Word Count: 7025
The stables were different from the barn. The barn belonged to the family; the stables, well, they were a separate part of the Ponderosa, like the bunkhouse, and belonged as much to the hands as to his father, at least in Little Joe’s mind. The difference between the stables and the bunkhouse was that, at eleven, Little Joe was forbidden to spend time in the bunkhouse but not the stables, and he chose to spend a great deal of time there with the horses and the men who knew them best. Today, though, he was not there by choice, and the empty stables held only unpleasant chores.
Dangblast! I don’t see why Pa got so mad. Most of it wasn’t really my fault. Little Joe stabbed the tines of the pitch fork into the hard packed dirt and slouched against it. I figured he’d holler some and maybe give me a couple of swats, but no, Adam had to go and make that comment about spoiled little boys and the messes they make with their pranks. If that bossy Yankee granite head would keep his opinions to himself, I wouldn’t be spending my day cleaning the mess a whole lot of horses can make. Little Joe gave a snort and then an overblown sigh.
“Ain’t gonna get finished before Sunday standing around sulking that way!” Old Ned’s voice startled the boy.
Little Joe jerked the pitchfork free as he retorted, “I ain’t sulking!”
Old Ned’s brow furrowed at Little Joe’s tone, and he strode toward the boy with his hands on his hips. “No, now you’ve gone to sassing, boy!”
Little Joe tensed and turned to face the old man. “I…I didn’t mean to sass you, Mr. Ned.” Joe’s posture became humble, “I’m sorry if I did.” Little Joe could not remember when Old Ned had not been one of the Ponderosa’s most respected hands, and Joe had long ago learned the consequences of being disrespectful to him.
Old Ned stopped and stared down at the boy. “I’ll let it pass this time but use that tone to me again and your backside will get a reminder about treating your elders with respect. Hear me?”
“Yes, sir.” Little Joe’s tone was deeply respectful.
“Now, the boss said you was to have this stable spick and span before supper, so you best get a move on.”
Joe’s gaze swept the building around him, and his shoulders slumped, “Ain’t no way I’m ever gonna get done by supper, and then Pa’s gonna get mad all over again.”
Old Ned made his own survey of the stable interior. “It is a mite of work for one young’un, but you got only yourself to blame, Little Bit.”
And Adam! Joe kept his observation to himself, and slowly set to work pitching fouled straw into a wheelbarrow. “Nobody to blame and nobody to help,” he muttered just loud enough for Ned to hear while putting on the most dejected expression he could muster.
“Now, son, the boss would have both our hides iff’n he found out I did part of the job he set you for punishment. I should light a fire in them britches just for your thinking on it.”
“I didn’t think on it, Mr. Ned,” Joe declared as he quickened the pace of his work. “I don’t want to get in any more trouble with Pa, not any.”
“Then you better make sure I can answer him truthful when he asks me about how hard you been working down here.”
True apprehension flickered in the boy’s eyes. “You’re not gonna tell him I was slacking, are you, Mr. Ned?” Joe bit his lower lip. And gosh a mighty don’t tell him I was sassy.
“Now that depends on what I see going on from here, boy.” Old Ned kept his tone stern even as he thought, “More likely I’ll be reminding him just how big these stables are.”
“I won’t be slaking. Really, just you keep an eye out, and you’ll see.” The straw started flying as Little Joe once again increased his work pace.
“That I will, lad; that I will.” Old Ned gave a low chuckle as he walked off toward his own tasks.
As Old Ned exited, Little Joe’s movements slowed and then stopped. He gazed around and drummed his fingers on the handle of the pitchfork. There must be an easier way to do this. The minutes passed as he pondered the possibilities.
“Land a mighty, this is going to take longer than I thought!” Hoss rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead.
“A good two days!” Adam straightened, placed his hands on his hips, and spit at the ground. “Two days hard labor courtesy of little brother. If he ever…”
“Now, you know he didn’t mean for it all to happen like it did. It was the bull that did the damage.”
Adam sent a glare in his brother’s direction. “Don’t even try, Hoss.”
“Well, it was. Anyways, baby brother is paying the piper.”
“Cleaning stables.” Adam rolled his eyes.
“The big stables, Adam; that’s a peck of work for a little one.”
“Hoss, he’s eleven, not three, and perfectly capable of mucking out a few stalls.”
“There’s more than a few, big brother, and more than just the mucking to do.”
“He’s lucky he’s not doing it with a blistered backside. You know Pa would have tanned you or me good for pulling stunt like that at his age.”
