Word Count: 2190
He found it where he knew she had put it. He took a deep breath before he touched it, swallowed the lump in his throat, and picked it up. “A Cartwright does what is needed,” he thought to encourage himself. Then he walked purposefully out of the house, carrying it with great care. When he reached the ladder to the barn loft, he stopped. He needed both hands to climb the ladder, so he slipped it inside his buttoned shirt before he began his ascent. Luckily, one side of the large upper door was already open. He walked to stand before it and gaze outward. A Cartwright did what was needed, and he was a Cartwright.
“Adam, have you seen Little Joe?”
Adam Cartwright had just entered the great room of the ranch house when the voice of his brother Hoss caused him to pause. “No. Why?”
“It’s just, well; I was looking around for him and . . .”
“Have you asked Hop Sing?”
“Hop Sing said he was still upstairs taking a nap, but he ain’t.”
“You’ve really looked around?” Adam’s tone had grown serious.
“Well, yeah, in the house anyways and around the yard.” Hoss chewed on his lower lip.
“He knows he’s not to leave the house and yard without telling whoever’s in charge.” Adam‘s voice now carried a sharp edge.
“He forgets sometimes.” Hoss shifted nervously.
“And if Pa finds out that he just up and went off, the reminder will be not too pleasant.”
“If we fetch him back before Pa gets home. . .”
Adam rolled his eyes, but turned toward the door. “Come on then!”
Hoss followed his elder brother as they both exited.
“You’ve looked everywhere in the house?” Adam inquired once again, and Hoss nodded his head. “What about the barn?”
“Just glanced around and called him.”
“Well, then we’ll searched it good before we start on the woods.” The two boys strode across the yard and entered the barn. “You check all the stalls, and I’ll search the loft.”
“Joe ain’t allowed in the loft alone.”
“Yeah, well, like you said, our little brother has a habit of forgetting what he ain’t allowed.” Adam turned and mounted the ladder. Pulling himself up into the hayloft, he called his brother’s name and scanned the dim interior. A slight movement caught his eye, and he walked toward the open upper door. He stopped when he saw the small body stretched out on the hay asleep. A smile flickered over his lips before he froze and forgot to breath. The color drained from his face as he saw what lay beneath his baby brother’s hand. He sank to his knees and snatched the pearl-handled derringer from the hay. Closing his hand around it, he breathed again and yelled, “What in tarnation!”
His brother’s cry caused Little Joe to waken, and he slowly pushed himself into a sitting position.
“Joseph Cartwright! What in Heaven’s name do you think you’re doing!” Adam’s roar blew the remnants of the little boy’s slumber completely away.
“I, I,” Little Joe’s voice began to tremble, “I fell asleep. I’m sorry, Adam; I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
“Fall asleep! You didn’t mean to fall asleep. Little boy, falling asleep is the least of your worries.” Adam’s voice had become hard and sharp. Little Joe heard the anger, and his eyes began to tear.
Hoss heard the anger also as he pushed himself off the ladder and onto the loft floor. “Now, Adam,” he said keeping his voice soft and cajoling, “You’re scaring him; ain’t no sense in hollering so.” Hoss hurried to close the distance between him and his brothers.
“No sense in hollering! He had gun! He had a gun!” As he repeated the words, Adam thrust his hand under Hoss’ face revealing the derringer lying on his palm.
Hoss’ gasp sucked in half the air in the loft. “Lordy, no!”
“Oh, yes, you can see for yourself. There he was with a gun in his hand, just as bold as you please.” Adam’s anger propelled him to his feet. He stared for few seconds at the offending object and then shoved it into his pocket.
“Have you asked him why?” Hoss ventured staring at his little brother who had begun to cry in earnest.
“Have I asked him why? Why? As if there is any reason in the world for him to have Marie’s derringer.” Adam spat the thought from his mouth.
Hoss sunk to his knees and turned his little brother to face him. “Why did you have the gun, Joe, why?”
“I needed it,” the child managed to mutter.
“Needed it for what?” Adam’s question snapped through the air.
“For if the bad men came.” Little Joe’s answer ended with a sob.
Hoss took Joe’s chin in his hand and settled the little boy’s eyes on his face. “Now, calm down, boy; you’ve got to calm down and tell me and Adam what you mean about the gun and the bad men and all.”
Little Joe swallowed three more sobs before he managed to tell his story. “Mr. Roy told Pa about the bad men. I heard. He said Pa had to watch for them bad men. Only, nobody was. Nobody was, Hoss. I guessed everybody was too busy but me, so I decided I would. I’m big now, and I knew I could stand watch, but I needed a gun for if the bad men came. Mama’s gun’s not big, so I got it. I came up where I could see if they came, but I didn’t do it right. I fell asleep. I’m sorry I fell asleep. Next time I’ll do better.”
“Next time!” Adam’s exclamation was nearer a growl. “There will be no next time. Do you hear me, Joseph Cartwright? There will definitely be no next time.”
Little Joe dissolved once more into tears, and Hoss scooped the little boy into his arms.
“You’re scaring him, Adam,” Hoss accused.
“He has reason to be scared. When Pa hears. . .”
“Now, Adam, Pa ain’t got to hear, does he?”
“Hoss, he climbed up into this loft with a gun. Do you realize what could have happened? Do you!”
“Of course I do, but we can see that there ain’t no chance of it happening again, and then there won’t be no need for Pa to know.”
“Hoss, we . . .”
“We can make sure that gun ain’t nowhere he can ever touch it again, and we can make him promise.”
