Covering Up (by DJK)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7800


 

 

“Morning, Adam. Morning, Hoss.” Adam watched Little Joe slip onto his chair with a sideways glance at their father. “Good morning, Pa. Sorry I’m late.”

“True repentance, Joseph, results in changed behavior. Tomorrow you will be up at first call and at the breakfast table on time.” Ben’s fork hovered over his plate as he gave his youngest son a stern glare.

“Yes sir, Pa.” Little Joe fixed his eyes on his plate and reached for his napkin.

Hoss’ glance went from his father’s face to his younger brother’s bowed head. “You best grab some of them hotcakes, Short Shanks, before I finish off the lot. Hop Sing’s in fine form this morning.”

“That he is!” Adam’s statement held a forced cheeriness as he picked up the platter of hotcakes and held them out toward Little Joe.

“I, uh, I’ll just finish these.” Little Joe picked up the serving bowl that held only about a tablespoon of scrambled eggs and slid them onto his plate.

“Take a hotcake, Joseph.” All of his sons noted Ben’s use of the boy’s formal name.

“Yes, sir.” The boy’s head bent lower as he obeyed his father.

Adam kept his sigh internal. After last night, you’d think the boy would have taken pains to get up on time. So much for a pleasant start to the day. Adam took a drink of coffee and studied his little brother over the rim of the cup. Little Joe cut off a piece of hotcake and pushed it through the syrup pooling around the rim of the plate not once but three times and then set down his fork. He reached for his milk and tilted his head upward just enough for Adam to see the darkened skin beneath his little brother’s eyes. Adam looked first at his father, whose own eyes were focused on the breakfast he was steadily consuming, and then at Hoss, who indicated his concern with a slight movement of his chin in Little Joe’s direction. Adam searched for a comment that would lighten his father’s mood and bit the inside of his lip when none came to his mind. He decided to address Hoss instead. “Well, brother, if you’ve finished indulging in Hop Sing’s culinary delights, the two of us had best head out. We need to…”

“Adam,” Ben’s voice brought his son’s to a halt. “I need you to accompany me into town today.”

“But I thought Hoss and I…”

“Plans have changed. Hoss and Ned can handle things in the south pasture. The rest can wait until tomorrow.”

“Of course, Pa, whatever you say.” Adam looked over at his middle brother and then unconsciously tugged his left ear.

“I’ll tell Ned and head out then.” Hoss paused only long enough to gulp down the last of his morning coffee as he sent Adam an inquiring look. Adam gave Hoss a barely perceptible shrug of ignorance.

“Joseph, finish your breakfast. I don’t intend for you to be late to school.” Ben’s attention had returned to his youngest.

“I’m through, Pa.”

Adam could see clearly that while the hot cake had been cut into numerous pieces none of it appeared to have left the plate and at least half of the scrambled eggs also remained.

“You will clean your plate, Joseph, and do it quickly.”

Little Joe picked up his fork, speared some eggs, and slowly lifted them toward his mouth.

Ben set his napkin on the table and rose. “I need to speak with Ned and then I’ll meet you boys in the barn.” Little Joe’s fork clattered against his plate. “The three of us will be taking the buckboard into town.”

Adam swallowed the coffee in his mouth. “I’ll see that it’s hitched. Uh, will we be in town the whole day? I mean, until Little Joe’s finished at school?”

“There’s a number of things we need to do.” Ben glanced at Little Joe’s plate. “You will see to it that Joe’s plate is clean before the two of you leave the table.”

“Of course, Pa.” Adam watched his father’s exit from the room before he spoke to his brother. “Pa’s necessary talk didn’t keep you awake all night, did it?” Little Joe shook his head. “What did?” Little Joe’s shoulders lifted and fell. “Joe, you’ve got rings under your eyes, you were late getting up, and you haven’t eaten more than two bites this morning.”

“Pa’s still mad.” The words dropped softly toward the floor. Little Joe’s next statement was spoken even more softly. “And he’s gonna be madder.”

Adam tensed. “Why?” Little Joe bit his lip and voiced no explanation. “Are you in more trouble than he knows about?”

Little Joe nodded once. “Least ways, I will be if he talks to Miss Jones very long.”

“What did you do?” When his brother did not answer, Adam drew in a deep breath. “Joseph!”

If Adam had not already considered the possibility, Little Joe’s answer would have been unintelligible. “Played hooky Tuesday.”

“Joe!” Adam’s hand came down on the table with enough force to rattle the table settings. “Good grief, boy!” Adam saw the tears that filled Little Joe’s eyes before the boy ducked his head. Played hooky! Boy, you’re going to have good reason to cry when Pa discovers that. Adam’s eyes rolled. Lord, he knows that as well as I do. Adam chewed on his lower lip and stared at the food still on Joe’s plate. If I make him eat that, somebody’s going to be cleaning it off the floor. Adam shook his head, stood, and reached for his brother’s plate. He then scraped a portion of the food on it onto his own dirty dish repeating the same action with both Hoss’ and Ben’s plates before replacing it on the table. To Little Joe’s questioning look, he stated, “I said I’d see your plate was clean. Hop Sing will think that everyone else failed to clean theirs. Come on.” Adam strode to the door and then paused to buckle on his gun.

