Sippin’ Whiskey and Sally Lynn (by DJK)

Summary:   A story of forgiveness.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG    (Warning: This story contains references to (but not descriptions of) corporal punishment that some may feel too severe. If this would cause you concern or upset, please pass on reading this story and enjoy one of the many other wonderful stories in this library.)
Word Count:   27,900


 

Little Joe Cartwright felt a hand reach over his shoulder and saw the second cinnamon cookie Hop Sing had packed in his lunch snatched from his lap. “Dadburnit!” he muttered as he swiveled his head to catch sight of the culprit. “Sally Lynn! Give it back!”

Sally Lynn broke the cookie in half, placed one piece in her mouth and dropped the other back in Little Joe’s lap. Then she settled in a flurry of petticoats next to him on the grass.

“You’re a thief, Sally Lynn,” Mitch Devlin observed from his seat on the other side of Little Joe. His accusation was prompted by the fact that he had planned on Joe sharing Hop Sing’s baked goods with him.

“Joe’s pa taught him manners, Mitchell; he wouldn’t sit and eat sweets in front of a lady without sharing.”

“He’d share with a lady, but I don’t see none around,” Mitch shot back.

Sally Lynn simply snorted.

Joe tossed the remaining half of the cookie to Mitch as he turned toward the girl. “What do you want, Sally Lynn? You look like the cat who’s been in the cream.”

“Who said I wanted anything?”

This time Mitch was the one who snorted.

Sally Lynn’s Cheshire grin widened. “Maybe I have something.”

“Ain’t nothing you have that we’d want,” Mitch replied dismissively.

“Well, if that’s so, then I won’t feel bad about not sharing!” Sally Lynn flounced to her feet and turned her back to the two boys.

Little Joe sent a shut-up look at Mitch and asked, “Share what?”

Sally Lynn turned back around and smiled down at the two boys at her feet.

“Just something I got here in my pocket.” She paused for effect and then slowly looked around. The three of them were on the far edge of the schoolyard, and no one seemed to be paying them any mind. Sally Lynn knelt down and put her hand in her pocket. Shielding the object from the sight of any other onlookers, she showed the boys a bottle nearly filled with amber fluid.

The boys’ mouths gaped open, and they stared silently as the girl worked the cork stopper from the bottle and passed it slowly in front of their noses.

“Whiskey!” Both boys managed to keep the exclamation a hoarse whisper.

“Shhhh,” Sally Lynn ordered as she replaced the cork and returned the bottle to her deep pocket.

“Where’d you get that?” Little Joe asked managing to keep his voice low.

“Did ya steal it?” Mitch queried.

“No, I didn’t steal it!”

“Then how did you get it?” Joe demanded.

“It dropped into my path like manna from heaven,” Sally Lynn declared.

“You better watch yourself, girl. Manna’s in the Bible; it’s holy, and whiskey’s of the devil,” Mitch admonished.

“You sound like a temperance man, Mitch. I guess that means you don’t want a share.” Sally Lynn gazed at both boys expectantly.

“Now, I never said that.” A pleading tone was creeping into Mitch’s voice.

“What do ya mean it fell into your path?” Little Joe wanted the details of the story.

“Well, I was in town, and there was this man, and he came out of the saloon, and you could tell he’d been drinking. Well, he kind of stumbled, and he must’ve dropped this bottle, ’cause when I walked up there it was on the sidewalk kinda kicked over out of sight, so I picked it up.”

“You should have given it back to him,” Mitch declared righteously.

“By then he’d gotten lost in the crowd,” Sally Lynn retorted.

Joe raised a disbelieving eyebrow and studied Sally Lynn’s smile. “Why are ya willing to share with us?” The skepticism was clear in Little Joe’s voice.

“Well, my pa says that it just ain’t right for a body to drink alone, and, well, we do have a bond.”

Little Joe and Mitch exchanged a glance. Sally Lynn had said many times that the three of them had a bond because they were the only three children in the school and the church, maybe the whole of Virginia City, their age. She had been saying it since they were all nine. Now that they were twelve, the boys had noticed that Sally Lynn usually referred to their bond when she had ulterior motives.

“You have a bigger bond with your brothers, Sally Lynn; why aren’t you sharing with them?”

Sally Lynn looked down her nose and answered with a question, “If you had a bottle of whiskey, Little Joe, would you invite Adam to have a drink?”

Since the answer was obvious, Little Joe did not bother to voice it. Instead he asked, “Just what were you thinking on doing, Sally Lynn?”

“Well, tomorrow’s Saturday, and we don’t have school.”

“Just a day of chores,” Mitch interrupted.

Sally Lynn shrugged. “We could do it Sunday after church then.”

Mitch and Little Joe both bit their lower lip. Drinking on Sunday might be going too far over the line.

“I can probably slip off tomorrow,” Little Joe ventured.

“Me too,” Mitch added hesitantly.

“Well, I thought we could ride up to that line shack on the Ponderosa near the ford and have a little party in privacy.”

“You don’t have a horse,” Joe observed.

“Just how many horses do you have on that ranch of yours?” Sally Lynn inquired archly.

Little Joe looked at his best friend. Mitch Devlin gazed back and then nodded his head solemnly.

“Okay, Sally Lynn. We’ll meet you tomorrow at that stand of trees a mile down from your gate. About one o’clock.”

Sally Lynn’s eyes sparkled. She reached out her hand. “That’s a deal.”

Joe placed his hand on hers, and Mitch positioned his hand on Joe’s. They brought their hands up and down in a satisfying jerk. The school bell rang to end the lunch break, and the three students scrambled to their feet and dashed off toward their classroom.

*****

Little Joe stopped and looked around for Sally Lynn.

“Where is she?” Mitch asked as he stopped his horse beside Joe’s.

Joe shrugged. “Maybe she’s just late. I had a time saddling an extra horse and slipping away without anybody seeing.”

“I had to get up an hour early and sneak out to a start on cleaning the barn, or I’d never have gotten away,” Mitch observed with a frown. “It better not have been all for nothing.”

“Oh, it won’t have been for nothing, Mitchell.”

The two boys swung their heads around and saw Sally Lynn. She stood in front of the tree behind which she had been hiding when they rode up. Her long hair hung in two braids down her back and her yellow gingham dress had puffed sleeves and a white collar. Both boys shared the same thought and not for the first time. “How can she look so innocent?”

“Do you have it?” Mitch asked expectantly.

A slow smile spread over Sally Lynn’s face. “Of course and something extra too.” She held up a bundle-tied cloth.

“What?” Little Joe demanded.

“You’ll see.” She winked and then walked over to take the reins of a little sorrel mare.

“Come on then,” Little Joe urged, “We ain’t got all day.”

Sally Lynn managed to mount without any assistance, and the three set off at a smart canter.

There was little discussion as they rode. Each of them seemed content to indulge in private imaginings of the afternoon ahead.

*****

Joe slipped from the saddle and led his horse to the lean-to that served as a stable. “Better put the horses inside in case someone rides by.”

“You don’t think anyone will?” Mitch inquired worriedly.

“Not really. None of the hands are supposed to be working anywhere around here, but better safe than sorry.” Joe answered with a trace of worry invading his voice.

“Yeah, ’cause we’ll be real sorry if anybody finds out about this.” Mitch’s head swiveled on his shoulders as he surveyed the area searching for onlookers.

“You two worry too much,” Sally Lynn teased smoothly.

Little Joe snorted, “You don’t have to answer to my pa.”

“Or mine,” Mitch echoed.

Sally Lynn snorted. “I have a pa too, you know.”

“Yeah, but you’re his baby girl, and everybody knows your pa coddles ya.” Joe’s pronouncement caused Sally Lynn to roll her eyes.

“Besides, girls don’t get real tannings like boys do. They just look all girly and cry and get off with hardly anything,” Mitch added.

Sally Lynn opened her mouth to challenge their observations, but then closed it without comment. She simply walked to the door of the line shack and opened it. The boys followed her inside.

Sally Lynn walked to the small table and set down the cloth-wrapped bundle she had brought. Untying the four corners of the cloth, she revealed the bottle of whiskey, three tin cups, a box of Lucifers, and three cigars. Peering over her shoulder, the two boys gasped.

“Cigars!”

“My papa says that the only thing makes good whiskey better is a fine cigar,” Sally Lynn said with a broad grin.

“Did they fall like manna from heaven too?” Little Joe asked sarcastically.

“No,” the girl replied simply, “those I earned.”

Little Joe made the decision not to ask for details and shot Mitch a silencing look when his friend opened his mouth to speak.

Very softly Joe declared, “Females don’t smoke, Sally Lynn!”

Mitch nodded his agreement. “Cigars are for men, Sally Lynn.”

“Then I guess I can give these to my papa ’cause there ain’t no men around here.”

“I’m man enough to…” Mitch sputtered.

 “To what?” Sally Lynn challenged.

“Whatever it takes!” Mitch retorted.

“Come on you two,” Joe intervened, “I thought we came up here to have us some fun, not stand around clucking and fussing like chickens in a coop.”

“Thinks he’s cock of the walk,” Sally Lynn muttered under her breath, but she turned her attention back to the items on the table. Little Joe poked Mitch in the side and gave him his best Cartwright glare, and the two boys settled to the task at hand.

There were only two wooden chairs in the shack, so they pulled the small table over next to one of the two bunks built against the east wall. Sally Lynn spread her skirts around her as she took a seat on the bunk while Mitch and Joe pulled the two chairs over and sat down.

Sally Lynn set a cup in front of each of them and then stated with the flare of a society dame at high tea, “I’ll pour.” She proceeded to fill each cup with a good portion of whiskey. All three youngsters stared at the liquor in the cups. “Well?” Sally Lynn challenged.

Little Joe was the first to pick up his cup. He brought it to his lips and took a deep swallow. He immediately started coughing and spraying drops of whiskey across the table. Sally Lynn giggled, and Mitch clapped his friend on the back repeatedly.

“Your turn, Mitch,” Sally Lynn encouraged. Mitch picked up his cup and took a smaller swallow resulting in his reaction being half as violent.

Sally Lynn giggled again. Picking up her cup, she sipped daintily. “Gentlemen, didn’t your pas tell you that whiskey’s for sippin’?” She put the cup to her lips again.

Little Joe and Mitch exchanged wary glances and then carefully lifted their cups and sipped. This time the whiskey went down with a tolerable burn. A few sips later all three of the twelve-year-olds were looking forward to the next sip’s warm glide down to the stomach. Having mastered the art of whiskey drinking, they turned their attention to the cigars.

“You have to bite off the end first,” Mitch instructed with a self-satisfied smile at his manly knowledge. He then proceeded to gnaw off the end of his cigar and spit it onto the floor.

Little Joe gave Mitch a dubious stare. “Why?”

“I don’t know, but you do,” Sally Lynn stated in support of Mitch who gave her a smile in return.

Joe shrugged. “Seems wasteful to me.” He then managed to bite off the end of his cigar and followed Mitch’s precedent in spitting it onto the floor.

Sally Lynn managed to gnaw off a smaller bit, which she spit into her hand and laid discreetly on the corner of the cloth. “Now we light them up.” She passed each boy a Lucifer, and they all proceeded to strike a flame and hold it to the tip of the cigar.

Watching the boys’ faces as they tried to draw smoke into their mouths set Sally Lynn giggling once more. She set down her own cigar and reached for another sip of whiskey.

“Ahhh,” Little Joe sighed as his cigar finally started to burn and draw. Then the taste of the smoke had him reaching for his whiskey.

Mitch managed to inhale the cigar smoke and found himself coughing it back out very quickly. After the coughing subsided, he too sipped on his whiskey.

“Now ain’t this the life,” Little Joe commented with more bravado than real enthusiasm while waving his cigar grandly around his head.

“Ain’t it though,” Mitch agreed. Sally Lynn nodded as she tried daintily and with little success to actually smoke her cigar.

All three children continued to sip the whiskey in their cups as they commented ever more loudly on life in general and occasionally took a small drag on their smoldering cigars. As the air became filled with smoke and ever more raucous laughter, Sally Lynn relaxed against the wall behind her and let her cigar slip from her fingers. It lay unnoticed on the woolen blanket beneath her skirt.

*****

Adam approached the line shack warily. He heard the sounds of occupancy coming from inside the small shelter and told himself this was not the first time a member of his family had found a line shack occupied by strangers. He had had to encourage more than one intruder to move on from this particular cabin. With its proximity to the ford of the river, it was frequently used by those passing through the Ponderosa on the way west. Checking on this line shack each time he passed nearby had become a habit with him. Adam quietly slid from Sport’s back and listened to the sound of laughter leaking out of the wooden walls. The neighing of more than one horse indicated that the lean-to was occupied also. Adam walked up, placed his right hand on his pistol, and opened the door with his left. Stepping inside, he scanned the interior of the building. A soft curse escaped his lips. It went unnoticed by the occupants of the cabin, as did Adam’s presence.

“JOSEPH!” The name echoed from wall to wall and brought the attention of all three inebriates to the angry man glaring at them from the doorway.

“Hey, it’s Adam,” Sally Lynn stated cheerily slurring the words into one soft exhalation.

“It’s Aadumm,” Mitch added and hiccupped loudly.

Little Joe’s eyes widened to fill his entire face, and he managed only a stuttered, “A,a,a,a,a…ummmm!”

Adam’s boots clicked against the floor planks as he strode over to the three children. He breathed in the odor of whiskey and cigar smoke. He surveyed the table with its empty bottle and cigar ash. He noted all three children were wearing the unfocused expressions of drunkards. He managed to keep his next curse mental. Then he noticed the smoke rising from the smoldering cloth of the woolen blanket and the glint of a small flame.

“MY GOD!” he roared as he snatched Sally Lynn off the bunk. He tried setting the girl on her feet, but she swayed and fell against him. As he steadied her, she leaned against his chest and lost her lunch down the front of his shirt.

“Fiirrreeee,” Little Joe managed to blurt out as a larger flame grew out of the bedclothes.

Adam let Sally Lynn slip to the floor as he turned and jerked the burning blanket off the bed. Tossing it away from the occupants of the room, he walked over and stomped out the flames. Then he dashed out and quickly returned with a bucket of water from the horse trough and drenched the horsehair mattress. As he set down the bucket, Sally Lynn looked up from her reclining position on the floor and began to giggle. Adam sent up a fervent prayer asking the Lord to turn his heart from homicide.

Mitch and Little Joe had managed to scramble from their chairs, but had not managed to stand. Their sudden movements had resulted in waves of nausea, and Adam watched has both boys slumped on the floor retching.

Adam shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He fought waves of anger, an odd desire to laugh, automatic sympathy, and his gag reflex. He decided that more water was needed and went to draw a bucket from the well while engaging in an internal monologue.

Not a one of them is going to be able to ride on their own for hours. It would serve them right if I tied them face down across their horses… Oh, yeah, ride up with three children tied to their horses and see which parent collapses before they realize they aren’t dead. Of course, Little Joe may be dead before this is all over. Even if I let him live, Pa… well, that’s for later. I could just stay here and tend them until they come around enough to ride. That won’t be before dark. Won’t be safe before morning and probably not such a great idea then. First time the hangover’s hard to handle. If I let Pa, the Devlins, and the Planchards spend the night fretting over their babies…no, I have to think of something. No, I can’t ride off and leave them here while I go for a wagon. Tempting thought, but no, why they nearly burned themselves alive already.” His last thought sent a chill down Adam’s spine, and he pushed the pictures it generated from his mind. Stopping at the door to gaze at the children sprawled in drunken stupors on the wooden floor, he gave a simple prayer of thanks that he had arrived when he did. Then he turned and drew his pistol. Pointing toward the sky, he fired three shots. Then he went inside.

*****

Hoss heard the three shots and focused on discerning the direction from which they had come. Then he turned Chub toward the sound and dug his heels into the horse’s flanks.

Adam watched the rider approach as he leaned against the doorjamb. When he recognized his brother, he gave a silent exclamation of thanks.

Hoss reined Chub to a stop and stared down at his shirtless sibling. “Adam! What in blazes is going on? You fired the signal?”

“I did.” Adam’s voice carried no sense of urgency.

“Then there’s trouble?”

“Oh, there’s trouble all right.”

“Somebody hurt?” Hoss asked the question, but his worry had already begun to recede.

“Not yet.” It was not the words but the tone of Adam’s voice that delivered his message.

“Little Joe?” Hoss inquired as he dismounted.

Adam’s thumb pointed over his shoulder as he stepped aside to allow Hoss to enter the line shack.

Hoss’ curse was milder than his brother’s had been.

