Word Count: 4055
“Tell me a story, Papa.” Her small voice carried the hint of command that she had inherited from her father.
He smile down at her and replied, “And what story shall I tell, my poppet?” His hand smoothed the bouncing curls on her head and came to rest cupping her cheek. She took his large hand in her miniature ones and turned it palm side up.
“Tell me the story of this one, Papa. I’ve never heard about this one.” Her finger traced a faint but long scar that crossed from the base of his thumb to sweep around his little finger.
“Not every one of my scars has a story, Poppet. Perhaps I simply cut my hand long ago. When one is careless, accidents happen.”
She set her curls bouncing again with a shake of her head. “There’s always a story, Papa.” She tilted her face to his and attempted a stern glare. “Sometimes you just don’t want to tell me.” Then in a moment her expression changed, and she reminded him of his little brother far more than anyone would ever have expected, “Please, Papa, please tell me about this one.”
He capitulated and lifted her onto his lap. “I must, must I?”
She nodded adamantly. “You must!”
He shook his head and ran his fingers lightly over her ribs provoking an eruption of high pitched giggles. “Well, then, if I must.”
She settled contentedly against his chest. Her fingers found the lowest button on his vest and began rhythmically rubbing it while he repeatedly twirled one of her curls around his ring finger. “I was, let’s see, sixteen or so and feeling my oats as they say.” His voice took the memory and wove the story for his child.
Hearing his name, the boy rolled eyes but turned his horse and replied, “Yes, Pa.” He saw his father striding towards him.
“Where do you think you’re going? Ben Cartwright’s displeasure was clear. Adam lifted his chin and stiffened his back before replying.
Ben’s back did not simply stiffen; it turned to granite. “No!” The syllable was not a bellow, but a growl forced through clenched teeth.
“I’ve finished everything. There’s no reason. . .”
“You know the reason, boy, and if a lack of chores to do has you forgetting it, I can most assuredly remedy that.”
“It’s been over a week, Pa.” Adam’s voice had a petulant undertone that irritated Ben like an undiscovered burr.
“And it will be well over another before I shall consider…”
“That’s not fair!” There was no petulance only indignation in the declaration.
Ben’s right hand slowly left his hip, his arm extended, and he pointed to the earth before him. “Get down.”
Adam considered complete defiance but slung his leg over the pommel and landed on the ground with a thud. He did not step into the prescribed spot before his father.
Ben let out a slow breath. “Do you wish to sit comfortably at the table tonight?”
Adam chose to ignore the obvious implication of his father’s words. “I prefer to be excused from supper.” His voice lost both volume and bravado. “I’m, I’m not hungry.”
“You will be joining your family at the table; the amount you choose to eat is entirely up to you.” When Adam made no response, Ben cleared his throat. “Is that clear?”
“Yes.” Three seconds passed before the boy added, “Pa.”
“You will then help Hop Sing with the table and dishes before retiring to your room.”
“But. . .”
Ben closed the distance between himself and his eldest son. “You will not argue; you will not sulk; you will obey, or you and I shall have a necessary talk in the barn. As it is, you and I shall be having a private discussion later tonight.” Ben saw the involuntary movement of Adam’s hand to behind his back and watched some of the defiance leave his son’s stance. “Since you have some time before you need to wash up, you can split some more kindling.”
“Yes, Pa.” The words were flat and automatic. Adam turned and walked toward the wood pile. Ben watched and slowly shook his head.
“I’ll stack for you, Adam.” Hoss bent over and began to gather the pieces of kindling around his brother.
“You don’t have to.” The anger brewing in the Adam sharpened his words.
“I know.” Hoss continued with his task. Adam brought the axe down with excessive force.
“Hop Sing don’t really like nobody else working in his kitchen. Maybe he’ll tell Pa he don’t need any help.” Hoss had overheard the discussion between his father and brother.
Adam was not surprised; if Ben Cartwright had anything, he had a voice that carried. “Pa won’t change his mind.” Adam followed the statement with an unintelligible growl. Hoss bit his bottom lip; he knew how much Adam hated kitchen chores.