Little Joe slide off his chair and started toward the stairs. “I have to get my books and things.”

Adam bit his lower lip. “Don’t dawdle.” He watched Little Joe slowly mount the stairs. “And get your lunch from Hop Sing. Don’t forget!” Adam grabbed his hat and exited closing the door with more force and noise than necessary or normal.

Adam was nearly finished harnessing the team to the buckboard when Little Joe crossed the yard to stand beside him. “You do know that the right and best thing to do would be to tell Pa as quickly as possible?”

“Maybe nobody will mention Tuesday.” Hope flicker through Little Joe’s despair.

“Possibly. Why does Miss Jones think you were absent?” Adam still had not turned to look at his brother.

“She, uh, thinks I was sick. I was, kinda.”

Only when you thought of what would happen if Pa caught you. “Why does she think that?” Adam turned and looked down at the top of his brother’s bowed head.

“It said I was, in the note.”

“The note?” Adam reached out and lifted his brother’s chin. You didn’t, little brother; tell me you didn’t forge a note from Pa.

“I had to give her a note, or for sure she would ask Pa about things when she saw him at church.” Little Joe tried to drop his chin, but only his eyes were allowed to lower.

“You forged a note from Pa?”

“Not ‘xactly.” Little Joe shifted from one foot to another and back again.

“Not exactly?” The muscles of Adam’s hand tensed and put rising pressure on Little Joe’s chin.

“Ain’t no way my writing could look anything like Pa’s.”

“Whose could?” The words come out of Adam’s mouth like a low growl. Little Joe managed to snatch his chin from Adam’s fingers and give a violent shake of his head. “Hoss?”

“No, no, Adam, Hoss don’t know nothing about it.” Little Joe’s head had snapped up as the words burst from his lips. It dropped again as he muttered, “Hoss would never do that.”

Well at least I’ll only have to attend one funeral. “Then who?”

Little Joe shook his head with increased vigor. “Can’t tell.”

I don’t suppose you can, little brother. Not being a tattletale has always been one of your better qualities. Adam drew a lungful of air slowly in through his nose. “If it wasn’t Hoss, I suppose it doesn’t really matter to me who it was.” Adam’s right hand rubbed the bridge of his nose, “My best advice is still ‘tell Pa’, little boy.”

“Don’t think I can.” Little Joe’s arms had wrapped themselves around his body, and for a minute Adam thought his little brother was going to lose the two bites of breakfast he had managed to swallow.

And I suppose, at nine, you could have walked right up and told him, couldn’t you, Adam Cartwright? Adam did not bother to answer himself. His left hand began tugging his right ear in a slow, repetitive motion. Damnation, why did you have to tell me!” When the answer thrust its way into Adam’s brain, he dropped to his heels and placed a hand on each side of his brother’s waist. “You want me to help you tell him?” Just once, he had confessed to Marie because he knew his father was bound to discover his offense.

“I…I…I don’t want a lickin’ at the schoolhouse.”

You don’t want this lickin’ at all, baby brother. Several memories flickered swiftly though Adam’s mind. Then he heard his father’s voice and shot to his feet. Glancing over his shoulder, Adam saw his father approaching, muttered an expletive he should never have allowed his little brother to hear, and swung back toward Little Joe. He grabbed the boy and slung him into the bed of the buckboard. “Don’t let Pa get a good look at your face!” he growled into Little Joe’s ear, and then turned to address his father. “All ready to go, Pa.”

“Fine.” Ben hoisted himself onto the seat of the buckboard and reached for the reins.

Adam settled onto the seat at his father’s side, saw Ben glance over his shoulder at Little Joe, and stated smoothly, “Little Joe’s riding in the back.” Adam reached back and pushed his little brother’s hat down over his face, “I figured it was better he started out there than fell in later; I’ve never known a child who could fall asleep sitting on the seat of a buckboard faster than that one, and I just know he’s going to take advantage of this chance to squeeze in some more shut eye. A friend of mine from college — Edward Windsor, I mentioned him in my letters I’m sure — well, he told us a story about falling asleep…” Adam’s voice droned on steering his father’s thoughts away from Little Joe and any other subjects of concern.

*****

The words streaming around them now were in Ben’s steady tones. Adam kept his ears and a third of his mind monitoring his father’s business discourse, knowing he would need the information later in the day while the majority of his thoughts searched for  a way to keep his father and his brother’s teacher far enough apart to prevent discussion of any sort.

Adam glanced back at his little brother, sighed, and went with the only plan that he considered having even the remotest chance of success. Now if Joe will either catch on or keep his mouth shut.

“Uh, Pa,” Adam shifted on the seat.

“Yes, son?”

“Well, umm, it’s just…” You owe me one, little brother, oh, most assuredly, you owe me a big one. “Well, it’s this way; I was thinking we could drop Little Joe off at the top of the rise. We can see the schoolhouse from there, and…” Adam paused for breath.