“Whiskey and cigars,” Adam intoned as he took his place beside Hoss.

“Pa’s gonna kill him!” Hoss stated with absolute conviction.

“Quite possibly!” Adam exchanged a look with Hoss. “I need a wagon to get them all home.”

“I’ll stay while you fetch one,” Hoss offered.

“We’ll flip for it,” Adam answered amiably. Taking a coin from his pocket, he called heads as it flipped through the air.

“Tails.” Hoss observed the coin in his brother’s hand. “I’ll be quick as I can, Adam. Guess I should lead Cochise and Sport on home; ain’t no reason for those horses to follow a wagon all over creation.”

“Cochise, Sport, and Buttercup,” Adam intoned, “Mitch’s horse will just have to put in the extra miles.”

Hoss led two horses from the lean-to. Adam held their reins while Hoss mounted. Seated on Chub, Hoss looked down at his older brother. “Ain’t no way to keep this from Pa, is there?”

“I imagine Jacob Planchard will mention something to Pa about my bringing his little girl home drunk. There’s no way to save baby brother’s hide this time, even if I was sure I wanted to.”

Hoss nodded reluctant agreement, took three horses’ reins from Adam, and touched Chubby’s flanks with his heels.

As Adam watched his brother ride off, he rubbed his chin and considered how best to keep damages to a minimum.

*****

Having no place else to move the drunken bodies, Adam left the children lying on the wooden floor while he did his best to clean up the mess. His housekeeping chores completed, he placed a chair sideways in the open doorway, leaned back, and waited for Hoss’ return. When the wagon rumbled into the yard, he stood and stretched.

“You made good time. Was Pa home when you left?”

“No. I left word with Hop Sing that Joe and Mitch were with us and that we’d be late.”

“Sally Lynn?”

“Didn’t think it likely anybody would be stopping by to ask about her, but, yeah, Hop Sing knows.”

“All the details?” Adam inquired.

“None of the details,” Hoss replied.

“Best get to it then. Adam stepped inside, and Hoss followed. Adam picked up Mitch Devlin while Hoss took his baby brother into his arms. They carried the boys to the back of the wagon.

“Blankets and pillows. How comfy!” Adam’s voice was edged with irritation.

“Now, ain’t no reason to sound like that. These young ones ain’t sacks of feed, you know.” Hoss laid Little Joe in the back of the wagon, and Adam laid Mitch next to his friend. “There’s a clean shirt for you seeing as how you’re gonna go calling on some folks. I’ll fetch the little gal while you put it on.” Hoss retrieved Sally Lynn and laid her across the wagon bed at the boys’ feet.

“You didn’t bring Chub,” Adam commented as he secured the line shack door.

“Figured to go with ya,” Hoss stated simply as he climbed onto the wagon seat.

Adam took his place beside Hoss. “You worried about my reception at the Planchards and the Devlins?”

“The Devlins? No, but Jacob Planchard and his sons might be a might riled over baby brother getting their little gal drunk. I just thought it best the both of us do all the delivering. ‘Sides I weren’t sure if it was safe for Joe and you to spend any time alone together just yet.” Hoss’ tone was only partially teasing.

“Ah, you know me too well, brother mine,” Adam sighed as he put the wagon into motion.

They rode in silence for a while with Hoss constantly looking over his shoulder to check on their cargo.

“They’s only twelve, Adam.” Hoss’ soft comment held worry, and he shook his head in dismay.

“And you were what, fourteen, the first time?” Adam kept his voice soft also.

“Pa wrote you about it, huh?” The four years that had passed since that day did not seem very long to Hoss at that moment.

“Yeah.”

“How old was you?” Hoss queried while searching his memory for something he felt he should already know.

“First time I did it, or the first time I got caught?”

Hoss turned wide eyes on his older brother. “You did it without getting caught?”

“Twice, well, once without getting caught at all and once with only Marie knowing not Pa.”

“Ma knew you’d been drinking and didn’t tell Pa?” Hoss’ tone was incredulous.

“I was thirteen, and Pa was off buying stock. By the time he got back, Marie was over her anger and, well, I think she was afraid Pa might really kill me, or do some serious damage anyway.” Adam’s eyes had shadowed with memories. It was the only time he had begged his stepmother to not tell his pa about his misbehavior.

“So ya got off scott free?”

“I never said that.” Adam’s tone told his brother that he would hear no further details.

“And I never knew,” Hoss murmured.

“I couldn’t risk telling you, Hoss. You had a hard time keeping things from Pa.”

Hoss harrumphed, feeling slightly insulted.

“Well, you know you did, little brother.” Adam turned his head and gave Hoss a deep smile. “I had to have one or two secrets even from you.”

Hoss smiled back. “Don’t be so sure I don’t have one or two I’ve kept from you, big brother.” They both laughed and rode on again in comfortable silence.

Hoss looked over his shoulder as several snores rose from the back of the wagon.

“Wonder where he got the liquor?” Hoss speculated aloud.

“Not from Pa’s liquor cabinet. He hasn’t bought anything that cheap since before Joe was born, and Pa has never smoked cigars.” Adam reached up and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Maybe Mitch got it,” Hoss offered.

“His father doesn’t smoke at all, and his mother doesn’t allow liquor in the house,” Adam observed. “Mitch just might be in deeper sh…water than Little Joe.”

“You don’t think, I mean, Little Joe don’t have that kind of money… ya don’t think they coulda stole it.” Hoss’ whisper was so hesitant that it was clear he was afraid to even voice the thought.

Adam’s eyes grew darker. He swallowed convulsively and then said, “No, no, I really don’t think Joe would do that.” Adam shook his head firmly. “No, baby brother would do a lot of things, but he’s not a thief. I just hope he has a good answer when Pa asks that question.”

Hoss sighed in agreement. “The gal being there is gonna make it worse for both them boys.”

“You think so!”

Hoss ignored Adam’s sarcasm; it was to be expected. “I woulda thought Joe would have enough sense not to involve an innocent, little gal.”

“I have a feeling, brother, that this will not be the only female that Little Joe starts down the road to perdition.”

“ADAM!” Hoss’ indignant exclamation was loud enough to cause a slight stirring among the occupants of the wagon bed.

“That is, of course, if he lives through the results of this episode.” The Planchard’s house was in sight, and thoughts of the upcoming encounter gave a sharp edge to Adam’s words.

Hoss sputtered and turned to look at his brother. Then he shifted and stared down the road. Adam was embarrassed by what he was being forced to do, and elder brother hated to be embarrassed. Hoss sighed and sat silently as Adam drove the wagon up to the Planchard’s house.

*****

Eddie Planchard stepped from the house and stopped startled by the sight of the wagon.

“Hello, Adam, Hoss.”

“Hello, Eddie,” both Cartwright brothers replied.

“My mother’s in the house. You’ll have to excuse me; I have a lost lamb that needs finding.” Sally Lynn’s eldest brother stepped down from the porch as he spoke.

“Would that lamb be named Sally Lynn?” Adam inquired.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t have seen her, would you?”

“Have a look in the back,” Adam instructed as he set the brake and lowered himself to the ground.

Eddie walked to the wagon and looked over its side. Adam and Hoss joined him.

“What in the world! Is she hurt? MA! MA!” Eddie’s shouts caused the occupants of the wagon bed to stir sluggishly.

“No! No! No one’s hurt,” Adam began quickly reassuring, “They’re just, well, um, they’re drunk.”

“DRUNK!” Eddie Planchard stared incredulously down at his sister. “How could they be drunk?”

“Who’s drunk?” Eva Planchard had come out of the house in time to hear her son’s final question.

“Sally Lynn! Mama, he says that Sally Lynn is drunk.” Eddie pointed to the wagon.

Sally Lynn’s mother looked inside to see the three slumbering children. Then she turned her gaze on Adam. “You say they’re drunk. But…” she paused and waited for an explanation.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mrs. Planchard, but, you see, I came upon the three of them up at one of our line shacks. The evidence was clear that they had all been drinking whiskey and smoking cigars.” Adam paused and then continued, “They all passed out before I could question them about it. Hoss went for a wagon, so we could deliver them to their homes.”

“My baby was alone in a line shack drinking with two boys.” Mrs. Planchard’s tone was that of a student trying to grasp a difficult lesson.

“I’m afraid so, ma’am. Please accept…” Before Adam could complete his thought, Eva Planchard’s temper flared.

“Your brother got my baby drunk!” The words were a hiss filled with venom. “Edward, take your sister inside,” she ordered.

Eddie sprang to do his mother’s biding and lifted Sally Lynn from the wagon.

“When my husband hears of this…. well, you father can expect a visit, I’ll tell you that. To think… well, you can bet my husband will see that this is not allowed to happen again.” Mrs. Planchard spun on her heel and stomped into her house slamming the door for emphasis.

“But, ma’am,” both Hoss and Adam had begun, but has they stared at Eva Planchard’s retreating back their words died away.

“Well, that went well, now didn’t it,” Adam commented.

Hoss returned his brother’s sarcasm with a shrug. “Best head on to the Devlins,”

Adam and Hoss returned to the wagon seat and started toward the Delvin ranch.

*****

Mrs. Devlin came out of the house when she heard the wagon approaching.

“Howdy, Miz Devlin,” Hoss sang out.

“Adam. Hoss. Little Joe isn’t here. My husband left a bit ago headed to your place to see if Mitch was over there making a pest of himself.”

“Actually,” Adam began when a low moan issued from the wagon bed.

Emma Devlin darted to the side of the wagon and peered over. “Mitch! Adam, what happened?”

“He’s not hurt. Neither of them is hurt, “Adam spoke in a reassuring tone.

“Then what…”

“Well, they’re drunk.”

“Drunk?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Dead drunk.” Adam and Hoss watched the fury blossom in Emma Devlin and waited for the firestorm, but Mitch’s mother just glared down at her son. “What happened?”

“Well, I found the boys and Sally Lynn Planchard in one of our line shacks. They’d managed to drink a bottle of whiskey and smoke some cigars. They got sick and passed out before I could ask any questions.”

“Drinking and smoking.” Mrs. Devlin slowly exhaled. Her eyes left her son, and she turned her gaze on Adam. “And the Planchard girl was there?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I thank you for fetching him home. Hoss, could you…”

“Of course, Miz Delvin; I’ll carry him in for you. Hop Sing knows we had Mitch, so he should send Mr. Devlin straight back home.” Hoss plucked Mitch from the wagon bed and carried him into the house.

Mrs. Devlin stared at Hoss’ retreating back and shook her head. “Those two boys…” she sighed, “Isaac will be furious.”

“Pa’s not going to be too happy with Little Joe either,” Adam observed.

“Ben has a firm hand to be sure, but Isaac, well, he can have an awfully heavy one.”

“I’m sorry about this, Mrs. Devlin,” Adam offered.

“You’ve no reason to be sorry, Adam. I’m glad you found them. It’s those boys who need to be sorry, and I dare say they will be after their pas get through with them.”

“I dare say. “

Hoss emerged from the house. “I laid him on his bed, ma’am. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No, no, you best be getting Little Joe home. Unless you’d like some coffee or something to eat before you head on?”

“No, thank you,” both Cartwrights answered.

Then Adam continued, “As you said, we need to get Little Joe home.”

“Good evening then.” Emma Devlin turned and headed into the house to tend to her son.

Hoss and Adam returned to the wagon seat and headed home.

*****

Ben Cartwright walked out of his house and stood on the porch when he heard the wagon approaching. When Adam halted the wagon in the yard, Ben called out, “Adam! Hoss! I thought Little Joe was with you.”

“He is, Pa,” Hoss responded quickly and then looked at his older brother.

“He’s sleeping in the back,” Adam added quickly and hopped to the ground.

“Sleeping?” Ben sounded puzzled. “Why would Little Joe be tired enough to be sleeping?”

“I’ll just carry him inside,” Hoss announced swiftly and immediately lifted Little Joe from the wagon bed.

Ben’s hand went to his hips, and his eyebrows drew closer together, “Why does he need to be carried? Supper is on the table, so we’ll just wake him up.”

“I don’t think Joe will be eating supper,” Adam stated calmly.

“Why not?” His elder sons’ demeanors told Ben that his youngest was not sick but in trouble.

Hoss had not hesitated at his father’s questions and disappeared into the interior of the ranch house.

“Well, with what he’s already ingested, I don’t think he would be able to keep it down.”

“Ingested? Just what has Joseph ingested?”

Adam’s arm crossed his chest, and he absentmindedly tugged his left ear. “Actually, Pa…”

“Adam Stoddard, I want the whole story, and I want it now!”

“Now, Pa…”

“Don’t ‘now pa’ me, Adam. Out with it!” Ben’s demand was punctuated by his most ominous glare.

“I found Joe, Mitch, and Sally Lynn Planchard in the line shack up near the ford. Evidence showed that they had been drinking whiskey and smoking cigars.” Adam paused to wait for the explosion.

“DRINKING WHISKEY AND SMOKING CIGARS!” Ben’s shout came with the force of a gale, but Adam had weathered such gales before.

“Yes, sir.”

Ben’s anger left him momentarily speechless. When he spoke again, his voice was dangerously low, “Little Joe was up in a line shack smoking and drinking with Mitch Devlin and Jacob Planchard’s daughter.”

“Pa, the three of them are fine, well, basically. They lost their lunches, of course, but they’ve been peacefully sleeping off the aftereffects since shortly after I found them. We took Mitch and Sally Lynn to their mothers. That’s about all I can tell you.”

Ben’s answer was so low as to be an unintelligible growl.

“Pa, Hoss and I will get Joe settled in bed…”

“Bed…”

“He won’t be in any condition for anything else for a good bit, Pa.”

“How much?”

Adam cleared his throat and tugged at his ear again, “A bottle between the three of them. At least, that’s what I figure. I didn’t get to ask any questions.”

They were standing in the light of the open door. The dim illumination blurred Ben’s view of his eldest son, but something about the way the young man held himself brought back the memory of a much younger Adam.

Ben spoke more softly, “After you get Joe settled, tell Hop Sing to serve you and Hoss supper. I’m going for a walk.” With that statement, Ben strode off into the starlight night.

Adam sighed and went to help Hoss put their little brother to bed.

*****

Hop Sing departed muttering in his native language leaving Adam and Hoss to eye each other across the dining table.

Hoss sighed, “A long walk usually calms Pa down.”

“If he walks to China and back, little brother may live, but I wouldn’t take any bets on it.”

Hoss was use to his elder brother’s negative exaggerations and simply took another mouthful of Hop Sing’s beef and noodles. “Adam, um, you didn’t mention, um, well, you didn’t mention the fire to Miz Planchard or Miz Delvin; did ya mention it to Pa?”

“No. Don’t remember mentioning it to you.”

“Didn’t have to; I saw the mattress and the blanket. Are ya gonna tell Pa?”

Adam bit his lip and then rubbed the bridge of his nose, “Not if Joe has the proper attitude when I talk to him.” “The images in my head are bad enough. No sense in filling Pa’s head or anybody else’s with them.”

“Talk?” Hoss inquired wanting a distinction between the act and the euphemism.

“By the time I get my shot at him, he probably won’t have a backside left for me to tan.”

Hoss took his brother’s statement as an admission that Adam’s chastisement of Joe would be only verbal. “And Mitch?”

“I’ll speak to him too.”

“Sally Lynn?”

“I don’t know. That’s… well, I don’t know.”

“Do you think Mr. Planchard will come over like his wife said?” Hoss’ voice was filled with concern.

“Let’s pray not.”

“I’ve been praying since I walked into that cabin.”

*****

Adam and Hoss both turned their heads as they heard the front door open. They watched in silence as their father walked to the table and took his seat. Neither of Ben’s sons could think of anything helpful to say, so they said nothing as Ben filled his plate. They still had not spoken when a pounding began at the front door. Hoss and Adam exchanged glances, and Adam rose to his feet.

“I’ll get it.” Adam walked to the door and opened it to find Jacob Planchard.

“I’ll be speaking to your Pa.” It was a demand delivered loudly enough to be heard in the dining room.

“Please do come in,” Adam stated formally and followed their visitor into the great room.

Ben had risen and was walking toward their visitor. “Jacob, I suppose you’ve come to discuss…”

“There’s nothing to discuss,” snapped Jacob Planchard, “I came to make it clear that your boy will answer for what he has done.”

“My sons are always held to account for their actions,” Ben answered calmly though his eyes darkened. “But how I deal with Joseph is no more your affair than how you deal with Sally Lynn is mine.”

