Summary: Part 2 of a Trilogy. Please read in order. The events of a single day for the Cartwright brothers. Neither winner nor loser in Pa’s assignment of chores, Adam still faces a challenging day.
Word Count: 4600
Adam slowly lowered himself into the steaming water and with a soulful sigh sank down to his chin in the copper tub. Just what he needed, a long, relaxing soak. Thanks to his drawing the assignment closest to home today, he had finished first and earned first rights to the tub, the one advantage to losing this morning’s match race to Little Joe. Closing his eyes, he lay back, letting his dark hair float on the water as he contemplated that unexpected outcome to Pa’s “usual fair method” of doling out unwanted chores.
For years he’d been able to best both his brothers with that trick of dampening the match stick to retard its burning speed, but sharp-eyed Joe had finally figured it out, leaving only poor Hoss still in the dark. Adam felt somewhat bad about the two of them ganging up against their credulous brother in the middle, but he couldn’t change his tactics to let Hoss win, even once in a while; that would have accomplished nothing but giving every victory to his crafty kid brother, who had no scruple against taking it. Despite the new competition, Adam had continued to win most of the time, his occasional losses flukes of chance, but he had a feeling he’d have to start taking the kid’s rivalry more seriously. He hadn’t been able to stare Joe down and make him shaky today, and if he could no longer turn the kid’s own emotions against him, that meant he had a more formidable challenger to contend with. Pulling upright, Adam stretched his arms over his head, and as water trickled off the curling black hair on his chest, he grinned in anticipation of contests to come and outcomes more favorable than today’s.
Recalling how his day had gone, Adam winced and sank back into the soothing water. Not that it had been all that bad—especially by comparison with what it could have been had he drawn Hoss’s lot; still, he needed to figure out how to regain his competitive edge against that cunning kid brother of his or there’d be more days like today. . . .
Adam dropped a load of shingles outside the barn and raised a hand in farewell as his youngest brother drove out of the yard. Having just seen the curt rebuff the kid got when he tried to wish Hoss a good day, Adam didn’t even acknowledge his other brother’s departure. Hoss rarely got out of sorts, but when he did, he could growl with the ferocity of a mama bear guarding her cubs. The big man was definitely feeling bearish today—with good reason—and wisdom dictated staying clear of his claws ‘til he’d had a chance to simmer down. Maybe by the time he came home . . . Adam shook his head. Who was he kidding? With the misery Hoss had facing him today, his mood wasn’t likely to improve.
“Haven’t you started yet?” a sharp voice demanded.
Adam bristled at his father’s accusatory tone, but managed to answer calmly. “Just starting now. I helped Joe load the fence rails.”
“That scamp,” Ben muttered. “Just like him to talk someone else into doing his work. Surprised you let him get away with it, though. You don’t usually let him wrap you around his little finger, like that other brother of yours.”
After his loss that morning Adam would have relished letting his youngest brother take the blame, but his innate sense of fair play wouldn’t permit him to hear Joe criticized unjustly. “He didn’t ask; I offered.”
Ben’s arched eyebrow conveyed surprise, deepening into suspicion. “Much as I approve of brother helping brother, Adam, you have work of your own.”
“And I’ll get it done,” Adam said tersely. “After all, Pa, you did say it was the easiest job of the day. I should finish with time to spare, and if I choose to spend that spare time helping my brother—”
“Yes, yes, of course—simmer down. I don’t object, though it’s wiser not to squander spare time ‘til you’re certain you’ll have it. As the Good Book says, a man never knows what a day may bring forth.” While he imparted that sage bit of advice, Ben looked at the shingles Adam had tossed onto the ground. “Surely, you don’t think that’s all you’ll need.”
Adam hitched in a taut breath. “No, that’s just my first load.”
“Might be a good idea if you went up on the roof and made an inspection first, evaluate the extent of the damage,” Ben suggested. “Then you’ll know what supplies you need.”
Since that course of action was exactly what he had already planned, Adam responded with a sardonic smile. “Now, why didn’t I think of that? Thanks, Pa!”
“Don’t be sarcastic,” Ben advised gruffly, having taken note of the other man’s tone. “Just—just carry on. I’ll leave you to your work, and I’ll get to mine.”
If only he would, Adam groused as he headed back into the barn. From pegs on the far wall he took a ladder and, swinging one arm through the space between two rungs, shouldered it and carried it to the side of the barn. He tested its security and began climbing. Though he moved leisurely, he soon reached the top, but just as he was swinging one long leg over the top rung, he heard his father call, “Adam?” His knee hit the roof with a jarring jolt, and his hands clenched the ladder as he came painfully down on one haunch.
