Let’s Try That Again (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  Have you ever had a day that started on the wrong side of a deluge of water . . . and went downhill from there?  Join Little Joe Cartwright as he struggles to reach the end of one particularly problematic Monday.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,600


“Up and at ‘em, little brother.” The words seemed to echo from far down a tunnel, much too distant to be heeded. Little Joe turned his head and snuggled into his downy pillow. “Joseph.” Closer, a bit louder and grumpier this time, but still imminently ignorable. He burrowed deeper.

Suddenly an ocean wave crashed against his face and he jolted upright, sputtering. “What’d you do that for?”

Hoss stood over him, holding an empty glass and grinning. “Had to get your attention somehow, little brother. Pa wants you down to breakfast right quick. Gotta give us our little talkin’ to before he takes off, you know.”

Little Joe scowled as he swiped at his dripping cheeks. “Just what I need, a talkin’ to.”

Hoss just chuckled. “Best get a move on or he’s likely to make it a ‘necessary little talkin’ to’.”

“Anything but that,” Little Joe grumbled as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stumbled toward his wash basin, but shook his head before he reached it. Why bother? Hoss had already given his face a half-decent morning wash, and it was never wise to keep Pa waiting, especially when he had deadlines to meet. He pulled on his pants and hastily stuffed his shirt inside them.

Hurrying down the stairs, he scooted into his chair at the table and was just reaching for the platter of bacon when he heard his father loudly clearing his throat.

“Is that any way to appear at the table, young man?” Ben demanded.

Joe pulled his hand back and cast inquiring looks around the table. “Bein’ late, you mean? Sorry about that, Pa, but I had to take some extra time to dry off after Hoss threw water all over me.” An exaggeration, of course, and Hoss was glowering at him for it, but deflecting Pa’s attention had often been a workable defensive stratagem in the past.

“Did you also take time to strip the sopping sheets and remake your bed?” Adam inquired with a wry quirk of one side of his mouth.

“Soppin’,” Hoss grunted disdainfully.

Joe could hardly blame Hoss for that much protest, but Adam was a different matter. Giving his eldest brother a glare for snidely sticking his two-cents in, Joe mumbled, “Sorry, Pa” once again and again reached for the bacon. Again his father’s voice stopped his hand in mid-air.

“I was referring, Joseph, to the disheveled state of your attire,” Ben said, “as well as to the uncombed tangle of your hair. And is that a smudge of dirt on your chin?”

Little Joe licked two fingers and gave his chin a light scrub; then he glanced down his front side and saw nothing amiss. “Disheveled, Pa?”

“You might try tucking in your shirt,” Adam suggested, mouth quirking the other direction this time.

“I did!” Joe protested.

“All the way around?” his maddening older brother asked.

Running his hands around his waist, Joe discovered his error, rectified it and then finger-combed his hair into a semblance of order. “Good enough or you want I should go back upstairs?” he asked with a sneer toward Adam.

“What I want, young man,” Ben said, “is for you to pay attention. I have very little time before I need to leave, and I have a few things to say.”

Little Joe straightened up to indicate that Pa did, indeed, have his full attention.

With a nod of half-grudging approval, Ben said, “Now, I expect to return from Carson City tonight; however, in case the legislature’s discussion runs longer than intended and I’m forced to stay over, I feel I should follow my usual policy of leaving one of you in charge during my absence.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes, and while Hoss avoided doing that, it was obvious from the look on his face that he expected the same selection as his younger brother.

“I believe, in view of all that needs to be accomplished today,” Ben continued, “that it would be best if I left Adam in charge.”

“Like always,” Little Joe grumbled under his breath.

“What’s that, young man?”

“Nothin’, Pa.”

Ben’s brows knit together. “In this family, we talk to each other; we don’t mumble under our breath.”

Little Joe had had all he felt he should take, so he just blasted out, “Doggone it, Pa. I don’t see why we gotta go through this charade of you actin’ like we all three got equal chance of bein’ left in charge, when you gotta know — ‘cause we sure do –that it’s Adam every time!”

The brows knit tighter. “Are you saying you think you should be left in charge, Joseph?”

Adam threw an anxious look in his father’s direction. If Pa were seriously considering such an outrageous appointment, then he needed to put his own oar in — and quickly! Reassured by the sight of his father’s grim countenance, he decided to hold his tongue for the time being.

The question caught Little Joe so off-guard that he was momentarily struck dumb and didn’t respond until his father posed the question a second time in a louder, sharper voice. “No, sir, I wasn’t sayin’ that,” Joe countered. “I just meant you oughtn’t to pretend it would ever be any other way.”

“I am not pretending,” Ben stated in staccato syllables. “It is fully my intention to leave Hoss — and, yes, even you, Joseph — in charge at the appropriate time. However, I have seen nothing in your behavior this morning, young man, to make me believe this is the right time for you to assume leadership of the ranch. However, if Hoss is feeling slighted…”

“Oh, no, sir,” Hoss was quick to say. “I’m just fine with Adam takin’ charge, always have been.”

“We’ll leave matters as is, then,” Ben said, rising from his chair. “Adam, I believe you know what needs doing, and I know I can count on you to have everything done when I return.”

“Of course, Pa.” Adam rose and escorted his father outside, with his brothers trailing in his wake, both making mocking faces behind his back.

Their faces were angelic by comparison as they bid their father a final farewell, but the masks quickly dropped when Adam swung around to give them an authoritative appraisal. “You both know what Pa wants accomplished today. I know that it seems like a daunting amount of work –”

“Doggone impossible,” Little Joe put in.

Adam stared him down and, when confident that he’d made his disapproval of interruption clear, began again, “However, I believe that if we each carry through our individual assignments, we can, at least, come close to finishing. Now, it only remains for me to distribute those assignments in the most efficient manner to accomplish that goal.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Little Joe snorted. “You’re gonna assign yourself to pick up supplies in town.”

Adam pursed his lips and again waited for perfect silence. “Since I also have to meet with the lawyer about the pending purchase of the Lunsford property, I certainly will need to go to town. I don’t want to remain longer than necessary, however, so I think it’s probably wise to take one of you with me to load the supplies. The other will remain here and begin tearing down the fence Pa wants replaced, and when we return from town, we’ll work together to finish the job. Fair enough?”

“I reckon,” Hoss said.

“Yeah, I guess,” Joe said. He smiled slyly. “Just in the interest of efficiency, though, wouldn’t you say it would be best to leave the strongest man here to wrestle those rotted fence posts?”

“Hey!” Hoss protested, knowing exactly who his younger brother was plotting to stick with that nasty job. “It takes strength to load supplies, too, you know.”

“Not as much,” Joe argued.

“Thank you so much for your sudden interest in efficient work, Joseph,” Adam announced airily. “However, I would prefer to have a sociable companion on that long drive into Virginia City, and your attitude this morning has been anything but sociable. Therefore, I’m going to assign you to the fencing job and take Hoss to town with me.”

“Aw, come on!” Joe protested.

Hoss grinned broadly. “You just gotta learn to be more sociable, little brother. Then folks’ll wanna be around you.”

“Folks don’t have any trouble bein’ around me…with the exception of a certain snooty one.” Little Joe scrunched his nose in Adam’s direction.

Adam offered his brother an arched eyebrow, accompanied by the superior smile the younger boy so much hated. “Unfortunately for you, it’s that one exception who’s choosing a companion, and it’s not going to be you. Now, the two of you need to get the buckboard hitched.”

“And what are you gonna be doin’?” Joe demanded. “Standin’ around to boss the job?”

Adam raised a warning finger. “I will be inside, putting together the papers I need to take to the lawyer, and I would strongly suggest that you use your time alone in the east pasture to work on your attitude because I do not intend to waste any more time today on these pointless questions.” He stalked toward the house without a backward look.

“I don’t intend to waste any more time on pointless questions,” Little Joe mocked in a sing-song as he and Hoss headed for the barn.

“Don’t push it, Joe,” Hoss advised. “Ol’ Adam’ll only take just so much sass before he comes up with some way to make you wish you’d kept your smart mouth shut.”

“Easy for you to say,” Joe grunted. “You’re goin’ to town!”

“Yeah, how ‘bout that?” Hoss chuckled in obvious glee. “See what can happen when you keep your mouth shut?” His face sobered, however, when he entered the barn and heard a moaning sound from the back stall. “Doggone,” he said as he hurried toward the bay mare lying there. “I knew her time was close, but I didn’t expect her to foal for a few days.”

Little Joe came quietly up behind him. “Hey there, Maybelle,” he soothed. “Don’t you fret none. Ain’t no better midwife on the place than Hoss here.”

Hoss glanced up to give his brother a worried smile as he ran his hands over the mare’s abdomen. “Wish she had a better one. Somethin’ don’t feel quite right. I got a feelin’ this is gonna take awhile.”

“Adam ain’t gonna like that,” Little Joe said with a shake of his head.

“Well, he’s just gonna have to deal with it,” Hoss said tersely, “‘cause I ain’t leavin’ this little gal ‘til I see her through this birthin’. Best go tell him, so’s he can decide how he wants to handle things.”

Little Joe groaned. “Okay, but if he kills the messenger, carve me a nice head marker, okay?”

“I ain’t got time for foolishness, Joe. Get goin’.”

“I’m goin’; I’m goin,” Joe said. To my own funeral, he added inwardly. He walked into the house and straight to Pa’s desk, where Adam sat, sorting papers and putting them inside a leather satchel. “Don’t blame the messenger,” he warned.

“What?” Adam looked up and frowned. “What are you doing in here? Did you leave Hoss to hitch the team alone?”