Hoss sent Adam a nod of agreement, and the corners of his mouth curled, “His age or even a good bit older.”
“So you agree the little…” Adam paused and substituted for his first thought, “boy has every reason to be grateful that Pa has mellowed over the years.”
“Ain’t just that Pa’s mellowed. You nudged him pretty good toward punishment chores.”
“And you had Little Joe out of his sight as quick and slick as new boots on ice.”
“Still, the stables are a heap of work for one young’un in one day.” Hoss’ voice was once again tinged with concern.
“Pa won’t hold him to done before supper. If he’s made a good day’s work of it, Pa will just tell him to finish tomorrow.”
“Yeah, maybe, but…”
“Hoss, Pa only said that because otherwise Little Joe would drag the job out until a week from Sunday or until somebody else up and did what needed to be done.”
“Don’t now Adam me; you know it’s the truth.”
“He’s just a kid, Adam.”
Adam shook his head. “We best get back to work, or we’ll still be doing these repairs a week from Sunday.”
“Right you are, brother.” Hoss swiped the sweat from his brow again and returned to his task.
Little Joe stopped pushing the wheelbarrow and set it down. He looked around and considered just dumping the whole mess in the bushes beside the path. Who’ll ever notice? A little here, a little over there, some a little further along. I might even get things finished if I don’t have to push every load all the way there. Hoss and Pa were saying as how it’ll a probably rain tonight or tomorrow, and things will just get washed away. Makes sense not to waste my time. He chewed on his lower lip. He had considered every possible way to make his job easier or faster. He had even remembered about that fellow Hercules and those Augean Stables that he cleaned out with the river, but the Truckee was too far away, and the creek would never have enough force to clean out the stables even if he could dig a trench easier than pushing a wheelbarrow. Little Joe gave his hundredth sigh of the morning. One or two can’t hurt. I’ll take most of them all the way, just not this one. He straightened, turned the wheelbarrow, pushed it a little way off the path, and then dumped its load. Kicking the mound to spread it a little, he decided the next time to bring one of the wooden rakes with him. As he pushed the empty wheelbarrow back toward the stables, he began to whistle softly.
“Well, looks like you’ve done a bit of work.”
Little Joe turned toward Old Ned’s voice. “Look closer, Mr. Ned, it’s more than a bit.” The boy’s voice held no trace of challenge or impudence.
The old man smiled as he made an exaggerated survey of the stable’s interior. “While maybe a mite more than a bit. Seems like you may just have earned yourself some lunch.”
The shovel in Joe’s hand hit the dirt floor. “It’s time for lunch?”
“That it is. Hop Sing sent down vittles for you and me seeing as how your pa and brothers weren’t planning on eating at the house. ‘Sides it will save you some time and about half your scrubbing up.”
Joe gave Old Ned a smile and then a cheeky grin. “Maybe all my scrubbing up?”
“Sniff them hands and think on whether you want them wrapped around Hop Sing’s cookies.” Old Ned strode out the stable door with Little Joe following in his wake.
“He sent cookies? The ones with the raisins? I thought…”
“That the boss might’ve ordered bread and water only?” Old Ned teased.
“Naw, Pa wouldn’t punish me that way; now maybe Hoss…” They had reached the washstand on the side of the bunkhouse, and Old Ned worked the pump. He handed Little Joe a bar of lye soap. “Give that face of yours a swipe or two as well. Here me?”
“I think we’ll just eat out under that tree. Got a feeling this here food will taste a sight better if a breeze is blowing past you, and I’m upwind.” Old Ned took the food basket and carried it over into the shade. Settling with his back against the tree, he put the cloth that had covered the contents on the ground and began to set out the food. “I declare somebody must’ve told Hop Sing it was Hoss working down here.”
Little Joe dropped to the ground on the other side of the makeshift tablecloth and grabbed a sandwich. “Unuh, Mr. Ned, these here sandwiches have cheese on ‘em.”
“So they do; so they do.” Gazing down at the boy, he stated firmly, “Chew!”
Joe nodded, took a smaller bite, chewed thoroughly, and then swallowed. “What did he send to drink?”
Old Ned pulled out a jar and two tin cups. Filling them, he observed, “Ginger water. It’s still cool. Don’t gulp.”
As his mouth was full, Joe simply nodded and obeyed. He finished a sandwich and a half before he slowed down enough to talk. “Mr. Ned, can I ask you something?”
“Now, Little Bit, I think you just did.”
“Aww, that’s something Adam would say.”