“Hoss, Pa. . .”
Hoss’ blue eyes misted as he lowered his voice to a whisper, “You know what Pa will do if he finds out; you know what he did when he found me. . .”
“Joe’s barely six and, well, Pa wouldn’t really tan him even if. . .”
“You don’t know that, Adam; Pa’s always said. . .”
“But if Pa finds out we didn’t tell him…” Adam let his thought drop away as he watched his baby brother’s shoulders heave. “Hoss, we can’t let him think he can get away with something like this.”
Hoss set Little Joe on his feet and knelt down to confront him, face to face. “Little Joe, you listen here now, and you listen good. Touching that gun was wrong. No matter that you were trying to do something good; it was still real wrong. Pa’s done told you never and no ways to touch a gun without him giving permission.”
“Pa’ll be real mad,” Joe whimpered.
“Now, he won’t have to be if you promise me and Adam — a real for true brother promise — that you’ll never do it again, never for no reason. Do you promise me?”
Nodding, Little Joe stated, “I promise.”
Hoss looked up at Adam who drew in a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. He dropped to his knees and placed his hands around Little Joe’s waist.
“You know a Cartwright would never, ever break a true brother’s promise, not in a million years,” Adam stated adamantly while staring into his brother’s tear-stained face.
“I never would, Adam, never, never, never.”
“You will never touch another gun unless Pa says that you may. He has to say it straight out, and no reason is good enough to break this promise.”
“I promise I won’t never break my promise.” Little Joe pointed his finger and traced a cross on his chest. “Don’t tell Pa, please, please.”
Adam drew in a deep breath, “I’ll trust your promise, Little Joe, but if you ever. . .”
“I won’t, Adam; I won’t; I won’t.”
“You know what Pa would do if he found out, even to a little behind like yours, don’t you?”
Little Joe nodded.
“He knows, Adam, and he won’t break his promise,” Hoss interjected, then he caught Joe’s chin in his hand again, “and we won’t none of us ever speak of it again ‘cause if we don’t tell now, and Pa finds out later, Pa will tan all three of us good and proper.”
“I won’t get ya a tanning, Hoss; I won’t, Adam! I can keep a secret now I’m big.”
Adam could not keep from rolling his eyes, but he said cheerily, “Okay then. Hoss, take Joe in the house and wash his face. Hold a cool cloth on his eyes for a bit. We don’t want Pa asking why he was crying. I’ll see to the barn chores. Go on, and don’t bring him into the same room as Pa until you can’t tell.”
Lifting his little brother in his arms, Hoss nodded, “Sure, Adam; I’ll see to it. You gonna see to the. . .’
Adam’s eyes flashed. “Yes, I’ll see to that. Now go on.” Adam watched his brothers leave the loft before he drew the derringer from his pocket. It took his hand several minutes to stop shaking when he found a bullet in the chamber.
“NO! NO!” Adam jerked upright with his cries echoing around him.
His bedroom door opened and a soft light preceded his father into the room. “Adam, son, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Pa, just a dream, that’s all. I’m fine.”
Not having paused, Ben arrived at Adam’s bedside and gazed down at his seventeen-year-old son. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to talk about that dream. Get it out of your mind.”
“No need, Pa, really.” Adam made sure to keep his eyes lowered.
Setting his lamp down, Ben settled on the edge of the bed. “You and your brothers were awfully quiet at dinner. The rest of the night, for that matter.”
“It was a long day, Pa; Hoss really worked hard.”
“As did you, I’m sure. Still. . . Adam, you have seldom been bothered by nightmares unless something was troubling you. It’s not the men the posse was after, is it? I told you, Roy Coffee sent word that they had been captured. They were never anywhere near the Ponderosa.”
Adam considered saying that his father had guessed correctly, but that kind of lie had never worked well for him at least not with his Pa. “I know. I’m not worried about that.”
Adam thought for a moment before replying, “Pa, you know sometimes I get a notion in my head, and, well, you always said my mind was fertile ground. Have you ever thought about an accident that could have happened, that didn’t happen mind you, but that might have, and you fretted over what might have happened?”
“Are you fretting over something that might have happened?”
“Old Ned says fretting is just a rocking chair; it doesn’t get you anywhere. I guess all mine’s gotten me is a nightmare.”
“What almost happened, Adam?”
“I don’t want you fretting yourself into a nightmare, Pa.” Adam held his breath. “Please don’t press me, Pa, please.”
“Adam,” Ben Cartwright put a command into the single word.
Adam bit his lower lip and did something he regretted even as he spoke the words, “It’s just, well, ever since Marie, well, since her accident, well sometimes, little things. . .” He let his words fade away as he watched a certain familiar darkness shadow his father’s eyes. “Pa, I’m sorry I woke you; I. . .”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for, son.” Ben reached out and ruffled his son’s dark hair, “Soon enough you’ll be too far away for me to come if you have a nightmare.”
“Too far but not too old?” Adam managed a cheeky grin.
“Never too old, my boy, never too old.” Ben smiled and stood. Picking up the lamp, he walked slowly from the room.
Adam lay with his arms crossed beneath his head trying to decide how long he needed to wait before talking to his father about them all keeping a closer eye on Little Joe and wondering if he really should leave for college in two months. “If Pa notices that Marie’s derringer has been moved, I’ll have to lie.” Adam sighed, “I’ve never, ever gotten away with a real lie to Pa.” Fortunately, Adam had already arrived in Boston before his father had reason to wonder.