Looking up, Ben sighted him. “Oh, good. You haven’t started yet.” He motioned Adam down.
“What the . . .? Didn’t leave me to my work long, did he?” Adam grunted as he started down the ladder, wincing each time he put weight on his left leg. Once down, he scanned the yard. No sign of his father. Oh, great, just great. Couldn’t he have waited one minute for me to get down? Doesn’t bode well if he needs to talk to me privately. Inhaling deeply, he limped into the house and turned right, toward his father’s office alcove. “What is it, Pa?” he asked, trying—and failing—to mask his irritation.
Seated at his desk, Ben raised his head and stared pointedly at his oldest son. “What’s the matter with you today, Adam? You’re prickly as cactus.”
Folding his arms, Adam stared back. “What’s wrong with me? First you scold me for not starting my work soon enough; then when I do start—or try to, rather—you call me down off the roof, and when I ask what you want, you jump down my throat.”
Ben pressed his palms against the desk top. “I’m not jumping down your throat; judging by your tone, young man, I’d say the shoe’s on the other foot of that horse!”
Adam slowly opened his arms and spread his palms toward the ceiling. “All right. Sorry if I sounded snappish, but I was in kind of an awkward position when you called. I know you said a man never knows what a day may bring forth, but I didn’t realize you intended to provide a demonstration so quickly. All I asked was what you wanted, and I’m still waiting for an answer.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed, but he ignored what he still considered an attitude that fell short of filial respect and, to avoid further argument and loss of time, simply answered the question. “I’m trying to finalize our bid on the Gould and Curry contract, and I wanted to ask you a couple of questions before you got tied up with the roof. You seemed willing enough to help your young brother, but if you don’t feel you have time to render a bit of assistance to your poor aged father, by all means go on about your work.”
Poor aged father? Adam had to purse his lips to keep a straight face at that one. Easy to see where Little Joe learned his manipulative skills! He schooled his voice to remain calm and, he hoped, reasonable. “Pa, of course I can make time to answer your questions about that bid. I would have thought lunch would be soon enough, but if it’s urgent . . .”
Ben fumbled with the papers lying on his desk. “Well, since you’re here . . .”
“Yes . . . since I’m here.” With a tight grip on his patience, Adam moved around to look over his father’s shoulder at the papers.
Half an hour and many words later, Adam again climbed the ladder to the roof, peering carefully down into the yard before taking that final step this time. He didn’t mind helping his father with business calculations, of course. Pa had every right to expect that much return on his investment in a college education for his oldest son, but added to the deliberate dawdling he’d done with Joe and those fence rails, the time he’d spent explaining his estimate of the profit margin meant that he was getting a late start on the roof. Still, unless the damage was more extensive than he thought, he should have no difficulty finishing the job today. Before lunch? No, he couldn’t be that lucky, but hopefully not much beyond that. Maybe he’d even have time to ride into nearby Washoe City for a little relaxation. He could use some after wrestling figures with Pa.
He walked along the roof, noting the number of missing shingles. Not too many—good. A few were loose, too, and a few warped. He knelt on a storm-bared rafter to pull off a shingle that was hanging by a single nail, and the seemingly solid wood beneath his right knee suddenly crumbled. His fingers clawed frantically at the edge of the shingles higher on the roof; thankfully, they held while he pulled his leg back up and scrambled for safety. He sat on the slanting roof, elbows on his knees, chin cupped in his palms as he surveyed the roof with scowling eyes. Great, just great. Missing shingles wasn’t enough. Just had to run into rafters with the dry rot, too. So much for that relaxing ride into Washoe City! Then a darker thought struck him. Joe said something this morning about the roof repair requiring real architectural skill. Just trying to get out of the job himself, of course—or so I thought then. His black brows drew together as he contemplated the possibility that Joe had actually known how tough this job would be, that he’d been up on this roof to check the damage and already seen its extent. Adam shook his head. Joe go looking for work? Not likely! Today, obviously, was just the kid’s lucky day . . . and definitely not his.