“Is it now?” He watched frustration flicker across the boy’s face and a spark of anger flash in Joe’s eyes, so Ned spoke quickly. “Of course you can ask me something, Little Bit. What you need to know?”
“You were here when Adam was little, weren’t you?”
“Oh, Bucko was about eight or so when I hired on if I recollect. Why?”
“He did fool things sometimes, didn’t he?” Little Joe pulled a weed from the ground and wrapped its stem around his finger and then immediately unwrapped it again.
“All young’uns do fool things. Your big brothers weren’t no exceptions.”
“Then don’t you think he could remember that and not expect me to be perfect?”
“Is that what he’s expecting?”
“Seems like it sometimes.” Little Joe tossed the weed on the grass.
Ned’s answer came in his softest voice. “Maybe, maybe, as I remember, he sometimes expected that of himself.”
Little Joe’s knees drew up under his chin. “He was as mad as, maybe madder, than Pa.”
“As I hear tell, it’s him and Hoss down there rebuilding things.”
“Him and Hoss. That’s just it, Mr. Ned; Hoss weren’t mad, not like Adam. Hoss don’t ever want me in trouble with Pa.” Little Joe dropped his forehead onto his knees and wrapped his arms around his legs.
“You so sure Adam don’t feel the same?”
Little Joe shrugged.
“Adam’s full growed; Hoss ain’t yet. Makes a difference, Little Bit.”
“I recollect a time when that oldest brother of yours caused about twenty feet of new fencing to come down with his foolishness. I’d lay bets that he remembers that day.” Old Ned paused and studied Little Joe’s back.
“Did he get in trouble?”
“Boss blistered his backside good. He helped put back every inch of that fence while he was still burning.”
Little Joe turned his head to look into Ned’s face. “Is that why he thinks I’m spoiled?”
“Ain’t never knowed an older brother that didn’t think his little brother was spoiled at least some of the time. Just like I ain’t never knowed a little brother didn’t think his older brother was mean and bossy more than once.”
Little Joe sat up. “Were you a big brother or a little brother, Mr. Ned?”
“Both, child, both.” Old Ned shook his head and ruffled Joe’s hair. “I intend for this basket to be empty when it goes back to Hop Sing.” He reached for another sandwich, and Little Joe took another bite of his.
“Find a stopping point, boys.”
Adam straightened at the sound of his father’s voice. “Sounds good to me.”
“Me too,” Hoss added.
“You’ve managed to get a great deal done,” Ben observed with a smile. “How much longer do you think you’ll need?”
“Until lunch tomorrow,” Hoss answered.
Adam rolled his eyes. “With a very early start and a late lunch, we’ll be finished by lunch tomorrow.”
“Fine, fine. Well, as I said, finish up for today and be on time to the table.” Ben turned to go.
“Sure enough, Pa. Uh, Pa, are you headed to the house?”
Ben immediately recognized the motivation behind Hoss’ question. “I’m headed to the stables.”
Adam cleared his throat. “Pa, umm, about the stables…”
“Yeah, about them stables. . .”
“You mean about Little Joe and his cleaning of the stables.” Ben’s brow furrowed, and the glare he sent his elder sons carried an easily readable message.
“Now, Pa, it’s just that, well, with you having gotten use to setting punishment chores for Hoss, well, it’s just. . .” Adam paused to think of the best way to word his next observation.
“Yeah, Pa, you’re use to thinking in terms of what I can heft and all, and baby brother, well, it takes him a sight more time to get a job done even when he’s really scrambling, him being such a little mite and all.”
“Is that so, Eric?”
Hoss swallowed and nodded. Adam quickly interjected. “We don’t mean to question your punishment, Pa, not at all. Little Joe deserves to clean every inch of those stables. It’s just, well, it can be hard to estimate the time it will take for someone to do any job. I was off when I thought how long it would take to get things set to rights here.”
Ben raised his eyebrow. “Oh, you were, were you?”
Adam’s eyes dropped from his father’s face, and his hand rubbed against his pant leg. “Yes, sir, I was.”
Ben shook his head. You two have spent the entire day fixing Joe’s mess, and now you’re both pleading his case to me. “If Little Joe has worked hard the entire day, he will be in no further trouble with me.”
As Ben departed, his sons exchanged smiles behind his back.
Little Joe heard the approach of a horse and then two voices. He could recognize both his father’s voice and Old Ned’s, even though he could not distinguish their words. He swallowed and quickened his pace.
Little Joe swung around to face his father. “It ain’t supper time yet, is it, Pa?”
“Close enough. You’re going to need some time in the washhouse before you’re presentable enough to come to the table.”