Little Joe’s lips fluttered as he exhaled in exasperation. “No one’s hitchin’ the team,” he said. “We ran into a little problem in the barn, and since you’re in charge, Hoss sent me to tell you and ask how you want things handled.” He congratulated himself on having thought to phrase it in a way that clearly pointed any irritation Adam might feel in Hoss’ direction.

Adam’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s the problem?”

“Don’t look at me like that! It ain’t my fault.”

Adam half-rose from his chair. “I said, ‘What’s the problem?’”

Joe took a deep gulp of air and rattled out in a single breath, “Maybelle’s havin’ her foal right now, and Hoss says he ain’t leavin’ her, on account of it looks like a hard birth that’ll take awhile, and so–”

Adam raised a hand to halt the cascade of words. “I get the picture.” His lips pursed as he sat back, and Little Joe could almost see the wheels turning. Finally, Adam sighed. “Well, it’s unfortunate, and it will definitely put us behind schedule, but it can’t be helped. I still have to leave for town right away, if I’m to be on time for my appointment, so I need you to hitch the team.” He heaved an even heavier sigh. “And I guess I’ll have to take you to town to do the loading. Otherwise, we won’t get any part of that fencing accomplished today.”

“Thanks all to pieces,” was Little Joe’s less-than-gracious response to what he considered a less-than gracious offer. Still, a trip to town was a trip to town, any way it came, so he hurried outside to hitch the team and be ready to leave when Adam came out.

*****

Adam pulled the buckboard up in front of Jenkins Lumberyard. “Now, as soon as you finish loading here, drive up to Cass’s Mercantile and get everything on Hop Sing’s list and a keg of ten-penny nails. You do still have the list?”

“I’m not six, Adam,” Joe complained.

“Do you have the list?” Adam repeated.

Little Joe patted his pocket. “Yeah, I got the list. You want I should add a nickel’s worth of sweetenin’ to it? Sour as you been this mornin’, though, maybe we oughta make it a dollar’s worth, at least.”

Adam snorted. “A gold eagle wouldn’t buy enough candy to sweeten your attitude, boy. Just get the supplies loaded and wait for me by the wagon.”

“Aw, come on, Adam!” Joe protested. “Ain’t no tellin’ how long you’ll be with that long-winded lawyer, and ain’t no reason for me to stand out in the hot sun, when you could just as easy meet me down at the Silver Dollar.”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t have time to haul three irate miners off your bruised and battered carcass.”

“I’m not lookin’ for trouble; I’m just gonna have a drink.”

Adam leaned in, nose to nose with his younger brother. “You’re just gonna do as you’re told: load the supplies and nothing else. Understood?”

Joe blew a veritable gale at his brother’s long, New England nose. “Yeah, I heard you.”

*****

Little Joe placed the last crate in the buckboard and, taking off his hat, swiped the trickling sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He glanced down the street and shook his head. Just like he’d figured, no sign of Adam. Well, blamed if he was gonna just perch on that wagon seat with nothing to do but wipe off more sweat every few minutes, while Adam took his good, easy time in a cool—Joe grinned wryly. With both Hiram Woods and brother Adam filling the room with hot air, it wasn’t likely to be any cooler in that office than on the street, and Joe didn’t feel even a spark of guilt over the perverse pleasure that thought gave him.

Who did his brother think he was, anyway, to be telling a grown man when he could or couldn’t take a drink? Joe’s steps automatically turned toward the Silver Dollar as he ruminated on that, and before he could formulate an answer that would sound good to anyone other than himself, he was pushing aside the batwings of the saloon and ambling over to the bar. “Coldest beer you got, Cosmo,” he requested, slapping a two-bit piece on the counter.

The bartender drew a mug of suds and slid it toward his customer. “There you go, Joe. Colder’n dishwater, at least,” he chuckled.

Little Joe took a sip and grimaced. Cosmo had spoken the truth, but not by much. Turning his back to the bar and propping his elbows on it, he surveyed the room as he took a second sip of the beer. In the far corner a poker game was underway. Chances were he didn’t have time to join in, but at least he could watch a hand or two, maybe pick up a few pointers. Adam always said he was the worst poker player on the Comstock, and much as it irked Joe to admit it, older brother wasn’t far wrong on that one. Getting educated on the subject was probably the best use he could make of the time while he waited on Adam. In fact, as high as ole Adam prized education, he might even approve. Yeah, right.

Joe slowly sauntered back to the table and stood leaning against the wall, sipping beer and studying the cards of the two men whose hands he could see. One of them had no business betting at all with the cards he’d drawn; the other had, as best Joe could judge, the sort of mediocre hand that could go either way. He had a pair of deuces, which probably wouldn’t win anything unless he could draw another or, preferably, two to go with it. Joe figured, if he were playing, he’d place a moderate bet and hope to bluff everyone else into folding. Might work if he could develop the kind of poker face that usually stood older brother in such good stead. Satisfied with his analysis, he gave a crisp nod. When he saw the eyes of the deuce-holder narrow at him, he practiced his poker face and took another sip of beer.

The hand played out, with both of the men he was watching betting more than he thought wise and both losing. Suddenly, the man who had held the deuces jumped out of his seat and pointed across the table. “Mister, you’re a cheat,” he accused, “and your partner gives bad signals.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in Joe’s direction.

“Hey, no,” Joe protested. “I don’t even know that man.”

The accused player stood. “Nobody’s cheating. You lost fair and square, mister, so just leave your bet on the table and take off.”

The loser turned and threw a powerful punch at the closest target, Joe’s jaw. Joe fought back, of course, and everyone at the table soon picked a side. Fists flew in all directions until no one knew for sure just who was fighting whom. The melee went unchecked for several minutes and then a single shotgun blast froze everyone, some in mid-blow.

“What’s going on here?” the lawman demanded.

“Cheaters, working cahoots,” the original accuser spat out, pointing to the two he considered the perpetrators.

Little Joe clambered up from the floor. “I wasn’t doing anything but watching!” He pointed back at the man pointing at him. “He took a swing at me for no reason, Roy.”

“That’s Sheriff Coffee to you, boy,” Roy said.

“But, Roy– I mean, Sheriff Coffee — you know me; you know I wouldn’t –”

“Can’t play favorites. Now, all of you men, march out of here and get on down to the jail,” the sheriff ordered. “We’ll sort this out there.” As Joe filed past him, he shook his head. “Your pa’s gonna be mighty disappointed in you, boy.”

Joe sighed heavily as his feet dragged down the dusty street. Pa wasn’t the half of his problems. It was Adam he had to worry about today, and Adam sometimes –most times, in truth — could be worse than Pa on his worst day.

*****

The meeting with Hiram Woods had taken even longer than Adam had feared, so he all but trotted down the street as soon as the papers were signed. Spotting the unoccupied buckboard parked in front of Cass’s Mercantile, he wasn’t surprised that his young brother had failed to follow to the letter his instruction to stay by the wagon. Letter of the law was not in Little Joe’s vocabulary to begin with, and the heat had grown more sweltering by the hour. Staying inside, probably dazzling the other customers (especially the female ones) with his charm, was the more reasonable course, and Adam didn’t blame Joe for taking it. When he entered the store and did not see the curly-headed charmer, however, his jaw hardened. That scoundrel! That inconsiderate, order-ignoring, time-wasting scoundrel!

Adam had a good idea where the boy had gone, of course. He’d mentioned getting a drink earlier at — which saloon? Oh, yes, the Silver Dollar. No doubt he’d find Joe there, hopefully in one piece, although Adam wasn’t sure he could promise his irritating little brother would stay that way, once he found him. He checked with Will Cass to see how long ago Joe had left and headed down C Street, muttering under his breath. A full hour, time to drink himself under the table, Adam concluded, conveniently forgetting that Little Joe almost never had more than one beer and rarely finished even that one.

Steam built as he stalked down the street, and by the time he flung the saloon doors apart, he was ready to tear his little brother limb from limb, the only deterrent being that there was no little brother in sight. There was, however, evidence of some sort of scuffle, and he sighed in the almost certain knowledge that Little Joe had had something to do with the disorder of the room that the bartender was working to put right. “Any chance my brother wasn’t involved in this?” he asked Cosmo.

Cosmo straightened up. “He was involved,” he said. “Not sure how, exactly, but he was involved, Adam.”

Adam nodded and asked, “What are the damages?”

The bartender shrugged. “Not much. Just a few broken mugs and the trouble of cleaning it up.”

Adam took a double eagle from his pocket. “That about cover Joe’s share?”

Cosmo pocketed the twenty-dollar gold piece. “It’ll do. Sheriff Coffee took him and the others down to the jail, if you’re wondering.”

“Should probably just leave him there,” Adam grunted, “but the pleasure isn’t worth explaining it to Pa. Thanks, Cosmo.”

The bartender raised a hand in farewell and went back to his cleaning.

Adam was huffing as he headed back up C Street to the Sheriff’s office. Half the day gone already, and they hadn’t even started on the fencing! Hopefully, he could sweet talk Roy into letting the kid out of jail and they could get back to the Ponderosa in time to put a few rails in place, especially since Hoss should be free by now to add his muscle to the job. He paused outside the jailhouse door to take a deep, calming breath; then he walked in with the appearance, at least, of a man confident of getting what he wanted. “I understand you have my young brother incarcerated here, Roy,” he said to the lawman. “I don’t doubt he deserves it, but sad to say, I do need his help at home this afternoon. What’ll it take to get him released?”

“Bail?” Roy asked, scratching his head. “Well, I don’t know, Adam.”

“Come on, Roy,” Adam said in his most persuasive voice. “I’ve already paid Cosmo for the damage, and breaking a few beer mugs shouldn’t count as more than a misdemeanor, anyway.”

“No bail required for that, if the damage has been paid,” Roy conceded, “but cheating at cards is another matter, Adam.”

