Summary: A simple errand . . . what could go wrong?
Word Count: 6479
Adam sat on the low table in the center of the room, facing the cold fireplace, his chin on his hands, his face grim.
In front of him, his younger brother paced back and forth. “Oh, boy…… Oh, boy. This isn’t good, Adam.” Little Joe stopped his nervous pacing to turn apprehensive eyes toward his brother.
“Just quiet down and let me think Joe,” Adam responded impatiently. He chewed on a finger, his own anxiety heightened by his brother’s agitation.
“But what are we gonna tell, Pa?” Joe began to pace once again.
Adam opened his mouth to respond then shut it. The truth was he didn’t know what they were going to tell Pa.
It had seemed simple enough at the time. Pa had asked them to stop by Widow Hammburg’s and deliver a package on their way into town, that’s all they had to do. Adam wasn’t exactly sure how it had gone so wrong.
The Hammburg place was typical of most homesteads in Nevada. It had the usual two-story clapboard farmhouse — this one painted white with red shutters — an even larger barn, chicken coop, corrals, and other outbuildings. A large porch wrapped around two sides of the house, and rose bushes graced the front and climbed up the posts on either side of the front steps. They were Widow Hammburg’s pride and joy, those rose bushes, and she provided flowers for all the hotels, restaurants and fancy mansions in town, as well as for special occasions such as wedding, funerals and holidays. Widow Hammburg and her roses were synonymous.
The rose bushes were in full bloom this fine morning as Adam and Joe rode into the Hammburg farmyard. They dismounted, tied the horses to the hitching post and Joe reached for the package they had to deliver. Together they started up the front steps, but Adam paused to take in the loveliness of the roses, breathing deeply of their fragrance. He liked roses, though he wouldn’t have admitted it to his brothers. Their classic beauty and heady scent reminded him of a fine oil painting or a classical symphony; they seemed to belong to the refined part of life. Even here in this homely setting, their velvety splendor added a touch of elegance that made the old farmhouse beautiful.
Little Joe stopped to look back when he realized Adam wasn’t next to him. He gave Adam a quizzical look, but Adam simply smiled and bounded up the steps to stand next to him. No, his admiration for the rose wasn’t something he cared to share with his brothers.
Elvira Hammburg answered Joe’s knock. The sprightly widow was around fifty with white hair tucked into a neat bun at the back of her head. Her plump figure, dressed in blue flowered calico and wrapped with an abundant white apron, made her look grandmotherly, though she had no children of her own. She smiled and her face lit up when she saw who her visitors were.
The Hammburgs and the Cartwrights had been good friends for years and Adam and Joe both had fond memories of the widow’s warm cookies and cold milk. Jonas Hammburg had passed on several years ago, but Mrs. Hammburg had continued right on supplying milk, fresh vegetables and, of course, the roses to the citizens of Virginia City and Gold Hill.
“Adam, Joe!” she exclaimed warmly, “what a lovely surprise! Please, come in, come in,” she said, opening the door wide for them.
Adam smiled fondly at her. “No, thank you, Mrs. Hammburg; we just stopped by to deliver this package for Pa.” He nodded to the tidy, twine-wrapped package in Joe’s hands.
Joe held the package out to her. “Here you are, Mrs. Hammburg.” He smiled charmingly at her. “All in one piece.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said taking the package. “Your pa did say he was sending over some periodicals for me to read. It’s so sweet of him.” Mrs. Hammburg beamed on the men. “But really you must come in and set awhile.”
Adam started to protest again, but Mrs. Hammburg held up her hand. “Now, Adam Cartwright, I won’t take no for an answer! You haven’t visited me for an age, and besides my niece is here from Sacramento and you really must meet her.”
At the mention of the niece, Joe’s face brightened in interest, and he jumped in before Adam could refuse again. “Well, Mrs. Hammburg, we certainly couldn’t be rude and not meet your niece.”
Mrs. Hammburg chuckled and laid a hand on Joe’s cheek. “Oh, you are a sweet boy, Little Joe!”
