Word Count: 4380
It was a just a single kiss. Admittedly, it had been a long, slow, thorough, and certainly not chaste kiss but still a single kiss nonetheless. Unfortunately, it had not gone unseen. No, the moonlight that had made Cindy Anne shimmer and glow had also allowed her three older brothers and a rather large cousin to witness that kiss which was why Little Joe Cartwright found himself held by Beau Crawford on one side and Travis Crawford on the other. Little Joe’s stance was defiant, but his breaths came too quickly, and his eyes were fixed on the horsewhip in Axton Crawford’s hand. The fact that there had been two other witnesses to the kiss was the reason that Axton’s whip had not already bitten into Little Joe’s flesh.
“He’s dishonored our sister, and, by heaven, he will get what he deserves!” Axton’s deep bass growled the words.
Adam Cartwright’s voice remained calm as he said, “While there might be some points we agree on, Axton, what he deserves is probably not one of them.”
“No matter what you agree on, we’ll be having the skin off his back for what he’s done!” The large cousin whose name escaped Adam at that moment was only a half an inch shorter than Hoss Cartwright and about ten pounds heavier. He took two steps forward. Hoss matched those steps but then stopped at a single gesture from his older brother.
Adam kept his eyes fixed on Axton Crawford; Axton would be the Crawford deciding for the clan. “The boy kissed your sister, yes, but dishonored her? Certainly that is overstating things.”
“What would you call it, Cartwright?”
“Foolish. Impulsive.” The words slipped smoothly from Adam’s tongue. “Also inappropriate. Little Joe knows that.” Adam allowed his eyes to leave Axton Crawford’s face just long enough to send a chiding glare in Little Joe’s direction. “Still, he obviously wasn’t forcing himself on her, and it went no further than a moonlight kiss.”
“A girl ain’t got nothing more than her reputation and. . .”
“Cindy Anne’s reputation will remain totally intact if you and your kin do not start a brawl that draws an audience. If the seven of us set to fighting, there’s no way the town won’t end up knowing the reason why. That is the only way that Cindy Anne will be truly hurt by this whole incident.”
“Joe’s a talker.” Beau Crawford observed giving the arm in his hands a jerk.
After considering several possible replies, Adam said, “True, but he is not a total fool, and he is entirely capable of holding his tongue when necessary. I’m sure that Little Joe has no delusions about what we would be unable to prevent happening if Cindy Anne became the subject of gossip due to this indiscretion.”
“I wouldn’t say anything about it anyway!” It was the first time that Joe had spoken since being grabbed by the Crawford brothers. Every eye there turned toward him. “Cindy Anne’s a nice girl.” He raised his chin. “It’s only you thinking bad of her!”
The words had been tossed directly at Axton, and they stung. “Shut his mouth,” he hissed. Beau and Travis both moved, but stopped at the sound of a single word.
“Joe!” Adam’s voice held a tone of command that drew all attention back to him. “You will not speak again until asked.” Adam drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Axton, both of these children have misbehaved — on that we agree. That the matter must be dealt with is a given but take a moment to consider how to best deal with it. The Cartwrights prefer to keep discipline a family matter.”
“He’s not a little boy! We ain’t talking about pecking her check behind the schoolhouse.” Travis Crawford was sixteen, exactly six months older than Joe Cartwright.
Adam took a step toward Axton. “No. If we were, I’d be paddling his behind already.” He flicked his eyes toward Travis and lowered his voice as if speaking only to the eldest Crawford, “You wouldn’t call him a man, though, would you?”
Throughout the conversation, Hoss had kept his focus on his younger brother. He knew Adam needed to make Axton Crawford think of Joe as a child and not a young buck on the loose; he also knew Joe would take each reference to his youth as an insult. With Adam’s last statement, he saw Joe’s eyes spark and his body jerk; Hoss stepped directly into Joe’s line of vision and gave a sharp, quick shake of his head.
Axton turned to look at his sister. Cindy Anne had been standing in the dark sobbing into her hands since her brothers had appeared. Adam stepped to his side; he spoke in a voice that reached only Axton’s ears. “He’s no more a man than she is a woman.”
“He has to be punished.”
“He broke the rules that our pa has set for his behavior, and I assure you Ben Cartwright never suffers disobedience lightly.”
Axton turned and looked directly into Adam’s eyes. Adam barely more than mouthed the words, “He’s my baby brother,” the message that he would never allow a whip to touch Joe was clear.
Axton turned and stared at the boy in his brothers’ grasp. “You’ve done wrong.”