“Cheating at…he was playing cards?” Adam exploded. He would kill the kid as soon as he got him out of sight of the law, he really would.

“Not playing, exactly,” Roy said. “What he’s been accused of is passing signals to someone who was.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Adam said. Irritated as he was with Little Joe, he knew his brother was incapable of that level of dishonesty. “He wouldn’t do that, Roy. You know he wouldn’t!”

“I don’t think he would,” Roy agreed, “but I can’t play favorites, Adam. He’s been accused; he’ll have to answer the charge.”

“But not today,” Adam insisted. “Surely, it’s not such a grave charge that you can’t let him out on bail. I’ll haul him into court myself, when the time comes.” At the end of a rope, if I have to! “I really need to take him home, Roy,” he repeated.

Roy nodded. “All right, Adam. I ain’t playin’ favorites, but I know I can trust you, so I’ll set bail.”

“Thank you,” Adam said and, without visibly flinching at the amount, laid down the price of his brother’s release. No amount of his famous control, however, could mask his discontent with the young man soon escorted out of the cell block. As Little Joe collected his personal items from the sheriff, Adam turned without a word and walked outside.

“I didn’t do anything,” Little Joe said as soon as he came through the door.

Adam snorted. “That might depend on how you define ‘anything.’”

“I didn’t cheat,” Joe snapped. “I wasn’t even playing.”

“I know that,” Adam snapped right back, “but you didn’t stay by the wagon, either, did you, boy? And if you had done as I said, this whole, time-wasting fiasco would never have happened!”

“What you said was unreasonable,” Little Joe tossed back.

Adam sighed heavily. “I don’t have time to argue the point. We’re going to get that wagon and head home, in the hopes of getting at least one fencepost planted before sunset!”

Little Joe rolled his eyes. If that’s all they accomplished, they might as well leave the entire chore until tomorrow, but he figured his life might be forfeit if he voiced that particular piece of logic. “Sure,” he said. “Soon as we get a bite to eat, huh?”

Adam uttered a rough laugh. “You’ve spent your lunch hour — and mine, too, for that matter. If you’re starving, grab something at the mercantile that you can eat on the road.”

Trailing in his brother’s wake, Little Joe exhaled gustily. Should’ve just stayed in Roy’s lockup, he thought. At least, they feed prisoners.

*****

Little Joe had never been happier to see the Ponderosa ranch yard. The trip from Virginia City had probably been the most wordless the oldest and youngest Cartwright brothers had ever traveled together. Joe had ventured one question about how the visit with the family lawyer had gone, only to have Adam give him a solemn stare and laconically respond, “Slowly.” To avoid further remarks about the loss of time, the younger man had been content to let silence descend like a shroud over the rest of the road.

Now, however, he jumped off the buckboard, even before Adam could rein in the slow-plodding team. “I’m gonna see how Hoss and Maybelle are makin’ out.”

Adam chuffed wryly as he shook his head. If that mare hadn’t foaled by now, she’d been in more trouble than even his skilled middle brother could handle. His mouth suddenly twisted into a full frown, for if that were the case, it was no laughing matter. He moved to the back of the wagon and, throwing a scowl at the back of the brother who should have been helping him, began unloading the household supplies.

Little Joe hustled into the barn to see Hoss gently rubbing the flank of the mare, who was nuzzling a spindly colt. “Hey, he’s a pretty one,” Joe said, walking softly up to the stall.

“Yeah,” Hoss murmured with a side glance at the colt.

Little Joe couldn’t decide whether his older brother looked worried or just worn out. “Everything go okay?” he asked.

“Okay about sums it up,” Hoss muttered. He looked up and noticed the tightening lines in his brother’s forehead. “Everything’s all right now,” he said. “Leastways, I think so. Maybelle had a real rough time, though.”

Little Joe gave the horse a sympathetic stroke from forehead to muzzle. “Things have been rough all over today.”

Hoss grinned slightly. “Yeah, I noticed. What kind of orneriness you been up to, shortshanks?”

Palm pressed to his chest, Little Joe adopted a visage of supreme innocence. “Me? I didn’t do much of anything…and that’s the honest truth.”

“Uh-huh,” Hoss returned skeptically. “Them bruises on your face says different.”

Joe gingerly touched his tender jaw. “I didn’t start it.”

Hoss chuckled. “Just tell me it wasn’t you and Adam, scrappin’ in town.”

“We scrapped, but only with words.” Little Joe sighed. “He’s wantin’ to get started right away on that fencing. You gonna be ready soon or do I get to be the messenger of bad news again?”

“I kinda hate to leave her just yet,” Hoss admitted. “I’ll tell older brother, if you want.”

Joe shrugged. “Might as well be me, seein’ as how I’m already on his bad side. You just take good care of mama and baby, Doc.”

“Thanks,” Hoss said, and his attention immediately returned to Maybelle.

Steps dragging, Little Joe made his way to the house. He had no desire to be on the receiving end of Adam’s ire when he heard that it was just the two of them to do a job that needed all three Cartwright brothers and, even then, about twice as much time as the remainder of the day held. He came through the door just in time to see Adam round the corner from the dining room, sandwich in hand. “Don’t kill the messenger,” he sighed.

Adam stopped short, for he remembered hearing those same words earlier. “Don’t tell me that horse still hasn’t foaled.”

“No, she has,” Little Joe reported, “but she had a real rough birthin’ and Hoss don’t wanna leave her.” He gave Adam a weak grin. “Just me and you again, older brother.”

The exasperation Adam exhaled was almost storm-strength. “Well, let’s get to it, then.”

“Soon as I get a bite to eat.”

“You had a rather hefty hunk of sausage in town, as I recall,” Adam snorted.

“I’m a growin’ boy, Adam!”

“Oh, for the love of mercy, at least make it a fast bite,” Adam growled through gritted teeth.

“Doggone it, Adam, this is not my fault!” Joe planted his hands on his hips. “And if you’d really wanted to save time, you could’ve had Hop Sing make me a sandwich when he made yours.”

“Look, Joe, you can either have food or you can argue. Take your pick,” Adam said, “because we don’t have time for both. And for your information, Hop Sing is busy with the laundry out back, so you’ll have to make your own sandwich, same as I did.”

Lips pursed grimly, Little Joe stalked toward the kitchen. He cut two slices of bread and one of cold roast beef he found in the pantry, slapped them together and hurried outside. Considering the mood Adam was in, he figured eating on the wagon was the smartest choice he’d made all day.

*****

Pulling up alongside the damaged fence, Adam let the reins drop between his legs as he shook his head. “Worse than I figured,” he muttered. “We won’t more than make a good start today.”

“Why bother?” Little Joe asked.

“Because I, for one, care about our cattle!” Adam snapped as he stepped down from the buckboard.

Little Joe vaulted off to glare at his brother. “Are you sayin’ I don’t?”

“Didn’t sound much like it,” Adam returned, arms folded.

“That’s not what I meant,” Joe sputtered. “I’m just sayin’ we might as well wait ‘til tomorrow, ‘cause like you said, we won’t much more’n get started today. Why not do the whole job at once?”

“Believe me, it’s tempting,” Adam sighed, “but if today proves anything, it’s that we can’t count on things going the way we want tomorrow, either.”

Little Joe snorted. “You’re just scared that Pa won’t leave you in charge next time if you aren’t your usual perfect self every time he does.”

“I fear no such thing,” Adam said, every word delivered with razor-stropped precision, “and I have had just about all the backtalk I intend to take from you, little brother. Let’s get to work.”

Little Joe started to answer back, but a sudden recollection made him clamp his mouth shut. “Ol’ Adam’ll only take just so much sass before he comes up with some way to make you wish you’d kept your smart mouth shut,” Hoss had said that morning, and right about now Joe figured he could take that for pure gospel. He had been piling up the backtalk all day, he realized, and while he didn’t regret a word of it, he instinctively knew that this was a time to prove the proverb about silence being golden. Besides, there were better ways of getting around ole Adam.

Like his brother, Joe took a shovel from the back of the buckboard; unlike Adam, he moseyed over to the fence with all the urgency of a schoolboy called in from recess. That, too, was about the pace with which he dug out the rotted fence posts and widened the holes to receive the new ones. He managed about one post to Adam’s two, though the ratio would probably have been more like one to three had Adam not wasted his rapidly waning energy in building the steam that regularly blasted out both nostrils and both ears. When, as they were loading up to return home, Adam commented on how little they’d accomplished that afternoon, Little Joe just shrugged, a silent (and, therefore, less reproachable) means of saying, “I told you so.”

They pulled into the ranch yard just past sunset. The front door opened, and Hoss called back over his shoulder, “It’s them, Pa.” Then he came outside. “I’ll unhitch the team,” he offered. “You best get inside and get washed up for supper. Hop Sing’s fit to be tied.”

“Is he threatening to ‘thlow away’ yet?” Little Joe chuckled.

“No, and you better be glad, little brother,” Hoss teased back, “else I’d be tempted to throw you away, instead.”

“Better him than the meat,” Adam grunted, and there wasn’t an ounce of jest in his voice as he stalked toward the house.

Hoss eyed his little brother with what passed, for him, as severe disapproval. “What you done to rile Adam this time?”

“I ain’t passed two words with him all afternoon,” Little Joe protested, adopting his usual countenance of cherubic innocence.

“That ain’t what I asked,” Hoss said bluntly.

The angelic countenance cracked enough to let a little of the inner imp peek through. “All I did was work a mite slower than that old slave driver thought I ought.”

“Uh-huh.” Hoss shook his head. He had good reason to know exactly what “a mite slower” looked like on his little brother. “Can’t hardly blame him for bein’ riled if you didn’t do your share, Little Joe,” he said, and his disappointment was evident.