With a long sigh he stood and carefully made his way back to the ladder, still favoring the left leg. Better see just how much trouble I’m in, he mused as he climbed down and walked around to the barn door. Entering, he climbed into the loft to survey the rafters from beneath. He tested each one by tapping it with a rake handle. Most echoed back a solid thump, but three more times the wood splintered. Adam bit back a curse as he climbed down from the loft on one side of the barn and made his way up the ladder to the one on the other side. Cautiously, holding his breath at each stroke, he tapped his way from front to back. After the final solid thump, he leaned against the back wall and took a deep breath. No weak beams on this side, so he’d only have to replace those four rotten rafters and then shingle the roof. Think about Hoss, Adam admonished himself as he left the loft. Sure, this is a harder job than I expected, but it doesn’t compare with his troubles, so toughen up and just get it done.
He sighed again as he approached the house, however. One advantage Hoss did have over him: whatever troubles he ran into were his own to deal with; he didn’t have to report to Pa. Adam opened the front door and rounded the corner into the alcove again.
Ben looked up from his bookwork and arched an eyebrow at his eldest. “I know you’re not finished this soon.”
“Scarcely,” Adam muttered. He cleared his throat. “It’s going to take longer than we thought, Pa.” He explained about the dry rot and the need to replace four rafters. “Looks like I was the right man for this job after all,” he finished with a feeble attempt at humor.
“These things have a way of working out,” Ben agreed, “and this is one of those times I will count myself blessed to have an architect in the family. Well, you’d best get to it, son.”
“I can’t ‘get to it,’” Adam said bluntly. “First, I have to ‘get to’ the mill and buy some rafters. We don’t have any here.”
Ben’s brow furrowed. “Did you check?”
Adam exhaled slowly. “No, I didn’t check. I don’t need to check. We ordered exactly the number we needed when we built the barn. We didn’t stock spares.”
“Just check,” Ben advised. “It’ll save you time if—”
“Pa, it’s a complete waste of time,” Adam remonstrated huffily. “I already know.”
“Check,” Ben dictated, eyes narrowing. As his son turned and stalked toward the door, he grunted, “Fool boy, always thinks he knows more than anyone else.”
I do in this case, Adam fumed as he went on a search for the nonexistent beams. It took a good twenty minutes to check out any possible place a rafter might be hiding; he didn’t find any, and he didn’t bother restraining his irritation when he reported that pertinent fact back to his father.
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Ben commented, seemingly oblivious to his son’s disintegrating mood. “That’ll set you back a couple of hours, I’m afraid.”
“At least,” Adam grunted, flexing his knee a couple of times. Walking around had helped him work out most of the stiffness, he was glad to see.
With the desk between them, Ben didn’t see the movement, but Adam’s mood was becoming impossible to overlook. Ben took the action he deemed most likely to improve it. “I’ll go along with you to the mill, then, help you select the new beams and—”
Adam slammed his hat to the top of his father’s desk. “I am perfectly capable of picking out beams without your help! I am a trained architect, remember?”
Face hard as chiseled granite, Ben slowly rose from his chair. “I would advise you to watch your tone, young man.”
Gripping the edge of the desk, Adam took a deep, cleansing breath. “All right, I’ll watch my tone, but all this double-checking and discussion is just slowing me down when I have a lot more work than originally planned. If it’s all right with you, I’ll head down to the mill now and—”
“And I’ll go with you,” Ben said firmly. “Helping me earlier took some of your time, so it’s only fair that I help you with your work now.” He cocked his head to one side. “Unless, of course, you’re saying that you do not want your father’s company.” He stared challengingly into his son’s dark eyes.
His father’s company on the job was the last thing under heaven Adam wanted, since it was beyond Ben Cartwright’s power not to boss any job he was part of, but spouting that much honesty could be downright hazardous. “Of course not,” he said, with what he hoped was tact, “but there’s no need for me to take you from your work. The job will take me a little longer alone, but I can handle it.”
Ben rounded the desk to clap an encouraging hand to his son’s strong shoulder. “Nonsense. You helped your brother this morning and you helped me. Now, you mustn’t be too proud to accept help yourself, Adam. That really is an attitude you need to work on, son.” Ignoring the sharp glance Adam directed at him, he plunged on. “Just let me get these papers put away, and we’ll head out. Oh—you’d better tell Hop Sing we won’t be here for dinner. Now, don’t look so unhappy, boy; I’ll buy you a fine hot meal in Washoe City.” With another clap to his son’s shoulder, Ben moved back to his desk chair and began putting papers into their proper files.