“And why wouldn’t we take Little Joe all the way to the schoolyard?”

“Well, it’s just that, well, we wouldn’t want to get detained.” Adam shifted on the seat again.

“Detained in what way?”

“In any way.” Ben’s snort nudged Adam into continuing, “If you must know, Pa, Miss Jones, she, well, ever since I got back from college, if I so much as say good morning, I end up in some long discussion about something or other…”

“Shakespeare or sonnets or stuff.” Little Joe spoke for the first time since the ride to school had begun. “I’ve had to listen.”

Perhaps you’re not totally dimwitted, little brother. “Exactly. She tends to go on and on, Pa. Sometimes, well, it can be hard to be polite and still, um…”

“Escape!” Little Joe giggled and added, “She makes cow eyes at him, Pa.” He giggled again.

“Joe!” Just why am I trying to save his behind?

“She does, Pa!”

“Joseph, that will be enough.”

“Yes, Pa.”

“I’m sure Miss Jones simply enjoys a discussion with an educated person over the age of twelve.” Ben bit the inside of his cheek and kept the smirk off his face.

“It wouldn’t hurt Little Joe to stretch his legs for that little bit. He could walk that far on his hands.”

“Already have,” Little Joe asserted and then whined. “But I don’t see why I have to walk part of the way just ‘cause big brother don’t want to make cow eyes back at Miss Jones.”

So you do have the sense to know if you agreed right off Pa would know something was up. “Little Joe, if you don’t…”

“Boys!” Ben’s voice was curt. “Joseph, it will not hurt you to walk a few hundred yards, and I want to hear no more comments about Miss Jones and your brother. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“That’s settled then.”

“Thank you, Pa.” The sincerity in Adam’s voice was apparent. Now there’s only this afternoon to worry about.

*****

Adam saw Little Joe sitting on the bottom step in front of the school, glanced around, saw no one else, and whistled. Little Joe looked up, popped to his feet, and took off at a run toward his brother. Adam stopped his advance and waited for Little Joe to join him.

“Pa?”

“Sent me on to fetch you. We’re to get the wagon and retrieve Pa at Mr. Wood’s office. Evidently Pa had something he wanted to discuss with him that didn’t require my presence. Thank the Lord.” Adam started walking back the way he had come, and Little Joe fell into step beside him.

Adam’s eyes caught the flash of sunlight glinting off the lunch pail swinging in Little Joe’s hand. “Did you eat your lunch?”

“Pail’s empty.”

That might work with someone else, little brother, but not with the master. “That’s not what I asked.”

Little Joe’s steps slowed. “I ate some.” Adam heard his brother’s sigh. “Do you think Pa… Well, is he in a good mood, Adam?”

“Things went well today.”

“Yeah, you done real good saving me, big brother. Uh, thanks.”

Adam’s hand went to the top of his brother’s head and rested there even as they continued walking. “I might not have done you a real favor. Pa could still talk to Miss Jones or find out some other way.”

“Less likely all the time.” Little Joe turned around and walked backwards. “I was good today; Miss Jones said.”

“That, at least, is a step in the right direction.” This time Adam’s hand pinned Little Joe’s shoulder. “No more playing hooky, no more forged notes. I’ll not cover for you again. Hear me?”

“I hear.” Little Joe’s voice sunk to a whisper. “Brother’s cover for brothers, though.”

“Yeah, but the books are really unbalanced toward you in that area, little boy.” He ruffled Little Joe’s hair a little roughly.

Little Joe grinned. “That’s ‘cause I’m the little brother.” He took off running, and Adam was forced to follow.

*****

“I can have it done by the end of next week, I should think.” Hiram Woods put down the pen with which he had been making notes. Leaning back in his chair, he studied Ben Cartwright, cleared his throat, and said, “Uh, Ben, have you spoken with Adam about, well, about the revision in guardianship.”

Ben’s brows drew together slightly. “Have I spoken to Adam? Well, no, he’ll be with me when I sign the new will; I expected we’d go over the details with him then.” Ben looked at the lawyer. “Why do you ask?”

Hiram tapped the fingernail of his pointer finger against his front tooth and then leaned forward. “Ben, hasn’t it even occurred to you that…well, Adam just turned twenty-one. He’s young, college-educated. I know he came back to the ranch, but…well, if something did happen, the ranch could be sold, and with a third share of that and the income from your other investments, well, they would provide a young man with a comfortable living, a myriad of choices. Have you asked him if, say a year from now, if — God forbid — if you should pass, have you asked him if he would be prepared to take guardianship of a ten and a sixteen-year-old?”

“Hiram! They’re his brothers.” Ben’s tone made it clear that he thought Adam’s answer was so obvious that asking the question was an insult.

“Now, Ben, I’m not inferring that Adam has any but the deepest feelings for his brothers. It’s just that, well, the situation may be more complicated… Perhaps guardianship should remain with your brother as it has been since Captain Stoddard passed. After all, their uncle is a mature man with a son of his own.”