Adam and Hoss both forgot to breathe until Little Joe’s chin dropped, and he said simply, “I’m sorry; we shouldn’t have left the dance. My pa taught me better.”
“Just like your pa taught you boys.” Hoss’ voice slipped in behind his brother’s, “Still, I expect there ain’t one of us here ain’t kissed a pretty gal at a dance or such.” His tone was light and cajoling and bespoke gentle memories.
Axton turned back to Adam. “He will be held to account?”
“You’ve my word.”
“He’s not to speak to her.”
“He won’t unless your family gives permission.”
“Boys, let him go.” Axton gave the order in a clear, flat tone.
“You sure, Axton?” Their cousin voiced the question, but Beau and Travis kept their hold on Joe until Axton replied.
“Let him go. We’re taking Cindy Anne home.”
Little Joe’s knees almost buckled as he was released, but he stayed upright as the Crawfords gathered around Cindy Anne and led her away.
Hoss reached Joe seconds before Adam and shook his head sadly as he stared down at the boy. Little Joe swallowed trying to dislodge the lump in his throat. “Adam,” he croaked.
Adam raised his hand and shook a pointed finger in Joe’s face. “Don’t! Don’t say a word, not now and not on the way home. Get on Cochise . . .”
“But Cindy Anne. . .”
Hoss watched Adam’s jaw clench. “It’s a bit late, boy, to start thinking about the consequences for that little gal if her pa finds out. Just ya go get on your horse like Adam said and leave things be until we’re home,” he chided while steering his younger brother away from his older. When Joe was out of ear shot, Hoss said, “He’ll mind now.”
“Oh, yes, he’ll mind now.” The comment ended with grinding teeth.
“You gonna tell Pa?’
Adam brought his hand to his nose and rubbed the bridge. “Don’t tell me not to, Hoss. If Alistair Crawford finds out, this might not be over.”
“I don’t think them boys will be telling Mr. Crawford. Cindy Anne’s the baby and a gal. They want Joe punished, not Cindy Anne.”
“Still, they’re bringing home a girl whose eyes are swollen from weeping; they may not be able to avoid telling their folks.”
“True. Still. . .”
“I think it’s necessary, and you heard me give my word.”
“Yeah, ya promised he’d be held to account, but ya didn’t say who would be doing the accounting.”
“Do you really think it should be me?” Adam’s tone was sharp and bitter.
“I know ya hate it, but . . .”
“It’s not just that, Hoss. I do think Pa needs to know, that he needs to be aware, that he’s the one to handle it.”
“I expect you’re right; it’s just that Joe’s not likely to see it that way.” Hoss shifted nervously and looked in the direction that Little Joe had gone.
“No, Little Joe will see it as his older brother tattling to his pa, so he will be in trouble for something that he’s sure that brother has done himself.” Adam’s curse was barely audible.
Hoss placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed. “Part of him knows it ain’t like that.” Adam made no reply. Hoss sighed and offered, “Maybe, well, this time I could. . .”
Adam shook his head and smiled slowly. “You’d never get the words out. No, I’ll see to it. Go ahead with Joe, but keep him in the barn until I get there.”
“Sure. He ain’t gonna be in no hurry to run into Pa no how.”
“No, I don’t suppose so.” Adam’s voice was hard-edged. “I’ll see to our leave-taking. We don’t want people wondering where all the Crawfords and Cartwrights disappeared to all of a sudden.”
“Right.” Hoss took a few steps and then said, “Adam . . .”
“Don’t, Hoss; just get the boy home.” Adam strode back toward the dance while Hoss headed toward the horses.
Hoss chewed his lip and studied his younger brother’s back as he followed him home. He did not even attempt a conversation but waited for Little Joe to speak first as they unsaddle their horses.
“Adam’s gonna tell Pa, ain’t he?”
Wondering just how many times Little Joe had asked him that exact question, Hoss sighed before answering. “He thinks it’s necessary.”
Joe snorted. “I just bet he does!”
“Now don’t you go getting in a temper! It was you that. . .”
“Messed up, and now Adam’s gonna see that Pa knows all about it.”
“It ain’t that way, Joe.” Hoss’ tone was chiding.
“All I did was kiss a girl.” Little Joe’s voice had developed a whine. “Is that so bad? You were the one that said all you had done the same. I bet even Pa kissed girls before he was married.”