“How I deal with Sally Lynn! Your son and that Devlin boy lured an innocent girl to a scene of debauchery.” Jacob Planchard’s voice boomed with indignation.

“Debauchery? Jacob, they are twelve years old. I hardly think the word debauchery is justified.” Ben’s voice rose slightly, and the muscles of his jaw tightened.

“So you plan to excuse your son’s actions,” Jacob hissed. “He was old enough to ply my baby with whiskey.”

“And Sally Lynn is old enough to have said no.” Ben’s voice now held a razor’s edge.

“You allow your son to act as the devil’s pawn and then blame my daughter!” Jacob’s hands clenched into fists as the blood suffused his face.

“Did Sally Lynn tell you what happened?” Ben inquired.

“You can’t think that my little girl…” Jacob’s words sputtered to a halt at the mere thought.

“According to the Bible, it was Eve that Satan used to tempt Adam.” Adam Cartwright tossed his retort casually into the conversation.

“Adam!” Ben hissed his son’s name as he prepared to insert himself between his eldest son and Sally Lynn’s enraged father.

Jacob Planchard stared at Adam and then at Ben. “Take your sons in hand, Cartwright, before someone else does.”

“I can deal with my sons, Jacob.” Ben’s tone was as cold as his eyes.

“I’ll not have Joe even speaking to my daughter again, and if I find…”

“Joseph will be told to have nothing to do with Sally Lynn.”

Jacob turned on his heel and stomped to the door. Then he stopped and turned to face Ben once again. “He had better heed that order, or I shall give him a lesson in consequences he’ll not forget.” Jacob Planchard slammed the door behind him before Ben could voice a reply.

Ben’s gaze moved from the still vibrating door to his eldest son. Adam shifted and then lifted his chin.

“It wasn’t my place to speak, Pa, and for that I apologize, but we don’t know how things happened. In any event, from what I saw, Sally Lynn was a full and willing participant.”

“If you’re trying to tell me that Mitch and Joe did not dragged Sally Lynn to that line shack and force whiskey down her throat, I never considered that they did.

Joe is accountable for his actions not Sally Lynn’s. She is Jacob’s concern not mine.”

“Pa,” Hoss stated gently, “they’re just young ones playing at being grown.”

Ben’s attention swiveled to his eighteen-year-old, “Do I need to remind you that I do not consider either drinking or smoking harmless play?”

Hoss dropped his eyes and gazed at the floor. “No, Pa.”

Ben sighed. “Hoss looks as guilty as if he were the one who’d been drinking, and Adam, well, he hardly looked this apprehensive when he was the culprit. Of course, they’ve borne the brunt of my anger this evening.” Ben moved his gaze to the half-eaten meal on the table. He had no appetite at that moment.

“Finish your supper, sons,” he said in warmer tones than he had used all evening, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Pa,” Adam tried one more time, “we were older; Little Joe, well, he is only twelve.”

“I must have made quite the impression on you two.” Ben’s lips curled into a wry smile. “You both survived; your little brother will to.” Ben turned and made his way up the stairs.

Adam turned to Hoss. “We did survive, you know.”

“Yeah.” The response was half-hearted, and Hoss’ features did not lighten.

“You want anymore supper?”

“Nope.” Hoss shook his head.

Adam shrugged. “Neither do I. We can flip for who tells Hop Sing.”

*****

Adam turned his head when he heard the rap at his door. “Come in.” He watched his father enter and turned to face him.

“Little Joe and I will not be attending services this morning. You and Hoss will give our regrets to the Reverend.”

“Pa, I know that, well, I, Hoss nor I, neither of us want to make dealing with Joe harder for you. It’s just…” Adam tugged at his left ear.

“Your sympathies lie with your little brother.”

“We had to stand in his shoes, Pa.”

“As have I, Adam. Your grandfather Joseph held me to account many times.”

“Are you very like your father?”

“In some ways; in others, not at all.”

Adam wondered why his pa seldom spoke of his own father, but Ben’s tone kept him from asking.

“Little brother’s going to rue the day he decided to go to that line shack, isn’t he?”

“If he doesn’t rue his mistake, he is sure to repeat it.”

Adam considered the fact that when he had not been caught the first time there had been a second and that when Marie had not told his father about that incident there had been a third. After his father had delivered the consequences, there had not been a fourth time.

“You’re right, Pa.” Adam gave his father a sheepish smile. “It’s just that he’s my baby brother.”

“And that is why neither you nor Hoss will go into Joe’s room today.”

“And Joe will not be coming out.”

“He has a lesson to learn, Adam.” Ben’s tone allowed no discussion.

“As you say, Pa. I’ll let Hoss know.”

*****

Hop Sing had brought Joe one of his medicinal teas and made the boy drink it down despite Joe’s protests. The bitter tasting concoction had eased the turmoil in both Joe’s head and stomach but not in his mind. His father had been into his room several times during the night when he had been sick, so Joe could not avoid believing that his Pa knew what he had done, but his father had said little during those visits. In fact, the absence of bellows from his father and Chinese mutterings from Hop Sing had made Little Joe well aware of just how deeply he was in trouble.

Joe heard his door open and recognized his father’s footsteps as they crossed the floor.

“I know you’re awake, Joseph.”

Little Joe opened his eyes but did not raise his head.

“It’s time we talked.” His father’s tone left no doubt in Joe’s mind as to the type of discussion they would be having. Joe knew what was expected and dragged himself to his feet. He stood before Ben with his eyes fixed on his father’s boots. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and he wobbled backward taking a half-sitting position against the bed. “Sorry, Pa. I don’t feel so well.”

“And what do you think is causing you to feel unwell, Joseph?”

“Ummm, I guess, well, umm, it’s probably the whiskey I, uh, drank,” Joe managed to answer.

“I would say it is most definitely the whiskey you drank.” Ben’s voice had increased in volume and seemed to be solidifying. “The same whiskey that had you fouled with vomit and urine when your brothers brought you home.”

“Urine?” Little Joe’s eyes flew to his father’s face and widened to fill his own. “I didn’t….I couldn’t have… did I?” A dark, red flush rose into Joe’s pale features.

“How does it feel, Joseph, to have lost control of yourself to that degree and not even be able to remember who might have witnessed that fact?” Ben’s words hit his son harder than a slap.

Joe dropped his chin to his chest and drew in a shuddering breath.

Ben reached out and raised Joe’s head with his hand and held his chin. Joe’s eyes moved wildly trying not to meet his father’s.

“That is what too much liquor does to a man, Joseph. It leaves him with less control than a little child. It causes him to embarrass himself and those forced to watch what it reduces him to. Do you understand me?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“Who gave you permission to drink whiskey, Joseph?”

“N…n… no one.”

“Do you remember my forbidding you to do so?”

“Yesss, sir.” Joe’s barely managed to whisper the answer.

“YET YOU SNUCK OFF AND SWILLED WHISKEY WITH YOUR FRIENDS UNTIL YOU COULDN”T STAND!” Ben’s roar caused Little Joe to tremble like an aspen leaf.

Ben launched into a five- minute tirade on the fact that Joe had been drinking; then his voice lowered, and he asked ,”What else were you doing in that line shack?”

Joe knew what he was being asked to reveal and answered with only, “Smoking.”

“Yes, smoking cigars to be precise. And who was it that gave you permission to smoke?”

“No one.”

“And you remember my forbidding you to do so?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But you decided to disobey me in this also!” Ben did not pause for an answer. The lecture on the dangers of smoking especially when drinking lasted over five minutes.

“I’m sorry, Pa. Really sorry.” Little Joe had made the same teary assertion each time his father had paused for breath.

“I want the entire story of how you came to be drinking and smoking in a line shack with Mitch Devlin and Sally Lynn Planchard, and, Joseph Frances Cartwright, every word of what you say had better be the truth!”

“Well…” Joe began and then shifted from one foot to another without continuing. Ben cleared his throat. “Well, Sally Lynn had some whiskey.”

“Sally Lyn had whiskey?”

“Yeah, uh, sir, and she said she’d share.”

“And where did Sally Lynn get this whiskey?” Ben inquired.

“She found it in the street — at least she said she found it — and that she’d share ‘cause she has a bond with Mitch and me.”

“A bond?”

“We’s all twelve, Pa.” Little Joe chanced a glance at his father’s face and then continued in a trembling voice. “We decided to meet on Saturday ‘cause me and Mitch would never go drinking on a Sunday, Pa, never.” Little Joe paused for breath and then continued, “ We went up to the line shack, and she had cigars too, and we drank some of the whiskey, and smoked the cigars, and then Adam came, and I don’t really remember much after that, Pa. Really I don’t.”

“So you’re telling me that Sally Lyn supplied the whiskey and the cigars?” Ben demanded. “And where did Sally Lynn get cigars?”

“I don’t know. Really, Pa. She just said she earned them.”

“Earned them?” Ben’s tone was incredulous.

“Yes, sir.”

Ben studied his young son and decided to accept his word for the time being. “So she supplied the whiskey and cigars while you supplied a horse and a line shack?”

“Umm, yes, I guess so.” Joe raised eyes full of pleading to his father. “I’m real, real sorry, Pa. I won’t never do it again.”

“I intend to give you good reason to keep to that decision, Joseph, in the case of both drinking and smoking.” Ben had straightened until he seemed to tower dozens of feet over the boy before him. “What is the punishment for blatant disobedience, Joseph?”

“A tanning,” Joe admitted reluctantly.

“Would your drinking whiskey be grounds for a tanning?”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“Would smoking cigars be grounds for a tanning?”

“Yes, sir, but, Pa, I’m really sorry, and I won’t ever do it again.”

Ben pronounced sentence with a judicial tone steeling his voice. “You will be punished for the drinking at this time. Then you will stay in this room for the day and reflect on your transgressions, Joseph. After supper you will receive your punishment for smoking those cigars.”

Little Joe jerked as he realized the import of his father’s words. “But Pa…” he gasped.

“You chose to commit both infractions yesterday. The consequences for both will be administered today. Tomorrow you will start with a clean slate although you will have to work to regain my trust.”

Joe recognized that his father would not be changing his mind and ended his pleas with one final, “Please, Pa, I’m sorry.”

*****

Adam and Hoss had taken as long as was feasible to return to the ranch house. The Devlins had not been in attendance at church services, and the Planchard family had attended without Sally Lynn or her mother. Mr. Planchard and his sons had glared at the Cartwright brothers, and Adam doubted that either family had given enough attention to Reverend Shelby’s sermon.

Upon their return, Adam and Hoss had found their father in his favorite chair reading the Bible. They had avoided mentioning their brother, Sally Lynn, or any topic related to their little brother’s misadventure.

When supper ended, they watched Hop Sing come down the stairs carrying a tray with the remains of Little Joe’s meal. Very little of the food appeared to be missing.

“Did he eat anything?” Ben Cartwright asked Hop Sing as he passed by on his way to the kitchen.

“Numbel three son no eat when waiting fathel’s punishment.”

Ben wiped his mouth and set his napkin on the table. “There’s no reason to keep him waiting any longer,” Ben replied and rose to his feet.

Hoss’ eyes widened, and Adam’s eyebrow rose. They thought they had managed to avoid being on hand for their brother’s punishment. Adam ventured reflexively, “You haven’t tanned him yet?”

“Your brother was punished for his drinking this morning. This evening he will be punished for his illicit smoking.”

Neither of Ben’s sons could suppress an exclamation of indignation.

“Pa! You can’t mean…”

“Ya wouldn’t tan him twice in a day, Pa!”

Ben gave his sons a look that stated he had no intention of justifying his actions to his children. Then he sighed. Adam, at any rate, was not a child.

“I will not have Joseph thinking that he should bundle as much disobedience as possible together because a tanning is a tanning.” Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance; they had always known that in reality their father kept his physical chastisement within strict limits. “This way Joe will know that each choice he makes has its own consequences.”

“But two tannings, Pa.” Hoss’ voice was bordering on a wail.

“The cumulative effect, Pa,” Adam added.

“Will be no more than many single tannings each of you received.” Seeing the expressions on both his sons’ faces, he asked softly, “Have I ever given you reason to distrust me in these matters?”

“No, Pa,” Hoss declared immediately.

Adam took a moment to study his father’s eyes. “No, Pa, never. We shouldn’t have questioned you.”

Ben accepted the apology with a small smile. Hoss rose to his feet.

“You have business in the barn, son?” Ben inquired his smile turning wry.

“Well, yeah, Pa, I do.”

Adam rose quickly and added, “And he needs my help.”

With nothing further said, Adam and Hoss exited the house while Ben mounted the stairs.

*****

Adam opened Joe’s bedroom door and stepped inside. He walked through the still dark room and lit the lamp at Joe’s beside. Then he took a seat on the edge of the bed.

“I know you’re awake, Joe.” Adam made no jibe about how unusual it was to find his little brother awake on his own especially before dawn.

Joe’s back was to his brother, and he did not turn toward Adam. He mumbled into his pillow, “Are you real mad?”

“No, not now.”

Joe slowly rolled over. “You’re not?”

Adam shook his head. “Not anymore, even though I’ve a right to be.”

“How come?”

“Pa was mad enough for a dozen men, so I decided I wouldn’t waste the energy.”

“I’m sorry, Adam.”

“Sorry you did it, or sorry you got caught?” Little Joe buried his face in his sheets, and Adam sighed. “I always hated that question too. I forgive you, little brother.” As Joe’s face reappeared, he added, “Don’t I always?”

“Yeah. Pa said he forgives me.”

“If he said he did, he does.” Adam reached out and gently squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “He’s had plenty of practice forgiving wayward sons.”

A faint smile slipped onto Joe’s face. Then he replied woefully, “There’s some other things he does to wayward sons I wish he hadn’t practiced so well.”

“Really set your backside burning, did he?”

“Yeah, ya could have melted a horseshoe on it,” Joe declared mournfully, and Adam summoned enough restraint not to laugh.

“Do I need to check for bruises?” Adam teasingly reached for the hem of Joe’s nightshirt.

“NOoo!” Joe swatted Adam’s hand away. “You know Pa don’t bruise us.”

Adam leaned back against the headboard. “I know.” Then his eyes grew darker and his tone solemn. “Joe, I need to talk to you about something before you get dressed.”

Joe swallowed. “What?”

“How much do you remember about what happened when I got to the line shack?”

“Ummm, well, you were mad.”

“Joe, do remember the fire?”

“Pa didn’t say nothing about it, so I was kinda hoping that was something I dreamed.”

“It wasn’t. I didn’t tell Pa.”

“Why not?” Joe raised his eyes to study his brother’s face.

“I didn’t want him to have to suffer the same visions I can’t get out of my mind. I didn’t want to cause him that pain.”

Little Joe winced and discovered he had not cried himself dry the day before.

Adam caught Joe’s chin in his hand and held his eyes to his. “You realize what could have happened?”

“Yesss.”

“The flame would have caught her dress next.” Joe tried to duck his head, but Adam’s grip remained firm.

“Have you seen someone scarred by bad burns?”

“No.”

“Pray that you never do.” Adam told himself the boy was only twelve and released his chin.

“I won’t never smoke, Adam, never!”

Adam knew that at that moment Joe meant his promise totally. “Then I won’t have to tell Pa about the fire.”

Joe reached out and hugged his elder brother. As Adam’s arms encircled the boy, he was very glad that Joe demanded physical affection of those who loved him.

“Best get dressed now! Show Pa you’ve decided to be a good boy,” ordered Adam as he ended the embrace.

“Okay. I’m gonna be real good; you’ll see.”

Adam grinned, ruffled Joe’s hair, and went to his own chores.

*****

Joe slipped onto his chair at the dining table and returned Hoss’ smile. “Good morning, Pa,” he said after a momentary hesitation.

“Good morning, son.” Ben’s greeting was soft and easy, and Little Joe’s smile broadened.

Hop Sing entered with a platter of flapjacks. The Cartwrights began passing around food and conversing about the upcoming day. Little Joe found that he was ravenous. He ate heartily and beat Hoss to the last flapjack.

“Little Joe, I will be taking you to school, and one of your brothers will bring you home,” Ben said as he laid his napkin on the table.

Little Joe opened his mouth to protest, but before a syllable issued from his mouth his long-legged brother’s boot came in contact with his shin. Joe closed his mouth, swallowed, and then said, “Yes, Pa.” He caught his elder brother’s wink and returned a barely perceptible nod.

“I have business in town later, Pa. I’ll bring Joe home,” Adam volunteered.

“Fine. Get your books, Joe, and meet me outside.”

“Yes, Pa.” Joe reached for his glass and downed the last of his milk as he watched his father leave the house.