“Joe, we really need to be getting into town,” Adam reminded him. “Perhaps we can meet your niece some other time.” He smiled politely and tried again to excuse themselves to Mrs. Hammburg.
“We got plenty of time, older brother.” With a grin, Joe followed Mrs. Hammburg into the farmhouse. Adam could only roll his eyes and follow him.
Both men removed their hats as they entered the comfortable front room of the house, the center of which was occupied by a low, round table completely covered with paint samples and wallpaper swatches. Bending intently over them was a petite girl of about 18, with abundant chestnut hair, green eyes that had a hint of mischief in them, and a pixie face that went well with her diminutive size. She straightened and smiled as her aunt entered with her guests.
Mrs. Hammburg bustled over to her niece and led her forward. “Adam, Joe, this is my niece Beth, here all the way from Sacramento for the summer.” She announced proudly, “Beth, this is Adam and Little Joe Cartwright.”
“Uh, just Joe, ma’am,” Little Joe corrected.
“How do you do?” Beth asked politely.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss…” Adam paused not knowing how to finish.
“Oh, there’s no need for that, Adam.” Mrs. Hammburg waved away his hesitancy. “Too much politeness just makes people stiff and starchy.”
“I agree,” Joe stepped in smoothly, taking Beth’s hand and bowing slightly over it, “and I am very pleased to meet you, Beth.”
Beth flushed lightly, but her green eyes sparkled. “Thank you, Little Joe,” she said as she reluctantly withdrew her hand.
“Just Joe,” Joe reminded her.
“Joe.” she dimpled at him, then lowered her eyelids.
Adam chuckled to himself, amused at how quickly and smoothly his little brother had moved from civility to familiarity with Mrs. Hammburg’s niece.
“Well,” Mrs. Hammburg said briskly, “it’s much too nice of a day for us to be standing in here. Beth, take the gentlemen out onto the veranda while I get us some lemonade and cookies.”
“No, Mrs. Hammburg, really we can’t stay.” Adam tried once again to cut their visit short, but Mrs. Hammburg was already on her way to the kitchen, and ignored him. He turned to Joe. “Joe, you know we can’t stay; we have business in Virginia City.”
“Older brother, you need to learn to relax a little.” Joe nudged Adam in the ribs as he passed by with Beth on his arm. “The business will wait.” He turned and smiled at Beth as they sailed out the door.
Adam sighed and shook his head as he followed them. He was clearly outnumbered and knew when to admit defeat gracefully. Besides, Joe was right; the business in Virginia City wasn’t pressing, and he knew Mrs. Hammburg would appreciate the visit. He glanced over to where Joe was helping Beth into one of the low wicker chairs situated around a small table at one end of the porch. He also knew his chances of getting Little Joe out of here now were little to none.
Mrs. Hammburg came out carrying a tray with glasses, a pitcher of lemonade, and a plate full of gingersnap cookies. Graciously he took the tray from her and followed her over to join Beth and Joe. Setting the tray on table, he held Mrs. Hammburg’s chair for her, and then leaned back against the porch railing. The spicy fragrance of the roses filled the entire porch, and he glanced over at them. “Your roses are lovely this year, Mrs. Hammburg,” he remarked filling in the space left by Beth and Joe’s complete absorption in each other.
“Why, thank you, Adam!” Mrs. Hammburg said delighted. “If you like these, I should show you the ones in back; they’re even more lovely.” She jumped up quickly, and setting down her glass, motioned to him, heading once again for the door before he had a chance to protest. Adam merely shook his head in amusement and followed her. He knew from experience that Mrs. Hammburg wouldn’t stop for an answer.
She stopped abruptly at the door, and turned to look where Beth and Joe were deep in conversation, oblivious to the fact the she and Adam were leaving. She pondered for a moment then smiled at Adam. “We’ll just leave those two to get acquainted,” she said conspiratorially, then winked broadly at him, before bustling into the house and through to the back door. Adam smiled and shook his head at her, before following after.
Mrs. Hammburg had been right. If the flowers out front were beautiful, these in back were absolutely stunning. Laid out in neat rows were Bourbon, Tea, and Portland roses, as well as several that Adam didn’t recognize. Their gorgeous colors ranged from vivid pink to pale blush, sunshine yellow to deep red. It was a sea of color that made Adam draw his breath in sharply in awe.