“I wouldn’t go trying that argument with Pa; he’s done blistered all our behinds for things he did and got blistered for when he was growing. It ain’t so much that ya kissed her anyways; ya broke the rules, Pa’s rules. The fact that ya didn’t deserve that horsewhip don’t mean ya don’t deserve no consequences. Pa has reasons for his rules. You should be able to figure out some of the reasons he set those ya broke tonight.”
“Adam. . .”
“Saved your hide, boy!” Hoss declared as his eyes sparked. “If he hadn’t noticed ya gone and come after, well, you’d have a lot more powerful hurt than anything Pa would ever do to ya.”
“I could have. . .”
Hoss snorted. “Only a foolish little boy could make himself believe you could have taken on all four of them Crawfords. Lord, Joe, it wouldn’t have been no sure thing if the three of us would have had to fight them.”
Little Joe let his temper surge, “I’m not a little boy! First Adam and now you. . .”
Hoss grabbed his brother by the shirt, gave him a shake, and then shook his head knowing Little Joe always picked being mad over being scared. “Adam did the best job of settling things he could. Even if we’d fought them boys off tonight, you would have had to worry about that whip when you went out alone later. Unless Mr. Crawford stirs things up again, which I don’t think will happen, well, things will get settled tonight.” Hoss watched the anger drain from Joe’s face and released his hold.
Joe’s chin dropped, and he dug the toe of his boot into the dirt floor. “Pa’s gonna be so mad. Maybe. . . I heard Adam give his word, but maybe. . .”
“You’re gonna have to answer for what ya done.”
“I know, but. . .”
“You’d rather answer to Adam than Pa?”
“He’s already mad; Pa ain’t yet.”
Shaking his head yet again, Hoss just said, “Finish up with Cochise.”
Adam had not yet arrived when Hoss and Joe had both finished with their horses. Hoss walked over to the open barn door and leaned his back against the jam. He gazed out at the night sky as he spoke to his brother, “Joe, I’ve got it in my mind to tell ya what I think ya should do, so here it is. You need to go in there and tell Pa before Adam does.”
“Tell Pa? But Adam might decide. . .”
“That’s just it. Adam shouldn’t have to decide. He shouldn’t have to decide, and he shouldn’t have to be the one to walk up to Pa and hear him roar and have him glaring at him. He shouldn’t have to feel guilty because the look on Pa’s face says he didn’t keep a good enough eye on ya.”
“What? Feel guilty? Pa don’t blame. . .”
“He does some. Oh, not after he simmers down, but them first few seconds after Adam tells him, sometimes he does, and Adam sees it.”
“Hoss, I. . .I never. . .”
“No, ya ain’t never and neither have I, ‘cause Adam’s always been the one. Well, he’s elder brother and that’s the way of things, but if you’re so dang set on not being a kid, ya should go on up to the house and tell Pa, so Adam don’t have to.”
“I’ve had my say. I’m gonna stay here and wait for Adam. You go on. If ya tell Pa or not, well, that’s up to you.”
Joe trudged silently past his brother to the house.
Adam led Sport into the barn and looked around. Seeing only Hoss, he asked, “Where’s Joe?”
Hoss stood and shifted from one foot to another before he said, “Joe’s up to the house.”
“What? I told you to keep him in the barn until I got here.”
“I know ya did, but, well, I sent him up to the house.”
Adam’s brow furrowed, and his hands moved to his hips. “You sent him up to the house? Hoss. . .”
“I sent him to tell Pa about what happened tonight.”
“You sent Joe to tell Pa!” Surprise put an edge on Adam’s exclamation.
“Yes, I did. I don’t know if he will, but we’re gonna wait here and give him a chance.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Our little brother isn’t much for confession even when he knows he is well and truly caught.”
“No, he ain’t, and, like I said, I don’t know that he will tell Pa, but I told him he should.”
“You told him he should.” Adam repeated and rolled his eyes again.
“Yeah, and I told him why, and I think maybe he’s grown enough to do it.”
This time Adam snorted. “I suppose you told him I was sure to tell Pa and he could make a better tale of it.”
“No, that ain’t what I told him.” Hoss moved closer to his brother. “It’s no matter what I told him. We’re gonna give him time to tell Pa on his own and Pa time to deal with him if he does.”
Adam tilted his head to look directly into his younger brother’s eyes as his arms slowly moved across his chest.
“I’ve settled my mind on it, Adam,” Hoss stated as he returned his brother’s stare.
Adam’s hands tucked themselves into his armpits. “I see. Well, then, I’ll just give Sport the grooming he deserves.” Adam turned toward his horse and muttered, “Missouri mule!”
Hoss moved to Sport’s opposite side. “I’ll give ya a hand then.”