Rolling his eyes, Adam headed toward the kitchen. He’s blind, absolutely blind, if he thinks I’m worried about missing a meal. Why couldn’t he give the bad news to Hop Sing himself and let me put away his precious papers! Oh, no, that would make life too easy, and ease is obviously not the theme of today’s tale.
Giving Hop Sing the bad news took ten seconds; convincing him not to go back to China, however, was a ten-minute exercise in the art of persuasive speaking. As soon as he’d accomplished that, Adam checked the alcove and discovered a clean desk, but no sign of his father. Must’ve gone out to hitch up the buckboard. Adam struck his temple with the heel of his right hand. The buckboard—Joe had the buckboard! No, ease was definitely not the theme of today’s tale, he mused with a rueful shake of his head.
Walking outside, he saw his father leading two saddled horses from the barn. “That’ll get us there,” Adam said drolly, “but I think Sport and Buck will object to dragging a pair of rafters apiece.”
Ben tossed him a mock scowl. “We should be able to borrow or rent a wagon in town.”
“And if we can’t? Then we’ve ridden into town for nothing. Maybe we’d be better advised to put this trip off ‘til tomorrow, when we know we’ll have access to the buckboard.” Adam smiled as the possibility of turning that chore over to one of his brothers, preferably the one who had drawn the easy lot today, flickered through his mind.
“Now, now, don’t be such a pessimist,” Ben chided. “After all, ‘faint heart never won . . .’”
“Fair rafter?” Adam concluded with a quizzical quirk of his eyebrow.
“Guess it wasn’t quite the right quotation,” Ben admitted with a wry chuckle, “but I’m sure a bright boy like you got the point.”
Adam nodded. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he suggested, as an alternate proverb.
“Exactly!” Ben agreed. “So, mount up, boy. Daylight’s burning.”
Adam shrugged and did as requested. The trip might end up being a huge waste of time in a day already full of such waste, but at this point he wasn’t at all averse to the idea of riding into town just for a hot meal and a cold beer. In fact, if it turned out that way, it would make perfect ammunition for firing at Joe. “To the victor go not always the spoils,” he commented to the air.
Ben swiveled in the saddle. “What did you say?”
“Uh—some oil,” Adam invented quickly. “We should get some oil—linseed oil, that is—to treat the beams, preserve them from moisture.”
“Don’t we have any?”
“I didn’t check,” Adam admitted, “but we can always use it.”
“That’s true.” Ben glanced at his son. “I don’t suppose you thought to measure those rafters, either.”
Adam hitched in a quick, sharp breath. “I didn’t need to measure them. I designed that barn; I know what the measurements are.”
“That was years ago,” Ben scoffed.
“And I am not senile!” Adam retorted.
Ben reined Buck to an abrupt halt. “Meaning I am?”
Adam’s jaw muscles tightened. “No, of course not. I only meant that I put a lot of effort into those plans, and numbers have a way of sticking in my head, especially when I’ve mulled them over that much.”
“Let’s hope your memory’s as good as you give it credit for.” Before Adam could respond, Ben trotted ahead.
Adam exhaled noisily. “It’s just one day,” he muttered to himself. “I can survive my father for one day.”
Ben looked over his shoulder. “What’s that?”
“I’m on my way,” Adam called.
Their business in Washoe City went smoothly. John Jones promised to get right to cutting the needed rafters, and J. McCurtin, blacksmith and wagon maker, had a buckboard he was willing to rent them, though he didn’t miss the opportunity of pointing out that a ranch as large as the Ponderosa could use a second one. “Make you a good price,” he offered, “and I reckon you know the quality of my work.”
“I do, and I’ll give it some thought.” Ben shook the man’s hand. “I’ll be back to pick up the wagon in an hour or so.”
“She’ll be ready,” McCurtin promised.
“Are you serious about buying a second wagon?” Adam asked as they walked down the main street toward McFarland’s Livery.
“Oh, probably not,” Ben admitted. “There are times, like today, we could use a spare, but one’s enough, as a general rule. In fact, young man, if you hadn’t dillydallied around helping your brother load those fence rails this morning, you might have discovered your own need sooner, while we had time to adjust the work plans.”
Adam stopped. “Fine,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “I promise I will never help Joe again.”
Ben, who had moved a few paces ahead of his son, spun to face him. “That’s not what I meant,” he said gruffly.
Adam lifted his chin, emphasizing his rigid jaw line. “I’ve already been taken to task for it twice today, so I can only conclude that having the kid learn to work independently is important to you.”
Ben planted his hands on his hips. “At the moment I’m more concerned with having my eldest son learn a little respect.”