“Pa, I ain’t quite finished. I…I’ve been working, but…”
Ben’s eyes studied the stable interior. “I can see that you’ve been working, son.” He’s done more than I should have expected. Ben allowed his features to relax. “Ned also told me that he saw a good deal of effort on your part when he’s been by today.”
“Then you’re not mad ’cause I ain’t got it all done?”
“No, son, I’m not mad. I would hope that I can be reasonable about such things.”
“Oh, you can be real reasonable, Pa, real reasonable; it’s just…” Little Joe dropped his eyes to the floor, “it’s just I really messed up yesterday, and you, uh, you have a right to still be mad. I’m sorry, Pa.”
“You are also forgiven.”
Ben placed his arm around his son’s shoulders. “Always. You will always be forgiven, Joseph, even though I expect you to accept the consequences of your actions.”
“I’d have done the fixing, Pa, if…”
“You haven’t the experience, skill, or size for those repairs, Joseph.” Ben’s hand came up under Joe’s chin. “That’s part of the reason one must think before one acts. At times, it is others that must suffer for your decisions.”
“Like Hoss and Adam having to do the repairs?” Little Joe rubbed his hand up and down his leg. “Are they still real mad?”
Ben thought back to his last discussion with his elder sons. “No, I can safely say your brothers have also forgiven you.” Ben patted Joe’s back. “I think, though, that an apology like the one I just received would be appreciated.”
“Now, Hop Sing will have a hot tub of water, a large bar of soap, and some clean clothes waiting for you in the washhouse. Put up your tools away and get going.” The smack to Joe’s backside carried very little sting.
Little Joe opened the door to the washhouse and stepped inside. He had just started to undress when the door opened again, and his brothers entered.
“Hey, there, Short Shanks!” Hoss’ voices echoed around the room.
“Hey, Hoss, um, hey, Adam.” Little Joe’s greeting was soft-voiced, and his fingers twirled the button beneath them.
“Hey, little brother.” Adam studied Little Joe’s expression for a moment.
“Ummm, uh, did you get done, umm, with everything?” Joe shifted from one foot to another and undid one more button.
“Just about.” Hoss pulled off his boot.
“Ummm, I didn’t get all finished either.” Little Joe undid the last button on his shirt and dropped it to the floor. “Uh, Pa wasn’t mad, though.”
“You must have gotten a good bit done then,” Adam observed as he took off his own shirt.
“Yeah, enough, I guess. Uhhh, I, uhh, I want to say, umm, I’m sorry. You both had to work at fixing things and all. Well, I’m sorry you had to on account of me.” Little Joe pushed the last words from his mouth and then dropped his chin to his chest.
“That’s okay, Short Shanks; if we hadn’t been working there, we’d have been sweating somewhere else.” Hoss’ voice was light and cheery. Little Joe raised his head and smiled.
“Now, Hoss, it’s not okay. Little Joe caused a lot of extra work with his foolish prank, and he needs to realize that.” Adam’s back was to his brothers, so he did not see the smiles leave both their faces. “But since it appears he does, I suppose we should forgive him.” The teasing tone Adam imparted to his last sentence was clear to Hoss but not Little Joe.
“Don’t put yourself out none!” Joe turned his back to Adam. Hoss and Adam both opened their mouths to speak, caught each other’s eyes, and remained silent. In fact, no one spoke until all three brothers were in hot tubs of water scrubbing away sweat and grime.
“Don’t forget your hair, Little Joe,” Adam stated after dunking his own head.
Joe bristled, “I don’t need to wash my hair. I just washed it last time.”
“Wash it again this time.”
“Pa didn’t say nothing about washing it.”
“I’m sure he didn’t say anything about not washing it either.” Adam’s voice had taken on a sharp edge.
“Might be a good idea, Short Shanks. Mucking stalls, well, the odor can stick to a fellow pretty good.”
Hoss looked from the rigid body of his younger brother to the tensed body of his older brother.
“Yes.” The syllable was clear, concise, and delivered in Adams deepest tones.
“I ain’t washing my hair!”
“Yes, Joseph, you are.” Adam paused and then finished, “Unless you prefer that I do it for you, little brother.” He reached for the bucket next to his tub and rinsed his own hair. Little Joe crossed his arms and sat unmoving until Adam rose and stepped out of the tub. Then Little Joe disappeared beneath the water, reappeared, and began lathering his hair.
Hoss was the first dressed, and he departed with a hasty, “I’ll let Hop Sing know we’re all about ready for some of his fine vittles.”
