big man and his brother would stay between them.  Adam knew Zeb wasn’t one to fill a boy’s head with nonsense, so he was content to leave it alone.

Besides, they had a number of places to stop before they could head home, and with each of Joe’s escapades today, the thought of that shave had moved steadily from the realm of good tactics to practically a necessity.  They finished quickly, and with a quick goodbye wave, were headed out of the alley and down the street.

Adam maneuvered the team expertly around the other wagons, carriages, horses and mules that thronged the streets of Virginia City every day, finally pulling up in front of the barbershop.  Here we go, he thought.

He didn’t have to feign enthusiasm; he really did enjoy the luxury of warm towels, thick shaving cream, and the general feeling of letting someone else tidy him up once in a while.

“Can’t I stay here with the horses?” was Joe’s first sally.

There was only one answer that would do any good.  Cheerfully, he said simply, “Nope,” and wrapped the reins around the brake handle.

“I can watch over them good.”

“Nope.”  He hopped down to the street.

“I could go get the papers from Mr. Stewart,” he suggested next.

“Nope.”

“Maybe go get them clothes from Mrs. Whittaker?”

“Nope.” He leaned casually against the seat as he waited to see what his little brother would come up with next.

“You know, Samson’s probably really missing us.”

That earned a snort of laughter.  “Nope.”

“Aw, Adam!”

“C’mon, boy, let’s just get this over with.”  He lifted his brother bodily from the wagon and swung him directly onto the boardwalk in front of the barbershop.

Joe scowled.  “I don’t wanna.”

As masterfully as a prime cutting horse, Adam guided him through the door.  Once in, he placed an arm around the boy’s shoulder, though their father would have seen in an instant that the gesture was more than just brotherly affection.

The room contained two large comfortable barber chairs, one in use by an anonymous toweled customer, and the other empty.

“Will?” he called.

“Be right there,” a voice came from the back room.  “That you, Adam?”

“Sure is,” Adam called back.

The barber came out of the back room, his cheerful round face drooping comically at the sight of Adam’s companion.  He forced the smile back and asked hopefully, “Need a trim and a shave, Adam?”

The corner of Adam’s mouth lifted in an amused grin.  The man’s thoughts were plastered all across his face.  “Actually, I do, but we need to do something about this riverboat gambler, too.”

Will O’Connell sighed.  “I only have the one chair right now,” he said hopefully.

Adam turned to Joe.  “If you promise to sit in the chair quietly when your time comes, and if you promise to let Will trim — and please notice I said trim — those wild curls of yours, then you can go out to the wagon and get the surprise I bought for you.”  He almost laughed out loud at the struggle between pleasure and suspicion that was so evident on the boy’s face.

Joe finally scowled up at him.  “Is it a good surprise?”

Then Adam did chuckle.  “I think you’ll like it.  And you can have a few of those candies while you wait for me to get my shave.”

*****

Joe put off returning to the barbershop as long as he dared.  The new soldier that matched his set at home was a perfect excuse, finding the buckboard a field of battle worthy of the finest general.  The small metal man hid behind the barrel of molasses, leaped out at the imaginary enemy scout that dared to cross the vast expanse of the crate of nails, and nearly fell to his death after traversing the narrow ridge of the buckboard wall.  He survived it all, and Joe finally faced the fact that he, like his brave soldier, had to face the inevitable.  In his case, the barber’s chair.

He sighed heavily and trudged back to his brother.  Instead of the pleased “welcome back, little buddy” he expected, though, he was greeted by a soft snore.  The room was empty, aside of his brother, who was stretched out in one of the chairs, a towel wrapped around his face like a turban of one of those Arabian knights he liked to read about — except this turban had slipped smack down over his nose.  Joe suppressed a giggle and tiptoed the few steps to his brother’s side.

Yep, Adam was asleep.  Joe knew that rhythm of soft breaths intimately; he’d missed it desperately the first year Adam was gone, and it had faded in his memory until the first night of his brother’s return.  He’d woken in the night, suddenly unsure that his big brother was really back, and scrambled from his bed to run with little bare-feet slaps on the wooden floor to Adam’s room.  He’d pushed the door open slowly, afraid he’d dreamed their hesitant reunion, but no, Adam was asleep in his bed.  A bigger Adam, with a bigger voice, and a scratchy face and longer hair than he’d ever remembered his father allowing.  He stood by the bed for a long moment, knowing this . . . man . . . was his brother, but afraid somehow that he wasn’t.

Then he heard the soft sigh of Adam’s breath, in and out, regular like the sun rising and falling, like it would always be there, always had been there, and he knew this was his Adam, his big brother, returned to him at last.  And with a happy sigh of his own, he climbed up into the bed, snuggled under the covers, and with his brother’s sleepy arms and steady breathing surrounding him, he fell into warm slumber.

