Word Count: 3400
A hint of weariness crept into his stride as Ben Cartwright took the last step down from the bank and paused. He stretched his shoulders, winced and rubbed the back of his neck in an attempt to remove the annoying ache.
“I’m glad that’s over with, Pa,” muttered a deep voice beside him. “It took long enough to sort out the financial implications for this deal with our lawyer and the bank manager.”
Ben turned to his oldest son and placed a tired arm across the young man’s shoulders. “So am I, Adam, but you’re aware this means more work this coming spring.”
Adam grinned. “Yeah, but me, Hoss and Little Joe will help ya. We won’t let you do all the work,” he said cheekily.
Ben returned the grin and replied dourly, “So happy to hear that. Now speaking of those brothers of yours, I wonder what they’re up to?” He glanced up and down the sidewalk for the bulky shape of his tall, middle son and the white ten-gallon hat he always wore. It was futile to look for his shorter, youngest son in the sea of bobbing heads. “I’m in no mood for their shenanigans.”
Adam followed his father’s gaze. “Considering the time we took in the bank and the inability for my two brothers to stay in the one place for long, I think we’ll find Joe in the saloon and Hoss at the mercantile. I saw Mister Cass receive a new supply of candy this week and I happened to mention it to Hoss. You should’a seen his face – you’d think he was already in the store sampling the candy the way he was licking his lips,” laughed Adam.
“Now Adam, you know Hoss can’t resist candy and Little Joe can’t stay away from the Bucket of Blood on his day off. They need some time to relax and so do you.”
“My relaxation will come later, Pa, when I’m home, comfortably reclining in my favorite chair with a good book in my hands, the fire roaring and a hot coffee on the table beside me. You could do with some rest yourself. I know how much effort you put into preparing those figures and it wouldn’t have been easy,” Adam snagged a look at his father, “and you’re not getting any younger.”
“Adam,” admonished Ben with a wave of a finger, “you let me worry about the figures and I’ll let you worry about your part in this deal, but I just may join you by the fire. Now why don’t you see if Joseph is in the saloon and we’ll meet at the mercantile? I can see Chubb outside Cass’, so I can guess Hoss is still in there.”
“Sure Pa,” replied Ben’s oldest son. Adam settled his black hat low over his forehead and winked at Ben before he started up the main street of Virginia City. Ben’s eyes followed his son as he effortlessly swerved between the people crowded on the wooden sidewalk. The way Adam moved, he could have easily been cutting stock instead of walking, there was no difference in the supple motion. Every now and then Adam would tip his hat to someone he knew.
The patriarch of the Cartwright family casually stifled a yawn with his hand and began strolling in the opposite direction to Adam. Fortunately for both, the saloon and mercantile were on the same side of the street, not that a little mud on their boots bothered them.
Recent rains had inundated the town and left large puddles of water on the streets and accounted for the congested sidewalks. The wheels from heavy-laden wagons had grooved deep ruts in the sludge, while hooves and boots had stirred other areas until the roads were treacherous to walk on.
Ben and his sons had spent the last week rescuing stock from water-logged sections of their ranch and over two dozen steers had to be dragged from where they’d trapped themselves belly deep in mud. Four weary men return home each night, cold, soaking wet and covered head-to-toe in their own thick layer of mud.
A sharp elbow to his ribs and a mumbled apology drew Ben from his thinking and he decided to concentrate more on where he was going. The walk to the mercantile was brief and he was soon outside the store.
Hoss’ excited voice drifted through the open doorway and Ben couldn’t help but smile. He was about to peer through the window to look further into the interior of the store, when a shape at the bottom of the display caught his attention. Against the far side of the shelf rested a child’s toy – a shiny red toy wagon. Suddenly, the wagon blurred before his eyes. Ben felt his head spin and in an attempt to steady himself; he leaned his head against the cool glass, but it made no difference as memories flooded back and overwhelmed him.
“It’s great, Mama and Pa,” exclaimed Little Joe, as he pushed the last piece of wrapping aside. “It’s a wagon and it’s just like the one in the store window an’ all!” His green eyes glinted with excitement and a sweet smile filled the cherub face. Marie squeezed her husband’s hand and smiled lovingly at him, as laughter filled the room. “Happy Birthday, son.”