“Adam, umm, maybe you better, well, stop pushing Pa so much. After last week. . .”
“Stop, little brother!”
“I was just saying. . .”
“It’s none of your business.”
Hoss straightened and looked Adam in the eye. “It is too. When you stir up Pa, well, it ain’t the best for the rest of us, and you been stirring him up a lot lately. Me and Little Joe have been walking around on eggshells.” The axe stopped its downward motion. Realizing his brother was actually listening, Hoss continued, “Anyways, you just got a blisterin’ last week for sneaking off and drinking that beer. You know Pa said it’d be a long while ‘til you was allowed to go off by yourself.”
“He didn’t say how long!” The exclamation was vehement. “A week’s long enough!” This statement came with less assurance. Adam sighed. “I just wanted to go for a little ride.”
“Would you have met up with them new friends of yours?” Hoss watched his brother’s reaction to his question.
“No. How would I know where to meet them even if I wanted to? I haven’t seen them since. . .well, for the past week.”
“You know where they might be.” Hoss’ eyes narrowed. “They know where to wait and see if you can come.”
Adam threw a glare at his younger brother who had the bad habit of knowing too much about the very things he should know nothing about at all. “That’s something you best stay out of, Hoss. I mean it!”
“Well, if you want me out of your business so bad, I get out of it right now!” Hoss dropped the kindling he had in his arms and stalked off.
Adam had decided it made little sense to cut off his nose just to spite his face, so he ate as much dinner as usual, though he spoke only when asked a direct question and answered in as few words as possible.
“May I be excused, Pa?”
Ben looked around the table. “As soon as Little Joe is finished, you may begin clearing.”
Adam’s jaw tightened, but he managed an automatic “Yes, sir.”
Marie’s eyes meet her husband’s. “If you are finished, Hoss, you are excused; Little Joe, drink the rest of your milk, and you may play for a half-hour before bed.”
Little Joe raised his glass to his lips. “An hour, please, Mama, please.”
“Joseph.” Ben needed to speak only that one word.
“Yes, Pa. Hoss, wanna play with my fort?”
“Sure!” Hoss slid his gaze toward his older brother, bit his bottom lip, and then rose. “Come on, Little Joe”
Ben rose also. “When you’ve finished helping Hop Sing, wait for me in your room.”
Adam stood and started picking up the dishes from the table. “Yes, sir.”
Marie studied her stepson for a moment and then followed her husband into the sitting area. When Adam had disappeared into the kitchen, she spoke. “Benjamin, you will talk with Adam tonight?” There was a faint but noticeable emphasis on the word talk.
Ben raised one eyebrow, cocked his head, and reached out to draw his wife nearer to him. “In an effort to keep from having to talk to him again in the barn.”
“The attitude, I know, still… he is…what is it that Ned says… ‘between hay and grass’. It is a time for testing the papa.”
Ben ran his hand over his face. “Hay or grass, Adam is my son, and he will act with respect.” Marie’s hand had slipped around his neck and begun to massage the tension there. “I’ll not have him becoming some. . .”
“You’ll not have him becoming like those Bonners.” Her hand stilled. “It is they…”
“Adam has a mind of his own and is responsible for his own choices.”
“They are older; they goad, they are the demons on the shoulder whispering in the ear.”
“Well, Adam had better start listening to the angel on the other shoulder!”
At the flaring of Ben’s temper, Marie’s hand began to move soothingly once again. “‘Temper feeds temper’, Sister Celeste used to say.” Marie ran her fingers through Ben’s hair.
“To everyone or just to you, my love?” Ben teased and then brought her hand to his lips.
“As you were not there, perhaps it was to me the most. It is true, though, my husband. You will try to remember as you speak with him tonight, n’est pas?”
“I shall try.” Ben brought Marie’s lips to his.
Ben opened the door to Adam’s bedroom without enough sound to attract the attention of the boy inside. He paused in the doorway to study his eldest. Adam stood leaning against the window jam, staring out into the night. The lamp was unlit, and the moonlight coming through the glass seemed to melt the years away. Ben cleared his throat. “Adam.”