Honest chagrin twisted Little Joe’s face. “Yeah, I guess I did shirk some, but I just plain didn’t see the point of pushin’ ourselves to start a job we couldn’t finish ‘til tomorrow, anyway.”

“You weren’t in charge,” Hoss pointed out. “Reckon you better get inside before Adam plumb burns Pa’s ears with your orneriness.”

Little Joe groaned. Adam generally didn’t play tattletale unless he figured it was for your own good. Trouble was, you never knew when he’d take a notion that it was, and he’d already had enough time alone with Pa for such notions to take root. Joe practically ran to the house and rushed inside.

Looking up from his conversation with Adam, Ben frowned. Then he sighed heavily. “All right, Joseph, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Joe moistened his suddenly dry lips. “Look, Pa, I don’t know what Adam’s been sayin’…”

“Nothing,” Ben inserted. “Your brother hasn’t said a word about you, young man, but I know a guilty face when I see one.”

Little Joe closed his eyes and shook his head. No wonder Adam rarely needed to tattle on him; he did a first class job of that all by himself! He launched into a litany of all the extenuating circumstances (with emphasis on Adam’s complete unreasonableness) and when that failed to make the slightest impression on his father, he concluded by saying, “Okay, Pa, I admit I didn’t work as hard as I could have, but I’ll do better tomorrow.”

“I would certainly hope so,” Adam said, his eyebrow rising with satisfaction at having the last word. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the last word: Pa had that, and it wasn’t just one.

*****

“Up and at ‘em, little brother.” The words seemed to echo from far down a tunnel, much too distant to be heeded. Little Joe turned his head and snuggled into his downy pillow. “Joseph.” Closer, a bit louder and grumpier this time, but still imminently ignorable. He burrowed deeper.

Suddenly an ocean wave crashed against his face and he jolted upright, sputtering, “Again? Don’t you ever get tired of the same old meanness?”

Hoss stood over him, holding an empty glass and grinning. “You think that was meanness? Wait’ll you see what Pa does to you if you don’t get downstairs right quick. Gotta give us our little talkin’ to before he takes off, you know.”

“Huh?” Little Joe swiped the water from his cheeks as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Pa goin’ somewhere again today?”

Looking perturbed, Hoss shook his head. “Little brother, don’t you never pay attention when Pa’s talkin’?”

Little Joe shrugged. He sure didn’t remember Pa saying anything about another trip away from the ranch, but then he couldn’t remember much about last night’s little lecture, other than that Pa was mighty disappointed in him, just like Sheriff Coffee had predicted. Wanting to start today on a better foot, he stumbled over to the washbasin and gave his face a scrupulous scrubbing. Then he brushed his hair neatly and dressed quickly, though he spared one extra moment to make sure that his shirt was properly tucked in, all the way around. To make up for lost time, he took the stairs two at a time.

“Joseph, when will you learn to walk, not run, down the stairs?” his father scolded as Joe crossed the room.

Though tempted to argue that there was a huge difference between a trot and a dead run, Little Joe opted for prudence. “Sorry, Pa. Just didn’t want to keep you waiting, since Hoss said you had something important to say.” He searched the table as he slid into his place. “Hey, where’s the bacon?” Then his eyes narrowed as he caught sight of Hoss’ heaped plate. “Did you have to take it all?” he complained.

“Needed extra fuel after roustin’ you out of bed,” Hoss chuckled.

“Early bird gets the bacon,” Adam chirped. “And when the bird is that size…”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Joseph,” Ben said, a hint of warning in his voice.

“It’s not fair, Pa,” Joe protested.

“If you want more, come to the table on time,” his father said bluntly. “Now, if I could have your attention, please, I have a few things to say and very little time before I need to leave.”

Little Joe straightened up to indicate that Pa did, indeed, have his full attention.

With a nod of half-grudging approval, Ben said, “Now, I expect to return from Carson City tonight; however, in case the legislature’s discussion runs longer than intended and I’m forced to stay over, I feel I should follow my usual policy of leaving one of you in charge during my absence.”

“I don’t understand,” Little Joe said slowly.

Ben stared in displeasure at the interruption. “Joseph, you are well aware that I always leave one of you boys in charge whenever I’m away.”

“Yeah, I know,” Joe said, adding with a sigh, “and I know it’ll be Adam, ‘cause it always is, but why are you goin’ back to Carson? Didn’t you finish that up yesterday?”

“Yesterday?” Hoss’ mouth dropped, while Adam simply stretched out his arm to rest his palm against his youngest brother’s forehead.

Little Joe slapped it away.

“He doesn’t appear to be feverish,” Adam said dryly.

“Of course, I’m not feverish! I just asked a simple question, and you’re all actin’ like I’d said something crazy.”

“Sun-touched,” Hoss opined.

“He hasn’t been outside yet,” Adam pointed out.

Ben cleared his throat. “I don’t have time for this nonsense. As I was saying, in view of all that needs to be accomplished today, I believe it would be best if I left Adam in charge.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes, but refrained from further comment. If his family was determined to be contrary, just to get his dander up, he didn’t feel obliged to play along.

Ben rose from his chair. “Adam, I believe you know what needs doing, and I know I can count on you to have everything done when I return.”

“Of course, Pa.” Adam rose and escorted his father outside, with his brothers trailing in his wake, both making mocking faces behind his back.

Their faces were angelic by comparison as they bid their father a final farewell, but the masks quickly dropped when Adam swung around to give them an authoritative appraisal. “You both know what Pa wants accomplished today. I know that it seems like a daunting amount of work…”

Little Joe stared at him, mouth gaping. “How do you do that?”

“How do I do what?” Adam asked sharply.

“Remember every little word you said yesterday.”

Adam stared back, speechless. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, boy, but I do not appreciate being interrupted. As I said, the work load is daunting, but I believe that if we each carry through our individual assignments, we can, at least, come close to finishing. Now, it only remains for me to distribute those assignments in the most efficient manner to accomplish that goal.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Little Joe snickered. “You’re gonna assign yourself to pick up supplies in town, on account of needin’ to meet with the lawyer about the Lunsford property—again!”

“Again?” Adam glared at the younger man. “We don’t have time for foolishness, Joe.”

“Then quit playin’ me for a fool,” Little Joe demanded, planting doubled fists on his hips. “It’s gettin’ old.”

Adam glanced at Hoss, who shrugged both shoulders and looked as stupefied as Adam himself. Then drawing himself up with all the authority of the firstborn, Adam said, “I think you might benefit from some time meditating in the east pasture, younger brother, so you can begin tearing down the fence Pa wants replaced, and when Hoss and I get back from town, we’ll work together to finish the job.”

“Hot diggity! I’m goin’ to town!” Hoss crowed.

Little Joe’s upper lip curled. Well, at least, Adam hadn’t repeated that dreary speech about sociability today.

“You two need to get the buckboard hitched while I put together the papers for the lawyer,” Adam said, turning immediately toward the house.

“How far’s he gonna carry this joke?” Little Joe asked as he and Hoss headed for the barn.

“What joke?” Hoss asked. A moaning sound from the back stall distracted him. “Doggone,” he said as he hurried toward the bay mare lying there. “I knew her time was close, but I didn’t expect her to foal for a few days.”

Rooted just outside the stall, Little Joe stared, wide-eyed, at the big-bellied mare. It wasn’t possible. Even if Pa, Adam and Hoss had all three gone into cahoots to teach him some sort of lesson, there was no way they could have gotten Maybelle to go along. Once born, a colt didn’t just crawl back inside his mama. Something really strange was going on here. “Uh, Hoss,” he asked, voice quavering, “what day is it?”

“Joseph,” Hoss growled as he ran concerned hands over the mare’s abdomen. “This ain’t the time for foolin’ around.”

“Humor me,” Joe pleaded. “I’m feelin’ a mite off-kilter today, Hoss.”

Hoss shook his head and apparently decided the quickest way to deal with Joe’s nonsense was just to answer him. “It’s Monday, of course. And you ain’t the only thing off-kilter. Somethin’ don’t feel quite right. I got a feelin’ this is gonna take awhile.”

“Pretty sure you’re right,” Joe sighed. “Guess I’d better tell Adam.”

“Yeah,” Hoss muttered, “‘cause I ain’t leavin’ this little gal ‘til I see her through this birthin’.”

Questions tumbling around in his confused head, Little Joe walked slowly back to the house. Today was Monday? How could it be when yesterday was Monday? Did he just dream all that trouble yesterday? Or was yesterday real and today the dream? None of it made sense.

Still lost in thought, he stumbled through the door and rounded the corner to Pa’s desk, where Adam sat, sorting papers and putting them inside a leather satchel, same as yesterday — today? Mindlessly, Joe babbled out the same words as… whenever, “Don’t blame the messenger.”

“What?” Adam looked up and frowned. “What are you doing in here? Did you leave Hoss to hitch the team alone?”

“We ran into a little problem in the barn,” Joe began, “and since you’re in charge, Hoss sent” — he frowned. Hoss hadn’t sent him today. That was yester — uh, the first today. “That is, I knew you’d need to know, so you could decide how to handle things.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s the problem?”

Joe took a deep breath and rattled out in a single breath, “Maybelle’s havin’ her foal right now, and Hoss says he ain’t leavin’ her, on account of it looks like a hard birth that’ll take awhile, and so–”

Adam raised a hand to halt the cascade of words. “I get the picture.” His lips pursed as he sat back, and Little Joe could almost see the wheels turning. Finally, Adam sighed. “Well, it’s unfortunate, and it will definitely put us behind schedule, but it can’t be helped. I still have to leave for town right away, if I’m to be on time for my appointment, so I need you to hitch the team.” He heaved an even heavier sigh. “And I guess I’ll have to take you to town to do the loading. Otherwise, we’ll won’t get any part of that fencing accomplished today.”