“Yes Joseph, what is it?” replied Ben.
A rambunctious four-year-old Joseph Cartwright burst into the barn, large tears streamed down his face. “Adam did it! Adam did it!” sobbed Little Joe loudly and he threw himself at his father who was perched on a hay bale as he mended a broken harness.
Ben gathered the distraught boy into his arms. “Hush child, now what’s wrong? What did Adam do?” he asked and peered into the boy’s distressed face. Ben caught a movement at the doorway and glanced up.
The son in question walked into the barn, dragging his feet – his face, ashen and troubled. Adam couldn’t meet his father’s eyes and instead kept them downward as he scuffed his boots in the hay. Hoss followed a few paces behind, a bleak expression on his face.
“Adam?” Ben raised his eyebrows.
“Sorry Pa, it was an accident.”
“Weren’t no accident, he done it delibitate,” cried Joe as he pointed a grubby finger at Adam.
“Delibitate?” Ben frowned, as he thought for a second. “Oh, you mean deliberate.”
“What was delibitate, uh deliberate?”
Joe cut in quickly and answered before his brother had time to open his mouth. “He broked my wagon. It won’t go no more.”
“Your wagon? Ben’s face darkened as his understanding of the situation slowly improved. He fixed his eyes on Adam as he continued to question Little Joe. “You mean the one your mother and I gave to you a few weeks ago for your birthday?”
Adam cringed and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. He snapped his eyes shut and nodded.
“Yeah, my red wagon.”
Ben untied his bandana and began to wipe the tears and dirt from Joe’s face. “Now no more tears, Joseph.” He hugged the boy close, then lifted him gently from his lap and sat him on the hay bale. When he was satisfied Joe would remain seated and was comfortable, Ben straightened up and turned to face Adam. Behind him he could hear Joe sniff as he tried to hold back his tears.
“Would you care to explain to me what happened to Joseph’s wagon?”
“I can’t hear you,” growled Ben.
“Umm,” Adam cleared his throat. “I was chopping the firewood and kept on getting splinters when I carried the wood inside, so I decided to load up Little Joe’s wagon and haul it in that.”
“Hoss and I started to…well we pushed each other and Hoss pushed me backwards and I grabbed him to stop myself from falling, but we both landed on the wagon and it broke under all the weight.”
Ben’s eyebrows were drawn deep and he glared at both Adam and Hoss.
“Were you boys fighting?”
“No Sir!” insisted Hoss.
“No,” said Adam. “Not really,” he added.
“What does ‘not really mean’, Adam? Either you were or you weren’t; there is no in between.”
“Were or weren’t what Ben?” asked Marie as she rushed into the barn and over to her curly haired son. “I heard Joseph crying, what’s happened?”
“Adam was about to explain, weren’t you Adam?”
“We weren’t fighting, sir; it was more like arguing.”
Adam glanced at Hoss, then to his father. “Whether or not I should be using Joe’s wagon for the wood.”
Marie couldn’t control her fury and Adam heard it in her voice. “Joseph’s birthday gift? You broke it? How could you? You know he loves his wagon.”
“I didn’t mean to; it was an accident.”
Little Joe broke into tears as he yelled his protest. “No, it weren’t no accident – it was delibitate!”
Marie lifted the sobbing boy into her arms. “I’ll leave this for you to sort out, Benjamin. I’m certain you’ll give Adam an appropriate punishment.” Her skirt swished on the ground as she carried Joe towards the house. Ben’s eyes remained on Marie until she entered the house and slammed the door behind her.
“You’ve angered your mother, haven’t you?” When there was no reply, Ben continued. “Where is the wagon now?”
“By the woodpile,” Adam answered and cocked his head in the direction.
“I’ll get it for you, Pa,” suggested Hoss and hurried out of the barn. Adam took a step forward to follow.
“Hoss can get the wagon himself.”
“Yes Sir. I’m sorry, Pa.”
“We’ll wait and see how sorry you’ll be when I see the wagon.”
Hoss’ feet slid on the ground as he returned, out of breath. “Here it is,” he said and thrust the toy at Ben.