Adam stood and caught his middle brother’s eye. “Joe’s practicing being a good boy,” he observed with a light, teasing tone.

“Good idea, Short Shanks,” Hoss chuckled, “They do say better late than never.”

Joe’s empty glass clanked down upon the table. “Yeah, it shouldn’t take too long to convince Pa I’m a new man.” Joe sprang to his feet and headed for the stairs.

“No more than a decade,” Adam intoned, but there was no edge to his voice.

He and Hoss exchanged a glance and then watched their brother dash up the stairs.

*****

Little Joe had managed to be quietly respectful and pleasant as he sat next to his father on the way into town. Pa had not made any reference to his recent misdeeds, and Joe had carefully skirted any mention that could trigger the memory.

As the school came into view, Ben’s voice grew stern. “Joe, you remember what I said about Sally Lynn. You are not to speak with her, write her a note, or communicate with her in any way. In fact, you will avoid any contact with her.”

“But, Pa…”

“This is not up for discussion, Joseph. Unless and until Mr. Planchard changes his opinion and relents, you will have nothing to do with the girl.”

“I weren’t meaning to argue, Pa, really. It’s just we’re in the same room and all.”

“In the schoolroom your attention should be on the teacher and your studies.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe inserted quickly.

“I realized there are some things that cannot be avoided. That’s why I’m going to speak to your teacher, so she knows of the situation and can help you avoid problems.”

And let you know if I disobey you.” Little Joe kept his thought unspoken. Then he ventured, “I ain’t forbidden to speak to Mitch, am I?”

“No, you are not, but I suggest the both of you refrain from anymore mischief for quite some time.”

“Oh, we will, Pa.”

Ben pulled the wagon to a stop and scanned the schoolyard. Several children had already arrived. Mitch Devlin was among them. The boy saw the Cartwrights but hesitated and came towards them only when Joe called his name.

“Hey, Joe, Mr. Cartwright.” Mitch dropped his head and stood before Ben. “I’m sorry, sir, about, well, about what we done Saturday.”

“I’m sure your father impressed upon you the importance of that behavior not being repeated.” Ben’s tone was stern and his gaze unrelenting.

“Yes, sir. Ma did her own impressing too. I won’t be drinking or smoking until I’m about a hundred.”

“Even that may be too soon, Mitch,” Ben said in a lighter tone. Then he smiled his forgiveness. “You boys go and play while I speak with your teacher.” Ben left the boys and strolled into the schoolhouse.

Joe turned to his friend. “Your pa tell you to apologize to my pa?”

“No, I just, well, it felt like the right idea.”

“Yeah, I guess I’ll apologize to your folks when I see ‘em.” Little Joe nudged his friend. “I was a little worried they might start thinking like Sally Lynn’s folks about us not talking and all.”

“Naw, they wouldn’t. My folks don’t blame nobody but me for what I do. You know that, Joe.” Mitch pushed Joe back, and a friendly give-and–take ensued as the conversation continued.

“Yeah, they’re like my pa.”

“You mind that we can’t talk to Sally Lynn?” Mitch inquired.

“Not really. I mean it’s just…” Joe’s words turned into a shrug.

“You just don’t like being told ya can’t do something even if you didn’t plan to ever.”

Joe shrugged again; his friend knew him well. “Guess your folks were as mad as my pa.”

“I meant it, Joe; I can’t risk getting caught smoking or drinking again until I’m too old for my Pa to tan.”

“Me neither, and Pa’s always saying I won’t never be too old for him to tan.” Joe had tried for a teasing tone, but a serious worry weighed down his words.

“Yours was a bad one too, uh?” Mitch inquired softly.

Joe nodded and rubbed his backside. “Real bad,” Joe responded and ended the conversation. The two boys never discussed the details of their punishments.

Ben emerged from the schoolhouse and called to the boys. They ran over and stood before him.

“Miss Jones understands the situation, boys. There should be no problem.”

“My ma said if Sally Lynn speaks to me, I can be rude and not answer,” Mitch volunteered.

“Since she would be disobeying her father, I agree, the rules of etiquette can be set aside. Little Joe, you will not be rude, but you will not respond.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Cartwright!” Ben, Joe, and Mitch all turned toward the source of the call. Jacob Planchard had entered the schoolyard. Sally Lynn and her youngest brother walked at his side.

Jacob walked up to Ben ignoring the two boys. “Cartwright, you have informed your son that he is to have nothing to do with my daughter.”

“It’s been taken care of, Jacob,” Ben responded with strained civility.

“And have you handled the fact that he lured my daughter to that line shack under false pretenses and then plied her with whiskey?”

“He lured her with false pretenses?” Ben’s voice was razor-sharp steel.

“She didn’t even know he had that whiskey until those two boys had her alone miles away from…”

“Joe had the whiskey?”

The color had drained from Little Joe’s features, and Mitch’s eyes had grown to dominate his entire face.

“I suppose the boy told you a different story.” The statement was delivered as a condescending sneer.

Ben’s glare turned toward his son. “Joseph?”

“I didn’t, I didn’t, Pa! I didn’t lie to you. Sally Lynn…”

“She had it, Mr. Cartwright. She …”

Jacob Planchard’s voice cut through the boys exclamations, “Sally Lynn told me they would try to shift the blame to her; I see she was right.” He looked down at his daughter. “You see why I have forbidden you the companionship of such miscreants.”

Sally Lynn kept her eyes on the ground and nodded her head.

“Come along then. There’s no more to be said.” Jacob Planchard strode off with his children following in his wake.

“I didn’t lie, Pa. I didn’t,” Joe repeated with rapid, jagged breaths.

“She did, Mr. Cartwright. Joe and I just …”

Ben studied the two boys and then cleared his throat, “I hope you both are being honest; for now, I will accept your word.” The school bell drowned any further comment. When its call faded, Ben added, “You two get inside and behave yourselves.”

Mitch and Joe both muttered, “Yes, sir.” Joe risked one look at his father’s eyes and then trudged after his friend.

*****

Adam leaned against the buckboard and watched Joe and Mitch exit the schoolhouse. Joe spotted his brother, bid his friend good-bye, and hurried over to the buckboard. When Joe came within reach, Adam grabbed him by the waist and swung him smoothly onto the buckboard’s wooden seat.

“Stay put, Joe. I need to speak to Mitch.” Adam strode off in Mitch’s direction.

Little Joe blew out his exasperation, his breath raising the hair on his forehead. “Can’t wait ‘til I’m grown and too big for Adam to hoist!” Then he turned to observe his brother and his friend. He could not hear the conversation, but he had little doubt as to what was being said. “Mitch has better sense than to sulk or backtalk Adam. ‘Sides it was his idea to apologize to Pa.” When Adam turned and walked back in his direction, Joe studied his brother’s face and sighed.

Adam climbed into the seat beside Joe and picked up the reins.

“Mitch ain’t never going to smoke again neither, Adam,” Joe declared softly after a few minutes of silence.

Adam glanced at his brother, “He promised me. I’m not mad at either of you; I told you this morning I wasn’t. Don’t fret. Didn’t Pa tell you that you had a clean slate today?”

“Yeah,” Joe stated weakly as his mind drifted back to the encounter with Jacob Planchard.

“He always does,” Adam said more to himself than Joe. “Actually, Joe, you and Mitch were not the objects of my thoughts.”

Sally Lynn!” The name came into Little Joe’s mind, and he gave it an angry shove. “Are you going to talk to Sally Lynn?” he inquired after a time.

“I don’t think so, Joe.”

“She’s the one who almost burned us alive!” The exclamation crackled with anger, as Joe jerked with indignation.

Adam turned, looked down at Joe, and raised his right eyebrow.

Little Joe slumped and said hesitantly, “I didn’t mean to …it’s just… how come ya talked to me and Mitch, but you’re not going to fuss at her.”

“You call our talk this morning fussing?” Adam’s tone carried the message that he could do a much better job of scolding.

“Guess not really, but it made me feel bad about what we done,” Joe answered sheepishly.

“Good. I hope it did the same for Mitch.”

“Don’t you want Sally Lynn to feel bad? Is it because she’s a girl?”

Adam shook his head, “It’s not that at all.” Adam gave his brother a wry smile. “I guess it’s just that with you and Mitch I expected it to do some good, but with Sally Lynn, well, I’m not sure it would or that it might not cause another problem.”

“Oh.”

“At this point, at least, I think it’s best all the Cartwrights give the Planchards a wide berth.” Adam lapsed into silence, and Little Joe lost his battle to keep his thoughts from the fact that Sally Lynn had lied about who had the whiskey and cigars.

*****

Half-way home Adam began to consider the fact that his little brother had remained quiet far longer than boded well. He gave a sideways glance and realized Joe’s demeanor was far more downcast than he would have expected after Joe’s mood at breakfast. “He shouldn’t be sulking over my not taking Sally Lyn to task,” Adam mused. “Joe, how was school?’

“Same as always.” The reply had no edge of sulkiness or sass; it was just a flat-toned statement.

“You remembered you were practicing to be a good boy?” Adam made sure his voice was light and only gently teasing.

“Yeah. I was good.”

Adam gave a mental shrug and started a discussion about the herd of wild horses the hands had seen in one of the high pastures. Joe’s answers were automatic and without animation. Adam became sure that something new was troubling his brother.

Whatever it is will come out eventually,” Adam assured himself as he pulled into the ranch yard.

Hoss greeted his brothers with the news that Pa wanted Adam in the house and that he and Joe would see to horses.

By the time Sulky and Sam were groomed and fed, Hoss had decided that his little brother needed to talk.

“I’ll start my chores,” Little Joe announced listlessly and started toward the barn door. Suddenly he felt himself leave the ground. His brother had lifted him off his feet. Hoss carried Joe a dozen yards and plopped him down on a barrel. “Blame it! I’ll be glad when Hoss can’t tote me around like a sack of feed.” Then He gave Hoss a good look as his brother went to his heels in front of Joe, and decided that Hoss would most likely always be able to tote him like a sack of grain.

“Hoss!”

“We’re gonna talk, Short Shanks. Tell ol’ Hoss what’s bothering ya.” Hoss’ voice was velvet over steel. Joe sighed. Adam said Hoss was a Missouri mule, and about some things Adam was right.

“Sally Lynn got the whiskey and cigars, Hoss. When Pa told me to tell the truth, I did.”

“Good thing. So…” Hoss encouraged.

“Sally Lynn didn’t. She told her Pa that I had them and that Mitch and I got her up to that line shack without her knowing about them. Her pa told Pa this morning that we about forced her to do that drinking and smoking.” Joe locked his eyes onto Hoss’. “I didn’t lie, Hoss; I didn’t.”

“Is Pa believing Sally Lynn?” If their pa believed that Joe had lied to him, his little brother had good reason not to enter the house.

“He said he’d take my word and Mitch’s.” Joe’s eyes dropped to study his brother’s knees.

“Then he won’t punish ya, Joe.”

“It’s not that; it’s … he don’t truly believe me, Hoss; he thinks maybe I’m lying. I know he does.”

“But you’re not?” It was a question, not a statement, and Joe sprang from his seat pushing his brother’s shoulders. Hoss unbalanced and landed on his backside, but his arms closed quickly and drew his brother to him. Little Joe struggled to break the hold.

“Joe, Joe, settle down, young’un. Settle down.” Hoss kept his arms firmly around his brother until Little Joe stilled. Then he caught Joe’s face in his hand and forced the boy to gaze into his eyes. “The whiskey and cigars came from Sally Lynn?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t tell Pa any lies?”

“None.”

“I believe you, little brother.” Hoss relaxed his embrace, and Joe slid to ground in front of him.

“Wish Pa really did.” Joe slumped with his arms against his knees and his head buried in his arms.

“Pa always says that the truth wills out. Give it time.”

“Yeah.” Joe’s agreement was half-hearted. Then he pushed to his feet. “Gotta do my chores. After all, I’m being a good boy.” Joe turned and trudged out the door.

*****

“So that’s it,” Adam set down his book and looked into the fire. “And you’re sure, Hoss, that Joe was telling you the truth?”

“See! There you go doubting him too. No wonder Joe’s chin is still dragging the ground with none of us trusting him straight off.” Hoss’ agitation sent him to his feet. “You know our little brother ain’t that kind of liar.”

“No, he’s not, but, Hoss, anyone will lie if they think they have to.” Adam’s hand went to the bridge of his nose before he continued, “Hoss, some of the hands, well, the only kind of whiskey they buy is that cheap stuff, and some of them smoke cigars too.”

“So now you’re thinking Joe stole from the hands!” exclaimed Hoss with righteous indignation.

“Lower your voice!” Adam snapped back, “Do you want Pa or Joe to hear?”

Hoss glanced over his shoulder and up the stairs. Joe should have been asleep an hour ago, and Pa had gone up shortly after their brother.

“Well, is that what you’re saying?” Hoss demanded in a harsh whisper.

“No, but he might have gotten them from one of the hands some other way. It’s that, well, that’s more likely than Sally Lynn coming up with them. The Planchards aren’t the sort of folks to have a lot of spare cash to give to their children. Who’d sell cigars and whiskey to a little girl?”

“She didn’t have to buy them. Mitch backed Joe’s story.”

“He would in any event, wouldn’t he? That’s the problem; all three of them have powerful reasons to lie.” Adam exhaled slowly. “You’re sure he wasn’t lying?”

“I am sure, Adam. He wouldn’t have no powerful reason to lie to me. To Pa, yeah, and to you even, but not to me.”

“You have a point.” Adam relaxed back into his chair. “Are you going to talk to Pa about it all?”

“I’ve been dickering with myself about that. Think I should?”

“If Pa said he’s taking Joe’s word, I don’t think it would change much. The doubt Joe’s aching over isn’t something Pa can just decide not to have. It needs some proof to make it go away. Maybe something will happen.”

“Ya think it will be like Pa says, ‘The truth wills out’?”

“Let’s hope so.”

*****

“I believe Hop Sing has your bath ready, Little Joe.” It was stated as an observation, but Little Joe knew an order from his father however obliquely it was given.

“If Adam or Hoss would like to use the bath first, I wouldn’t mind waiting, Pa.”

Ben recognized an evasion when he heard one. His voice deepened, “Joseph.” Then he paused and softened his tone, “I’m sure your brothers won’t mind your going first.”

Hoss caught his little brother’s eye and gave him an encouraging nod. “I’ll put the checkers away, Short Shanks.”

Little Joe’s sigh was barely audible. “Okay, Pa.” Little Joe left the room.

“Well, that was easy, now wasn’t it, Pa?” Adam had closed the book he was reading on his finger, and his tone made it clear that his observation was not a jibe.

“If you’re pointing out the fact that your brother has been particularly obedient this past week, I assure you that it is unnecessary. I have noticed Little Joe’s efforts.”

“Have you let him know that?” Adam asked trying not to sound in anyway disrespectful.

Ben’s eyes fixed his eldest with a demanding gaze; then he leaned back and placed his fingers in a triangle. “Perhaps not has clearly as I should.”

“He’s trying to show that he learned his lesson, Pa. Ya know Joe takes you being angry with him hard,” Hoss ventured emboldened by his father’s reception of Adam’s question.

“I’m not angry with your brother.” Ben turned his gaze toward Hoss.

“He takes your being disappointed in him even harder.” Adam waited to see if he and Hoss had nudged their father too far or just far enough.

If Marie were here, those words would have a French lilt,” Ben told himself. He rose, gave his elder sons a look that conceded their point, and headed toward the washroom.

Ben rapped on the door and heard a scrabble and a splash. He opened the door to see his youngest vigorously lathering his arms.

“I’m nearly done, Pa. Didn’t mean to keep anybody waiting.”

“You needn’t rush, Joe. “ Ben crossed the room to the tub and knelt beside it. “Lean forward, and I’ll scrub your back.”

Little Joe wrapped his arms around his bent legs and placed his chin on his knees. As his father moved the washrag in circles on his back, Joe ventured, “Pa, would it be all right, well, if Mitch came over after services tomorrow?”

“Have you two something special planned?” Ben’s voice was still relaxed.

“Not really, Pa. We’d stay right around the house.”

“If Mitch’s parents agree, I’m sure that would be fine.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Joe twisted to face his father. “We’ll be good, Pa; I promise.”

Ben smiled. “I’m sure you will, son. You’ve been doing a very good job of that this week.”

Joe ducked his head, but Ben still saw his son’s smile. “Pa, I did some thinking, well, when I was in my room.”

“That was the purpose, Joe, but I’m pleased to hear you took advantage of the opportunity. What precisely did you think about?”