Joe looked at the soldier in his hand.  He knew Adam had bought the little man as a gesture of apology for the haircut and for that he treasured it, but he also knew that it was only a mark of the love his tall, strong brother had for him.

He cocked his head to the side.  Adam was strong, even if he wasn’t as big as Mr. Robertson.  He’d come home from college that way, his black hair curling over his collar and even, once or twice, falling into his eyes.  Joe had caught the rueful smile that passed between Adam and their father, the silent request and equally silent acknowledgment.  Soon as I get a chance, Adam’s eyes had answered.  And he had.  Several times since he’d been home.  And yet he still caught the barrels and crates Mr. Robertson had tossed up to him as he stood in the bed of the buckboard, as if his young strength could match the big man all day.

Am I wrong? he asked the little soldier silently.  Reverend Morris told us . . .  But Mr. Robertson seemed to think he didn’t have to worry.  He’d said Joe might not grow to be as big as he was, but he’d find his own strength.  It just took time.

He studied his brother carefully.  The barber hadn’t started on Adam’s hair yet, and a few errant locks lay in disorder against the headrest.  Maybe if he could keep a curl of it in his pocket, it wouldn’t matter how short his own hair was; he’d carry his brother’s strength with him until his own hair grew back.

He glanced quickly around the shop and spied a pair of scissors.  Adam would never know, and Mr. O’Connell, even if he said something, would probably just even it out rather than showing it to his brother.  Joe picked up the scissors and snipped them once or twice experimentally, took a carefully silent, deep breath, and stepped to his brother’s side.

*****

“Mmmmm . . . Adam?”

Will O’Connell’s voice had a funny timbre to it that brought Adam up from the soft depths of sleep in an instant.  His eyes flew open and he looked wildly around the barbershop.  “Where’s Joe?” he demanded, worry harshening his tone.

“Uh, when I finished cutting his hair, he said he was headed back to the feed store to see to that pup.”

Adam grinned with satisfaction.  He’d accomplished the impossible, and for the simple cost of a little meringue on his shirt and a few pennies for a toy soldier.  But something was bothering the barber.  “I’m sorry, Will; didn’t mean to take your chair for so long.”  He started to rise, but was held down by a steady pressure on his shoulder.

“Oh, not a problem, Adam; not a problem at all.  You just stay right there.”  Will scratched at his head and didn’t look any happier.

“Look, we can skip the haircut if you have people waiting.”

Will shook his head almost violently.  “No!  Umm, no, that’s not necessary.  Ain’t no one can’t wait a few more minutes.”

Adam focused sharply on the barber.  “What aren’t you telling me, Will?”

Will O’Connell had the hangdog look of a man headed up a scaffold, but, brave westerner that he was, he slowly brought forth a mirror anyway.

*****

“Don’t . . . say a word.”  Adam’s jaw was clenched hard enough to hurt — Joe could see the muscles bunching and releasing as his brother fought to control his temper.  Joe didn’t blame him.  Of all the stupid, hare-brained stunts he’d ever pulled—

You mean ‘hair-brained’. He smothered a giggle. Don’t laugh, he cautioned himself.  Just don’t laugh, and you might make it home without getting murdered.  Or getting his britches warmed, which would be worse.  Adam’s hand, he’d discovered since his brother’s return, could be heavier than their father’s.  His voice had gotten as loud, too.  No, louder.  Joe was truly impressed; he’d heard his name three stores away . . . as had the rest of the town.  He winced in memory.

He glanced sideways at his brother, keeping his head down so Adam wouldn’t know he was looking.  It wasn’t too bad — not as long as he kept his hat on, anyway.  Which he’d pretty much managed to do from the stop at the lawyer’s through picking up the dog at the Feed & Grain, but it’d been a close run thing at the mercantile. Adam had instinctively reached for his hat when Mrs. Whittaker came out of the back room, but he’d frozen just in the act of lifting it.  Joe called out and managed to distract her, but his big brother wasn’t ready to be grateful.

They bounced along the road to the foot of the last big hill, and Adam pulled to the side to give the horses a rest.  Without a word, he jumped to the ground and checked the puppy in its crate, then started going over the horses’ harness to make sure nothing had shifted.

Joe sighed heavily.  He hadn’t meant to hurt Adam’s feelings, hadn’t meant to embarrass him.  He reached into his pocket and surreptitiously pulled out a twist of paper.  He opened it just a little, just enough to see the dark curl.  He stroked it with one finger, hoping it was worth all the pain.  He sighed once more, a sound that seemed to come from his boots, and had just started to close the paper again when Adam grabbed his wrist.