Adam looked across the horse’s back. He knew that his brother had heard his last comment. “You are, you know, but then you’re my favorite Missouri mule.”
Hoss’ smile showed the gap in his teeth. “Never hurts to be somebody’s favorite.” Together they gave Sport a thorough rubdown.
Having accomplished everything feasible in the barn, Adam and Hoss walked to the open door. There was now a light in Little Joe’s room, and the door to the house stood open. Silhouetted against the door was a man they both knew must be their father. The two brothers looked at each other, and Adam gave Hoss a backhanded pat to his stomach. Then the two of them walked across the yard. Stepping up onto the porch, both Adam and Hoss surveyed Ben Cartwright. Each of them noted that the belt Ben had been wearing earlier was no longer threaded through his belt loops.
“He told you then?” Adam kept the volume of his inquiry low.
“Yes, he told me.” Ben’s voice still held an edge.
“Pa. . .” Hoss began, but Adam’s voice overrode his.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I should have kept a better eye on him.”
“You’ve nothing to apologize for, Adam. According to Joe, you prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse.”
“Those Crawford boys, well, Pa, they’re way too hot-tempered and, well, they was making a mountain out of a molehill. Adam handled it, though.” Hoss used his most cajoling tone.
“Joseph said that he left the dance with the girl, took her out in the moonlight, and kissed her. Is there something more that I should know about his behavior?”
“That about sums it up, Pa. Like Hoss said, Cindy Anne’s brothers were, well, being overprotective,” Adam answered smoothly. Then his brow furrowed, and he added, “She appeared quite willing, Pa; Joe didn’t. . .”
“I should hope not! Still he’s barely sixteen; she’s younger if I’m not mistaken. Is she even fifteen yet?”
“I think she’s only a few months younger than Joe, Pa; in fact I’m pretty sure,” Hoss rushed to interject.
“They’re both young, and I really don’t think that . . . well, I think that kiss was all either of them expected of that walk in the moonlight.” Adam’s hand went to his left ear as he spoke and then tugged it several times. When his pa made no comment, he said softly, “Pa, Joe had a real scare out there tonight, much as he tried to act otherwise. I really don’t think he’ll be too quick to try it again with any girl.”
Ben’s hand moved from his hip to his face, and he rubbed his chin. “Well, I hope your younger brother has learned several lessons tonight.” He dropped his hand and asked, “Do I need to speak with Alistair Crawford?”
Adam cleared his throat and then answered, “I don’t think. . . well, Hoss and I both think that Cindy Anne’s brothers will probably not say anything to their father, so, well, unless someone else wakes those sleeping dogs, I’d just let them lie, Pa. If Alistair Crawford, well, I’m sure he’ll come to you if he, well, if the two of you need to talk.” Adam and Hoss both held their breath until their father answered.
“I suppose your right. I’ve dealt with Joe, so. . .” Ben moved so that he suddenly caught sight of his sons’ faces in the light from the door. Shaking his head, he reached out and patted Hoss on the back and then placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “What’s done is done, and I’ve forgiven Joe, so you two needn’t look like you’ll be attending his funeral tomorrow. There’s only one more thing I want to say before we put the matter behind us.”
“What is that, Pa?”
“I want to thank the two of you for looking out for your brother.”
“Aw, Pa!” Hoss smiled and ducked his head.
“No thanks needed,” Adam said with a smile of his own.
Adam heard his door creak followed by his name. He looked up from his seat on the edge of the bed and saw his younger brother in the slit created by the partially opened door. Setting down the boot he had just removed, he asked, “Is there something you need, Joe?”
Little Joe slipped into the room before he answered, “I, uh, I, uh. . . . are you mad?” He had stopped just inside the door and shifted nervously from one foot to another.
“No, I’m not mad,” Adam answered matter-of-factly and reached down to tug off his other boot.
His brother edged a foot closer and then stopped again. “You sure? Umm, ‘cause you’ve got cause to be.”
Adam set down the second boot next to the first. “I know I do, but I’m not, not now anyway.” He gave his brother a long, contemplative stare as the boy once again shifted from bare foot to bare foot and rubbed his hand down the side of his night shirt.
Swallowing convulsively, Little Joe managed to utter, “I’m sorry for messing up your night, Adam. I’ve done already talked to Hoss, and things are right with us.”
“I told him that he could. . .if he was mad he could. . .he didn’t, but, well you know Hoss. If you. . .”
“Have I ever when Pa already has?”
“No, but. . .”