“Well, besides my backside, I thought about all you said and everything. I guess, well, I guess I just decided it’d be better to be good.”

“Good decision and I thank you for it.” Ben cupped Joe’s chin with his hand. “Joe, you are a very fine boy, and I don’t expect you to be perfect, but it’s my job to guide and correct you.”

“Hoss says when you don’t care is when you don’t get angry,” Joe flashed a sheepish smile, “Mad as ya got you must care a whole lot.”

“A whole lot!” Ben’s hand moved to Joe’s curls. “Your hair…”

“It ain’t too long, Pa!” burst from Joe. Then he bit his lip and worry shadowed his eyes.

“No, but it is in need of a wash. Dunk!” Ben’s hand pressed down, and Joe lowered his head beneath the water. When he came back up spitting, Ben lathered his hair. “Keep your eyes closed.”

Joe obeyed but opened his mouth, “Do you have to punish me more than ya did Adam and Hoss, Pa?”

Ben’s fingers stilled for a moment then began massaging again as he answered, “Hoss has always taken to obedience easier than most, but you know that he was punished when needed.” Joe’s head nodded beneath Ben’s hand.

“Adam?”

Ben reached for the bucket of warm water waiting beside the tub. “I didn’t keep score, Joseph, but Adam received his share of spankings.” He poured water over Joe’s head.

Joe spluttered and then managed, “I don’t remember.”

“Most of them were before you were born, and the rest were when you were too young to remember. Here.” Ben draped a towel over Joe’s head and stood. “When you’re in your nightshirt, I want you in your bed, but you may read if you wish.”

“Whatever I want?” Joe asked thinking of the dime novel in his upper drawer.

“Whatever I have already consented to.” Ben turned and walked to the door. As he reached for the knob, Joe’s voice caused him to pause.

“Pa, will I ever be too old for you to scrub my back sometimes?”

Ben did not turn to face his son, but Joe heard the grin in his father’s voice, “Ask your brother Adam.” Then he walked out the door.

*****

“Ya finished, Short Shanks? We got to get cleaned up and ready to head for church.” Hoss called out has he walked out of the barn his own morning chores having just been completed.

“Yeah,” Little Joe called back.

Hoss meet Joe on the porch, and the two brothers entered the house together. Their father was at the top of the stairs.

“I don’t intend to walk into church late, boys. Get a move on.” Ben then proceeded back down the hall to his own room to finish dressing.

“Yes, Pa,” both sons responded. Then Joe and Hoss looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

Joe giggled and took off calling over his shoulder, “Last one ready puts the team up when we get home.”

Hoss came out of his room to find Joe leaning against the hall wall. “Ya better have taken time to wash, Big Shorty.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Feel.” Joe bent his head forward; Hoss checked that the curls at the nape of his neck were damp. Joe lifted his head and continued cheekily, “I just don’t have as much territory to cover, Big Boy.”

Hoss cuffed his brother playfully glad that Joe had recovered some of his usual sass. “Pa talk to ya last night?”

“Yeah. Mitch gets to come over if his parents say yes.”

“Good.” Hoss hesitated and then asked, “Pa ain’t gonna hear nothing at church that he won’t like, is he?”

Joe shook his head. “I told you I’ve been being good.”

Hoss stated his real question with one name, “Sally Lynn?”

Joe sighed, “I ain’t talked to her.”

“She try to talk to you?”

Little Joe shook his head and slumped against the wall. “She don’t even look at us, Hoss. ‘Course her brother Henry has been keeping a closer eye on her than Adam keeps on me when we’re on D Street.”

“Adam’s taken you on D Street! He ain’t, has he?”

Joe giggled at Hoss’ astonishment. “Naw, furthest I been with Adam is C Street.” Joe leaned back to keep out of the reach of his brother’s swinging hand.

“I ain’t asking if ya been further without Adam,” Hoss said with a chuckle. The he grew serious once more. “Hope Pa don’t hear no gossip about it.”

“I don’t think so, Hoss. Mitch and I ain’t said nothing, well, ‘cepting that we ain’t talking to Sally Lynn but not why. Sally Lynn ain’t said nothing either, or someone would have said. Henry ain’t neither, so Mitch and I figure their folks said not to.”

“Could be,” Hoss observed with a slight nod. “Let’s hope her folks ain’t been complaining to no other parents. It’s always best if nobody goes stirring in a stink hole. What’s past is past.”

“Yeah, I just…I wish…” Little Joe shrugged.

“Boys!” Their pa’s voice rolled up the stairs from the ground floor and set both boys in motion.

“Coming, Pa,” Hoss answered for both of them and followed his younger brother down the hall. He did not press Little Joe to tell him what he wished; Hoss already knew.

*****

They had managed to arrive not just on time but slightly early. As Hoss settled the horses, Ben spotted Emma and Isaac Devlin. He walked over and greeted the couple.

“Hello, Ben, it’s good to see you,” Emma Devlin smiled. Ben had been by the house earlier in the week to discuss last Saturday’s incident over a plate of her peach strudel, so her greeting held no trace of unease.

“It’s always a pleasure to see you, Emma and you, Isaac.” A movement caught his eye; he turned his head to watch Little Joe dart past him headed toward a group of boys that included Mitch Devlin. Remembering Little Joe’s request, he asked, “Isaac, Little Joe would like to invite Mitch over after services. He’s been trying hard to be good this past week, so I told him it would be fine with me if you have no objections.”

Isaac Devlin looked over at his wife and read her eyes easily. “Well, Mitch has been keeping himself in line too, so if you’re willing to take on the pair of them for the afternoon, I see no reason to object.”

“They’ll being staying close to the house, and I’ll keep an eye on them,” Ben reassured.

“Actually, this is probably one afternoon you could safely let them out of your sight seeing as how some things are still fresh on their minds,” Emma Devlin observed.

“That’s just might be true. I ain’t ever had to tan Mitchell twice in one month in his life, and I’m thinking last Sunday’s lickin’ will last for several months at least.” Isaac’s eyes had settled across the churchyard on his son.

“Certain lapses in behavior aside, Mitch and Joe are good boys, Isaac,” Ben stated his eyes resting on his own young son.

“I know, though there’s some that would offer a different opinion.” The Planchard family had walked into the far side of the churchyard. Isaac’s jaw tightened as his eyes followed the Planchards’ progress toward the church door.

Ben’s eyes darkened as he also watched the Planchards. “I admit that Little Joe is no angel, but…”

“I don’t see any wings on none of that family either.” Emma’s curt interruption surprised both her husband and Ben. “I don’t mind telling you some people’s holier-than-thou attitude really catches in my craw. I’ve never seen that girl trailing in our boys’ wake.” Emma shook her head vehemently, “No, sir, always right up there joining in as bold as you please.”

“So you believe what the boys said about it being Sally Lynn who was the one offering the whiskey and cigars?” Ben inquired softly.

Emma exchanged a look with her husband. Ben had exchanged the same look with Marie more than once, always when there was an unsettled disagreement between them. “I do.”

“We’ve no proof to the contrary,” Isaac added. Ben felt sure that Isaac, like himself, truly wished there was some positive proof to support the boys’ account.

The church bell began ringing, so Ben quickly settled the details of Mitch’s visit, called to Little Joe, and went inside to his regular pew.

*****

Hoss tugged the knot of his string tie away from his Adam’s apple. He considered untying the annoying thing and stuffing it into his pocket, but if Pa saw him without a tie at church, Pa would be displeased, and there was no sense in displeasing Pa. Of course, if Pa didn’t notice until they were headed home, then there would be no problem. Hoss looked around and spotted his pa talking to Paul Martin. He eased is way out of his father’s line-of-sight, ambled over to where the waiting horses and tree shadows afforded some concealment and pulled the offending material from around his neck.

“Hoss.” He startled at the soft call and turned quickly. Further back in the trees and shadows stood Mike Planchard, the third of Jacob Planchard’s four sons.

“Can I speak to you, Hoss?” The boy’s voice was hesitant; the question whispered.

“Sure.” Hoss kept his voice low also and stepped closer to Mike.

“It’d be best if none of my folks saw us talking.” Mike Planchard’s eyes darted about making sure that no one else was around.

“What is it ya want to talk about, Mike?” Hoss positioned his much larger body so that it would obscure Mike from the view of anyone in the churchyard.

“Umm, well, you know about Sally Lynn and Joe and Mitch, I suspect.”

“Of course.” Hoss sensed that Mike might bolt like a wild thing that got scared off before you could make friends, and kept his demeanor calm and his voice gentle.

“Well, there’s something that you folks should know, but my folks can’t.”

“What should we know?”

“Umm, you have to promise that nobody will tell my papa.”

“I can’t promise for my pa or Adam.” Hoss said simply and then waited.

“I’ll tell my papa it ain’t true, that it never happened.”

“Why you telling me then?”

“Sally Lynn, well, she’s hurtin’ over it. She‘s my little sister, Hoss.”

“Joe’s my little brother, and he’s hurtin’ over some things too.”

“That’s it, Hoss. Umm, I don’t know for sure about the whiskey, but I know for sure it was Sally Lynn who had the cigars.”

Hoss’ eyes hardened, but his voice remained soft. “How do you know?”

“I gave them to her.”

Hoss just looked at Mike with his personal version of the Cartwright glare, and Mike gave in to its demand.

“I got them three cigars from a miner. Sally Lynn was there when I did, but we don’t tell on each other. Never. I hadn’t smoked them yet, and last week Sally Lynn came and wanted them. There was something I needed her to do, and she did it, and I gave her the cigars.”

It had taken a great many shallow breaths and deep swallows for Mike Planchard to tell the bare bones of his story, so Hoss did not press for the details of what Sally Lynn had done for the price of three cigars.

“Tell your papa that Joe wasn’t lying, least not about the cigars. Tell him… my papa can’t know, Hoss, please.” With his final word, Mike turned and fled.

Hoss stood chewing his lip and rubbing his hand through his hair. He could sense the boy’s fear. A snippet of conversation overheard long before slipped into his head, “He spoils the gal, Jacob does, but those four boys best toe the mark. He has a fierce temper and a fierce hand does Jacob Planchard.”

*****

Adam’s eyes had followed his little brother since they had shaken the preacher’s hand and walked down the church steps, but he had not made his observation of Little Joe and Mitch noticeable. “I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him,” Adam told himself, “but Sally Lynn’s got four brothers who might think their pa wouldn’t mind them teaching Joe and Mitch a lesson.” When Joe and Mitch separated from the group of boys with whom they had been talking and headed around the back of the church, Adam eased after them. “Be careful, Cartwright. I can just hear the kid if he notices? ‘Can’t even go to the privy without that big brother of mine watching!’ Not that I didn’t have to do that too many times when his was little.”

Adam remained in the shadows as he watched Little Joe enter and then exit the outhouse discretely placed in a grove of trees behind the church. He could hear Joe and Mitch teasing each other. Then his jaw clenched as he saw who exited the female side of double privy immediately after Joe.

“Joe. Mitch.” As the feminine voice called softly behind them, the two boys stopped. When they turned toward the sound, they saw Sally Lynn.

Sally Lynn always wore her hair loose on Sunday. It tumbled around her shoulders held back from her face by a wide blue ribbon that matched the flower sprigs scattered across her Sunday dress. The white background of the dress was matched by the pale skin of her face. Sally Lynn looked more innocent than ever, even to the two boys who knew better.

“I just wanted to…” Before Sally Lynn could speak further, both boys tipped their noses upward and spun on their heels.

Raising his voice so that it would carry to the girl behind him, Mitch stated, “Funny thing, Little Joe, I thought I heard somebody.”

“Why, Mitch,” Little Joe replied also pitching his voice for clarity, “there ain’t nobody around here but us. At least nobody I care to pay a mind to.”

“Yeah, I don’t pay no mind to weasels that crawl out from under rocks.”

“Me neither. Come on, my pa will be waiting.” With that announcement, Little Joe took off, and Mitch followed.

Adam frowned as the boys words came to his ears. “What did you expect?” he asked himself sure now that Sally Lynn had been the one lying, “Don’t they deserve a little payback?

He watched the girl take a few steps forward and then slump against the trunk of a pine tree with her head buried in her arms. As he walked toward her, he saw the heaving of her shoulders and knew she was crying.

“Sally Lynn.” His tone had been soft, but the words startled the girl, and she turned toward him panic stopping her sobs. Then she recognized Adam Cartwright and realized he had to have seen the boys.

Her first words surprised him. “They didn’t talk to me; they didn’t at all.”

“I know. You spoke to them.”

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” Sally Lynn’s head was down, and her eyes focused on the ground before her.

“Sorry for what, Sally Lynn?” Adam’s voice was calm but stern.

She shook her head and tears dripped from her chin. “I can’t tell.”

“You’re not going to feel any better until you do.”

“I can’t. I…you don’t know…I just can’t.”

Adam went to his heels, so he could look into her face. “I know it can be hard to face up to something knowing you’ll be punished. I’ve been there, really, but nothing gets better until you do.” He spoke to her in the same tone he used with Little Joe and with the same expression in his eyes.

“I know.” Her agreement was a whispered exhalation. “But I can’t. It ain’t just me. I can’t.” She raised her eyes then and locked them on his. “You don’t understand.”

“Then tell me, so I will,” he urged.

“I just… they were my friends, and I just wanted… I didn’t think we’d get caught … I had to tell papa it was them.”

“You did?” This time Adam’s tone was chiding and held a sharp edge.

“It’s not the same with Papa as it is for you and Joe with your pa.” She had stopped crying and spoke flatly. Her voice told him that she would not be confessing to her father no matter what he said.

Adam stood and looked down at the young girl. For a minute he said nothing. Then he decided he still had a few things to say.

“You three had no business smoking and drinking in that line shack. It was wrong, and it was dangerous. I’m sure you’ve wished that I hadn’t found you there, but you’re lucky I did. Do you realize, little girl, what would have happened if I hadn’t arrived when I did.” Adam’s hands were on his hips, and condemnation in his scowl.

“The fire.”

“Yes, the fire! A fire that would have had your clothes burning in another second.”

She looked up at him. “I know you saved me.”

He sighed. “At least promise me that you won’t be smoking again.”

“I promise.”

It came to Adam that he would never strike a cowering animal, and the rest of what he had intended to say died away.

“Joe will forgive you if you tell the truth,” he observed instead, “but not until.”

“I know.” Sally Lynn turned, and he watched her walk away.

*****

Mitch and Joe kept a steady stream of conversation going the entire trip back to the Ponderosa ranch house; it obscured the fact that Hoss and Adam both were lost in thought.

“Joe, you need to change, and you can loan Mitch something, so he doesn’t ruin his good clothes,” Ben instructed as they arrived.

“Yeah, my ma would have a fit if I did,” Mitch announced.

“Okay, Hoss is going to see to the horses anyway, aren’t ya, Big Boy?” Little Joe replied.

“Sure enough, Big Shorty,” Hoss agreed amiably but without his usual smile.

“I’ll give you a hand,” Adam volunteered.

“”No need.” Hoss headed the horses toward the barn. Adam shrugged and followed his father into the house.

Little Joe and Mitch came clattering down the stairs a few minutes later.

“We’ll stay close, Pa,” Joe announced.

“In the yard until after Hop Sing serves dinner which should be in less than half an hour.”

“Right, Pa.”

“I won’t be going far, Mr. Cartwright. Joe said Hop Sing’s making roast and creamed potatoes.” Mitch accompanied his words with a long sniff.

“By special request, no doubt.” Adam knew his brother had asked Hop Sing to make his friend’s favorites for Sunday dinner.

“And his special dinner rolls too.” Joe added.

“Well, then I have no worry that you’ll both be to the table on time.” Ben smiled as he watched the two boys leave the house by way of Hop Sing’s kitchen.

Hoss came in and settled himself on the broad hearth. “Horses taken care of,” he announced to no one in particular. Then he picked up a piece of smooth wood and his carving knife.

Twenty minutes passed before Ben was sure that something was troubling both his older sons. Adam had turned the page of the book he was holding once in that time, and Hoss had made only a few notches in the wood he held. As he opened his mouth to speak, Ben heard Hop Sing calling to the boys to wash for dinner and decided any interrogation could wait until after their meal.

Mitch leaned back and let out a sigh of contentment. “That sure was good.”

“Hop Sing works very hard to see that only the best food is put on this table.” Ben’s comment was accompanied by a look that both Mitch and Little Joe read correctly.

“If you’ll excuse us, Pa, Mitch and me will go out through the kitchen, so we can thank Hop Sing for doing such a good job.” Little Joe exchanged a glance with his friend.