“What is that?” His voice was as hard as his grip.

“Nothin’.”  Joe pulled and, to his surprise, got free.  Maybe it really works…  He tried to stuff it back into his pocket, but Adam was too fast and grabbed it from his hand.  Well, it made sense that Adam’s hair couldn’t fight back against Adam.

“If you’ve gone and gotten something from the store and put it on Pa’s bill without—”  He stopped, and in a heartbeat his face changed from angry to bewildered.  “What?”

Joe could feel the heat rise in his face and shifted restlessly on the hard bench.  Since Adam was on the ground, Joe was actually looking down at him, and it gave him a little more courage.  “It’s . . .”  He swallowed.  “It’s a piece o’ your hair.”

Adam scowled up at him.  “I can see that.  What I want to know is why you have it.   Why you . . . .”   He shook his head.  “Joe . . . why?”

The soft confusion reached into Joe’s heart and twisted, and he rubbed at his eyes to keep the tears away.  “I just . . . I just wanted . . . .”

“You wanted a lock of big brother’s hair?” Adam asked.

Joe looked at his brother and saw that his eyes had gentled.  In spite of his eye-rubbing, tears slid down his face, and when Adam reached out for him, he launched himself into his arms.  “I just wanted to be strong,” he cried, the precious paper clutched in his fist.  “Reverend Morris . . . he told this story . . . an’ I’m puny . . . I didn’t grow enough while you were gone . . . an’ Samson had hair . . . an’ when they cut it . . . an’ I thought if you got your hair cut an’ you were still strong, then maybe if I had some of it—”

“Ah,” Adam’s voice rumbled in his ear.  “I begin to see.”

Joe felt his brother’s big hand stroking his back, and his breaths broke into heaving sobs.  He could barely get the rest of the words out.  “I’m sorry,” he choked out.

“Shh, it’ll be all right.”  He tucked Joe’s head under his chin, nestled him against his chest.  “No wonder you never wanted your hair cut, little buddy.”

At the familiar name, Joe cried harder.  “Don’t . . . wanna be . . . l-little,” he hiccupped.

Adam lowered him to the ground, but didn’t let go, kneeling next to him with his arm still securely around his shoulders.  He dabbed at Joe’s tears with a cloth he’d pulled from somewhere, the soft linen comforting on his cheeks.  Joe made a heroic effort to pull himself back under control, but occasional hiccupping breaths betrayed him.

“Joe, listen to me.”

Joe nodded; his throat was too tight to answer.

“Everyone is little while they’re still young.”

Joe shook his head.

“Sure they are.  I wasn’t much bigger than you when I was your age.”  Adam dabbed again at Joe’s cheeks.  “I wasn’t strong like I am now, either.”

Joe looked at his big brother.  That wasn’t possible.  Adam had always been big and strong.  So had Pa.  And . . . “Hoss—”

Adam laughed gently.  “He was bigger than either of us when he was your age, but he was small and puny, too, when he was young.”

“How young?” Joe sniffed.

Adam looked up at the sky in that way he had when he was thinking hard, like the sun or the stars would answer back to him if he just wished hard enough.  Joe knew that didn’t work — he’d tried it while his brother was gone — but darned if Adam didn’t come up with an answer anyway. “Well, he was small enough for me to hold in my arms when he was a baby, and I was smaller than you, then.”  A small dimple appeared as he smiled.  “And there was a time when I could beat him in a tug-of-war, too.”

Upset forgotten, Joe frowned skeptically.  “Nobody could never beat Hoss in tug-o’-war.”

Adam laughed.  “Oh, yes, I could, but it’s been a long time.  Hoss got his strength early.  I was a bit older when I got mine.”

Joe looked down at the ground and scuffed at a rock with his toe.  “Adam?” he asked, but then couldn’t go on.  He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to hear the answer.

Adam raised his chin so they could look eye to eye.  “Go ahead, little buddy.  You can ask me anything.”

“When am I gonna get my strength?”

Adam sighed.  “I don’t know.  Slim as you are, it might not be ‘til you’re as much as sixteen or seventeen.”

A soft cry escaped before he could grab it back.  Sixteen or seventeen?

But Adam wasn’t finished.  “You might get a different kind of strength, though.”

“Different?”

Adam nodded.  He ran his hands up and down Joe’s arms, studied his build carefully.  “You’re always going to be slim, Joe, and I won’t lie to you, you’ll probably always be the smallest of the four of us.”

Joe couldn’t bear it — never be strong like his brothers and father?

“That doesn’t mean you won’t be strong enough.”

“Huh?”

“You like horses, right?”

Joe looked at the two chestnuts that were harnessed to the wagon; thought about his pony, and the horse he dreamed he’d own when he got big enough.  He nodded.