Little Joe had started to follow Hoss when he felt Adam’s hand on his shoulder. “Wait, little buddy.” Adam turned the boy toward him, cleared his throat, and went to his heels. “You know, Little Joe, I only meant to tease you.”
Little Joe stared straight into his brother’s eyes. “About washing my hair?”
Adam let out a controlled breath. “No, not about your hair.” He drew in another slow breath. “About forgiving you. I, well, Pa taught me real well about making apologies; I guess he should have given me a few more lessons in accepting them.”
“Pa told me you would like an apology. Then you. . .”
“Acted like I didn’t appreciate it. I was wrong to do that. I did, and I do forgive you; it’s just…” Adam rose and looked down at Joe, “You’re my brother, and sometimes…” Little Joe had titled his head back to stare up into Adam’s eyes. “Sometimes, I forget you’re a whole lot littler brother then Hoss.”
“You don’t never forget I’m little, Adam, never.”
“In some ways, no, but in others…” Adam tugged his ear. “It’s not so much that I forget you’re little as it is I forget you’re younger; I forget those six years between you and Hoss. There are times I’ve forgotten the six years between Hoss and me.”
Little Joe’s face was thoughtful. “Sometimes you don’t think of me as the baby?”
“I know you’re not a baby anymore, Little Joe, not even really a little boy.” Adam emphasized the little and then gave a slow smile. “How we see folks is complicated. Sometimes Pa forgets I’m grown, and sometimes he forgets I’m not as old or experienced as I might need to be for what he wants me to do.”
“But, Adam, you’re…”
“Twenty-three, Joe. There’s lots of men I have to deal with that see that as awfully green. Some of them, well, there’s men working here who have been working cattle or cutting timber since I was a baby.”
“Like Old Ned?”
“Well, yes.” Adam rubbed his chin, “But Old Ned is a special case. He doesn’t mind taking an order from me, but he is never going to see any of us as anything but the boss’s boys, Joe, never.”
Joe’s smile beamed. “That’s all right, though, ain’t it, big brother.”
“Yeah, like I said Old Ned’s a special case.”
Little Joe’s smile turned into a wicked grin. “Better not let him hear you calling him a special cuss.”
“I said case, not cuss.”
“Maybe he’ll believe that; maybe not. At least you didn’t say stubborn cuss like the last time.”
“I heard. I saw what he did too.”
“Why you little. . .”
Joe was out the door and half way to the house before Adam stopped sputtering and dashed after him.
Ben wiped his mouth and set down his napkin. “As always, Hop Sing, an excellent meal.”
“Plenty more, plenty more, I bring…”
“No, no, I’m too full already.”
“I ain’t, Hop Sing; you just go right ahead and bring in any you got extra, and I’ll see to it.”
“Hoss!” The exclamation was made in three different octaves while Hop Sing beamed and went to bring in more of everything.
“I worked up a powerful hunger today, Pa,” Hoss declared without even bothering to look sheepish.
“I did too, and I want some more of those chops!”
His father’s eyes went to Little Joe at that exclamation. “I’m sure when Hop Sing said he had plenty he meant enough for the both of you.”
His sons understood the message inherent in Ben’s words and nodded. Hop Sing brought in the refilled platters, and Hoss made sure Little Joe took his second helping before reaching for his third.
“Now, I know, Joseph, that you have not finished completely cleaning the stables, but I have been reconsidering what I want you boys to do tomorrow.”
“You have, Pa?”
“Yes, I have. The heaviest part of the repairs is complete, and I want Adam to accompany me to Hiram’s office tomorrow, so instead of working off your punishment in the stables, Joseph, you will assist Hoss while Frankie takes back his regular duties.” Ben fixed his gaze on his middle son. “I know it will take longer than if Adam was working with you, but that is not my first concern at this point. You can take the time to teach Little Joe the proper way to handle the repairs he is capable of doing. For the rest, he can fetch and carry as needed. If you take the entire day, that’s fine.”
Hoss looked over at his younger brother and smiled, “Sure, Pa. Joe and I will have everything set to rights before supper tomorrow.”
Ben sent a stern look at both Hoss and Little Joe. “Joseph, you will work hard and follow Hoss’ orders as you would mine. You will answer to me, not your brother, if you don’t.”
Little Joe straightened in his chair. “I’ll work real hard, Pa, and I’ll learn a lot. I promise.”
“I saw the results of your working hard today, so I expect more of the same tomorrow.” Ben allowed his tone to lighten. “Actually, I was pleased with the amount of work you managed to do today, Little Joe.” He paused and glanced around the table before he continued, “It has been pointed out to me that I may have set the bar a little high this morning, son, and I should tell you that I’m proud of how you rose to the challenge.”