Adam’s body jerked and stiffened. He turned from the window. “Yes, sir.” His tone was both formal and wary.
Ben motioned with his left hand as his right hand took the chair next to the desk and turned it toward the bed. “Sit down, son.”
“I prefer to stand.” The insolence in his voice left no misunderstanding; Adam preferred to stand simply because he had been told to sit.
Ben’s hands went to his hips as his own back stiffened. “I could make that preference a burning desire, young man.” He drew in a long breath. “I would prefer that we talk, Adam.” He turned his back to his son and busied himself lighting the oil lamp. When he turned back, Adam had perched himself on the edge of the bed. Ben pulled the chair closer and took a seat facing his son.
“Things have not been going well of late,” Ben began. His voice deep and soft, he continued, “I don’t think you are really any happier about that than I.”
Adam remained silent with his gaze fixed on the rug at his feet.
“Perhaps if we talked…” Ben made his words an invitation and waited for a reply. None came. “Adam?”
“When will my punishment be over?” His eyes had come up to blaze at his father.
Ben returned the glare. “When will I be able to trust that you will obey the rules that have been set for you!”
“You don’t trust me!” There was pain beneath the indignation.
“I trust you, Adam, in many, many things.” Ben’s reply was quick and certain. “But, well, recently you have given me reason to doubt that you will follow all of the rules.”
“Little boy rules!” The words snapped like a whip as Adam jumped to his feet.
Ben rose also in one swift move. He still had enough height advantage to stare down at the boy. “Rules appropriate for a boy of barely sixteen.” The words were growled and the emphasis on the word boy was pronounced.
Adam met his father’s stare. “I do a man’s work; I should be treated as a man.”
Ben’s voice lowered to almost a whisper, “Hoss has worked side-by-side with you many days, Adam. Should we declare him a man also?” Adam blinked. “Many things make a boy a man. Putting in a day’s work is the least of them.”
“You treat me like a child!” There was now a petulant whine beneath the indignation.
“I treat you like my child, like my son. It will be sometime before I shall view you as old enough to set your own rules. It will be five years before the law sees you as a man.”
“Until then, I’m to be Papa’s good little boy and do as I’m told or get…or get a spanking.”
Ben let out his breath slowly. “I expect you to obey me, yes, and if you do not, yes, I will chastise you as I deem necessary.” Ben took another slow breath. “I believe some of your…” Ben searched for his next word. “Your discontent comes from your recent companions. The Bonner brothers. . .”
“You don’t like them.”
“I don’t like many of the things they do. I do not like many of the attitudes they show. I do not like how my son behaves when he is with them.”
“You want to pick my friends!”
“No, and though I have considered it, I will not forbid you to have any contact with them.”
“How kind of you.” Sarcasm seemed to drip from Adam’s tongue.
Ben caught the boy’s chin in his hand and held it in a vise. “Hear me well, Adam. You know how I expect you to behave. You may choose the company you keep within the rules I have set, but if you choose to break those rules, if you choose to defy me, the consequences will be of my choosing, and most definitely not to your liking.” Ben’s hand dropped to his side. “It is a wise man who chooses the company of those who bring out the best in him; it is a fool who lies down with dogs and then complains about the fleas.” Ben turned and walked out of the room. Adam flung himself back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling.
“So your pappy let you off your tether.” Jake Bonner’s words were followed by his guffaw.
“I’m not on a tether!” Adam’s retort snapped through the air as he dismounted with an angry thud.
“Course he’s not.” Luke Bonner gave his brother a broad smirk. “That’s a pair of apron strings his pappy keeps him tied with.”
Adam’s eyes blazed as he came at Luke. Jake’s booted foot came out and caught Adam’s ankle. Adam landed on his backside. Jake pinned the younger boy before he had a chance to rise.
“Settle down; settle down; he’s just joshing.”
“It’s not funny.” Adam spat the words into Jake’s face and bucked against his hold.