“That would be fine, Joe. The two of you will stay within sight and call unless you get permission from me. Understand?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“Yes, sir.”

The two young friends departed passing only three small shoves on the way out of the room.

“Do either of you have any special plans?” Ben inquired of his two older sons.

“No, Pa.”

“Not anything special, no.”

“Then perhaps the two of you will join me.” Ben rose and headed into the great room. Hoss and Adam exchanged a questioning glance and followed.

Ben took his favorite seat. Adam stood leaning against the fireplace, and Hoss stood beside him.

“Is there something you wanted to discuss, Pa?” Adam was the first to speak.

“Yes.” Ben paused. “I would like to know what went on between church and home that I obviously missed.”

Adam straightened and opened his mouth to speak, but Hoss beat him to it.

“Well, Pa, now about that…” Adam stared at his brother. “Did he see what happened? I was sure no one else was around?

“Yes, Hoss, continue.” Ben’s tone held a note of command.

The eighteen-year-old shifted nervously, “Well, Pa, Joe didn’t lie to ya about Sally Lynn least ways not about her having the cigars.”

“Hoss, please explain why you’re telling me this now. I thought we had settled that matter.”

“Well, it kind of came unsettled, Pa. See after church…” Hoss was still hesitant to reveal Mike Planchard’s revelation and paused to take a breath.

Adam‘s voice filled the void, “Joe didn’t disobey you. Mitch didn’t disobey either, for that matter. Sally Lynn spoke to them; they didn’t answer.”

Hoss’ head swiveled toward his brother, and his eyes widened. Adam realized that whatever Hoss was about to divulge it was not the meeting between Sally Lynn and the boys.

Ben cleared his throat and fixed both his sons with a look they had learned to read before they had learned their alphabet. “Adam first.”

Adam’s arms slid across his chest, and his right hand tugged his left ear. “Joe went to the privy. As he left, Sally Lynn came out behind him and called to the boys. They didn’t answer her.”

“Your little brother had nothing to say?” Ben raised his right eyebrow.

Another tug accompanied Adam’s next words. “When they saw who it was, they turned away and made a couple of comments to each other. Then they took off.”

“I see.”

“Pa, Sally Lynn was crying.” Realizing the slant his father might put on that statement, Adam hurried to add, “She’s feeling guilty, Pa, about lying.”

“She admitted she lied!”

“Not straight out, but she all but said the words. We talked, Pa, and, well, there ain’t no doubt she was the one did the lying. Thing is she said she couldn’t ever admit it to her father. Well, that was the gist of what she said. I don’t think she ever will, Pa. She mentioned something about someone else being involved.”

“Her brother Mike,” Hoss interjected. The eyes of both his father and brother settled on him.

“He talked to me after services, Pa. Told me he got three cigars off some miner, and Sally Lynn got them off him. He wanted ya to know that Joe didn’t lie about that anyway. ‘Course he said he’d have to deny it if anybody told his pa.”

“I see.” Ben leaned his head back against the chair and stared into the dark hole of the fireplace.

“Joe deserves to know you don’t have any doubts about him lying anymore.” Adam stated softly after a few minutes of silence.

“Yes, he does. He and Mitch, as well as the Delvins, need to know about both of your conversations.”

“Should I call the boys in,” Adam asked moving toward the door. When he reached it and drew it open, the sound of boyish laughter drifted into the house.

“Wait,” Ben called and leaned forward, “Let the boys have their playtime. We’ll talk to them when we take Mitch home.”

*****

“Joe,” Mitch exhaled his friend’s name as he threw himself down beneath a large tree, “Your pa’s not mad about it anymore, is he?”

“Naw, he ain’t been mad since, well, since Monday, anyways. What about your folks?” Joe landed on the ground to the right of Mitch.

“Pa stays mad longer than my ma, but neither of ‘em is mad anymore, or I sure wouldn’t be here now.”

“Yeah,” Little Joe grunted his agreement, and rolled over on his stomach. “It weren’t worth it, was it?”

“No. Was ya really, really sick?”

“Sickest I ever remember being.”

“Joe, you remember much about having a good time?” Mitch ventured softly.

“Welll,” Joe drew out the single syllable as he decided what to admit.

“We did have a good time when we was drinking, didn’t we?” Mitch’s hesitant tone revealed his uncertainty.

“I guess we must of. The hands always say what a good time they had when they got drunk.” Little Joe’s tone was as unsure as Mitch’s.

“But do you remember us having a really good time?”

“No, not exactly, but maybe that’s ‘cause Pa and Adam wiped it right out of my mind.”

“Yeah,” Mitch rolled over on his side facing Little Joe, “you think, well, do ya think Sally Lynn remembers our good time?”

Little Joe did not answer Mitch’s question; instead he asked one of his own, “Why do ya think she lied on us? I never thought she’d do that.”

“Scared, I guess. Maybe this time she thought her pa really would tan her good even if she is a girl. Did you think about lying, Joe?”

“I thought a lot about lying until about one second after Pa said we was gonna talk. You try to lie to your pa?”

“Naw, ma had the truth out of me ‘fore Pa even came into the room. Never could lie to my ma no way.” Mitch rolled onto his stomach. Sometimes he felt uneasy saying things about his ma to Joe because he knew it reminded his friend that he no longer had a mother except in heaven.

Joe sighed and rolled onto his own stomach. “Do your folks really believe what we said about Sally Lynn?”

“Ma does, I guess just ‘cause she always knows when I’m lying. My pa, well …he doesn’t believe I lied but, um, he thinks I could have, I guess.”

Little Joe’s chin rested on his crossed arms. “Yeah, Pa and Adam think that way too; Hoss believes for sure, though.”

“Sally Lynn’s folks just believe her, and she’s lying.” Mitch’s tone conveyed the unfairness of the situation.

“I’ve been thinking on that.” Little Joe pushed himself into a sitting position, and Mitch followed suit. “I talked about it some with Hoss, kind of.”

Mitch simply waited for Little Joe to continue; he knew sometimes Joe had really deep thoughts nobody expected him to have.

“I think, well, Pa, he’s fair enough not to punish me unless he knows for certain sure I done something wrong, and he loves me enough to take my word, but…” Joe paused and searched for words that matched his thoughts, “well, he loves me enough that he wants to be certain sure I didn’t lie ‘cause he’d be responsible for seeing to it if I had. Ummm, it be important for him to know if I did, umm, for him not to be wrong. It would be okay if Hoss was wrong, see, but not Pa, and, well, it’s not like I ain’t never lied to him. It’s kinda like he told me once, that’s the worst thing about lying, even if you only do it once, when somebody knows you did, well, then they know maybe you could again. Adam thinks a lot like Pa about that kind of thing. Besides, they’re both sorta got-to-see-proof people.”

Little Joe looked at Mitch expectantly.

“Yeah, my pa’s more a proof person than my ma; she’s mainly a I-feel-it person.” Mitch’s head nodded slowly. “I kinda see what you mean, like maybe our pas, well, they love us enough to want to be certain.”

“Hoss says it takes more courage to face the truth than to believe a lie, maybe it takes more love too.”

“Yeah, maybe it does.”

Joe nodded and then straightened as he heard his name. “Pa’s calling us.” He jumped to his feet. “Race you to the house.” He took off before Mitch scrambled up to follow.

*****

Little Joe slide his eyes left until they rested on the black back of his elder brother. When he and Mitch had come to a halt in the yard, they had found Pa, Adam, and Hoss waiting with horses saddled. Pa had smiled and told them to fetch Mitch’s Sunday clothes, so they had. Then they had all set off for the Devlin ranch. Now, Joe was wondering exactly what was behind his father and both brothers escorting Mitch home. He had known his pa would never send Mitch home alone, and Hoss’ comments about Mrs. Devlin’s baking might account for his middle brother’s presence, but even if Mitch’s mother had promised to bake Adam’s favorite, it would never have lured his elder brother from his new book and a truly quiet house in which to read it.

Ain’t none of them mad, so we can’t be in any trouble. ‘Sides we ain’t done nothing,” Little Joe mused as he studied Adam’s back. Sally Lynn’s face appeared between Adam’s shoulder blades. “But we didn’t say nothing to her. Even if somebody saw, we didn’t say nothing to her.” Little Joe chewed his lower lip and then shook the worrisome thought from his head. He could always tell when Pa was mad with him, Adam too, and neither one was mad, so Joe shrugged and decided he would know when he knew. Then he started a discussion with Mitch about Ezekiel Baxter’s prowess with marbles.

Isaac and Emma Devlin heard the approaching horses and greeted the Cartwrights from their porch.

“Good to see you too,” Ben replied, “Thought we might return something of yours.” Then he saw a slight darkening of Isaac’s expression as he scanned the assembled Cartwrights, and Ben hurried to add, “Though it was such a pleasure to have him that I considered keeping him a while longer.”

“Behaved himself then, did he?” Isaac’s tone was light enough to be teasing.

“Very well,” Ben replied as he swung out of the saddle. A smile spread over Mitch’s face at Ben’s words; it never hurt for his pa to hear him praised by another adult.

“Well, now, all of you get yourselves into the house. I’ve got hot coffee and fresh applesauce cake waiting,” Emma ordered cheerfully.

Hoss was the first to reply, “Well, ma’am, you ain’t gonna have to ask me twice. That’s pretty near my favorite of everything you bake.”

Adam made sure to smile at Mrs. Devlin as he teased his brother, “At least it’s today’s favorite. If I remember correctly, her peach strudel was pretty near your favorite last time we visited, and the time before that…”

Hoss refused to be chided and inserted smoothly, “That’s ‘cause when you eat Miz Emma’s baking, well, your favorite is whatever is in your mouth.”

Emma Devlin gave Hoss a deep smile. “At least one of you men knows just who’s buttering your bread. Come on, Hoss; you get the largest piece.”

“Ma!” Mitch’s exclamation was a plaintive wail; his mother’s applesauce cake really was his favorite.

A ripple of laughter drifted into the house with them. Emma dished up cake, poured coffee and buttermilk, and asked the boys about their day. As everyone cleaned their plates, the boys recounted the afternoon’s adventures.

“That was really fine, Emma,” Ben stated as he set down his empty coffee cup.

“There’s more if…”

“No, no, I couldn’t.”

“I could, ma’am.” Hoss slide the statement softly into Emma’s ear, but still received a stern look from his father as Emma set a third piece of cake on Hoss’ plate.

“There is something I’d like to discuss before we go though,” Ben exchanged a glance with his eldest son. Glances also flashed between Emma and Isaac as well as Joe and Mitch. All eyes then became fixed on Ben Cartwright. Ben proceeded to explain the discussions his elder sons had had with the Planchard children.

“Well,” Emma snorted at the end of his account managing to convey an I-told-you-so to her husband with one word.

“It does settle my mind on some things,” Isaac stated softly and focused a look on his son that spoke a silent apology.

“Yes, yes, it does.” Ben bestowed a similar look on Little Joe. Joe had made only one exclamation during Ben’s recital and that had been to assure his father that he had not spoken to Sally Lynn. Now he returned his father’s look with a smile savoring his vindication; Pa knew for certain sure that he had not lied.

“But it does unsettle others.” Emma’s voice held a definite edge. “That girl needs a comeuppance!”

“Now, Emma,” Isaac turned his eyes to his wife’s angry scowl.

“She does! And that father of hers needs to know just who was luring who. I’ll not have her getting off scot-free, Isaac. Mark my words; I won’t.”

“She may not have gotten off scot-free.” Adam’s soft statement startled all others at the table. He had answered several questions from the Devlins during Ben’s recital, but had volunteered no comments until now. “Mr. Planchard defended Sally Lynn to us, but the Planchards have kept this all very close to the vest, and we don’t really know what Jacob Planchard did in private.”

Emma waved her hand dismissively, “Eva herself told me more than once that Jacob has never raised his hand to the girl. I doubt he did while blaming Mitch and Joe.”

Hoss swallowed the last of his cake and stated softly, “He raises his hand to his boys. Mike won’t be admitting what he done.”

Adam continued on his brother’s track, “Even if she’s not protecting her own backside, Sally Lynn is protecting her brother’s. She won’t be admitting it to her father either.”

“Which brings us to the crux of the matter,” Ben stated solemnly, “If I thought there was even half a chance that Jacob would believe me, I’d feel it my duty to inform him of what his children have done. But, well, I seriously doubt he will believe it from any lips but Sally Lynn’s.”

“Speaking to him might be worse than useless,” Isaac finished Ben’s thought.

“Just stirring in a stink hole,” Hoss muttered and then dropped his chin when he realized he had spoken aloud.

Silence followed Hoss’ statement, and then Mitch’s voice was heard for the first time since Ben had begun the discussion. “Pa, well, I, I don’t care much what Mr. Planchard thinks, seeing how you and Ma know the truth.” Mitch looked across the table at Joe trying to discern where his friend stood on the matter of Sally Lynn getting her comeuppance.

Joe read his friend’s question and added, “Don’t make no never mind to me either.”

Ben and Isaac studied their young sons’ faces. If the boys did not feel the need to be defended, perhaps sleeping dogs were best left to lie.

“It does to me!” Emma’s declaration was punctuated by her hand slapping the table top. Then her eyes swept around the table surveying the male faces there. “It may be best that you two don’t go talking to Jacob Planchard.”

Mitch was the first to recognize the light that entered his mother’s eyes.

“Yes, I’m sure it is best. Some things are better handled woman-to-woman!”

“Emma!” Ben’s exclamation echoed Isaac’s.

“Ma!”

Emma Delvin rose and straightened to the peak of her limited height. “Mitch, I’d thank you if you’d see to washing up these plates and cups. Ben, thank you for coming; you and the boys are always most welcome. Isaac, I’ll need you to hitch up the buggy right after breakfast tomorrow; I intend to pay Eva Planchard a call.” Before any male voice could reply, Emma Devlin excused herself and swept from the room.

Adam’s eyes watched her go, and his lips slipped upward into a smirk. “Marie would have made Pa hitch up the buggy tonight!”

*****

Adam and Hoss had surged ahead of Ben and Little Joe just before riding into the yard. They both swung to the ground immediately.

“Hoss and I will see to the horses,” Adam called out as Ben and Joe came to a halt. “You go with Pa, Joe, and get started on the sandwiches.” Before Little Joe could answer, he felt the reins he was holding slipped from his hand, and then he was yanked smoothly from the saddle and set down facing the house.

“Adam!” Joe wailed in indignation.

“Go on,” Adam leaned over bringing his mouth nearer Joe’s ear, “Remember you’re being a good boy.” Adam raised the hand that was swinging toward his little brother’s backside at the last second so that Joe only received a gentle nudge in the back that propelled him toward the porch. Joe looked back over his shoulder and caught the exaggerated wink Adam sent him before his elder brother turned on his heel and followed Hoss toward the barn.

“Harrumph,” Joe snorted, but he complied and followed his father into the house. Ben lit the lamps as they went through each room to the kitchen.

Sunday supper was the one meal Hop Sing did not prepare for the household. An impressive Sunday dinner was always served to whoever was on hand, but then Hop Sing departed to visit various members of Virginia City’s Chinese community and often did not return until late in the night. The Cartwrights soothed any hunger pains with sandwiches or leftovers. Even during the winter when travel was impossible, Ben insisted that Hop Sing keep Sunday afternoon and evening for his own pursuits.

The remains of that day’s roast and yesterday’s ham were set out on the counter along with fresh bread and various jars of pickled vegetables and preserves.

“What kind of sandwich would you like, Little Joe?” Ben asked as he picked up a carving knife.

“I don’t need a sandwich, Pa. I ain’t hungry after Miz Emma’s cake.”

Ben looked at his youngest and stated simply, “At least half a sandwich, Joe. Ham or beef?”

“Beef.” Joe capitulated quickly. “You want some pickled beets, Pa?” Joe said reaching for the jar.

“Please, and I’m sure both your brothers will also.” Ben continued slicing meat and bread as Joe spooned the beets onto four plates.

“Pa, uh, would you tell Adam to quit hoisting me around whenever he gets a notion. Sometimes I don’t know what gets into that head of his.”

Ben paused and set down his knife. “I think your brother wanted to give me some time alone with you.”

Joe turned to face his father. Ben read the look that flashed in his son’s eyes and said quickly, “Not because I am angry with you, but because you have a right to be angry with me.”

Little Joe gave his father a puzzled look. “But why, Pa?”

Ben took four steps over to his son and reached out to cup Joe’s chin in his hand, “You didn’t lie to me, son, and I questioned that. I’m sorry that I did; I know it hurt you.”