Little Joe squirmed in his seat and dropped his eyes to his plate. “Thanks, Pa. Hoss and Adam worked real hard too.”
“That they did.” The corners of Ben’s mouth turned up. “I’m once again proud of all my boys.”
Hoss smiled, and Adam dropped his head so that his father would not see when he rolled his eyes.
Hoss set down the hammer, walked over into the shade, and reached for the canteen he had hung there. After taking a swig of the still cool water, he wiped his mouth and called, “Come get a drink, Short Shanks.”
Little Joe darted over, took the canteen, tipped it to his lips, and looked up at his brother. “We’ll get it all done by supper, won’t we, Hoss?”
“Sure, shouldn’t be more than an hour and a half, maybe two more hours of work. In fact, wouldn’t hurt to take a little break and finish off the rest of those muffins.” Hoss reached for the leather bag that had held their lunch and peered inside. “There’s still an apple in here too.”
“We can split that between the horses.”
“Good idea.” Hoss handed a muffin to Joe before biting into the last of Hop Sing’s blueberry delights. He dropped to the ground and leaned back against a tree. “Thought sure we’d see some rain today but looks like our luck’s gonna hold.”
Little Joe had settled on the grass next to Hoss. He squirmed and asked, “You think it’s gonna rain tonight.”
“Mmmmm, maybe, maybe not. The feel of things is done changed.”
“Oh. Ummm, Hoss, what you gonna tell Pa when he asks about how I was today?”
Hoss considered teasing but something about his little brother’s posture made his tone reassuring. “The truth, Short Shanks, I ain’t had to tell you nothing twice, and you been working like one of those beavers who keep damming up the big creek.” Hoss watched Little Joe rub his hand over the grass. “Pa’s not mad with you no more, Joe.”
“I caused a lot of trouble.” Joe’s hand continued to rub back and forth.
“Plum foolish thing to do with a bull.”
“Who’d have thought Samson would get that riled, Hoss? He’s big and fierce-looking, sure, but you know most of the time he’s…, well, he just plods along ignoring everything and everybody excepting a good-looking cow.”
“Well, now, that’s true. Just goes to show everybody’s got a temper to watch out for. It was a sight to see, though.” Hoss laughed.
“Sure was.” Little Joe giggled.
Hoss stopped his guffaws and forced himself to sound stern. “Somebody could’ve got hurt. Buildings is one thing, Joe; folks is another.”
“Now you’re fussing.”
“Not really, just remarking is all. Adam’s right; you got to understand about not doing foolish things.”
“Adam’s done foolish things. Old Ned said so. He said you did too.”
Hoss’ eyes narrowed. “He say what those foolish things were?”
Little Joe smirked and then gentled it into a smile. “Not about you. He said Adam knocked down twenty feet of new fencing with his foolishness.” Little Joe could tell by the Hoss’ face that Hoss remembered the incident. He opened his mouth to ask for the complete story, but Hoss shook his head.
“Ain’t telling no tales on Adam that might go giving you ideas.”
“But. . .”
“No buts, little brother. Old Ned tell you what happened to Adam’s butt on account of that foolishness?”
“He said Pa tanned him good.” Little Joe chewed his lower lip. “Why do you think Pa didn’t tan me?” When Hoss did not answer immediately, Joe asked, “Do you think like Adam does that Pa spoils me?”
“Not when I ain’t ready to thrash you myself.” Hoss reached out and patted Little Joe’s knee. “Pa does go easier on you sometimes about some things than he did Adam or even me, but I don’t truly think that’s spoiling really.”
“Then what. . .”
“Things is different. You and Adam are different, just like Adam and me is different. Pa didn’t always do the same with us either. Truth is, there’s one thing he was always easier about with Adam than with either you or me.”
Little Joe’s features turned contemplative. “You mean sassing?”
Hoss nodded. “Lots of things Adam said with Pa only frowning would’ve got me or you a swat or two.”
“Yeah! Why do you think that is?”
“ ‘Cause Adam’s Adam. You and me, well, when we say something like that, it’s more impudent than when Adam says it.”
Little Joe frowned. “How can it be?”
“Don’t know, not how to explain it anyway; it just is.” Hoss patted Joe’s knee again. “There’s reasons for most things, Joe, and mostly Pa’s got good reasons for what he does. It’s like how Pa has always been stricter with me about my temper.”
“Yeah, ‘cause of your being bigger than most.”