Joe scratched his head. “Yeah, I figured you’d say…somethin’ like that.”

*****

Adam pulled the buckboard up in front of Jenkins Lumberyard. “Now, as soon as you finish loading here, drive up to Cass’s Mercantile and get everything on Hop Sing’s list and a keg of ten-penny nails. You do still have the list?”

“I’m not six, Adam,” Joe complained. He figured it was a point worth making a second time, especially if he’d only dreamed that he’d said it yesterday.

“Do you have the list?” Adam repeated.

Little Joe patted his pocket. “Yeah, I got the list.”

“All right. Just get the supplies loaded and wait for me by the wagon.”

Joe’s lips fluttered as he exhaled in exasperation. “Look, Adam, this is gonna take a lot longer than you figure and…”

“And how would you know that?” Adam asked loftily. “Have you suddenly developed the gift of clairvoyance?”

Little Joe’s forehead wrinkled as his mouth skewed first one way and then the other. “Maybe,” he said.

“Just do as you’re told,” Adam said in a tone that was no suggestion. “Load the supplies and nothing else. Understood?”

Joe blew a veritable gale at his brother’s long, New England nose. “Yeah, I heard you.”

*****

Little Joe placed the last crate in the buckboard and, taking off his hat, swiped the trickling sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He glanced down the street and shook his head. It didn’t take guesswork to know what he’d see — namely, no sign of Adam. Well, same as the dream Monday — or was it the real one? — he didn’t see the point in just perching on the wagon seat with nothing to do but wipe off more sweat every few minutes. No, a man needed a drink on a day as hot as this and blamed if he was gonna let Adam order him around like some half-grown kid. His steps automatically turned toward the Silver Dollar.

He pushed aside the batwings of the saloon and ambled over to the bar. “Coldest beer you got, Cosmo,” he requested, slapping a two-bit piece on the counter, “even if it is barely colder than dishwater.”

Cosmo chuckled as he drew a mug of suds and slid it toward his customer. “That’s about what it is. There you go, Joe.”

Little Joe took a sip, grimaced and turned his back to the bar, propping his elbows on it, and surveyed the room. In the far corner a poker game was underway—the same poker game with the same players, dressed in the same clothes. What were the chances the cards were any different? He slowly sauntered back to the table, but at the last minute walked to the opposite side from the stance he’d taken before. At least, no one could accuse him of passing signals today! He sipped his beer as he watched the two players across the table place the same bets and was just waiting for the deuces-holder to jump up and yell, “Mister, you’re a cheat” when he noticed the soon-to-be-accused man palm one card and pull a different one from his sleeve. “Hey, he is cheating!” Joe sputtered, beer spraying the back of the man’s head.

“I knew it!” the deuces-holder declared, springing to his feet.

The accused player stood. “You lost fair and square, mister, so just leave your bet on the table and take off.”

“You’re a cheat,” the other man shouted, “and that man can bear witness.” He pointed straight at Little Joe.

The accused turned and launched a swift uppercut at Joe’s jaw. Joe fought back, of course, and everyone at the table soon picked a side. Fists flew in all directions until no one knew for sure just who was fighting whom. The melee went unchecked for several minutes and then a single shotgun blast froze everyone, some in mid-blow.

“What’s going on here?” the lawman demanded.

Several voices shouted at once, Joe’s among them, each pointing fingers in sundry directions and assigning blame where they thought it was due.

“All of you men, march out of here and get on down to the jail,” the sheriff finally ordered. “We’ll sort this out there.” As Joe filed past him, he shook his head. “Your pa’s gonna be mighty disappointed in you, boy.”

Joe sighed heavily as his feet dragged down the dusty street. He had good reason to know just how disappointed Pa would be — not to mention Adam.

*****

Adam was huffing as he headed back up C Street to the Sheriff’s office. Half the day gone already, and they hadn’t even started on the fencing! Hopefully, he could sweet talk Roy into letting the kid out of jail and they could get back to the Ponderosa in time to put a few rails in place. He paused outside the jailhouse door to take a deep, calming breath; then he walked in with the appearance, at least, of a man confident of getting what he wanted. “I understand you have my young brother incarcerated here, Roy,” he said to the lawman. “I don’t doubt he deserves it, but sad to say, I do need his help at home this afternoon. What’ll it take to get him released?”

“Bail?” Roy asked, scratching his head. “Well, from what my investigation shows so far, ain’t no charges to be filed against Joe. Did his share of damage over at the saloon, I reckon, but if you settle that, I’ll willing to let him go…so long as he shows up for the trial.”

Adam’s eyebrows came together in a glowering line. “What trial? And, more importantly, when?”

“Easy, son, easy,” the sheriff urged. “Fact is, young Joe has made an accusation against a man for cheating at cards, and…”

“Cheating at…he was playing cards?” Adam exploded. He would kill the kid as soon as he got him out of sight of the law, he really would.

“No, not playing, not from what I hear,” Roy said. “Claims he was watchin’ the game and saw some shifty card handling.”

“You want him as a witness, then,” Adam surmised. “When?”

“Probably next week. I’ll let you know.”

“You can let him go then,” Adam said. “I’ve already paid Cosmo for the damage.”

“Fair enough,” Roy agreed and headed back to the cell block.

As Little Joe collected his personal items from the sheriff, Adam turned without a word and walked outside.

“I didn’t do anything,” Little Joe said as soon as he came through the door.

Adam snorted. “That might depend on how you define ‘anything.’”

“All I did was call a man out for cheating,” Joe snapped.

“I know that,” Adam snapped right back, “but you didn’t stay by the wagon, did you, boy? And if you had done as I said, this whole, time-wasting fiasco would never have happened!”

“What you said was unreasonable,” Little Joe tossed back — again.

Adam sighed heavily. “I don’t have time to argue the point. We’re going to get that wagon and head home, in the hopes of getting at least one fencepost planted before sunset!”

Little Joe rolled his eyes as he remembered the way this conversation had gone before. “Sure,” he said. “Don’t suppose there’s any chance of gettin’ a bite to eat?”

Adam uttered a rough laugh. “You’ve spent your lunch hour—and mine, too, for that matter. If you’re starving, grab something at the mercantile that you can eat on the road.”

Trailing in his brother’s wake, Little Joe exhaled gustily. Somehow, he’d known Adam would say that…exactly that.

*****

The trip from Virginia City was even more silent than the previous one. Joe didn’t bother asking how the visit with the family lawyer had gone, because he already knew, and he didn’t say anything else because he had too much to think over. Why Adam also kept his mouth muzzled was anybody’s guess, but this time Joe decided to take refuge in the old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie. He was afraid that once Adam’s mouth got working, it might not stop until sometime close to Christmas, when peace on earth, goodwill toward brothers had some chance of making an appearance.

As soon as the buckboard entered the Ponderosa yard, Joe jumped off, grabbed a crate from the back of the wagon and carried it toward the house. Despite the sausage he’d gobbled down on the way home, he was hungry again, and he wanted to make himself a more substantial sandwich than he’d had time for last time. Adam picked up another crate and followed Joe in. “Hoss?” he called as he entered.

“He’s in the barn,” Little Joe said, setting the crate on the table and heading for the pantry.

“What makes you think that?” Adam asked.

Little Joe bit his lower lip. “Uh, I don’t know. Just figured, maybe, he’d still be with Maybelle,” he said weakly. The one thing he had managed to determine on the way home was that he’d be wise to keep whatever he knew about upcoming events of the day to himself. He’d started the morning with Adam thinking he was half-delirious, and he didn’t want to end the afternoon with his brother convinced that he’d gone from fever-crazed to full-blown insane.

“Surely that mare has foaled by this time.” Adam leaned through the door into the dining room and called again, “Hoss!” He shook his head at the silence that was the only response. Turning back to Joe, he asked, “Go check the barn, would you?”

“I’m making a sandwich,” Joe said, midway through cutting off a slice of bread.

“I’ll make one for both of us,” Adam offered. “Just see if he’s still out there. Maybe we got lucky, and he headed on out to start the fencing.”

“Not likely,” Joe muttered. Seeing Adam’s look of irritation, he put down the knife and raised both hands, palms out. “I’ll check, though.” At the door he said over his shoulder, “I want cheese on mine.”

Adam nodded as he picked up the knife.

Wanting to give himself time to choose the best way to replay this scene, Little Joe walked slowly toward the barn. Just say what he had before? He couldn’t remember having riled Hoss with anything he’d said, so that was probably safer than coming up with something new and chancing that he might give away what he already knew. Now, if he could just remember what he’d said! Something like . . . “Hey, he’s a pretty one,” he said, walking softly up to the stall where Hoss was gently rubbing Maybelle’s flank.

“How’d it go?” Joe asked. He wasn’t sure it was what he’d said before, but it seemed like a safe enough question.

“Maybelle had a real rough time,” Hoss said, “but I think she’s gonna be all right.”

“The colt, too?” Little Joe realized, with some chagrin, that he hadn’t asked that before and probably should have.

Hoss looked fondly at the spindly colt. “Yeah. Mite under-sized, but that just might be what saved Maybelle in the long run.”

Little Joe gave the mare a sympathetic stroke from forehead to muzzle. “So, you wanna stay with her, instead of helpin’ us with the fencing, right?” Suddenly fearing he’d said too much, he added hastily, “I mean, I’m just guessin’, but…”

Hoss gave his younger brother a grateful look and only then noticed the boy’s face. “What kind of scrap you get yourself into this time?”