“Mrs. Hammburg, these are magnificent,” he said with deep admiration as he followed her down the first row of luscious blooms.
She smiled. “Thank you, the result of lots of hard work,” she said, then gently touched a delicate pink blossom, “and a lot of love.”
“I can see that,” Adam responded quietly. They moved slowly down the rows, Mrs. Hammburg identifying each rose as Adam stopped to smell and touch the perfect blossoms. It was some time later before they found themselves back at the foot of the steps leading into the house.
“My, I completely forgot about Beth and Joe!” Mrs. Hammburg exclaimed.
“I’m guessing they didn’t notice,” Adam assured her laughing. “Thank you for showing me your roses. They truly are exquisite.”
Mrs. Hammburg laughed merrily. “No, thank you, Adam, you’ve been very patient with an old woman’s passion.”
“It was my pleasure, Mrs. Hammburg, truly.” He held the door open for her as they entered the house. She stopped and turned to him, looked intently into his eyes for a moment, then gently patted his cheek.
“You’re a good boy, Adam; I think you really mean that.” She smiled then gave him another light slap before sweeping on through the house.
Adam had been right; Joe and Beth didn’t seem to have noticed their absence when he and Mrs. Hammburg returned, but Beth looked up with a wide smile when her aunt settled next to her in the chair.
“Oh, Aunt Elvira!” she announced, “I have the best news! Joe says that he and Adam would be glad to take your orders into town today. Isn’t that wonderful?” She turned and cast a beaming smile on Joe, who returned it with a rather besotted grin.
“Oh, but, Beth, we can’t ask these gentlemen to do that; it’s too much,” Mrs. Hammburg demurred, though Adam could see a hopeful look in her eyes, and he wondered warily just what his younger brother was getting them involved in.
“Nonsense, Mrs. Hammburg,” Joe responded emphatically “We’d be glad to help out, wouldn’t we, Adam?”
Adam leaned back against the porch railing and crossed his arms “Of course, though it would be nice if I knew what it was I was volunteering for.” His voice was pleasant but it held a warning hint that he was hoping Joe would catch. They still had business in Virginia City, and needed to cut their visit short if they expected to get it done that day.
Joe caught the hint but went irrepressibly on. “Don’t worry, Adam, we’ll be going into Virginia City; we just need to take Mrs. Hammburg’s deliveries in for her. Since we’re headed that way anyway, it won’t be any trouble at all, will it?” Joe’s sent Adam a look, and tilted his head slightly toward Beth.
Adam caught the look and the hint, and sighed inwardly. “No, not at all.” He gave Mrs. Hammburg a smile, though inwardly he was growling at Joe. “We’d be glad to do it. Only, I thought Billy and Cole Simmons usually took your deliveries in for you?”
“They do, but they’re both down with a fever, and I was really wondering how I was going to get everything into town. It’s important they go in today. I’ve got some extra special Comte De Chambourds for the International. But are you’re sure it’s no trouble?”
“Not at all, Mrs. Hammburg!” Joe jumped in. “No trouble at all. We’re glad to help, and if Beth here would just come along to make sure we get everything to the right place,” Joe turned to look in Beth’s eyes, and his voice softened, “everything will be perfect.”
Beth flushed under his gaze. “I’d be glad to help,” she replied, smiling.
Mrs. Hammburg clapped her hands delighted. “Well, that’s all settled then!” She beamed at Joe and Beth.
Adam debated pointing out that they probably knew Mrs. Hammburg’s customers better than Beth did so there was no reason for Beth to go with them, but he realized that didn’t really matter. Joe’s purpose was to spend more time with Beth. Beth seemed perfectly agreeable to the plan, and Mrs. Hammburg was absolutely delighted with the arrangement, that much was obvious.
He felt a little left out, being the only one of the group who could see several flaws in the scheme, but since it wouldn’t be that much trouble and Mrs. Hammburg could truly use the help, and as Beth and Joe could hardly drive into town by themselves, he let things stand as they were. Quickly he stood, and motioned to Beth and Joe. “Well, since, as Mrs. Hammburg says, it’s settled, I think we’d best get to it.”