“A man whom neither of my younger sons has ever met.” Ben’s initial reaction had caused him to half rise; now he settled back into his chair. “Hiram, I don’t even know for sure if I could contact John. While Adam was still underage, well, there was little choice. If something had happened, a search would have had to have been made. Of course, John would have come. Still, for some years now, even though legal guardianship would have been in John’s hands, Adam would have…. You know after Marie’s death Adam…he was only seventeen.” Ben sighed.

“You told me more than once, Ben, what a help he was, how he stepped up, but that was for a short time during a difficult period. A temporary situation is not the same as a long-term commitment.” Hiram rested his hands on his desk. “As I said, the revisions will take until sometime next week to prepare. There is time if you choose to speak privately with Adam, even if it is just to prepare him for the idea. These are difficult matters for families to consider. That’s the basis for my suggestion, nothing more.”

Both men heard the door to Hiram’s office open and watched has the young man in question walked into the room. “Excuse me, Pa, Mr. Woods. I just wanted to let you know Little Joe and I have the wagon waiting just down the street whenever you’re ready.”

“Thank you, son. I’m ready now.” Ben stood. Turning toward the lawyer, Ben caught the man’s eyes. “I’ll give what you said some consideration, Hiram.”

*****

“Adam.”

Adam raised his eyes from his book and located his father standing next to the side table that held his decanter. “Yes, Pa?”

“I thought I might indulge in a brandy now that the boys are settled in bed. Perhaps, you would like to join me?”

Adam had to swallow his surprise before he could answer. “Yes, uh, I would.” He watched his father pour a measure of the amber liquid into two glasses and walk toward him with an extended hand. What in the world? The last time Pa offered me a brandy was on my birthday. “Thank you, sir.”

“Sir?” Ben Cartwright’s eyebrow rose, and the corner of his lips curled. “Is there something you’re feeling guilty about, son?”

He can’t know about Joe; he would never have held his temper and just let him go up to bed. “Guilty? Why ever would you ask that?”

Ben took a sip from his glass before answering. “The sir; you’ve rarely used the word unless you were in trouble.”

“Oh. Well, I…well, it’s just that you seemed so serious, so formal. Is there something you want to discuss, Pa?” I’m going to have to watch that from now on.

“Actually, there is.” Ben settled into his favorite chair. “When I was with Hiram earlier, well, I spoke with him about some revisions to my will.” Ben paused to sip his brandy once more.

“Your will?” Adam’s brow furrowed; then he suddenly leaned forward his face filled with worry. “Pa, you’re not…there isn’t…I mean…”

Ben recognized his son’s anxiety immediately. “No, no, Adam, I’m fine, healthy as a horse.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure. The reason for my discussion with Hiram had nothing to do with my health. In fact, it had more to do with you than with me.”

“Me?” Adam’s face showed his confusion.

“Adam, take a sip of your brandy, and I’ll explain.”

Adam leaned back and did as instructed, but his eyes remained glued to his father’s face.

“Son, I had my first will written before I came west. Most men of my age wouldn’t have yet considered doing so, but, well, life had made me aware of how suddenly…and, well, I had a son to consider. Since then I have always had a will prepared and ready. As things changed in my life, I have seen that that document was revised for new circumstances.”

“New circumstances?”

“My eldest son has reached his majority.”

“Oh.” Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Pa, I still…”

“Adam, you are an adult now and a partner in this ranch, in everything that is the Ponderosa.”

“I know, Pa.” Adam’s dimple appeared as he remembered the legal documents he had found next to his breakfast plate on his twenty-first birthday. “I even have the papers to prove it.” The slight cockiness in Adam’s voice was not missed by Ben.

Ben’s eyebrow arched. “As the senior partner who provided them, I am well aware of that.”

Point taken, Pa. “I can see how that might have repercussions for your will.” Adam leaned back more relaxed than he had been since his father had first spoken. “As long as that’s all there is to it.”

“Well, son, there is one point that Hiram felt we should discuss, the two of us.” Ben drew in a deep breath and set down the glass in his hand. “Your brothers are minors and will be for some years. If, well, if anything should happen to me, you are now of age to become their full and legal guardian.”

“Your will now names me as guardian for Hoss and Little Joe?” Adam had leaned forward once again.

“It will as soon as the new version is prepared and signed.” Ben’s eyes were locked on his son’s face prepared to read the slightest flick or twitch.

“Thank God!” The exclamation was voiced softly but with definite vehemence, as Adam sank back into the chair like one relieved of a heavy burden.

“Adam!”

“I hadn’t thought to speak to you about it, but thank God I didn’t need to.” Adam’s smile was deep and obviously genuine. “Thank you, Pa, thank you for always thinking ahead, for…well, for being the pa that you are. You don’t know…I mean I’ve never said, but…I worried about it, Pa, about…but, well, now at least that won’t be a concern.” Adam brought his glass to his lips and took a deep draught.

“You’ve worried? Adam, are you saying that you’ve worried about not being able to…” Ben’s voice faded away.