“Pretty rough one,” Joe admitted. Watching the game from the opposite side of the poker table had, at least, kept him from bein’ charged himself, but his body had taken a rougher battering from today’s fight, the cheater and his pals bein’ a burlier lot than the ones who’d done the attacking before. “Teach me to be a Good Samaritan, I guess.”

Hoss chuckled. “You ain’t had enough experience to pick and choose the right folks to help out, shortshanks.”

“Oh, like you do?” Joe thrust back with a grin. Everyone on the Comstock knew that when it came to playing Good Samaritan, Hoss Cartwright did no picking and choosing whatsoever. He just helped every stray man, woman or flea-bitten dog he came across. “Well, if it’s just me and Adam doin’ the fencin’, I’d best get back in and deliver the bad news. Older brother is in no mood to be kept waitin’.”

“Never is,” Hoss said, and his attention immediately returned to Maybelle.

*****

Pulling up alongside the damaged fence, Adam let the reins drop between his legs as he shook his head. “Worse than I figured,” he muttered. “We won’t more than make a good start today.”

“That’s for sure,” Joe muttered.

“What’s that?” Adam demanded as he stepped down from the buckboard and stared back at his brother.

Little Joe waved a conciliatory hand. “Just sayin’ you sized it up right, that’s all.”

“Well, you could look a little more concerned,” Adam grunted as he moved toward the back of the wagon to get a shovel.

Little Joe shrugged. He’d done his best to stay on Adam’s good side today:  cut out most of the backtalk, delivered the bad news without any admonitions not to kill the messenger (at least, the second time) and not whined once about making this pointless trip out to the fence line. It might have made some difference to the way this day would end, if he’d just foregone that visit to the Silver Dollar. He knew now that Adam wouldn’t tattle on him, but his face would do that to Pa, just as surely as it had to Hoss, so nothing he did out here would save him from another long, tiresome lecture. He wouldn’t deliberately slack off, the way he had before, but he wouldn’t push himself, either. He’d just do his best to get to the end of this crazy day and make a fresh start tomorrow.

*****

“Up and at ‘em, little brother.” The words seemed to echo from far down a tunnel, but something about them felt disturbingly familiar. Little Joe yawned and stirred an inch or so, but sank back into the irresistibly comfortable pillow.

“Joseph.”

Frown lines wrinkled the brow of the drowsy youngest Cartwright, pulling him from sleep . . . but not quickly enough, he realized, as an ocean wave crashed against his face. “Aw, doggone it, Hoss,” he sputtered. “I was gettin’ up.”

Hoss stood over him, holding an empty glass and grinning. “Not so’s I could see, little brother. Pa wants you down to breakfast right quick. Gotta give us our little talkin’ to before he takes off, you know.”

Joe groaned. He’d definitely heard those words before. “Hoss,” he whimpered pitifully, “is it still Monday?”

“Ever since daybreak,” Hoss chuckled. Then his lips puckered in thought. “Well, I guess Monday starts sooner than that, don’t it?”

“Monday starts a whole lot sooner than you’d ever think,” Little Joe grumbled as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. And lasts a lot longer, too, he thought as he stumbled over to the washbasin. Suddenly remembering a pertinent fact about how Monday had gone yesterday, he ran over to the door and hollered, “And don’t take all the bacon, Hoss!”

Starvation successfully staved off, he went back into the room and groomed himself as thoroughly as he could without earning another lecture for tardiness. “Sorry, I’m late, Pa,” he said as he slid into his place at the table and gave Hoss a nod of appreciation for the two slices of bacon remaining on the platter.

“Perhaps if you’d get to bed earlier, young man,” Ben suggested.

Joe didn’t think there was much hope of that, as late as Adam was likely to keep him working on that fence line, but he didn’t have time to calculate his chances because Pa was rattling out the usual speech about needing to leave one of them in charge. “How about leaving Adam in charge for a change?” Joe suggested, painting a wide smile on his face.

“Huh?” Hoss said, not certain he’d heard correctly.

The other two Cartwrights stared silently at Joe until Adam finally observed, “Sarcasm does not become you.”

“Or anyone else,” Ben said tersely.

Joe immediately saw his mistake. “Wasn’t bein’ sarcastic,” he said. It was a bald-faced lie, of course, but he was pretty sure he could get away with it. “Just figured that, in view of all that needs to be accomplished today, it would be best if you left Adam in charge. Experience and all that.”

Ben looked stunned, as though his youngest son had taken the words right out of his mouth — as, of course, he had. “Yes, well, I think that’s probably for the best. So, there’ll be no argument, then?”

“Oh, no, sir, none at all,” Little Joe assured him, while a dazed Hoss slowly bobbed his head in agreement.

*****

Sitting in the back corner of the Bucket of Blood, Little Joe finished off his latest mug of beer and gestured to the blonde in the flounced purple dress to bring him another. He stared into the empty mug as if it held the answers to the questions he’d been asking himself all morning. Why did this same blasted Monday just keep happening over and over and over yet again? And why did he seem to be the only one bothered by it? Neither Pa, nor Adam nor Hoss nor, for that matter, any of the other people he kept meeting again and again even seemed aware that they were living the same situations, down to word-for-word conversations, every single day.

There were some differences, Joe had to admit, as he accepted the fresh mug of beer and smiled at the blonde in token thanks. The words weren’t always the same, for instance. He had, in fact, made a point of trying to change some of his, mostly so as not to rile Pa or Adam, and he’d noticed that they responded differently when he spoke differently. Was that a clue? Was he somehow in control of this nonsense? No, at least not full control, ‘cause if that were the case, he’d put a stop to the senseless repetition, right quick. But if he couldn’t stop it, maybe he did have the power to change the way the day went. He’d changed it today, just by choosing a different saloon and avoiding that whole gambling brawl over at the Silver Dollar. Was that it? Was he supposed to be learning something, something about making better choices, maybe? He drained the mug and called for another to help him mull over the new notion as he slid lower and lower down in his chair.

The next thing he knew he was jerking upright, shaking his drenched chestnut curls like a dog jumping out of a bath. “Doggone you, Hoss,” he sputtered, but when he dashed the beer from his face, he realized he wasn’t in his bedroom, with still another Monday staring him in the face …and that definitely wasn’t Hoss glowering down at him. “Oh, hey, Adam,” he said weakly. “You—uh—finished with the lawyer, huh?”

“Yes, I’m finished with the lawyer,” Adam growled, “and I have spent the better part of the afternoon tracking you down. By the time we get home, it’ll be too late to even start on that fencing!”

Little Joe groaned as his aching head dropped to the table. He had a feeling this didn’t bode well for waking up tomorrow to anything but another very familiar Monday.

*****

Little Joe didn’t even need to ask. An ocean wave had crashed against his face, and Hoss was standing over him, holding an empty glass and grinning, so Joe knew exactly, down to the minute, what this day held. Of course, he hadn’t expected anything different, not after the long lecture Pa had pounded into his aching head last night. That had left no doubt that he’d done just about everything wrong yesterday. Not as wrong as he’d done things the first or second time around, but Pa hadn’t known that. To him, every day was a brand new Monday, with no haunting memories of the one before. Well, Joe would just have to make sure that he did everything right today, so he could hope to wake up to a bright, fresh Tuesday tomorrow morning. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and said, with as much sincerity as he could muster, “Thanks for waking me, Hoss. Tell Pa I’ll be right down — and, please, save me some bacon.”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Hoss said.

Joe grinned at the baffled look on his brother’s face and quickly realized that he had it in his power to put that same look on some other faces, too. Done the right way, this day might even be fun. He gave reasonably careful attention to his grooming, painted on a cheerful smile and came downstairs at a brisk walk. “Sorry I’m late, Pa,” he said as he slid into his seat. “I realize you have very little time before you need to leave and probably have a few things to say.”

“Well…yes,” Ben said.

“I’m sure you’ll be home tonight,” Joe said, “but just in case, don’t you think you should leave someone in charge?”

“That’s just what I was going to say,” Ben said slowly.

Joe grinned. “Really? Great minds think alike, huh? And I’ll bet you were thinking it should be Adam.”

Adam loudly cleared his throat. “If you’re angling for the job yourself, little brother, you can just…”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Joe said, turning the most innocent set of eyes imaginable onto his brother’s face. “It’s just obvious that you’re the best choice, Adam.” He looked earnestly across the table, although the tiniest trace of a mischievous smile tickled his lips. “Oh, sorry, Hoss. I didn’t stop to think that you might want the job for a change.”

Gulping at the six eyes riveted on his face, Hoss was quick to say, “No, no, I’m just fine with Adam takin’ charge, always have been.”

“We’ll leave it that way, then,” Ben said, rising from his chair. “Adam, I believe you know what needs doing, and I know I can count on you to have everything done when I return.”

“Of course, Pa.” Adam rose and escorted his father outside, with his brothers trailing in his wake. Hoss looked befuddled and Joe as if he were about to burst out laughing.

They each bid their father farewell; then Adam swung around to give his brothers an authoritative appraisal. “You both know what Pa wants accomplished today. I know that it seems like a daunting amount of work . . .”

“Nothing we can’t handle if we each carry through our individual assignments,” Joe offered cheerily. “I’ll be happy to load the supplies while you meet with the lawyer, Adam.”

“Hey!” Hoss protested. “You ain’t the only one who’d rather traipse into town than dig out rotted fence posts.”

“I knew there was something behind all this sudden cooperativeness,” Adam chuckled.

“Cooperativeness,” Hoss spat out. “More like plain ordinary conniving.”

Little Joe gave him a sour smile. “I don’t have to connive, older brother. You’re gonna be too busy with Maybelle to –” Realizing his mistake, he broke off abruptly.

“What’s that?” Adam probed.

“Nothin’,” Joe sputtered. “I mean, I know Maybelle’s time is close, so I figured Hoss might want to stay close by, just in case.”