“I accept your apology, little brother; things are right with us too.”
“Thanks, Adam, and thanks for saving my hide from them Crawfords.” Little Joe made no move to leave, and Adam motioned toward the bed. Joe slowly made his way toward his brother, but when he reached the bed he did not sit down only stared at the floor.
“I’d never let anyone do that to you, Joe. You know that, don’t you?”
“Even if I deserved it?”
“You deserved what Pa gave you, Joe, no more, and no, I would never think you deserved that.”
“The Crawfords. . .” Little Joe’s words sputtered to a halt.
“Cindy Anne’s brothers overreacted, but then. . .Joe, I think maybe they were so angry because they were mostly scared for a little girl they love.”
“I wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt a girl!” Little Joe’s voice was filed with indignation, and he looked directly at Adam for the first time since he had entered the room.
“No, you wouldn’t; I know you wouldn’t, and the Crawfords probably don’t really believe you would either, but, Joe, there are men that would, and if you could lead Cindy Anne away from what she’s been told, what she’s been taught, well, then. . .” Adam watched Little Joe’s eyes drop once again to the floor. “And there’s the fact that they were right about a girl’s reputation. Joe, a reputation is a fragile thing, easily broken and very hard to repair. In this sort of thing, well, for a girl. . . folks can be really hard on the girl, Joseph.”
Little Joe bit his lip. “Yeah.”
“And some fathers are not as quick to forgive as Pa is.”
“I don’t know him well enough to say, but, like Hoss said, I don’t think Cindy Anne’s brothers will say anything to their father.”
“I hope not.” The tremble in Joe’s voice caused Adam to reach out and pulled Joe toward him. “I didn’t, I mean, I didn’t think. . .”
Adam allowed a small smile to flit across his lips. “Joe, you might have noticed this is one time I haven’t asked you what in tarnation you were thinking.” He squeezed his brother’s arm. “That’s because I know just what you were thinking.”
Little Joe blushed. “Adam!” Then the indignation left his voice. “I just wanted to be with her, and maybe, well, I just wanted to kiss her.”
Adam‘s hand squeezed gently as he said, “I know, but there are some steep inclines where if you drop a ball it just rolls right away from you. That’s why Pa sets rules, Joe, so things don’t roll away from you and right over a cliff.” Adam watched Joe’s fingers pluck nervously at the bedclothes. “Joe, kissing Cindy Anne wasn’t what was bad; your disobeying, your getting her to disobey and not thinking about the consequences for her, that’s what Pa punished you for. The kiss, well, you and she, especially Cindy Ann, are just too young is all.” Adam heard his brother’s sigh. Smiling, he patted Joe’s back, “Now, when you’re grown. . .”
“Pa will still have rules.”
“Well, yeah, but. . .” Adam’s grin flashed a message to his brother, and the shadows left Joe’s eyes.
Adam’s own eyes grew serious again. “Joe, you know you can’t speak to Cindy Anne or send her a note or anything like that, don’t you?”
“I heard you tell Axton.”
Adam recognized the lack of agreement in his brother’s voice. He took Joe’s chin in his hand and stared directly into his eyes. “You will not, little brother, is that clear?”
“Yes, Adam, I just . . .”
“I know, and when the dust settles, I intend to speak to Axton.”
“Will you ask him to tell Cindy Anne I’m sorry I got her in trouble and, well, I didn’t. . .I just. . .”
“I’ll ask him to let Cindy Anne know that you did not mean to hurt her and did nothing out of a lack of respect for her, also that your not speaking to her will be only out of respect for her family’s wishes. Will that do?”
“Yeah.” Little Joe turned and gazed at the door. “Adam, have you kissed lots of girls?”
“Now, that would depend on what you consider lots, wouldn’t it?”
Joe turned and looked down at Adam. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“No, but then neither am I going to ask you about your other kisses,” Adam retorted smoothly.
“My other, but. . .”
“Joe, Hoss and I saw that kiss clearly enough to see that it was most definitely not your first.” Adam’s grin was wicked. Little Joe sputtered but failed to form a bona fide word. “Actually, I’m gratified that you’ve managed to follow one rule.”
Joe’s brow furrowed. “What rule?”
“That a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.” Adam swung his hand slowly enough for his fingertips to swat only cloth as Little Joe dodged away. He leaned back on his elbows and smiled at his little brother. Joe caught the smile and returned one of his own. Then he turned and walked toward his own room. As Joe closed the door of Adam’s bedroom behind him, the smiles on both brothers’ lips shifted slightly as each remembered something he would not tell.