“You may leave, Hoss. Adam and I will discuss this in private from here on.”
Hoss opened his mouth to speak, but closed it as Adam frowned at him. He fled the barn, happy to be away from his father ire, but also anxious to learn what punishment Adam would receive.
Ben turned the wagon over and studied the axles. The rear rod was bent out of shape at both ends; the wheels were pressed hard up against the sides, preventing them from turning.
When he was sure his father had completed assessing the damage, Adam asked hopefully, “Do you think you can fix it, Pa?”
“I know I can, Adam, but we’ll see whether you can.”
“Me?” Adam was surprised.
“Yes. It’s about time I taught you how to blacksmith something other than horseshoes. You can start by stoking the forge while I remove the wheels and axle. You do remember how to do that, don’t you?”
Adam winced at his father’s chide. ”Yes Sir.”
While Ben selected the necessary tools, Adam trudged outside and began the hot, filthy chore of firing the coal in the forge. He removed his shirt and covered himself with his father’s apron, but that didn’t prevent the growing heat from singeing his arms and face.
Ben stood beside Adam to oversee the process. “Your mother and I require, and demand, that you show consideration for the property of others and responsibility for your actions. That includes your younger brother’s property too. Is that understood?”
“And one more thing.” Ben paused.
Adam lifted his head from his task, but didn’t speak. Ben could see the perspiration was already dripping down his son’s face and he hadn’t started hammering the steel. It would be a hard lesson Adam learned today, but hopefully one that would he would remember for the right reasons, not the manner in which his father was punishing him.
“When you’re finished repairing his wagon, you’ll apologize to Joseph for using it without his permission and then you’ll apologize to Hoss for fighting him.
Slowly Adam nodded.
“And you will spend next week chopping wood, as well as the remainder of this week.”
“Yes Adam?” The tone in Ben’s voice suggested to Adam that it wouldn’t be in his best interests to continue his protest.
“Good, now that looks about ready. All right, put the axle deep into the coals and we’ll wait for it to heat up.”
Ben sighed and returned to his own chore. He couldn’t help smiling to himself when a few minutes later, Adam followed. The boy eased himself beside the nearest horse, raised a hoof and diligently inspected the shoe. After each mount, Adam hurried outside to check the fire, then hurried back to the next horse.
Despite the occasional lapse in judgment, Adam was growing into a strong and reliable young man, Ben realized. The shoulders of his sixteen-year-old boy were noticeably broader, and when they stood side by side, Adam’s head was level with his own chest. He was taller than Marie, which didn’t please his mother at all. His voice was deeper, and fortunately he’d avoided the embarrassing situation of his voice breaking.
“When you’ve finished that, we’ll begin on the rod,” said Ben, as he returned the mended tack to its rightful hook. He packed the awl, needle and leather thongs into the pouch kept specifically for them and placed it into the tack box. “I’ll be outside waiting for you.”
Adam grunted as he lifted a hoof onto his thighs. “Yes, Pa.” Five minutes later, he wiped his hands down the side of his dungarees and headed to the forge. Ben nodded for him to begin. Adam reached down and was about to grab the metal, when his father’s arm thrust him aside.
“Adam, be careful! That’s hot!” cried Ben.
Adam rubbed his hands across his face as it drained of color. “Sorry, Pa, I didn’t think.”
“That’s your problem, son. You’ve got a good brain in your head, but you don’t always use it to think with. This end of the rod may not be red-hot,” said Ben, “but it would’ve seared the skin off your hand if you’d touched it. Now use that tool I’ve set out to hold the rod, pick up the hammer and start straightening.”
“How?” asked Adam as he shrugged his shoulders.
“The same way you would a horseshoe, only you’ll continually rotate the rod so you don’t flatten it.”
“Oh, I understand.”
The sound of hammer on steel echoed in the barn and through the open windows of the ranch house for over an hour. Adam grunted with effort each time he raised the hammer and clenched his jaw as it stuck hard. The vibration ran along his arm, up the shoulder and neck and stopped inside his head where it rattled his teeth, but he never faltered. Despite the gloves he’d pulled on, he could feel the blisters on his palms stinging as sweat ran down from his arms.