“Aw, it’ll be a few days yet,” Hoss said.

Little Joe shook his head. “I don’t know, Hoss. I just got a feelin’.”

“You got a feelin’ you’d rather go to town than tear down fencing,” Adam snorted. “Now, if you two will get the buckboard hitched, Hoss and I will head for town as soon as I get my papers together.”

“Sure, Adam, whatever you say,” Joe returned with a smile. Let older brother have his moment of meanness; Joe knew who was really going to town that Monday morning.

*****

Little Joe placed the last crate in the buckboard and, taking off his hat, swiped the trickling sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He glanced down the street, not looking for Adam this time, but, instead, pondering what he could do to pass the time until older brother finished up with the lawyer. Just staying with the wagon, the way Adam had ordered, still made no sense, but he wasn’t sure where he could go without running the risk of finding more trouble. The Silver Dollar was definitely out; he just knew that if he went inside, he’d somehow get mixed up with that gambling brawl again. The Bucket of Blood might be safe, if he limited himself to just one beer, but one beer wouldn’t take up a fraction of the time he had to kill. Probably safer to stay away from saloons altogether, if he really wanted to do everything just right today.

He started walking down C Street, mostly looking in windows, but occasionally stepping inside a store to drool over a finely tooled saddle or pair of boots. Spotting Daisy’s Café across the street, his eyes lighted up. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? So long as he kept a close watch on the time, he could have himself a decent meal and a cold glass of lemonade, instead of a hunk of cold sausage and a sandwich later to tide him over until supper. Oh, this was definitely an improvement over his previous Mondays, he thought as he crossed the street.

*****

The meeting with Hiram Woods had taken even longer than Adam had feared, so he all but trotted down the street as soon as the papers were signed. He frowned at the abandoned buckboard, but almost immediately, he heard, “‘Bout time you got here, older brother,” and turned to see his younger brother leaning against the wall in the shade of the mercantile’s covered porch.

“Oh, there you are,” Adam said. “Look, I’m sorry you had to wait so long out in this heat, but there were several snags that had to be worked out.”

“It’s okay,” Joe said. “I know how lawyers can be.”

Adam arched an eyebrow.

The typical expression made Joe laugh. “I didn’t necessarily mean from personal experience.”

Adam laughed, too, as he wrapped an arm around his brother’s slim shoulders. “Thanks for waiting, anyway. I know it can’t have been pleasant.”

Little Joe flushed. There were times when he could lie with aplomb, others when he just couldn’t, and a day when he was trying to do everything right was obviously one of those. “Well, I didn’t exactly stay by the wagon, Adam. Didn’t wander far, just down the street a ways…window shopping, mostly.” Knowing how empty Adam’s stomach must be, he didn’t deem it prudent to mention the meal at the café.

“I guess that’s all right,” Adam said, “as long as I didn’t have to come looking for you.” He mounted the wagon seat.

“Oh, no, I watched the time real careful,” Joe assured him as he climbed up beside his brother.

Adam flicked the reins to start the horses. “And just how did you calculate how long I’d be held up, hmm?”

Little Joe gave a sheepish shrug. “I just sort of… uh…”

“Had a feeling?” Adam suggested.

“Yeah,” Joe drawled out slowly. “Something like that.”

*****

As soon as the buckboard stopped, Little Joe jumped off. “Just gonna take a quick look at the colt,” he said. It wasn’t every day a fellow got to see a newborn colt –well, lately it was, but with all his good behavior today, he assumed this would be his last chance until some mare foaled again.

“What makes you think it’s a colt?” Adam chuckled. “Oh, let me guess:  you…had a feeling.”

Little Joe nodded crisply. “A real strong one. Look, why don’t you go inside and fix yourself a sandwich?” he suggested. “I’ll get the wagon unloaded, and we can head right out to the fence line. I know how important that is to you.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Adam said, climbing down and heading toward the house. Just before he went in the side door to the kitchen, he called back, “You want a sandwich, too?”

Having eaten a clandestine meal in town, Joe wasn’t really hungry. “Naw, I can wait ‘til supper. Let’s just get to work.”

Adam’s eyebrow arched. He was tempted to ask when his younger brother had become such a beaver for work, but deciding that he probably shouldn’t look such a rare gift horse in the mouth, he hurried into the kitchen, instead, and quickly slapped together two sandwiches. Little Joe might think he could skip a meal and still maintain a decent level of work, but Adam’s experience, especially with hungry younger brothers, begged to differ.

*****

Pulling up alongside the damaged fence, Adam let the reins drop between his legs as he shook his head. “Worse than I figured,” he muttered. “We won’t more than make a good start today.”

Little Joe couldn’t have agreed more, but he kept the opinion to himself, except to say, “Sorry.”

Adam gave him a puzzled look. “Why? None of the delays were your fault. In fact, you’ve done everything you could to spare us any waste of time.”

“I tried,” Joe said. But was trying enough to satisfy whatever power controlled the cycle of days? Or did he have to actually succeed at finishing that impossible list of Monday chores before he could ever see Tuesday? He was pretty sure he had to, at least, try his hardest for that goal, so he hopped off the wagon. “Well, best get started, huh? That fence ain’t gonna fix itself.”

“Truer words were, unfortunately, never spoken,” Adam said with a grim smile as he, too, climbed down from the wagon seat.

Each man took a shovel from the back of the buckboard and began to wrestle the rotted fence posts from the ground. Every other day Joe had put in little more than token effort, but today he put his back into the work, barely taking time for an occasional swallow of lukewarm water from his canteen. When the final post had been removed, both he and Adam were drenched in sweat, their bare chests glistening in the declining sun.

“I’ll get the new posts,” Joe said, heading back to the buckboard, while Adam was quaffing another swig of water. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have tried to carry more than a couple back to the fence line, but being determined to get as much as possible done before the fading daylight forced them to quit, he stacked the posts until he could barely see over the load. Somehow, he managed to lift it and started to stagger down the slope toward the fence.

“Joe!” he heard his brother call sharply. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m coming!” Joe called back defensively.

“I didn’t mean…” But before Adam could finish the sentence, Little Joe felt a rock roll beneath his foot. He stumbled forward, juggling the load of fence posts as he struggled to keep his balance. Then his toe jammed into a larger rock, his ankle turned, and he toppled over, fence posts raining down to sandwich his right leg between them and that same flat-topped rock. He heard something crack, and from the scream that tore from his throat, he had a sick, hazy feeling that it wasn’t something made of wood.

“Joe!” Adam cried and ran forward to find his brother lying on the ground with his hands held over his face. “Why is it always one extreme or the other with you?” he asked as he tore off the fence posts and knelt beside Joe. “There is a place somewhere between shirking every chore in sight and trying to do the work of three men, you know!”

Little Joe reached out, grabbing Adam’s shirt when his brother leaned his direction. “Go on — finish the job,” he panted. “I’ll — I’ll just wait here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Adam said.

Joe’s grip tightened. “No, Adam, you don’t understand. We have to finish!”

“Did you hit your head, too?” Adam snorted as he pried Joe’s fingers from his shirt. “We are through for the day, boy.” Then, seeing the distress in his brother’s expressive eyes, he softened his voice and gave Joe’s hand an encouraging squeeze. “Easy now. Everything’s going to be all right.”

Moaning, Joe shook his head. He hoped his brother was right, of course, but since he didn’t know the rules that governed this roulette of days, he had no real confidence that the game was over.

*****

They pulled into the ranch yard just past sunset. The front door opened, and Hoss called back over his shoulder, “It’s them, Pa.” Then he came outside. “I’ll unhitch the team,” he offered, but then he realized that Little Joe was lying down in the back of the wagon. “What happened?” he asked anxiously.

“Little brother forgot he wasn’t you,” Adam said. “Help me get him inside — and be careful of that right leg; it’s broken.”

“Doggone,” Hoss said. With Adam’s assistance he lifted the boy from the bed of the wagon and carried him inside.

“Put him on the settee for now,” Adam directed.

Ben was out of his chair by the fire the minute the three brothers entered the house. “What happened?” he asked.

Adam briefly explained.

“Little brother, you got to learn to live with who you are,” Hoss said, repeating words his father had used when teaching a young Hoss to manage his own, larger-than-most body. “I’ll fetch the doc,” he informed the others hovering over Little Joe. “Be back quick as I can.” And with a consoling tousle of his brother’s chestnut curls, he was out the door.

“Joseph, Joseph,” Ben chided gently. “What were you thinking, son?”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe murmured, his distraught face a plea for understanding. “I — I just wanted the day to end, and I thought if we finished all the chores, then it could. I tried really hard to get the work done. I just wanted…the day to end.” He ended on a sob of frustration and quickly buried his face in the pillow.

“Hush now,” his father soothed, his hand continually stroking his son’s throbbing neck. “There was no need to push yourself so hard, son. You know I never expect more of you boys than your best, and I believe you gave that.”

Little Joe cracked open an eye just in time to see his father direct a sharp glare at Adam, who quietly said, “Yes. Yes, he did.”

That was all that was said until after the leg had been set and Little Joe tucked into his own bed upstairs. The sedative the doctor administered was just starting to lull him to sleep when loud voices drifted through the door left open in case he needed to call for anything.

“How hard did you drive that boy?” Ben was demanding.

“Pa, I didn’t,” Adam protested.

“You must have for him to think he had to work that hard before you’d let the day end!” Ben barked. “If that’s the sort of leadership you provide, young man, I may have to think twice about leaving you in charge the next time I’m away!”