“Oh, yes and thank you so much!” Mrs. Hammburg stood and bustled her way quickly down the steps. “Come along and I’ll show you the wagon, and the deliveries, and…” She turned and smiled at Adam who was close behind her. “I’ll introduce you to my mules!”
Mrs. Hammburg’s mules were truly a pair, but they seemed gentle enough as Adam hitched them to the buckboard and Joe and Beth loaded the vegetables, milk and roses to be delivered into town.
“This is Clare and that one is Clem,” Mrs. Hammburg told him, patting Clare fondly as the mule stood patiently waiting for her turn to be hitched. “They’re both my babies. Aren’t you, you sweet things?” she said in the singsong voice usually reserved for infants. She turned to Adam. “Now, there’s two things you need to remember about Clem and Clare. If you do, you’ll get along fine.” She let go of Clare as Adam took her, and backed the animal into place next to Clem. “Now, first off, the poor dears don’t like to be tied. It annoys them something awful, and they get so worked up. Don’t ya, sweetie.” Mrs. Hammburg patted Clem’s nose and he snuffed. “But don’t worry; they’ll stay put as long as one of you is with them.”
“We can’t tie them?” Adam’s voice was skeptical, and he threw Mrs. Hammburg a glance as he buckled Clare’s harness to the traces.
“No, no, they don’t like to be tied. They’ve always been that way. Josiah never could work it out of them; that’s why it always took the both of us to go into town. One of us would stand with the mules while the other one delivered the goods. But with the three of you, you shouldn’t have any trouble at all. They’ll stay put iffen you’re watching them. Of course, if you don’t, they’ll wander.”
Adam sighed; he wondered if Joe had known about this little quirk of Mrs. Hammburg’s mules. He looked at Joe who simply shrugged and placed the last basket of flowers in the buckboard. “You mentioned two things,” Adam reminded her.
“Oh, well the other one isn’t all that much.” Mrs. Hammburg hesitated. “It’s just that they don’t like yelling. Sets ‘em off sure as anything.” She laughed suddenly. “I mind the time Josiah had them all hitched and ready to go and Clare stepped right on his foot! Oh my, did he yell then. Those two mules took off like their tails was on fire!” She chuckled again at the memory. “Took us the rest of the morning just to catch up with them.” She smiled brightly at Adam. “But I know you aren’t the yelling type. Now if it were Ben…” she chuckled again. “Your pa certainly has a voice on him, don’t he?”
Adam couldn’t help giving Joe another look and they both smiled. Pa was well known for his stentorian voice. Adam gave Clare a slap and turned to Mrs. Hammburg. “Well, there, that should do it. Do you have a list of your deliveries?”
“Oh yes, in the house.” She turned quickly, and started for the barn door, then stopped and glanced back. “Little Joe, you and Beth bring the wagon up ta house, I’ll get the list for Adam. Come along, Adam. They can take care of it.” And without stopping to see if Adam was following, she hurried away.
Adam threw a bemused look at a grinning Joe before he followed Mrs. Hammburg to the house.
The trip into town was uneventful. Beth and Joe chatted away like two old friends and Adam drove, listening with half an ear to their talk but mostly just enjoying the sunny day and his own thoughts. The mules were well mannered and obedient, a fact Adam appreciated, having run across some that weren’t, to his regret.
As they approached Virginia City, Adam pulled out the sheet of paper Mrs. Hammburg had written her clients down on. Adam did a mental plan of the stops they needed to make. There were a couple of private houses that needed milk, then a large order for Walter’s General store. He stopped the mules in front of the Harveys, and looked past Beth to Joe.
“I guess you and Beth can stay here with mules, I’ll take the milk into Mrs. Harvey.” He didn’t anticipate any objections and there were none. Joe simply nodded and he and Beth kept right on talking. Adam was starting to feel distinctly invisible. “Joe, keep an eye on the mules. I can’t tie them.” Adam reminded him. Joe’s only answer was a wave of the hand. “Joe?”