“Listen,” Adam said, “a slim young man can ride horses someone like Hoss and me can’t handle.  Hoss is always going to have to be careful what horse he rides so he doesn’t break it down.”  He rose to his feet and stood next to Joe, hands resting on his little brother’s shoulders.  “You’re going to be able to ride anything, boy.  You’re going to be strong like the willow tree that bends in the wind.  When you grow a bit more, you’ll be a willow branch on every bronc — no matter which way he jumps or twists, you’ll be right there with him.  And when he’s decided to let you be in charge, you’ll feel every move he makes, you’ll talk to him with your legs, your seat, your whole body.”

Joe felt hope rise in his heart.  If he could ride like that, well, maybe being small wasn’t such a bad thing at all.  “I’ll be strong enough?”

Adam nodded.  “Yes, that’s exactly it.  You’ll be strong enough.”

Joe reached into his pocket, took out the cherished paper and held it out to his brother.  “You want this back?”  He held his breath.  He guessed he was really too grown up to believe in the power of long hair, but somehow he didn’t want to let that lock go.

“Would you like to keep it?  A remembrance of today?”

Joe felt a comforting warm grow inside.  Adam understood.  This big, strong man really understood a boy’s heart.

“All right, then; tuck it away.”

Joe grinned.  “Right next to my new soldier.”

Adam laughed and ruffled Joe’s curls.  “I’m honored.  C’mon, little buddy, let’s get home.”

*****

Adam Cartwright slipped out of the door to his bedroom and down the steps to the great room, with sure skill avoiding the steps that squeaked, but he was too late.  His father was coming out of the kitchen, coffee in hand, one eyebrow raised up in surprise. “Where are you going?  It’s only an hour ‘til dinner.  And why are you wearing your hat in the house?  I thought I taught you better than that.”

Adam ignored the second question in favor of the easier first.  “I’m headed out to have a good look at the Spooner Lake pasture and the south range, like we talked about this morning, and I’ll check the line shacks, then do a little hunting.  It’ll take me a week and a half, maybe two weeks.”

Ben set his cup down on the table with a hard clink and stared at his eldest.  “That all needs to be done, but not right away.  Hop Sing is making roast pork.”

His stomach grumbled in protest and he almost gave up his plans, but his first move, to remove his hat, halted him in his tracks. “Uh, no, that’s all right.  I’ll just get going now — be most of the way to the lake by dark.”

“Adam,” Ben chided, “I appreciate your dedication, but you can leave tomorrow.  I know you like to have some time to yourself, I appreciate that, but at least stay and have dinner with us.”

He shifted the saddlebags on his shoulder, hoping this wouldn’t escalate into a battle.  “Thanks, Pa, but I have enough supplies, and I want to get an early start.”

“Early!”  Ben was about to say more when Joe’s voice interrupted.

“Pa, he wants to go.”

Ben turned to his youngest, who’d followed him from the kitchen.  “Joseph, this is between your brother and me.”

Hoss came downstairs at that moment and grabbed up an apple from the coffee table.  “Hey, Adam, it’s dinnertime; where you goin’?”

“Nowhere, tonight,” Ben growled.

Hoss turned to his father.  “Sure looks like he’s goin’ someplace, Pa.”

Joe tugged on his father’s arm.  “He’s gotta go, Pa; let him, please?”

Adam took advantage of the distraction and grabbed his holster from the sideboard by the door.  He didn’t bother to put it on; just slung it over his shoulder as well and grabbed the door.

“Adam!” Ben called, rounding the corner from the dining room and towing Little Joe, who had a death grip on his arm.

“Let him go, Pa,” Joe insisted.

“I’ll stop by in a few days, Pa, or else send word where I am.”  He slipped through the door, grateful that his father was occupied with Joe, and grateful, as well, to his little brother.  Then he was out the door.

He heard it open again behind him, but then a sudden gust of wind kicked up and grabbed at his hat.  Laden by his equipment, he wasn’t fast enough and it blew to the ground.  He dropped his bedroll to scoop it up and seated it even more firmly, but, face flaming, realized he hadn’t been quick enough.  The voices on the porch had stopped abruptly

He hurried across the yard to the barn, muttering about mis-educated young boys who just couldn’t quite get Bible stories right.  He froze when a burst of laughter rang out, then straightened and, with every ounce of dignity he could muster, headed for the barn.

His only consolation came as he passed through the door — oh, yes, that long, stretched out “Jo-seph?”  He knew the sound well.  And with a smile that recognized that his little brother would have a few bad moments but also would, eventually, be able to explain, he headed out for the mountains and two peaceful weeks — bald but peaceful — on his own.

***The End***

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