“Pa, I know my grandfather loved me, but I don’t remember knowing him. I know Uncle John must be a good man, but I barely remember him and the boys have never met him. I’ve always, well, it’s not like I fretted over it every day, but from time to time when something — you have given us a scare or two — well, I worried sometimes I wouldn’t be able…that someone might legally be able to keep me from taking care of them, Pa, raising them the way they should be raised, the way you would want.”

“Adam, I never… I didn’t know.”

“It doesn’t matter now. Not that anything is going to happen to you, but if it does, well, I’ll see to everything, and I’ll take care of the boys.”

Ben leaned back in his chair as if to gain distance and perspective. “I have no doubt that you could, that you would, but, Adam, Hiram pointed out that you are a young man, and Little Joe is only nine, he would become your responsibility for many years.”

“Pa, what are you trying to say?”

“What, for example, what if you should want to marry, some women would not want to take on the raising of two half-grown boys.”

Adam’s temper sparked, and his glass thudded down on the chair-side table. “Any woman I would consider marrying would know… wouldn’t consider anything but helping me raise my brothers. Mama didn’t hesitate; Marie knew you had sons.”

Ben shook his head ruefully. “I nearly bit off Hiram’s head when he suggested you might not be happy to be named your brothers’ guardian. I guess I was right in the first place.” Ben smiled. “I’ve relied on you so often. Relied on you even when you were too young.” Ben rose and went to place his hand upon Adam’s shoulder. “A man, well, to see your son become a man, a good man, a man of his own…” Ben’s hand squeezed gently and then patted his son’s shoulder. “We’ll go together when the will is ready, and I’ll have a word or two to say to Hiram, I certainly will.”

Adam listened to his father’s steps upon the stairs and sipped the rest of his brandy slowly. Guardian. I’d be responsible for raising them. I wouldn’t be just their brother anymore. ‘Brothers cover for brothers.’ I’d be the one they’d be hiding things from, the one… An ember popped in the fire, and startled Adam who turned his eyes toward the flames.

*****

“Bucko, you’ve been chewing on something for the past three days, now don’t you think it’s about time you spit it out.” Adam jerked and then watched as Old Ned punctuated his statement with a spit of his own.

Adam dropped his chin and focused his eyes on the ground before him. “That’s just it. It may be that I’ll just have to swallow it down.”

“Have you talked to the boss about it?”

Adam sighed and plucked a long piece of grass from the ground. His eyes moved to the small campfire they had built to boil the lunchtime coffee, and he purposely keep his head tilted so that his hat kept his features in shadow. “No.”

“I see.”

Adam raised his head. You just might. I should have had better sense than to let Pa send me out on an all day job with you. Without conscious thought, his right eyebrow rose slightly. Or is that the reason I am working with you. Did you ask Pa? His breath came in quickly. Did Pa ask you?

Old Ned spit again. “You keeping something from the boss, boy?” He watched as Adam dropped his head and plucked at the grass beneath his fingers. “Is that the way of it?”

“I’m not a boy anymore, Ned.” Adam’s words came out a soft whisper without a trace of challenge.

Old Ned smiled slowly. “Not in some ways and not to some folks, but I’ve got enough years on you to call you that and mean no offense.”

Adam tossed the grass in his fingers toward the fire. “Always will, won’t you?”

“Always. Now, are you gonna tell me what burr’s stuck in your hide, or am I gonna have search it out myself.” Old Ned straightened and leaned forward.

Adam drew his legs up and rested his forearms on his knees. “Are you gonna tell Pa?”

“No.”

Adam eyes widened and settled on the old man. Of all the times he had asked Old Ned the same question, he could not remember one simple, immediate negative.

“Like you said, you ain’t a boy, so when it comes to you, Bucko, I ain’t got to carry tales no more.” Old Ned’s eyes narrowed. “Unless you come up with some grand foolishness I don’t think I can handle myself.”

“There’s nothing you’ve ever thought you couldn’t handle yourself.”

“Well, there’s some truth to that when it comes to you boys, so get to talking.”

I most always end up telling you anyways, old man. Adam smiled weakly. Don’t think I’ve ever come straight at it, though. “Pa’s having a new will written. It names me the boys’ guardian if, well, if one should be needed.”

“Boss always sees to what’s needed. You’re not fretting over what might happen to the boss?” Old Ned suddenly stiffened. “There ain’t no special reason the boss thinks he needs to tend to his will, is there?”

“No, no, not like that. He just thought with me having reached my majority, it needed updating.” Adam’s front teeth sunk into his lower lip. “It’s, well, it’s kind of like his acceptance that I’m an adult.” Adam looked at Ned and gave a sheepish grin. “His son always but not a little boy anymore.”

“Then I’d think you’d be busting your shirt buttons, not looking like you’re working on a whole plate of old leather that needs chewing down.”

“There’s something I’m not feeling to grown about.” Adam let his breath out slowly.