Joe looked over at him, annoyed. “All right, Adam, keep your shirt on. I’ll watch the mules; they ain’t goin’ anywhere with Beth and me sitting right here.”
Adam jumped down and swung around to the back of the buckboard. “Just see that they don’t.”
Joe snorted “Okay.” He looked at Beth. “You have to excuse Adam, Beth; he likes to remind me who he thinks is boss around here,” he told her loud enough for Adam to hear. Beth giggled, and Adam glared at his brother, but let the comment pass as he grabbed the jars of milk for Mrs. Harvey and headed for her door.
The next two deliveries were quick and easy, but there was a substantial delivery for Clementine Hawkins. Adam had a feeling it wasn’t going to be all that quick; Widow Hawkins liked to talk. He considered making Joe do this delivery, but one look at his brother’s rapt attention to whatever it was Beth was telling him and he realized it would be easier to just do it himself.
He pulled up in front of the boarding house, and curled the reins around the whip stand. Hopping down once again, he looked at Joe. “Joe? The mules?”
“Yeah, Adam, good grief you don’t have to tell me every time!” Joe responded irritably.
Adam said nothing, just pulled the basket of pink roses from the back and headed for the front door.
Widow Hawkins was indeed glad to see him. She pulled him into the house, insisting that he sit while she got a vase for the flowers. Vainly he’d tried to explain he had several other boxes for her, but she just waved it away, informing him that he could get them in a moment. By the time he made his escape and returned outside to get the rest of the order, some time had passed, and he hurried down the walk. He stopped short at the gate. Beth and Joe were nowhere to be seen and the mules were half way down the street.
“Joe,” Adam muttered, his lips tightening dangerously as he strode down the street after Clem and Clare. Fortunately, the gentle mules let him catch them easily, but he was fuming at Joe. He looked up and down the street, and finally caught sight of them around the back of Widow Hawkins. Beth was admiring the widow’s peony bush, and Joe was admiring Beth.
Irritated, Adam led the mules back to the front of the boarding house, and stopped next to the front gate. Remembering Mrs. Hammburg’s warning, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to yell for his brother, nor leave the mules. Not sure what to do, he stood holding the mules his temper flaring. Joe had gotten them into this, now Adam was the one left taking care of it. It was so typical.
“Adam, why aren’t you bringin’ in the rest of the things?” Widow Hawkins appeared at her door. “I’ve not got all day you know,” she told him pertly.
“I understand Widow Hawkins.” He threw another desperate glance at the corner hoping to see Joe and Beth coming. Nothing. There was no other choice. “But I was wondering if you could help me, for a moment.”
“ ‘elp you? Now what do you mean?” Clementine came down the walk toward him.
“Well, I was wondering.” Adam hesitated, mentally calling his brother every name he could think of, but smiling a tight smile. “I was wondering if you could stand with the mules for a moment, while I take the rest of your order in.”
“Stand with the mules!” Clementine looked at him as if he was daft. “Why don’t you just tie them?”
“Well you see, Widow Hawkins, I can’t tie them; they won’t stand.”
“It’s all right, Adam, I’ll take them.”
He heard Joe’s voice behind him; he turned to see Joe smiling his most charming smile at Widow Hawkins. “Good morning, Widow Hawkins, beautiful morning isn’t it?” Joe touched the brim of his hat. “Do you know Beth Lewis, Mrs. Hammburg’s niece from Sacramento?”
Adam should not have been surprised at the easy way Joe had stepped in, charming Widow Hawkins and seeming so unconcerned by the fact that he had forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. This wasn’t the time to go into it with him, Adam knew, so he merely gave him a look and held out the mules’ reins to him. Joe took the reins and winked at him, then turned back to Clementine and Beth, while Adam quickly lugged the rest of the widow’s order into the boarding house.
Adam was unable to say anything when they were once again on their way, either, not with Beth sitting between them. He had to content himself with pointed glares at his brother, which Joe steadfastly ignored. Joe surprised him by getting down at the International Hotel and walking around the back to help him grab the produce for the hotel restaurant.