“Fine. He’ll shut his mouth. Hear me, Luke.”
Luke shrugged. “Can’t talk and swallow at the same time.” He brought the whiskey bottle to his lips and took a large swallow. Jake released Adam.
“Hand that here. Maybe a swig will cool down the kid.” Jake took the bottle from his brother and took a long drink before holding it out to Adam, who had risen to a sitting position.
Adam shook his head. “I’ll pass.”
Jake thrust the bottle closer to Adam. “Go on. Brought some cinnamon drops. Your pappy ain’t got to know.”
Adam pushed the bottle out of his face. “I don’t want any!”
“Suit yourself.” Luke Bonner leaned over and took the whiskey from his brother’s hand. “More for us, brother, more for us.”
“So if you didn’t come to drink, what do you want to do?” Jake had settled back into a half-reclining position.
Adam shrugged. “Just wanted to get away and have some fun.”
“Well, we do have something planned for later, but it’s way too early to head out, so cool your embers and have a drink. Your pappy know you’re outa the house?”
“Yes.” Adam’s tone was clipped.
“Where does he think you are then?”
“Does it matter?”
“Matters if he expects you back early.”
“He doesn’t expect me back at all.”
“He doesn’t?” Luke sounded unconvinced.
“He …he thinks I’m hunting with Old Ned.”
Jake laughed. “So he ain’t worried you’re off his tether ‘cause he thinks you’re on that old coot’s place. How’d you work that one?”
“I…I was going hunting, but, well, Old Ned ended up sending me back. I came here instead.” Adam’s eyes dropped; he shifted uncomfortably and then reached for the whiskey bottle.
“Figured you might as well hang for a goat as a lamb, uh, kid?” Jake watched his young friend take a swig. “Well, then, we might as well make it a really big goat.”
“Shhhhhhhhh!” The sound was overly loud and followed by a louder hiccup. Adam swallowed and put his finger to his lips as both Bonner brothers stumbled and emitted another set of low curses. Adam turned back to the heavy door and pushed against it. It moved open slowly with only a slight creaking. He smiled; the church door was never locked. “Come on.” The words were intended as a whisper, but the whiskey he had eventually imbibed had blurred his perception of volume along with hampering his balance and agility. Still, he was considerably less inebriated than the companions who staggered in his wake as he entered the church and made his way to the stairs leading up to the steeple. Entering the small area which held the iron bell, Adam barely managed to avoid it; Luke Bonner did not. A loud clang rang through the night. Adam, Jake, and even Luke himself put finger to lip and emitted a loud Shhhhhhh.
“You want somebody to hear!” Jake’s admonishment rang out nearly as loud as the bell.
Adam looked at Jake and then Luke. “Maybe we should forget about the bloomers and just set off the…”
“Noooo, no, no!” Luke shook his head and wagged a finger in front of Adam’s nose. “You know how much trouble Jake and me had getting those bloomers! The whole town’s going to see that old witch’s unmentionables flying from the steeple. Folks is gonna be mentioning them all over town.”
“Teach her a lesson about bellyaching our business around.” Jake let out guffaw. “Ain’t another woman in town has ta wear ‘em this size.” He pulled a large pair of white cotton ladies bloomers from where they had been stuffed beneath his shirt. “Ole busybody’s the one got you in dutch with your pa the last time.”
“Yeah.” Adam went to the side leaning out over the half wall.
“You scared, kid?” It was half question and half taunt.
“No, Luke, I ain’t scared!”
Jake come closer and draped his arm over Adam’s shoulder. “Course he ain’t. A little steeple climb ain’t nothing for boy like Adam.”