“Done something boy foolish, have you? Happens to us all. That feeling won’t go away until the man steps up and faces the consequences.” Old Ned watched Adam’s face and read a great deal there. “The consequences wouldn’t be all yours, is that the rub?”

“Yes.” Adam’s voice faded away as he plucked another handful of grass from the earth.

“You covering for Hoss or Little Bit?”

“Neither of them is old enough that you think you don’t have to carry tales.”

“Don’t name names.”

“Wouldn’t have to.”

“No details then.”

“I helped one of the boys keep something from Pa.”

“Something dangerous?”

“Not really, well, probably not. Serious, though.”

“Not the first time you covered for either of them.”

“No, it’s not; it’s just, well…” Adam let his eyes meet Old Ned’s fully for the first time since the conversation had started. “I’m thinking that maybe this time I should have been the grown brother, not the big brother.”

“It may be that you should have, but are you thinking that for this one what’s done is done?”

“I guess that’s about the way of it.”

“And the next time?”

“I’m thinking, well, if I… I know I’ve always kind of been, um, responsible when it comes to Hoss and Little Joe, and it’s not like I’ve never told Pa when I felt I had to. It’s just, well, have to is one thing; should is another.”

“So thinking about how things could change between you and the boys has got you fretting over how things are gonna have to change some now.”

Adam sighed. “Pa could have taken less time to give me each of my brothers.”

“God could have given pigs wings, but then we’d be eating less pork.” Old Ned stood, picked up the coffee pot, and poured the remaining coffee onto the fire. “If boys knew what being a man really meant, most of them would quit trying so hard to grow up fast. By the time they do; it’s too late.”

Adam rose and started kicking dirt over the smoldering wood. “So I take a pass on this one and buck up the next?”

“Unless you plan on confession being good for the soul, if not some other parts of a body. Works waiting, Bucko.”

Without a response, Adam went back to work.

*****

He stopped and stretched his back. One job down and oh so many more to be done. What next? Adam considered what would be the most productive use of his time. Hop Sing will have the noon meal ready in less than an hour, so it makes little sense to get involved in anything major. Adam gave a slight smile. His family often teased him about hating to interrupt a task at a point he had not chosen as appropriate. I could give myself a slight break, and then get to work right after lunch. It won’t really be slacking if I…say, go check on Goldenrod. Hoss thought she would probably go into labor sometime today. He headed toward the stables with an easy but purposeful stride. When he entered the building, he was not surprised to find Hoss.

“Is she in labor yet?”

Hoss looked more startled at Adam’s presence than he should. “Uh, yea, for about the last half hour.” Hoss ran his hand down the leg of his pants.

“Everything going as it should?” Something in Hoss’ demeanor had Adam focus his gaze on his brother instead of the horse.

“Uh, yeah, everything’s going fine so far. It’ll be a while I expect seeing as this is her first. Did you, uh, want something? Pa knows I was gonna work around the stable if she started.”

“No, I had a few minutes, and I thought I’d check on her before lunch. Will you come up to the house, or do you want Hop Sing to fix up a plate for me to bring down?” Adam studied Hoss’ face as he asked the question.

“Ummm, you don’t have to bother none. I’ll go up and fetch something then bring it back here.”

Adam could discern the nervous edge to Hoss’ voice. “Okay then.”

“There something else?”

The question gave Adam the distinct impression that his brother wanted him to leave. He considered several possible reasons that Hoss might. He took a few steps closer to get a better view of the mare and the area around her.

“No. I’ll be heading up to the house then.” Adam walked out of the stables but left the door slightly ajar and stopped to listen. In a few minutes, he heard what he expected. He turned on his heal, pushed open the door, and strode back inside. “Joseph!” His eyes caught and followed the movement of his younger brother darting behind Hoss.

“Now, Adam…” Hoss started in his most placating voice.

“He’s supposed to be at school.” Adam’s words were as forceful and staccato as his footsteps. He stopped within inches of his brothers.

“He just wanted…” Hoss made sure that his bulk stayed between Adam and Little Joe.

“Hoss knew Goldenrod’s baby would come.” Little Joe’s voice carried a distinct whine as he peered around Hoss to assess his elder brother.

“Pa said you were to go to school.” Actually he bellowed it. The discussion at breakfast had ended with his father’s threat to give Little Joe a lesson in obedience.

“I started to go, but…” Little Joe’s words faded as he bit his lower lip.

“Obviously, you decided to disobey, play the truant, be deceitful, and do as you…” Adam caught the first expression that came to his mind, swallowed the expletive, and continued more appropriately. “…as you pleased.” Adam swung his glare to Hoss. “And you let him. Pa’s liable to skin both your hides.”

“Now you make it sound a lot worse than it needs to be.” Drops of perspiration began to dot Hoss’ forehead.

“Pa won’t do anything if he doesn’t know.” Little Joe stepped from behind Hoss and gazed up at his older brother. “He doesn’t have to know.”

Adam drew in a long, slow breath and held it. His fingers came up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

Little Joe decided not to blink away the tears that filmed his eyes. “You don’t have to tell him. Ain’t any good reason to.”