“Sorry about that, Adam. Beth had heard about Widow Hawkins’s peonies and wanted to see them. It won’t happen again,” he whispered under his breath, then handed Adam the basket of vegetables.
Adam was only slightly mollified, but decided to let it go. “All right, just make sure it doesn’t.” Quickly he deposited the basket inside the kitchen door and went back for the two other boxes, and the large basket of roses destined for the hotel. The delicate scent of the roses soothed him, and he buried his nose in them, drinking in their fragrance before passing them over with a dimpled smile to Heather Carr, the Hotel cook’s assistant.
Beth and Joe were again deep in conversation, but still where he left them when he returned. Adam was relieved to note they were almost half done with the deliveries. They had only Belmar’s Café and Cass’s General Store to go in town before heading toward Gold Hill and the mansions lining the mountain.
He stopped behind the Café near the kitchen door and glanced at Joe, but refrained from reminding him about the mules, knowing it would only irritate his brother. Once again he lifted a heavy box out of the buckboard, feeling a pull in his shoulder muscles that would no doubt remind him tomorrow of the unusual duty they had done today.
Mrs. Belmar met him at the door with a surprised smile on her face. “Why, Adam Cartwright, what a pleasant surprise,” she said, holding the door for him. She looked over at the wagon, noticing Little Joe and Beth, then back at Adam and the heavy box full of vegetables. “Where’s Billy and Cole?” she asked, following Adam into the kitchen and indicated a low table where he could place the box.
Adam heaved a sigh of relief as he set the box down, and turned to Mrs. Belmar. “There both down with the fever. Joe and I stopped by Widow Hammburg’s to deliver a package for Pa, so we offered to do her deliveries for her.”
“Well, how very kind of you, Adam,” Mrs. Belmar commended him.
“Thanks, I’ve got a couple more boxes for you.” He turned to see Beth and Joe entering the kitchen. “Joe!”
“Hold on, Adam, the mules are fine; I just wanted to introduce Beth to Mrs. Belmar,” Joe assured him.
Adam grit his teeth, shook his head at Joe, and rushed out the back, Joe right behind him. The mules were standing quietly where they had left them.
“See, Adam, they didn’t go anywhere. I was only going to be a second and I knew you were headed right back out. Widow Hammburg told Beth that Mrs. Belmar was the best cook in the territory and Beth’s been wanting to meet her,” Joe explained. He clapped Adam on the shoulder and grinned at him. “Older Brother, you really need to learn to relax.”
Adam turned to face his younger brother. “Joe, you’re the one that volunteered for this little job. You’re the one who insisted that Beth come along. You’re the one who assured Mrs. Hammburg that it would be no trouble at all. Well, so far that’s been true, for you at least, because ALL the trouble has been mine! I’ve driven the buckboard, I’ve carried in the boxes, I’ve had to CATCH the mules after you couldn’t even stay with them, so they wouldn’t wander off.” Adam stopped to catch his breath, then continued as calmly as his elevated pulse would allow. “And you’re telling ME to relax! Joe…” Adam stopped not sure of what else to say, when all he wanted to do was wring his little brother’s neck. “Joe…”
“Oh, come on, Adam, it hasn’t been that bad.” Joe smiled the beguiling smile he’d used on Adam since he was old enough to understand it value.
Adam blew his breath out between his teeth. “Joe, just stay with the mules, while I get the rest of Mrs. Belmar’s order for her.” He brushed past Joe without looking at him, grabbed the last box for Mrs. Belmar, and didn’t move over for Beth who almost collided with him in the doorway. She leapt to the side quickly, and watched him wide-eyed as he surged past her with set face and narrowed eyes.
“Is he okay?” she asked Joe in a whisper as she moved in close to him, her face anxious.
Joe shrugged. “Oh, sure, he’s all right. It’s just the way he is sometimes. But I think we’d better stay with the wagon from now on.” He helped Beth up then jumped up beside her.
Adam didn’t speak when he returned. He climbed to his seat, and set the mules forward at a trot. He knew he was overreacting, but couldn’t seem to help himself. Something about this whole situation had gotten on his nerves, and having Joe and Beth beside him laughing and chatting was only making it worse. He pulled the mules up in front of Cass’ store and went through the same process he’d already done what felt like a thousand times before already today. He now knew why he had never had any desire to be a delivery driver.