“Yeah. It was more important for me to learn to control my temper because I could hurt someone easy.” Hoss decided at this point a little teasing was allowable. “Now with you being more like some pesky horsefly than a riled bear, Pa allowed that temper of yours. . .”
Little Joe’s howl cut off the rest of Hoss’ statement. “Horsefly! I ain’t no little…”
Hoss rose like a tidal wave and snatched Joe off the ground. Ignoring the boy’s sputtering, he carried him back to where the tools lay and plopped him on his feet. “Come on, Short Shanks, back to work.”
“You big ox, I, I’ll…”
“Get back to work iff’n you don’t want me changing my mind about what I’m going to tell Pa.”
Little Joe sputtered, snorted, and then went quiet. Picking up a hammer, he gazed up at Hoss through his bangs. “You won’t, though, will you, big brother?”
Hoss ruffled Joe’s hair. “Naw. Of course, Pa can always tell if I’m lying, so you best be a good boy and help me get this work done right smart-like.”
Joe nodded and managed to spend the rest of the afternoon being a good boy.
“Hey, Bucko.” The greeting startled Adam and caused him to turn with a jerk.
“Oh, Ned. I thought everyone would be up at the bunkhouse.”
“Most are.” Old Ned leaned against the shed. “Everything thing get fixed proper?”
“Hoss and Little Joe got everything finished today.” Adam shifted his weight from one foot to another and focused on a small weed blooming at the corner of the tool shed.
“The little bit sure enough caused a ruckus, didn’t he?”
“Things weren’t as bad as they first looked.” Adam shrugged. “Some of those repairs would have needed doing soon anyway.”
“Yep, not like that twenty feet of new fencing.”
Adam ducked his head and then grinned. “I didn’t think anyone but me remembered that.”
“I’d be surprised if the boss ain’t thought on it in the past day or two.” Old Ned straightened. “You gonna tell me what you’re doing down here this time of evening getting a wheelbarrow and a shovel?”
“To tell the truth, no, not if I can avoid it.”
Old Ned’s features hardened. “I ain’t never taken no sass off you, Bucko. Are you thinking you’re so growed that I’ll start now?”
“No, sir, definitely not. You know you taught me better than that, and so do I.” Adam’s smile was seldom as boyish as the one he sent the old man.
“That I did.” Old Ned returned the smile. “Now, ‘fess up, lad.”
“Nothing to confess, really. I’m just going to do a little cleaning up.”
“Cleaning up what?”
“Well, umm, let’s just say that a few things got dropped here and there that need to be elsewhere.”
Old Ned rubbed his chin. “The little bit do the dropping?” Adam nodded. “Thought those stables were a mite too. . .” The rest of his thought was lost in the shake of Ned’s head. “How did you find out?”
“Frankie noticed and didn’t want anyone thinking it was his doing. He spoke to me.”
“And you told him there weren’t no reason to mention it to the boss?”
“Yes.” The syllable was clearly not only an acknowledgement but also a request.
Adam drew in a long breath. “Pa was real pleased last night, happy, you know. I didn’t think there was a good reason to spoil that.”
“Why ain’t Little Joe down here?”
Adam tugged his ear. “I can have it done in half the time.” Old Ned’s eyes demanded more. “I, well, I hurt his feelings, so I guess I felt like I owed him one.” Old Ned did not speak. “I’m his brother, Ned.”
Old Ned rubbed his chin again. “Don’t seem like the boss needs any extra upset, especially since he’s got himself a boy growed enough to handle some things for him. Best leave you to it then.” Old Ned started walking toward the bunkhouse. As he passed Adam, the back of his hand slapped against Adam’s leg. “Watch the sass. I done told you a thousand times that mouth of yours is gonna get you in trouble someday.”
Adam sidestepped and retorted, “Not if I remember to keep more than an arm’s length away from you.”
Old Ned turned and shook his finger at Adam and then walked on. Adam thrust the shovel into the largest wheelbarrow and placed his hands on the handles. Giving a sharp push, he headed toward the path to the manure pit but soon heard footsteps coming up behind him. Setting down the wheelbarrow, he turned in time to see Little Joe skid to a halt.
“A…A…Adam!” Joe blinked, and then his eyes widened as they focused on the wheelbarrow behind his brother. They grew even wider as he watched a smile grow on Adam’s face.
“Are you here to, umm, finish cleaning a few things up, Little Buddy?”
“Uhh, uhh, yeah, but what. . .”
“But, but how. . .”
“Frankie noticed and showed me.”
“He won’t be telling Pa.”
“No, and neither will I.”