“He was here when I came in. It weren’t much more than an hour ago. Didn’t seem to make sense to send him on to school when he couldn’t get there before it was half over. Missing one day ain’t so very much.” Hoss’ voice sounded almost as young as Little Joe’s and just as pleading.

Hoss will be in nearly as much trouble as Joe. He didn’t go anywhere unsafe. Really, it’s not as if he put himself in danger. He loves horses; he thinks they feel like people about things. He just… Adam gave his head a sharp shake. “This is becoming a bad habit, little boy.” Hoss’ expression grew confused, and Little Joe’s lower lip slipped forward.

“Goldenrod needed somebody and all of you got things to do. It was important. You’re not gonna tell Pa, are you?”

Am I? Is it really so important for Pa to know? It really is different than the last time. Adam let out a slow sigh. “School’s important.” Little Joe tried mightily but could not prevent a slight rolling of his eyes. “And you’re being deceitful and disobedient is even more important.”

Little Joe bristled at Adam’s tone. “Like you ain’t never disobeyed Pa or been deceitful. Maybe you never skipped out of school, but that’s just because you hardly ever had a school to go to.”

“All of which is no concern of yours.” Adam’s hands had settled on his hips.

“And whether I go to school or not ain’t any concern of yours!” Little Joe’s arms crossed his chest, and his jaw jutted forward.

“Wrong, little boy, very wrong.”

Hoss heard the anger mounting in Adam’s voice. “Now maybe just this once….”

“But it’s not just this once, is it, Joseph?”

“Don’t matter if it was once or a hundred times, I wouldn’t tattle on you. We’re brothers.” Little Joe turned his back on Adam.

Hoss and Adam both considered the truth of their little brother’s statement. Little Joe had never been one to carry tales.

“You’re not gonna tell Pa, now are you, Adam, and you’re gonna promise not to do nothing like this again, aren’t you, Little Joe?” Hoss inserted his questions in a soothing voice.

Little Joe turned back toward his brothers. “I’ll promise.”

“No.” The word had a flat, hard tone. “I am going to tell Pa; you make your promises to him.”

“Adam!” Hoss’ exclamation held pure surprise.

“No!” Little Joe’s eyes widened as he recognized the resolve on Adam’s face.

“Yes. It would be best for you to come with me. Pa planned to eat lunch at the house.”

“No, Adam, please! Hoss will be in trouble too.”

“Joe…”

Little Joe heard no change of mind in Adam’s voice. “You’re just being mean!” He pushed past his brothers and ran toward the open door.

Neither Hoss nor Adam followed. “You know what Pa’s gonna do if you tell.”

“I know. I…it’s something I think I should do; I wish it wasn’t, but it is.” Adam looked at Hoss. “I’m sorry, little brother.” Hoss knew his brother well enough to see the truth in his words.

“Pa always says a man’s got to do what he thinks is right.”

Adam sighed. “That’s it; a man has to.”

Goldenrod whinnied, and both Cartwrights turned to gaze down at the mare. Hoss went to her side. “She still has a time to go. I’ll settle her, and then come up to the house.”

“Fine.” Adam’s left hand tugged his right ear as he walked toward the door.

*****

Adam knocked but received no response. This did not surprise nor impede him. There was no lock on Little Joe’s bedroom door, so Adam simply opened it and stepped inside. His brother was sprawled on his stomach across the middle of his bed. “Little Joe.”

“I’m not talking to you.” The statement was muffled by the pillow under Little’s Joe’s face.

“Then you can simply listen.” Adam crossed to the bed in three long strides.

“No!” Little Joe jammed his pointer fingers into his ears.

“Joe, I just want to say…”

Little Joe began humming loudly.

Evidently, it doesn’t matter what I want to say. You know I could pull those fingers out of your ears, little boy! Adam swallowed the thought and the remainder of his explanation. He turned and walked out of the room. Leaning against the hall wall, he ran his hand over his face.

“Little Joe being stubborn?” Hoss was leaning against the doorjamb of his own bedroom.

“Our little brother was born stubborn, and at the moment, he is not in a forgiving mood.”

“Pa really lit into him.”

“Pa really lit into you too.”

Hoss gave a slight shrug. “Not so much. I knew I shouldn’t have let him stay; I just…”

“I know. You know that I hate that you…”

“Known it since we was both little ‘uns.”

Adam arched his eyebrow and curled up the corner of his lips. “Little ones?”

Hoss’ own mouth curled upward. “So to speak.” He shifted his weight onto both feet. “It’s different for Little Joe.”

“You’re different than Little Joe.”

“So are you. Guess God didn’t want Pa to get bored raising the same boy three times over.”

Adam shook his head as he smiled. “Maybe.” Then he sighed. “I guess I should be grateful for one brother who can’t hold a grudge.”

“It’s easier for me. I can remember, well, being boys together.”

“You’re still a boy.”

“I can remember you being a boy lots clearer than Little Joe. You’ve always been the big brother to Joe.”

“Always been your big brother too.”