He hopped down and pulled a basket out of the back, decided it was pointless to speak to Joe, so merely trudged his way into Cass’ store. Sally Cass was helping a customer, and he didn’t see Mr. Cass so he set the box down on an empty table and went back out for the next load.
Joe and Beth had gotten down from the wagon and were standing near Clare’s head, talking quietly to one another. They didn’t look up as he approached the wagon and Adam had that invisible feeling again. He muttered to himself as he grabbed the box of butter and cheese and hefted it over the edge of the buckboard, then turned and lugged the box into the store.
Sally had finished with her customer and joined him as he set the second box beside the first.
“Hi, Adam, how come you’re delivering today?”
“It’s a long story, Sally, where do you want these?” He knew he sounded gruff, but couldn’t help himself.
“Over there, please,” she said softly, pointing. Her eyes looked hurt and Adam sighed. Sally was a nice girl and he was sorry he’d snapped at her.
“I’m sorry, Sally, I didn’t mean to sound cross; it’s just been a rough morning,” he apologized, as he moved the boxes to where she’d indicated.
“That’s all right, Adam, I understand.” She smiled. “Everyone has bad days.”
He returned her smile with as much of one as he could manage, “Thanks. I’ve got one more box for you, and then that should do it.”
“Fine, just put it there with the rest.”
He touched his hat to her and walked out the door. Just outside, he stopped abruptly, his eyes narrowing as he watched the buckboard slowly pulling away from him down the street, the mules walking steadily forward with their ears twitching. Turning sharply, he saw Joe and Beth a little way down the sidewalk speaking to Alice and Kathy Harper.
In that moment, Adam forgot he was supposed to be a calm, reasonable man, forgot he was standing in front of Cass’ General Store in the middle of Virginia City, forgot Mrs. Hammburg’s warning about Clem and Clare.
“JOE!” Adam bellowed, in a voice that left no doubt that he was the son of Ben Cartwright. The sound turned heads all up and down the street. Joe and Beth spun around, and stared wide-eyed at him, and then their eyes opened wider as they looked past him. Seeing the look on their faces, Adam turned. True to Widow Hammburg’s word, Adam’s bellow had sent the mules dashing down the street, scattering produce, milk, and roses as they went.
“Come on, Adam, we’ve got to catch them!” Joe yelled, snagging Adam’s arm as he rushed past. Both men dashed after the runaway mules, which were now well on their way down Union Street. They made the turn onto G Street and Adam’s face scrunched as the buckboard tilted onto two wheels and he waited for it to overturn. It didn’t and the mules continued their wild careening down Union Street. The speed of the mules had sent them far to the side of the street, and the buckboard slid into the boardwalk, sending barrels and crates soaring, increasing the chaos and destruction left in the wake of the flying mules.
Breathless, Adam and Joe continued the chase, shouting and waving at those in the wagon’s path. Praying that they moved in time. Adam knew if anyone was hurt from this disaster he would never forgive himself. Miraculously, the mules made it down Union Street, leaving men and women, shaken but unscathed, behind them.
Adam hoped the mules tired soon. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up the chase. He could hear Joe wheezing beside him, as they both tried to squeeze a little more speed from already rubbery legs. He heard Sheriff Coffee yell as they sped past the jail, but couldn’t make out what he said, and didn’t really care at the moment.
Up ahead, he saw the mules approaching the livery and the turn onto Washington. Adam slowed and closed his eyes as he anticipated the crash; he was sure the mules were going too fast to make the turn. But the crash didn’t come as the mules suddenly made a mad dash left onto Washington. Adam stopped in relief, then he saw the buckboard tip onto two wheels once again, and he held his breath hoping. Only this time the speed was too great and he watched in horror as it swung wide and overturned. The momentum sent the whole mass – mules, buckboard and all – sliding with a crashing halt into the wide front windows of the Virginia City Bank.