The ghost of a groggy smile touched Little Joe’s lips. Adam didn’t really deserve all he was getting, of course, but it was sort of nice to hear older brother taken to task for a change. And maybe Pa really would leave someone else in charge next time. Hoss probably, but Joe could live with that. What was most important, for now, was that he hadn’t upset Pa himself today, and while a broken leg was a high price to pay for his ticket out of Monday, it was worth it. Joe snuggled down under the covers and dreamed of the pleasant changes to come.

*****

“Up and at ‘em, little brother.” The words seemed to echo from far down a tunnel, much too distant to be heeded. Little Joe turned his head and snuggled into his downy pillow. “Joseph.” Closer, a bit louder and grumpier this time, but still imminently ignorable. He burrowed deeper.

Suddenly an ocean wave crashed against his face and he jolted upright, sputtering and staring at Hoss, who stood over him with an empty glass and a big grin.

“Seriously?” Joe exploded. “You’d really drench a fellow with a broken leg? If I overslept, it’s that dadgum medicine’s fault, not mine. Besides, I’m supposed to be resting!”

“Huh?” Then Hoss’ face cleared of confusion. “Doggone, that must’ve been some nightmare you was havin’, little brother. I’d sure never have doused you if I’d knowed. Pa wants you down to breakfast right quick, though. Gotta give us our little talkin’ to before he takes off, you know.”

“Takes off where?” Little Joe asked with near-prophetic intuition.

“Carson City, of course,” Hoss said. “Got that meeting with the legislature, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Joe sighed. “All too well, big brother, all too well.”

“Well, best shake a leg,” Hoss said. Then he flashed a mischievous grin. “The one that ain’t broke, that is.” Laughing, he left the room.

Little Joe threw back the covers and stared at his two sound legs. No splints, not even a scratch. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and tentatively tested them out. Not a smidge of pain — how was it possible? How did a fellow break a leg and wake up the next morning without a sign that he had? Joe shut his eyes and sighed, as the ugly truth hit him: it wasn’t the next morning; it was still Monday — and still too early for anything as serious as a broken leg to have gone wrong. He was running late, though, so he’d best, as Hoss had phrased it, shake a leg…or maybe even two.

*****

Little Joe placed the last crate in the buckboard outside Cass’s Mercantile and, taking off his hat, swiped the trickling sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Since yesterday’s version of today had gone reasonably well, up until a certain catastrophic stumble, he’d pretty much followed the same plan. He hadn’t tried to make sport of “reading minds” this time, since repeating that would have been boring, but had just done what he was supposed to do. Now, as he had the day before, he pondered what he could do to pass the time until older brother finished up with the lawyer. He’d enjoyed eating at Daisy’s yesterday, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to change that. Though he hadn’t confessed the meal to Adam before, he’d be less fearful of doing so now, especially after his brother had been concerned enough yesterday to make him a sandwich, unasked. He hadn’t eaten more than a few bites because he truly hadn’t been hungry, but he’d appreciated the gesture.

He was half a block down C Street when an idea suddenly struck him, and he turned back to the mercantile to make one additional purchase before setting off again, whistling a tune that was filtering through the batwings of the Silver Dollar as he walked past on the way to the café. Since he hadn’t taken time to window shop this morning, he knew he had time to dally over the meal. Therefore, he ordered a steak dinner, with all the fixings, in place of the bowl of beef stew he’d eaten the day before. And he even finished off with a slice of apple pie.

“Miss Daisy, that was a mighty fine meal,” he said when nothing but crumbs remained on his plate. Then he lifted the covered tin pail he’d purchased at the mercantile. “Could you fill this up with something tasty, like stew or . . ?”

“Chicken and dumplings?” Daisy suggested.

Joe nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good. And could you loan me the use of a spoon or something? I didn’t think to buy that.”

“Goodness, boy, but you’ve got an appetite today!” the good-hearted cook laughed.

Joe laughed, too, light-hearted as a bluejay. “It’s not for me. Adam’s here in town, too, but he won’t take time to come by to eat. Just thought I’d take him something he could manage while we drive home.”

“My, aren’t you the thoughtful one,” she said, beaming a motherly smile at him. “Will Adam want pie, too, you think?”

“He would, if you can figure some way for me to tote it. I’ll bring back anything you loan out.”

“Lands, boy, I know that!” She moved toward the kitchen, his lunch pail swinging from one hand. “You think he’ll want apple or blueberry?” she asked just before slipping through the swinging half-door.

“Better make it apple,” Joe said. “Easier to eat on the road than something juicier.”

She nodded and disappeared to fill his order.

*****

Since he now knew to the minute the time Adam would arrive, Little Joe was waiting on the wagon seat when his older brother ran up. “Oh, Joe, I didn’t literally mean for you to sit on the wagon this whole time…especially since I’m even later than I expected.”

“I haven’t been here the whole time,” Joe immediately confessed, “but I stayed close enough so I wouldn’t keep you waiting.”

“I appreciate that,” Adam said. He started to climb onto the wagon, but stopped with he saw a tin pail perched on his seat. “What’s this?”

“Your lunch,” Joe said with a grin. “Knowing how longwinded lawyers can be, I figured you wouldn’t take time for a real meal, so I just fetched you one. Hope you’re in the mood for chicken and dumplings. Miss Daisy thought you might be.”

“You’ve already eaten?” Adam asked as he mounted the wagon.

“Yep — plumb full.” Joe handed his brother the spoon Daisy Miller had provided. “That bein’ the case, I figured I’d drive and you’d be free to eat. There’s apple pie in that little pan there that’s covered with the napkin.”

“Little brother, you think of everything,” Adam said, his voice warm with appreciation, although Joe wasn’t sure whether it was for his great planning or the aroma of the apple pie Adam was sniffing.

Once he’d maneuvered the wagon down the Geiger Grade and had safely reached the valley floor, Little Joe said, “Adam, I was wondering if, maybe, we should go straight to the fence line, get a quicker start on the repairs. I mean, there’s no real reason to stop by the house, and is there?”

“Hoss?” Adam suggested.

“Hoss knows where we’re headed,” Joe pointed out. “I’m sure he’ll meet us there…unless something holds him up.”

“What about the supplies?”

Joe shrugged. “They’ll be fine, and there’s nothing Hop Sing needs ‘til tomorrow.”

Adam laughed. “Are you sure about that? Who knows what he’ll take it into his head to cook tonight.”

“Pork chops,” Joe, who was decidedly weary of that particular meat, muttered.

Adam arched a quizzical eyebrow at his little brother, who, having just let slip something he wasn’t supposed to know, didn’t trust himself to respond. “Well, it would save time,” Adam admitted. “All right. We’ll try it your way.”

*****

The sun was just beginning to sink as the buckboard pulled into the ranch yard. Since they still had supplies to unload, Adam had insisted on stopping work a little early. “We won’t finish tonight, anyway,” he’d pointed out, “so we might as well get a decent night’s rest and start fresh in the morning. Besides, I’m kind of curious to see what kept Hoss tied up all day.”

“Uh, yeah, me, too,” Little Joe had said. “As long as you think Pa’ll be satisfied with what we got done.”

Adam had cocked his head to examine his younger brother’s anxious face. “Why wouldn’t he be? We did our best. Sometimes, delays can’t be avoided, Joe.”

Joe had nodded. I never expect more of you boys than your best. Pa had said just that yesterday, and that was one thing that never changed with Pa, no matter what day it was.

The front door opened, and Hoss called back over his shoulder, “It’s them, Pa.” Then he came outside. “I’ll unhitch the team,” he offered, “so’s you can get washed up for supper. Hop Sing ain’t called us yet, but I reckon them chops’ll be ready any time now.”

“Everything go all right with Maybelle?” Little Joe asked hastily before Adam could comment on how accurately he’d predicted the supper menu.

“Did finally,” Hoss said, “but she had a real rough time. That’s why I never got out to help you fellers.”

Adam nodded. “We figured it must be something like that. Foal all right, too?”

“Yep,” Hoss said, and his smile brightened. “Purtiest little colt you ever did see.”

Adam and Joe each grabbed a crate of supplies and delivered them to Hop Sing in the kitchen. As they passed through the dining room, Ben stood to meet them. “And how did your day go, boys?” he asked. “I realize you were a man down.”

“We ran into other delays — well, I did, with the lawyer,” Adam reported, “so we weren’t able to finish the fence repair, but we should have no problem doing so tomorrow.”

Ben shook his head. “Lawyers. Never pays to assume they’ll do anything to shorten a day’s work, I suppose.”

“No,” Adam agreed, “but I do have to credit my young brother here with doing all he could to save time and enable us to get more done.”

Ben’s broad smile encompassed them both. “You worked well together, then?”

“Better than just well,” Adam said, wrapping an arm around his brother’s slim shoulders. “I’ll tell you more over dinner, but I think you’ll be very proud of your baby son. I know I am.”

Little Joe’s face flamed. “Baby!” he protested. “If I weren’t so much in need of a good washing before supper, I’d take you outside and teach you who’s a baby, older brother.”

“Lucky for me you do need washing, then,” Adam laughed as he slapped Joe on the back. “And if I hope to get any supper out of Hop Sing, I’d better do some scrubbing of my own.”

With friendly pushes and shoves the two brothers jostled their way up the stairs, and each went into his own room to make himself presentable for the supper table. Supper that night was the same old pork chops that he’d faced for almost a week now, but Joe found that he didn’t mind. The good humor surrounding the table made for better seasoning, and the thought that he’d finally managed to make both Pa and Adam proud of him aroused within him a buoyant hope that, at long last, he might be able to wake to a fresh, new day on the morrow.

And that’s exactly what he did.

***The End***

Author’s Note:  The inspiration for this story comes primarily from the Bill Murray film, “Groundhog Day,” with a small tip of the hat to “Christmas Every Day,” a short story by William Dean Howells.

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