“That’s enough, son,” instructed Ben as his hand grasped Adam’s forearm and prevented him from raising it once again. “Now plunge it into the water-barrel, and we’ll see whether it’s straight enough now.
Without the slightest hesitation, Adam did as he was told. The axle hissed and bubbled as the water cooled it down. The rising steam struck Adam’s face and he twisted away in pain.
Adam blinked quickly. “No, I’m okay.”
“Let me see.”
“Leave me alone,” grumbled Adam. I’m okay I said.”
Ben’s anger flared at the independent streak in his son and his own doubts for letting his son undertake what could be a dangerous chore if not done properly. “You’ve got to be more careful. You could have hurt yourself twice this afternoon,” he responded and looked into Adam’s watery eyes.
“What do you care?” sniffed Adam. He turned away and brushed his eyes brusquely with a gloved hand. “You’re the one who’s making me do this!”
“How could you make such a statement? Of course I care about you, but don’t blame me for what just happened.”
“Who said I was?” asked Adam sullenly.
“You are! You stood too close to the barrel. You’re strong enough, and old enough, to learn how to forge steel. I’ve been meaning to show you for some time now and this incident was a good excuse as any for teaching you today. Now go inside the house and have your mother tend to you. I’ll see whether this works or not.”
Shouts and giggles echoed in the courtyard, while chickens scattered in a flurry of feathers and squawks. Marie momentarily took her eyes from the scene to glance at her husband. “Looks like the liniment worked this morning,” she said as Ben settled down into his favorite chair beside her on the front porch. “He didn’t complain once while I rubbed it on his back and shoulders, but I could tell he was sore. He flinched whenever I pressed too hard on a tender spot. The hands shouldn’t take long to heal either.”
“Stubborn isn’t he? He must get that from his mother,” added Ben slyly.
“You mean from his father.” Marie couldn’t keep the touch of sadness from her voice. “You’re forgetting a small detail – I’m not his mother.”
“What you say is true,” nodded Ben, “but I wouldn’t change that for anything in this world. You may not be his birth mother, but you’re still his mother and he loves you.” He reached over to his young wife and kissed her lightly, his hand lingered on the soft cheek. “And you’re my wife and the mother of that noisy scamp over there.”
A shriek drew her towards their boys. Little Joe was seated in the wagon; his tiny hands gripped the sides tightly, as his oldest brother pulled him across the yard towards the corral. Adam slowed to within a foot of the railings before he slid the wagon around in a wide, half circle and raced back in the opposite direction, his injuries forgotten in all the fun. Dirt sprayed in an arch over the horse trough and a chicken huddled in fear against its side.
Watching all this, but taking no part was Hoss, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground by the hitching rail. His back rested against a post while his fingers searched in a large brown paper bag on his lap. He grinned broadly as he drew his hand out and popped a green candy into his mouth.
Marie gathered Ben’s hand into hers. “Looks like all is forgiven.”
“Looks like he’s in heaven.”
“What? What did you say?” spluttered Ben, as he was jolted back to the present.
“I said Hoss looks like he’s in heaven,” repeated Adam, as he ducked and wove his head to get a better look of his brother through the window.
Little Joe shook his head and giggled. “I’d say more like a pig in mud.”
“Knowing our brother the way we do, he’ll definitely be a pig, but did you have to mention the word mud?” Adam wrinkled his nose. “We’d better get him out of there before he eats the whole lot and gets sick.”
“I’m with you there Adam, but can I have some sour drops if Hoss’ left any?”
“Don’t see why not,” replied Adam and drew out some coins from his hip pocket. “I’ll buy us a penny’s worth.”
“You comin’, Pa?” called Adam over his shoulder as he started after Joe who had raced inside to Hoss.
“No, I’ll wait for you out here.”
“Okay. We won’t be long.”
“Take your time, son; I won’t be going anywhere until you’re finished,” said Ben. He pressed his face against the window and smiled as his three grown sons jostled each other for the best candy, as though they were young boys again. Oblivious to him, the passersby grinned as he too looked like a young boy, staring in the window at something he wanted to buy.