To Adam’s ears, the silence following the crash was horribly loud. He stood mesmerized by the confused tangle of mules, buckboard and bank. He felt Joe beside him, shaking his head.
“Oh, boy……… Oh, boy, Adam, are we in for it now,” his voice quavered. “Pa’s gonna have our hide for sure.”
Adam couldn’t respond. He turned and looked around at the destruction surrounding him. Men and women were picking themselves up from the dirt where they had leapt out of the mule’s path. Boardwalks and hitching posts all along the street were shattered where the buckboard had crashed into them. Produce lay scattered among the remains of the crates and boxes the mules had sent flying. Cheese, butter, and milk mingled together in large smears among the broken jars and crocks they had been stored in. But most poignant of all, to Adam’s way of thinking, were the roses; Widow Hammburg’s gorgeous roses that were strewn over everything, their velvety colors mocking the desolation over which they lay.
Joe stopping in front of him brought Adam back to the present. He raised his eyebrows at him and waited expectantly.
“Well?” Joe asked again impatiently. “What are we gonna tell Pa?”
“I don’t know, Joe,” Adam finally acknowledged, rubbing a hand across his face. The damages alone would set them back several thousand, not to mention the fines Sheriff Coffee was threatening them with. Thank goodness, the mules had been fine. A little scuffed up and a little jittery, but not seriously harmed.
“Yeah, well, we’d better come up with something, because Pa’s gonna be madder than a polecat with his tail in a trap when he finds out!” Joe pointed out peevishly, his anxiety turning to frustration as his normally astute brother failed to come up with a way out of the mess.
“Don’t you think I know that?!” Adam’s own temper flared in the face of his brother’s accusing tone. “It’s not like it was entirely my fault, you know! You were the one who suggested we help her!”
“Well, what was I supposed to do? Leave poor Widow Hammburg to take care of it all by herself?”
“Under the circumstances, that might have been best, yes! And if you did have to help, you should have left that niece of hers at home.”
“Don’t bring Beth into this; she had nothing to do with it!” Joe warned.
“You’d better believe she had something to do with it. If you hadn’t been so moonstruck over her, none of this would have happened!” Adam retorted.
“Yeah, well, well…” Joe couldn’t think of a response, knowing that Adam was at least partially right.
The two brothers glared at each other for a moment. Then seeing the remorse in Joe’s eyes, Adam sighed and lowered his own. “Never mind, Joe. It was as much my fault as yours. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”
Joe sat down next to his brother, and cupped his chin in his hands. “And I should have stayed with the wagon.” They sat in silence a moment. “So what are we going to do?” he asked, his voice once again apprehensive.
Adam turned to him. “The only thing we can do. Tell Pa the truth, and hope we’re still in one piece when he’s through with us,” he said resignedly.
“Somehow that doesn’t sound like a very good plan, Adam,” Joe protested, straightening.
“Well, if you’ve got a better idea, I wouldn’t mind hearing it.” Adam countered.
Joe sighed and shook his head. “No, you’re right.” He plopped his chin back onto his hands. The two men sat side by side, both in deep thought, both dreading the confrontation before them.
Finally Joe spoke. “Adam?”
“I’m really glad you’re in this one with me this time.”
Adam turned to his brother and gave him a lop-sided smile. “Uh, thanks, I think,” he said amusedly.
“No, I mean it. Usually it’s me and Hoss in hot water.” Joe’s voice was sincere. “I don’t know, somehow, it just doesn’t seem as bad knowing you’re going to get it, too.”
Adam looked into Joe’s earnest green eyes, and reached over and ruffled his brother’s hair fondly. “Well, I’m glad it helps.” He smiled at him, and Joe grinned back.
The sound of the door opening caused them both to turn, and then stand quickly as their father walked in.
Ben’s face was stern as he laid his hat on the credenza to the left of the door. “Boys, is there something you need to tell me?” he asked his voice deep and ominous.
Joe looked at Adam and gulped. Adam looked at Ben and tried to smile, but the look in his father’s eyes killed it before it had a chance to begin. Pursing his lips together, he took a deep breath then let it out slowly. “Well, Pa, you see, it was like this…”