Joe opened his mouth to deny that he had been hurt, but he realized that would be another kind of lie. “Yea,” he replied softly, “it did some, but I understand, Pa. I ain’t a little kid no more. I ain’t angry at you.”

“You forgive your old father his doubts then?”

“Sure I do, Pa,” Joe replied brightly.

“Thank you, son.” Ben drew Joe into a firm hug. When he released his hold on the boy, Ben placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “I’m very proud that you have the capacity for forgiveness, Joe. It is a mark of true maturity and a Christian heart.”

Joe smiled deeply and then ducked his head, “Aw, Pa, I guess, well, I guess I learned something from all the examples you and Adam and Hoss have given me.”

Ben received the compliment with a deepening smile of his own. “Joe, are you angry with Mike or Sally Lynn?” he asked softly.

Joe shrugged, “Not really, well, not angry so much, I just, I guess I just don’t like that she lied.”

“Neither do I, son.” Ben took a breath and then continued, “Joe, I hope you are never so afraid of me that you feel you have to avoid blame by shifting it to another.”

“I ain’t afraid of you, Pa. Well, not afraid afraid. You think Sally Lynn and her brothers are afraid afraid of Mr. Planchard.”

“Afraid of more than just a deserved punishment, you mean?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.”

“I don’t know, Joseph, but it appears that it may be that they are.”

“What do you think, Mrs. Devlin’s gonna say to Mrs. Planchard tomorrow?”

“Whatever she feels that Eva needs to hear, I suppose.” Ben had been wondering that same thing the entire trip home from the Devlin ranch.

“Women don’t get into fights, do they, Pa?”

“Not generally.”

“Then maybe Miz Emma’s right about her being the one to go to the Planchards.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement as his two elder sons walked into the room, and the four Cartwrights sat down to their supper.

*****

His pa had already come to say goodnight and had turned out his lamp, so Little Joe was surprised to hear his door open. He rolled onto his side and peered through the darkness of his room. The moonlight from the window allowed him to recognize his elder brother. He propped himself up on one elbow.

“Adam, something wrong?”

Adam appeared to ignore the question as he crossed the room to stand beside the bed. “I thought you might still be awake.” He did not reach to light the bedside lamp, but lowered his body to rest on the edge of the bed. Facing his younger brother, he leaned back against the footboard; Joe pulled himself half-upright and leaned against the head board.

“Something you want, Big Brother?”

“Everything’s all right between you and Pa now, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Joe replied easily. After a moment’s thought he added, “We talked and everything fine.”

Joe felt his brother shift his weight and heard him clear is throat. “Is everything all right between us, Little Brother?”

“You’re the one told Pa that Sally Lynn was for sure lying.”

“Joe, I, well, sometimes I wish I could be more like brother Hoss. He just doesn’t doubt like I do. I’m sorry I doubted you.”

Joe had seldom been in the position of accepting an apology from his elder brother and shifted with unease. “You ain’t got no call to feel sorry, Adam, but if ya do, I accept your apology.”

“Thank you, Joe.”

Joe rubbed his foot along the smooth surface of his sheet. “Can I ask ya something, Adam?”

“Sure.”

“If, well, if you would have caught us before, well, if we hadn’t been so drunk that ya had to tell, if there had been a way around it, would you have told on us?”

There was silence for a minute, but Little Joe knew that Adam was thinking over his answer and waited patiently; it just meant his brother wanted to tell the real truth.

“I don’t know, Joe. Actually I’m glad I didn’t need to make that decision.” There was just enough light for Joe to see Adam tug his left ear. “Joe, I never like being the one to get you in trouble with pa. I know you think sometimes I do, but, Joe, sometimes, well, I feel I have to.”

“I never thought about it being something hard for you.”

“You’re the,” he started to use the word baby but caught himself in time, “youngest, Joe; you’ve never been in that position.”

“Guess not.” Joe dropped his eyes even though there was not enough light in the room for either brother to read the other’s face. “Sometimes I forget it’s different for you, that it always was different for you.”

“Sometimes I forget that it’s always been different for you, Joe.” Adam placed his hand on the blanket where it covered his brother’s foot. “And sometimes when I remember, I’m jealous.” The last thought he had trouble admitting to himself, so Adam spoke in an effort to push it out of his mind. “Still, there’s lots that is the same for the both of us being Ben Cartwright’s sons.”

“Pa ever catch you drinking when you weren’t allowed?”

“Yep.”

“What about smoking cigars?”

“Smoking, yes, but not cigars.”

“Did he tan ya good?”

“Well, I didn’t think it was too good at the time, but, yes, Pa tanned me both times. Fortunately, I was wise enough not to get caught doing both the same day.” By the last sentence, Adam had let his tone become teasing.

“Yeah, you might have warned me about that, big brother.”

“You wouldn’t have listened,” Adam retorted and tugged his brother’s ankle.

“Yeah, well, you could have tried anyways.” Adam’s chuckle was soft and low and encouraged Joe to continue. “Adam, you said Sally Lynn, well, you said she was crying. Was she crying because, well, what we said was kind of mean,” Joe held his breath. “I’m glad you didn’t think you needed to tell Pa exactly what we said!”

“I really think she feels bad about blaming you and Mitch, Joe. Sorry and very, very guilty.”

“I can’t tell her I ain’t really mad anymore; I still ain’t allowed to speak to her.”

“I know. Joe, I told her you’d forgive her if she told the truth.”

“Were you that sure I would?”

“Yeah, I was certain sure.” Adam reached out and playfully thumped Joe’s chin, “One of the best things about my baby brother is that he never holds grudges.”

Joe smiled, ducked his head away from Adam’s hand, and then grew serious, “You think Miz Emma will get things worked out?”

“I think she’ll give it a da…” Adam coughed and then continued, “decidedly good try.”

“Yeah, decidedly good,” Joe giggled.

Adam pushed himself to his feet, “Shhhhh, little boy, or Pa will be in here taking us both to task. You should have been asleep long ago.”

“It’s your fault, brother, so you can get Pa to let me slept in a few extra minutes, can’t ya?”

“Go to sleep now, and I’ll try. No promises though; you know Pa.”

“Ever since I was born!” Joe giggled and buried his face against his mattress.

Adam popped his brother’s backside, but the quilt covering it absorbed what little force the swat contained.

*****

Ben had simply said that he planned to stay at the house and work on the books, but his sons exchanged glances of understanding. If Emma Devlin did not come to visit Ben, Ben would visit Emma.

It was late morning when Ben heard the sound of an approaching buggy and went to stand on the porch. He watched Emma drive up to the house. The buggy was Emma’s self-indulgence and the Devlin’s one extravagance. Emma had saved her egg money for three years to buy it second hand. She rode in it now like a queen in golden carriage. Ben stepped down to greet her as Hop Sing step out of the door behind him.

“You bring Missy Emma in quick now; Hop Sing have all leady.” Hop Sing spun on his heel and reentered the house.

“You heard my orders, Emma,” Ben laughed as he reached to help her from the buggy.

“But I thought I’d just…”

“Now, now, Hop Sing would be insulted. Come along, and we can discuss things over whatever I’ve been smelling baking all morning.”

“Well, I can’t insult Hop Sing.” Emma allowed Ben to assist her and walked into the house on his arm. Ben seated her at the dining room table, and Hop Sing brought in the refreshments with a smile and a short discussion of recipes for tea cakes.

Emma was dressed in her Sunday clothes, and Ben took it as a sign that she had fulfilled her promise to visit Eva Planchard. Having had three wives, Ben knew how a woman dressed for battle.

“You talked to Eva?” He asked the question straightforwardly.

“We had a very long visit.” Emma watched her finger trace the rim of her cup. She took a breath and then said, “It was very enlightening for both of us.” She raised her eyes and focused on Ben’s face. “She knows the truth.”

“And believes it?”

“Yes.”

“And Jacob?”

“He and his eldest left for Carson City an hour before I arrived. He won’t be back for three days.” Emma saw the demand for details in Ben’s eyes and continued, “I was very self-righteous and demanding when I arrived, Ben. Thinking back, I’m surprised that Eva heard me out.”

“But she did?”

“Yes. Eva does not view her daughter as a little angel, Ben.” Emma broke a cookie into pieces but did not put any of them in her mouth. “Jacob lost two little sisters when he was thirteen; Sally Lynn is named for the both of them.”

“That’s why he’s so lenient with her and not the boys.” It was not a question but an observation.

“It’s why Eva handles her daughter’s discipline. Eva took a switch to Sally Lynn last Sunday for going off alone with the boys.”

“It seems everything we assumed was not correct.”

Emma nodded. “After I told Eva what Hoss and Adam had said, Eve called Michael in. It took her about five minutes to get the full story from him; I doubt it will take more than ten to get the truth from Sally Lynn after school.”

“So even Jacob will have to see the truth when he returns?” Ben relaxed against the back of his chair.

Emma’s eyes dropped again to her finger as it traced the pattern on the edge of her plate. “Ben, it is very hard for a wife to discuss her husband’s true faults with another.”

Ben stiffened, and his eyes flashed, “Did Eva tell you that Jacob…”

“No, no, Ben. Jacob is strict with his boys and uses a strap on their backsides when it’s deserved but no more than that.”

“His temper…”

“Is not the fault that Eva and I discussed. Ben, how quickly did you forgive Little Joe? Was he forgiven before the sun rose Monday?”

“Of course! He was forgiven before the sun set Sunday.”

“So was Mitchell. Jacob is not a forgiving man, Ben.”

Ben raised his eyebrow in silent inquiry.

“Did you ever know someone who seemed to store up marks against a person, who never allowed any redemption for wrong doing?”

Ben did not answer immediately, but a distance face rose in the back of his mind.

“My father’s cousin was that way with his children, Ben. According to Eva, Jacob is that way with all of his. Sally Lynn and Michael couldn’t admit their mistakes to Jacob because there would have been no forgiveness after punishment for a very, very long time if ever.”

“Eva won’t be telling her husband?”

Emma shook her head. “Both Sally Lynn and Michael will be punished for their wrong doing. In fact, Eva sent Michael to cut a switch before I left. After a time Eva will talk to Jacob about lifting his ban on the children speaking.” Emma straightened her shoulders. “If you feel Jacob needs to know, there will be no more lies. I won’t be the one broaching the subject, Ben.”

Ben studied the eyes of the woman before him. “If things have been handled, Emma, well, as Hoss would say ‘No good comes from stirring in a stink hole.’ ”

Emma laughed. It pleased Ben to hear feminine laughter in his home, and he smiled despite the sudden yearning to hear Marie’s laughter again.

“No, no good at all.” Emma rose from her chair. “I have to be getting home. Isaac will be expecting a good supper after a cold lunch.”

Ben escorted Emma to her buggy as they exchanged comments about mundane and pleasant things.

“We’ll see you at services Sunday?” Emma said as she settled on the buggy seat and picked up the reins.

“To be sure, “Ben replied. Then he gave her a smile filled with the charm all three of his sons had inherited. “Thank you, Emma, for championing my son along with your own.”

Emma patted Ben’s cheek. “Marie was a great friend to me. When her son needs a woman’s touch in his life, I’m only too glad to provide. Besides, those two boys of ours need as many hands tending them as can be provided.”

Ben nodded agreement. “All children need as many loving hands as can be provided.”

“So true, Ben, so true.”

*****

Joe’s eyes once more slid to focus on Sally Lynn as she bowed over her slate. Joe had tried to focus on his schoolwork, but countless times that morning he had found himself studying Sally Lynn or sharing silent messages with Mitch.

The teacher dismissed the class for lunch, and Little Joe reached for his lunch pail.

“Joseph, please remain; I would like to speak with you a minute.” The teacher’s voice was calm, but Joe swallowed convulsively. As he watched his teacher approach, he gave a furtive glance at the less-than-half-finished assignment on his desk.

“Joseph, I had hoped that the improvement I saw in you last week would continue.”

“I didn’t mean to misbehave, ma’am.” Little Joe dropped his chin.

Miss Cutler reached out and tipped Joe’s head up with a finger under his chin. “You haven’t really been misbehaving, Little Joe, but your attention has not been on your studies, and you haven’t completed a single assignment this morning.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ll pay attention this afternoon. Do you want me to stay in and work during lunch?”

The teacher shook her head. “Little Joe, I don’t know what happened that resulted in you and Mitch being forbidden to talk to Sally Lynn, only that both your father and hers informed me of the fact.”

“Uh, we…”

She raised a finger to silence him. “I don’t need to know, Joseph. Am I wrong to surmise that the decision was more Mr. Planchard’s than your father’s or Mr. Devlin’s?”

“No, ma’am, I mean you ain’t wrong to think that.”

“Aren’t wrong, Joseph,” Miss Cutler corrected.

“Yes, ma’am, you aren’t wrong. Mr. Planchard don’t, um, doesn’t want Sally Lynn associating with me or Mitch.” Little Joe hurried to add, “And we haven’t, Miss Cutler.”

“I know, Little Joe. I respected the request because sometimes it is best to separate children for a time, but, well, I don’t think that is the best situation for the long term. But that is something for me to deal with. You are dismissed, Little Joe. ” Miss Cutler started to turn away.

“You don’t mean to talk to Mr. Planchard, do ya, ma’am?”

Miss Cutler’s eyes returned to Joe’s face. “Actually, I do, Joseph.”

Little Joe licked his lips. “Maybe you should think about that, Miss Cutler. Mr. Planchard, well, he thinks he’s got reason, and, umm, he’s got a temper.”

“I do not intend to tell Mr. Planchard what he can or cannot expect outside of my schoolhouse, but I shall tell him what will not be allowed to affect the students in that classroom any longer.”

Little Joe saw something in Miss Cutler’s eyes that he had seen in Emma Devlin’s the night before. The thought of Emma Devlin made Joe reply, “Miss Cutler, things, well, it may be that Mr. Planchard will be having a reason soon to change his mind. You could wait a day or two to see.”

Miss Cutler heard a thread of concern in Little Joe’s voice. “I’ll wait a bit if you promise that your mind will be on your work and not Sally Lynn while I do.” She said it gently but firmly with neither a scowl nor a smile on her lips.

“I’ll try harder, ma’am,” Joe replied earnestly.

“Fine then. Go on now and eat your lunch.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Little Joe grabbed his lunch pail and went to join Mitch and the rest of his friends. Miss Cutler chewed her lower lip a she watched him walk out before returning to her desk and her own lunch.

*****

Little Joe rode into the yard and stopped. He sat in the saddle staring at the house wondering if his pa had spoken to Mitch’s mother. Then he heard someone come out of the barn and twisted in the saddle to get a look. His brother Adam walked up.

“Home on time, I see. Well, they do say wonders will never cease,” Adam teased gently.

“The real wonder would be if ya told me, when you came home early, you got all the barn chores done including mine.”

“Actually, I thought I’d have a mite longer before you arrived, so I’m not quite finished, but since Pa wants to talk to you, you can just go along into the house.”

Adam hands moved toward his little brother’s waist, but Joe saw them coming and slipped out of the saddle to the ground on the opposite side of his horse from Adam. The suddenness of the movement and Joe’s dismounting on what his horse considered the wrong side caused the animal to shy nervously knocking into Adam.

“What in blazes!” Adam managed to stay on his feet, but his good mood was knocked completely out of him.

Joe had moved quickly to the horse’s head catching his headstall and cooing gently to settle him. “I can get off a horse, Adam; I don’t need your hoisting.”

“Doesn’t seem to me you did such a fine job of it just now,” Adam snapped.

Little Joe knew before he completed the act that he should not have stuck his tongue out at his brother. For some reason that simple deed always put a whole passel of burrs under Adam’s saddle.

“Do you need a reminder, little boy, of proper manners and respect?” Adam’s words fairly hissed.

“Not from you!” Joe responded as he darted onto the porch.

Adam lunged, but Joe managed to elude his grasp, open the door, and call out, “PA! I’m home.”

Adam followed his brother into the house but stopped abruptly when Joe halted in front of their father.

One look was all that Ben needed to assess the situation. “Joseph. Adam. Is there a problem, sons?”

Joe bit his lip until he heard his brother’s voice moving overhead, “No, Pa, no problem.” Little Joe let out the breath he was holding.

“Fine.” Ben turned his back to his sons. “Little Joe, I need to speak with you.”