Hoss heard the thin edge on Adam’s voice. “Yeah, but sometimes, well, you’ve been just my brother. We’ve been in trouble together, equal like, like Joe and me today. Little Joe, well, it ain’t never really been that way for you and him.” Hoss saw Adam was about to speak and spoke more quickly. “You being so much older, you always took the responsibility off Little Joe. He was little when you went back East. He don’t remember all what you and I do. I know when you took the whipping, so I wouldn’t; Joe doesn’t.”

“I would have today, if it was that simple.”

“I know; in all my born days, you ain’t never told Pa except when you felt you had to.” Hoss swallowed. “Don’t rightly know if I understand why you had to today, but I trust you had your reasons.”

“You have a trusting soul, little brother.”

“Got good folk to trust in. Little Joe’s temper will burn itself out, and then I’ll have a talk with him.”

“I’ll talk with him when he’s ready to listen.” Adam pushed away from the wall and started toward his bedroom. “Whenever that may be.”

“Adam.” Hoss’ hand stilled his brother. “You be ready to listen too.”

Adam looked back into his brother’s eyes and nodded.

*****

“Bucko!”

Adam raised his head at Old Ned’s call and wiped his hands on his pants. “What?”

“You just get yourself up to the barn loft and talk to your brother.” Old Ned turned his head to glower over his shoulder at the barn door. Turning back to see that Adam had yet to move, he spit at the ground. “I said get!”

Adam put himself into motion but stopped when he reached the older man. “Just which brother am I going to speak with?”

“Don’t you start with no sass; I’ve done had enough of that from Little Bit.”

“No sass intended; I assure you.” Adam took two more steps forward. “Ned, Little Joe…”

“Needs settling, and you’re the man for the job. Now get.” Ned’s hat whipped from his head and swung toward Adam’s thigh.

 Having learned to read Old Ned many years before, Adam’s forward motion avoided any contact and carried him to the barn door. After scanning the interior, he waked to the ladder. He considered calling out but shrugged and began to climb. When his head rose above the loft floor, he paused to search for his little brother. Little Joe stood in front of the open upper door. Adam pulled himself up and then sat down blocking the stairs. “Little Joe.” His brother did not turn to face him. Adam drew in a slow breath and released it. “I can’t leave; Ned sent me to talk to you.”

“He saw us before… he’s mad. He… he says I’m the one being mean.”

If he heard you this morning… “Ned didn’t…”

“No. Almost, but no.” Little Joe turned to face his brother but kept his eyes on the loft floor. “He said Pa didn’t raise me to act that way toward nobody, and he ain’t gonna watch me act so disrespectful to no adult that way again.” Little Joe lifted his head, and Adam could see the red that rimmed the boy’s eyes and colored his nose. “You may be grown, but you’re still my brother.”

“Always will be, and that does make a difference. Anyone else who spoke to me like that, well, I wouldn’t have let it pass.”

Little Joe dropped to the floor and pulled his knees up under his chin. “Hoss is mad at me too; Pa would be if he wasn’t up at the lumber camp.”

“Hoss just doesn’t like being pulled in the middle.”

“Hoss should be mad at you. He didn’t deserve for you to get him in trouble. Maybe I did, but he didn’t.” Little Joe’s glare made it clear that his temper had yet to cool.

That’s why he’s holding a grudge. “Hoss and I settled things; I want to settle things with you.”

“ ‘Cause Old Ned told you to?”

“Because you’re my brother and always will be.”

“What…” Little Joe’s voice broke. “What did I do to make you so mad? You told on me. What did I do this time that was so bad? Last time you covered for me.”

“Last time I shouldn’t have.” Adam plucked out a piece of hay and twisted it around his finger. “I should have taken you to Pa and helped you tell him the truth.”

“But you didn’t ‘cause brothers cover for brothers.”

“Boys cover for boys. I’m not a boy anymore.” He tossed the hay to the floor and rubbed his hands against his knees. “I have to face up to my responsibilities.”

“It’s not fair; I won’t be a man for a long time. Hoss and you will be men, and I’ll still just be a boy.”

“That’s true. You’ll still have Hoss for a while, though.”

Little Joe’s arms crossed on his knees, and he buried his face in them. Adam rose, closed the distance between them, and then sat down beside his brother. His hand settled on Little Joe’s back. Little Joe turned and buried his head in Adam’s lap. “I’m sorry I was mean.”

“Brothers are mean to brothers sometimes. I didn’t want to be mean to you, though.”

“Are you gonna have to be, well, responsible all the time now?”

“Mostly, well, mostly I’ll have to try.”

“So you can’t ever be just my brother now?”

“Someone said somewhere that the boy always exists in the man.”

Little Joe raised his head. “What?”

“It means sometimes I’ll just be your brother.”

“When?”

“Now.” Adam took two large handfuls of hay and dumped them on Little Joe.

“Adam!” Little Joe’s shout preceded his retaliation. It had been a long time since they had fought a hay war. When it was over, they both lie in the hay and felt at peace.

***The End***

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