“Pa, I respect you,” Adam insisted, unfolding his arms, “but I’m of an age to need respect myself.”
“I respect you.” Ben looked offended at the suggestion he did not.
Adam slowly worked his tongue around the inside of his mouth. “Would you agree that trust is an element of respect?”
“Yes,” Ben replied slowly and warily.
“You trust me, then, to remember the measurements of those beams?”
“Are you still chafing about that?” Ben chided. “Those are the measurements we gave John, aren’t they?”
Adam nodded apologetically, for though he hadn’t realized it until the words left his mouth, he had, indeed, still been chafing over that slight insult to his mental acuity. “I’ll grant you that one, so let’s start fresh. You do trust my ability to judge good horseflesh?”
“Implicitly.” Ben looked thoroughly puzzled now.
Smiling, Adam laid a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Well, then, why don’t you demonstrate that trust by going on to the restaurant while I hire the team for the wagon, and I’ll demonstrate my trust by letting you order for me.”
“It would save time,” Ben admitted, a warm glow in his velvety eyes. “You do have a good head on your shoulders, son; I respect that, too.”
Adam dipped his chin in acknowledgement. “And I respect your judgment of a good meal—though not quite as much as I do Hoss’s.”
Ben laughed and slapped his eldest on the back. “Railroad Restaurant suit you?”
“Best in town,” Adam agreed. He walked briskly to the livery stable, rented a team, to be picked up after dinner, and made his way to the restaurant. Pulling out the slat-backed chair, he sat down and asked, “So, what are we having?”
“Specialty of the house, gray duck,” Ben told him.
Adam fairly beamed. “Ah, I knew I could trust your judgment.” The trust was rewarded when plates of succulent fowl, with seasoned rice and buttered peas, were served. After polishing off a dish of peach cobbler to conclude the meal, the Cartwrights picked up the horses at the livery, led them to the wagon maker’s and worked side by side to hitch the team. Adam guided the wagon down the busy street to the mill, where they loaded the rafters in short order. “I’m glad you came along,” Adam admitted as they pulled out of Washoe City. “It did make the work go faster.”
Ben arched an eyebrow in his son’s direction. “Much to your surprise?”
Adam shrugged in concession. “Somewhat to my surprise.” He turned toward the man on his right. “Look, Pa, it’s not that I don’t enjoy your company . . .” Uncertain how to explain how he felt about working under the close supervision of his father—or anyone else—at his age, he let the sentence trail off.
“You’re just of an age to need respect,” Ben finished for him. He sighed, almost inaudibly. “I suppose you all are. I know I hold the reins a bit tight sometimes, son, but it’s hard to know just when to rein hard and when to slacken up. I’ve tried to raise you boys with the same values my father taught me, but he died too young to show me how to manage grown men.”
Sensing rare self-doubt in his father, Adam said softly, “You manage just fine. No one could do better.” He laughed and in an attempt to lighten the mood, added, “And if you need advice on how to handle the reins, why, it’s easy: just hold mine loosely and rein in hard on Joe at every opportunity!”
Ben chuckled in appreciation of the jest. “Anything specific I should be reining in on?”
“Not that I know,” Adam admitted. “I think he’s been working too hard lately to get into too much mischief.”
“He’s growing up. Maybe I should slacken his reins some, too.” Father and son gazed directly into each other’s eyes, and broad grins spread across both faces as they simultaneously shook their heads and said, “Nah.”
. . . Contemplating that companionable ride home, Adam rested his head on the rim of the bathtub. All in all, he wasn’t disappointed with the assignment he’d drawn today. Oh, Pa’d gotten a little bossy again after they’d arrived home and started to work together on the roof—just his nature—but this afternoon he’d caught himself, grinned at the realization and been open to suggestions. “Guess it doesn’t pay to hire an architect and then not listen to him,” Pa had joked. Yes, he and Pa really seemed to have come to a better understanding of one another today, and for that he was grateful. Not that I intend to let Little Joe win next time; it wouldn’t hurt him to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Pa, too!
The door to the washroom flew open, banging forcefully into the wall. In the doorway stood a glowering, slime-and-earth-coated giant, reminiscent of the beast Beowulf had battled in the Old English epic. “Get out,” growled the fearsome vision.
Without a word and without hesitation, Adam set modesty aside and clambered out of the tub. He wrapped a towel hastily about his loins, snatched up his clothes and, edging gingerly past Hoss, fled.