Little Joe looked as if a slight breeze could blow him to the ground. He shook his head as though to clear cobwebs. “You’re not mad?”
“You were gonna do it for me?”
“Yes, but with the two of us working, we can have it done before Pa starts wondering about where either of us has got to.”
“But, but I. . . I was supposed to. . . I didn’t. . . I…”
Adam shortened the distance between himself and his brother. “I know, and it was not the right thing to do.”
“I wanted to get done. I didn’t want Pa to be mad ‘cause I didn’t.”
Adam placed his hand on Little Joe’s shoulder. “I can probably understand that better than almost anyone else. Joe, you know why we don’t just shovel things out the stable door, why we have a manure pit?”
“Yeah,” came the soft-voiced answer, and then Little Joe began chewing on his lower lip.
“Then you know better than to ever go dumping the mucking from the stables anywhere but there ever again?” Adam squeezed the boy’s shoulder.
“I won’t ever; I promise.”
“Well, then. . .” Adam felt Joe squirm beneath his hand.
“You gonna, well, handle my punishment yourself?”
“All I intend to handle is this wheelbarrow and that shovel.”
Little Joe drew in a deep breath and let out a single word. “Why?”
“Because you’re my brother.” The absence of the word little or baby was deliberate. “I’ve covered for Hoss a couple of times, so I guess I owe you one.”
Little Joe’s smile was brilliant and then grew cheeky, “Maybe even one more?”
Adam shook his head and swung his hand at Joe’s backside. Little Joe dodged the swat easily and darted into the tool shed. “I’ll get another shovel.”
When Little Joe reappeared with a shovel in hand, Adam picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and headed down the path. When every bit of misplaced manure and straw was correctly deposited, Adam and Joe headed back toward the tool shed.
Adam gazed down at the top of his brother’s head. “Where did you tell Pa you were going?”
“I asked him if I could go down and talk to Old Ned. He didn’t ask why.”
“Probably figured you wanted to worm some story he mentioned yesterday out of him. You best run on and speak to him, so you won’t have told a lie. I’ll put these things away. It’s probably wisest if we don’t arrive back at the house together.”
“Yeah, I planned to say howdy before I went back.” Little Joe darted a short distance down the path and then stopped. Turning to face Adam, he called back, “Speaking of stories, big brother, how about you tell me later how you managed to knock down twenty feet of new fencing.”
Adam simply growled, and Little Joe took off at top speed.
Old Ned had settled into one of the wooden rockers that resided on the long porch at the front of the bunk house. He watched as Little Joe dashed up and plopped onto the boards at his feet.
“Howdy, Mr. Ned! I’m glad you’re already outside.”
“Howdy, Little Bit. Whatcha doing down here this time of night?”
“Pa said I could come talk to you.”
“He did, now did he?” Old Ned rubbed his chin and spit a stream of tobacco juice across the porch and out into the dirt. “And how long ago did the boss give you that permission?”
Little Joe squirmed and ducked his head. “It was a bit ago.”
“Had something to do first, did you?”
“Um, yeah, yeah, I did.”
“Did you get it done?”
“Did that bossy, big brother of yours give you a hand?”
Little Joe’s head snapped up. “You know!”
“Ain’t much goes on around this part of the ranch that gets by me, lad.”
“You gonna tell Pa?”
“Hadn’t thought to.”
“Are you gonna fuss yourself or, ummm, anything?”
“Thought on it but nope. Boss’s right hand man said he’d see to what was needed, wouldn’t be my place to butt in.”
Little Joe shot to his feet. He bit his lip, drew in a shaky breath, and then spoke in a whisper. “You can, you know, ‘cause helping teach me has always been your place, Mr. Ned.”
The old cowhand smiled and chucked Little Joe under the chin. “Just you remember that it always will be, lad. Next time Bucko nor me will let the reins be quite so slack.”
Little Joe failed to suppress the cheekiness in his grin. “Adam still owes me one more.”
Old Ned managed a stern glare. “I don’t, Little Bit. Just don’t you go forgetting that.”
“I won’t.” Little Joe launched himself at the old man and hugged his neck. “Thanks, Mr. Ned!”
Old Ned squeezed back and then patted the boy’s leg. “Best get on up to the house.”
Little Joe straightened. “Yeah, Pa will be waiting.” He took a step away but then stopped. “Mr. Ned?”
“Sometimes it doesn’t make no difference if you’re the big brother or the little one, does it?”
“Sometimes it only matters that you’re brothers, Little Bit.”
“Yeah. Sometimes that’s all that does matter.”