At the word boy, Adam shrugged off Jake’s arm. “Nothing at all.” He looked down at his feet. “Better without the boots.” After nearly falling on his head, he sat down, and with Jake’s help, managed to pull off his boots. Rising once more to his feet, he thrust out his hand. “Give ‘em here.” Jake handed over the bloomers, and Adam stuffed them half way into his waistband. Then, with a deep breath he began levering his body onto the side of the steeple roof. He managed to stand and grab the iron cross that rose from the center point and pulled himself into position. The wind blew around him and nearly snatched the cotton from his fingers as he labored to tie a leg to each side of the crosspiece. Satisfied he began making his way to the edge of the roof. When he reached the edge, he found a hand hold as he slipped his legs over and called to Jake to pull him in. He felt Jakes hands on his knees the second before the sound of an exploding firework caused him to jerk and lose his grip.
“Luke had not waited. He set off the first firework, and it exploded just as Jake was starting to pull me back in.” Adam paused and looked down at his daughter’s face. He had been carefully editing his account, but he recognized fear in her face. He squeezed her to his chest. “Don’t worry, pretty poppet. I did not fall. Well, I didn’t fall off the steeple; I fell in on top of Jake. But in trying to save myself I managed to slice open my hand. Luke didn’t even notice until after he had sent the other two rockets into the air. By the time we made it down the stairs and out the door, at least a dozen people had arrived in the churchyard, including Sheriff Roy Coffee. He took the Bonners to jail and me to the doctor. Then he sent for your grandfather.”
“Grandpa was mad.”
“Very! What I had done was stupid and dangerous and just plain wrong.” Adam felt her small fingers tug at the buttons on his shirt.
“You got a spanking.”
It was not the word Adam used when he thought of that particular punishment, but he answered, “I certainly did.”
“Grandpa spanks hard.” Her soft voice carried an abundance of worry.
“When he has reason.” Adam adjusted his child so that they were looking each other in the eye. “He had a very good reason. I had put myself in needless danger. That is something no father can allow his child to do without punishment.” She nodded; he smiled. “I learned my lesson and did not repeat my mistake.”
“Good!” She smiled and nodded managing to sound a great deal like her mother. Then she titled her head back and cocked it to the side.
“Did those bad brothers get a spanking?” Her expression made it clear that she desired an affirmative answer.
“No, they spent the rest of the night in jail, but they didn’t get a spanking.” Adam’s lips curled slightly at the thought. Glancing down at his daughter again, he was surprised that one so young could achieve such an indignant expression.
Adam tugged his left ear once before he answered. “They didn’t have a pa. They only had a mother; a little bit of a woman she was.”
The child’s next question surprised him. “Did she love them?”
“Of course she did, my poppet.”
“Then she should have seen to it.” Her tone was definite. “Mama would have.”
“The Bonners were a little older than I, and both were significantly bigger than their mother.”
She dismissed that idea quickly. “Then she should have borrowed Grandpa.” Her confidence in Ben Cartwright’s ability to deal with bad boys of any age or size was clear.
Adam chuckled slowly. “Perhaps she should have. Pa…” Before he could finish his thought a knock at the front door was followed by a loud call.
“Anyone to home?”
“Uncle Joe!” Delight was clear in the child’s voice, and she sprang from her father’s lap. “In here, Uncle Joe!”
Adam watched his brother appear in the doorway, and his daughter hurl herself into his arms.
“There’s my pretty princess.” Joe picked up his niece and twirled around with her in his arms. Looking over her shoulder, he smiled at his brother. “At least you taught this one the proper way to greet a favorite uncle.”
“Favorite?” Adam arched his eyebrow.
“Did you know, Uncle Joe, that the bad brothers never got a spanking?”
Joe’s perplexed look went from his niece to his brother. “What bad brothers?”
“Papa told me the story.”
Joe gave his brother an even more questioning look. Adam raised his left hand and pointed to the scar with his right.
“He did, did he?” Joe was not sure if he had ever been told the entire story of that scar.
His niece nodded solemnly. “Papa was naughty, but Grandpa made him learn his lesson. The bad brothers didn’t.”
“No, no, they never did.” Joe kissed the top of the child’s head and hugged her close. “Lucky your pa and I had Grandpa to see to us.”
The child’s curls bounced as she nodded in agreement while her father walked over and put an arm around his little brother. “Very lucky indeed.”