Joe did not answer immediately because as soon has Ben had turned away Adam’s hand had descended onto to Joe’s shoulder. Adam leaned over to place his mouth next to Little Joe’s ear. “I owe you one swat to that impudent backside.” Adam’s whisper was soft enough that it would have been impossible for anyone but Joe to hear. Then Adam quickly straightened and said at his normal volume, “I’ll see to the rest of the chores if you’ll excuse me, Pa.” Then he patted his little brother’s shoulder and departed. Joe decided to worry about when that swat would be paid later and went to sit on the arm of his father’s chair.

“Yes, Pa?”

Ben studied his son and then slipped his arm around Joe’s waist; it was a compromise they had settled on when Little Joe decided he was too grown to sit in his father’s lap.

“Mrs. Devlin came by to talk to me this morning.”

Little Joe twisted so that he could look into his father’s face. “Did she talk to Sally Lynn’s mama? What did Mrs. Planchard say? Did they have a fight, Pa?”

Ben put a finger to Joe’s lips to dam the flow of questions. Ben answered Joe’s last question first, “They most certainly did not have a fight, Joseph, but they did talk.”

“Did Mrs. Planchard believe what Miz Emma told her about what Hoss and Adam said Mike and Sally Lynn told them?”

“Mrs. Planchard knows the truth of the matter, Joe. Michael admitted his part in the whole thing to his mother, and I believe Sally Lynn will do the same.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Ben had been considering all afternoon what he would reveal to Joe and how he would explain the situation. “Joe, contrary to what we thought Sally Lynn had already been punished by her mother for her involvement in the drinking and smoking at the line shack.”

“Mrs. Planchard tanned her!” Joe exclaimed. “I wonder if a ma tans as hard as a pa. Maybe with girls they do.”

Ben nodded. “Mrs. Planchard will also handle Michael’s punishment and the fact that Sally Lynn lied.”

The image of Sally Lynn getting a tanning rose in Joe’s mind, and he was surprised to find that it brought no triumph only sympathy. Joe shook his head slowly and then asked, “What about Mr. Planchard?”

“Jacob Planchard had already left for a trip to Carson City before Mrs. Devlin arrived.”

“Oh.” Joe’s eyes darkened. “Will Mike or Sally Lynn get another tanning when he gets back?”

“No, Joe, they won’t,” Ben replied solemnly.

“Are ya sure, Pa?” His tone told Ben that Little Joe had no desire to be avenged by Jacob Planchard.

“Yes, Joe, I’m sure because Mrs. Planchard does not intend to tell him.”

Joe’s voice dropped to a whisper, “Because she’s afraid afraid of what he would do?”

“Not the way you mean, Joe, but …” Ben sighed, “Joe, how hurt would you be if I didn’t tell you that I forgave you after you’d been punished?”

Joe sat silent for a time and then asked in a very small voice, “You wouldn’t ever not forgive me, would ya, Pa?”

Ben pulled Joe against him, “No, son, I never would; there is nothing you could do that I could not forgive.” Ben’s hands went to Little Joe’s face and cradled it, “Jacob Planchard does not always make his children feel forgiven, Joe. That’s why Mrs. and Mr. Devlin nor I plan to say anything more to Jacob.”

“Oh.” It was a small, sad syllable that hung in the air.

“Joe, do you feel that I should go to Jacob Planchard and defend you?”

Joe shook his head vehemently, “I don’t care what Mr. Planchard thinks. Everybody I care about believes the truth.”

Ben hugged his son to him again and said softly, “I’m very pleased that you can feel that way, Joe.” Joe could hear the pride in his father’s voice. Ben released his embrace and continued, “Mrs. Planchard will speak to her husband about rescinding his order that you boys not speak to Sally Lynn. Hopefully he will listen, and all this can be put behind us.”

“I hope so, Pa.”

Ben patted Little Joe’s back as they heard the door open. Adam and Hoss entered the house in an animated discussion about the herd in the north pasture, and Joe slid off his father’s chair taking a seat on the settee.

*****

“Owwww!” Little Joe jerked upright and flipped over. He found himself on his knees on top of his bed rubbing his backside and staring at the smug smirk on his older brother’s face.

“Pa told me to wake you, and that bare little behind reminded of what I owed you.”

Perhaps because there was just enough sleep left in him to dampen his temper, Joe did not do the wrong thing; instead he tugged down his nightshirt, bit his lip, dropped his chin, and slumped against his pillows. After a few moments, the smirk slid from Adam’s face.

“You shouldn’t have been rude to me, Joe.” Adam sounded like he was trying to justify his action to himself as well as Joe.

Little Joe kept his chin lowered but looked up at his brother through his lashes, “You’re my brother, Adam.”

Adam opened his mouth but closed it again without speaking.

Little Joe straightened and asked, “You didn’t ever swat Hoss for sticking his tongue out at ya, did ya? And he did it plenty of times, didn’t he?”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“So you didn’t ever even when he was littler than you. You’re always saying how you had to be in charge of Hoss when he was little too.”

Adam slid down into a sitting position on the end of Joe’s bed. “Joe,” he began his explanation but then stopped, “No, I never swatted Hoss.” He gazed down at the bedspread and rubbed his palm against its surface. Then he muttered mainly to himself, “Pa spanked him once for it though.”

Joe heard. “He did?”

Adam looked up at Joe. “Yeah, he was seven, I guess, and he’d been fractious all day. I don’t know why, maybe I did then, but I don’t now. Anyway, Pa sent me to tell Hoss to do something, and Hoss got balky. We said some things back and forth, and then Hoss stuck his tongue out as far as it would go at me. What we hadn’t noticed was Pa had walked up behind me because he had changed his mind about something. Well, Pa took Hoss by the arm and marched him in the house. It was summer, and the windows were open though. Pa gave him five good swats and then brought him out to apologize.”

“Five swats for sticking out his tongue!”

“Well, probably not really for just that. Like I said Hoss had been stepping over the line all day.”

“Oh.” Adam and Joe each spent the next few minutes mulling in their own thoughts.

Joe’s question came out of nowhere for Adam. “Why do you suppose Mr. Planchard, well, why do you suppose he is the way he is?”

Adam knew what Joe meant and offered him a serious answer. “I can’t really know, but I suppose he never learned how.” Adam kept his next thought to himself. “Or he was just born without any forgiveness in his bones.”

“ ‘Cause he didn’t have any good examples maybe?” Joe looked expectantly at Adam.

“Probably. Some people aren’t as lucky that way as we are, Joe. Different rearing can make for different men.” Adam studied his little brother’s face as he thought, “Hoss was born with his bones full of forgiveness though. No matter what, he could never be like Jacob Planchard. And Joe, well, he couldn’t either, not for long anyway.” Adam did not allow his next thought to form; instead he pushed it away with another. Reaching out to catch Joe’s chin, he gazed steadily into his brother’s eyes, “Joe, there is nothing, nothing mind you, that I could not forgive my brother.”

Joe noticed immediately that Adam had not said “baby brother” or “little brother” but just “brother” like the twelve years between them was the same as one or even none. He knew that the look Adam gave him did not come down at him but over to him, and he accepted it with a grin. “Me too, brother.”

Adam dropped his hand, slid his arms across his chest, and let his fingers absently pull at his left ear. He cleared his throat, “Joe, umm, I shouldn’t have swatted you. You were right. I’m your brother, and, well, that swat was payback, not correction, and I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you, big brother,” Little Joe intoned solemnly, but then a little devil began to dance in his eyes. “Yes, I forgive you, but, like you’re always telling me that doesn’t mean you don’t need correcting for the wrongdoing.”

Adam’s chin tilted, and he looked appraisingly at Joe. “I suppose everyone needs correcting for wrong from time to time.”

Little Joe nodded in agreement.

“I suppose you have my correction in mind?”

Joe nodded again, and Adam raised his eyebrow in silent inquiry.

“I ain’t never got to swat ya back, brother; this time I should get to correct you.”

This time Adam’s hand rubbed his chin. “One for one?”

“One for one.”

Adam stood and turned his back to his brother. Little Joe put everything he had into what he knew would be a one-time-only opportunity.

“I’ll tell Pa that you’ll be down directly,” Adam said as he closed Joe’s door behind him. Then his hand rubbed his right backside as he walked down to the breakfast table.

“Is Joe getting dressed?” Ben inquired and then wondered at the odd look on his eldest son’s face.

Adam took his seat. “He’ll be down in a few minutes, Pa; I delayed him.”

Ben nodded and handed Adam a platter of hot cakes.

“Pa.” Ben turned toward the sound of his eldest’s voice. Only one syllable had been spoken, but he knew Adam was about to make a request he was not sure would receive approval.

“Yes, son?”

“I was thinking,” Adam began and then paused. The paused allowed Hoss to insert a jibe.

“I didn’t think that was supposed to be so unusual for you, elder brother.”

Adam gave Hoss a look that included two raised eyebrows and then turned his attention back to his father. “Pa, if Joe doesn’t get in any trouble this week, I think a little reward is in order.”

“You do?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And what do you think that reward might be?”

“Well, you know how Joe pestered me to take him up to see the Indian carvings by the falls after I told him about Hoss and me finding them when we were kids. Well, I haven’t had the chance yet, and I was thinking that Sunday after services I,” Adam glanced over at his middle brother with a smirk, “Hoss and I could take Joe and Mitch over to see them. Take a picnic and all. We could take a change of clothes and leave from Virginia City seeing as it’s closer. Then if you stayed and had a few games of chess with Paul Martin or Roy Coffee and dinner at the International House, well, then Hop Sing could have a little extra time off in town. If the Delvins have reason for Mitch not to go, then we’d just take Joe.”

Ben felt the eyes of both sons watching his slightest move. “A reward is fine but not a bribe. If Joe stays out of trouble until then, you can tell him about the trip Friday night.”

Adam’s dimples beamed, “Fine, Pa. I’ll speak to the Devlins before then, so I’ll know whether or not to mention Mitch coming along.”

The sound of footsteps on the stairs sent Ben, Hoss, and Adam back to the task of eating enough breakfast to sustain them during a morning of ranch work.

*****

Hoss looked across the barn and watched Joe saddle his horse for the ride to school. He chewed his lower lip. “I know ya been trying to be good, little brother, but I also know that sometimes trouble just comes looking for ya, and if you don’t have a good reason to hide, it will sure enough find ya. Not that I’m going to go against what Pa said. No, sireee, Pa didn’t raise none of that kinda fool. If he found out I told ya about it, that trip wouldn’t happen no way.” Having thought it through, Hoss made his decision about just what he could say without going against his father’s wishes.

“Joe.”

“Yeah, Hoss?” Joe looked over his shoulder at his brother and then turned back to the task of cinching his saddle.

“Pa’s real pleased about how ya been staying out of trouble, Little Brother, real pleased.”

Joe spun to look at Hoss, “Did he tell ya that?”

“Maybe not in just those words, but ya know I can read Pa like a book. He’s said it in lots of ways.” Hoss’ smile showed the gap in his teeth; Joe had always thought that that gap added an honest note to his brother’s smile.

“Well, I’d sure rather have him pleased then angry. Lot more comfortable that way!” Joe rubbed his behind and then reached for the reins and started to lead his horse from the stall. Hoss met him in the open area between the stall rows.

“Just think how pleased he’d be iffen ya managed to be good all this week too.”

“Yeah,” Joe replied, but then a frown grew in the center of his forehead, “It ain’t like I’ve never gone two weeks without getting in trouble.” His tone had become offended.

“Now, that ain’t what I was saying, it’s just…”

“I know,” Joe interrupted having quickly let the sting of the perceived insult fade, “ ‘Sides I messed up real bad with the drinking and smoking, so I guess I owe Pa at least two weeks of not having to fuss at all.”

“Now that is one way to look at it.” Hoss nodded. “That mean you’re gonna try extra hard to be good this week?”

“Yeah.”

“Even at school?”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed readily. “I’ve got to be real good, so Miss Cutler don’t feel she needs to talk to Mr. Planchard too quick.” Little Joe kept the last thought to himself. The only person he had told about his conversation with the teacher was Mitch; they had decided telling anybody else might end up with matters worse or at least more complicated and that the best course was just to be good at school and see how things worked out. “And if I’m gonna stay out of trouble, I’d best get to school on time.”

“Yeah. Get going!” Hoss gave Joe an encouraging slap on the back and followed him out of the barn. When Joe stopped and reached for the saddle horn to mount, Hoss grabbed his waist and swung him into the saddle.

“Hoss!” Joe exclaimed. Hoss ignored the indignant wail, checked that Joe was steady in saddle, and slapped the horse’s rump.

“Get going and no racing. We want ya home in one piece.’

Little Joe harrumphed and settled the horse into a trot. Then he twisted in the saddle and stuck his tongue out at the diminishing figure of his oversized brother. “Not a snowball’s chance in Hades that he’ll ever stop thinking he can hoist me anytime he wants!”

*****

Actually, being good for the rest of the week was less difficult than usual for Little Joe. That he did not realize how often both his brothers nudged him in the right direction or headed off his Pa while Joe got himself back on track was partly because both Adam and Hoss had the capacity for subtly when it was necessary. Even fate lent a hand; when three of their friends decided to play a prank on prissy Mary Louise, Joe and Mitch were on the other side of the schoolhouse actually studying their spelling words, and thereby avoided being part of the group staying afterschool to write apologies. Then, when Robby Hargrove brought what Miss Cutler referred to as “a picture made inappropriate by its vulgarity”, Mitch and Joe managed to be the only boys over eleven not to ogle the picture and carry home a note to their fathers because they were inside assisting Miss Cutler in unpacking some crates.

Little Joe did notice that when Hoss came in Friday evening the first thing out of his mouth was, “Didn’t get in no trouble at school today, did ya?” Now Adam asking if he had gotten in trouble would not have been out of place, but Hoss usually choose to act like Little Joe had been good unless slapped in the face with evidence that Joe had not, and this was the fourth day in a row he had asked the same question.

“No! And I don’t know why you’re so worried if I did! I told ya I was gonna be extra good this week.” Joe’s tone was indignant, and his lower lip slipped into a pout.

“Now, don’t go tripping on your lip; I was just checking. Pa’s gonna be real pleased, Adam too.” Hoss beamed at his brother as he unbuckled his gun belt and set it on the credenza.

Before Joe could say more, Ben and Adam walked through the door.

“Hey, Pa, Adam!’ Hoss greeted them cheerfully and stepped so that their view of Little Joe’s scowl would be blocked. He mouthed the word smile to Joe and then took a long sniff. “Supper sure smells great. Let’s see; ham and roast yams, biscuits and cream peas.”

Little Joe shook the sulky look off his face and rolled his eyes. “He’ll be right; he’s always right. Must have the nose of a hunting dog!” Joe kept the comment to himself though and greeted his father and elder brother instead of teasing Hoss. “Hey, Pa, Adam.”

Just then Hop Sing called out from the kitchen announcing supper would be served in five minutes to those clean and seated at the table.

“You two boys washed up?” Ben inquired.

“Cleaned up ‘fore I came in, Pa,” Hoss assured.

“Headed that way now, Pa.” Joe quickly headed for the nearest wash basin.

After he exited the room, Hoss turned to his Pa.

“He didn’t get in no trouble today, Pa. Can we tell him?”

“You did say before Friday night, Pa.” Adam added.

Ben shook his head at the eagerness in his elder sons’ voices. “You’d think those two were being given a treat!” At the thought Ben smiled appreciating the fact that his grown and nearly grown sons would think spending a day with their brother and giving him a pleasant time something to anticipate with pleasure themselves. “After dessert, I don’t want him too excited to eat his supper.”

Joe looked from one smiling brother to the other. It was not that he wanted to see a frown on either face, but something was definitely going on, and he wanted to know what it was. He set down his dessert spoon with a smack. “All right, what is it with you two?” he demanded.

Adam gave his father an inquiring glance and received a slight nod in reply.

“You don’t have any special plans for Sunday, do you, Little Buddy?”

Joe gave his brother a puzzled look and a shake of the head. Adam then proceeded to lay out the plan for the trip to the falls including the Devlins’ agreement that, short of a major breach of discipline, Mitch would be allowed to join them.

Joe’s mouth dropped open, and the only word he uttered when Adam finished was “Really?”

“Unless you’d rather not,” Adam answered.

“Wooopeee!” exploded from Joe’s mouth as he shot from his chair. “Course I wanna go, Adam; I’ve been asking and asking, ain’t I? And Mitch gets to go too? He ain’t done nothing bad all week; he’d have told me if he was in trouble at home. Golly, Pa, what did ya do to get Adam to agree to take us?”

Ben cleared his throat and then answered, “Actually, Joseph, it was Adam’s idea.”

“Really?” Little Joe knew Adam held his Sunday afternoons almost as inviolate as they all held Hop Sing’s.

“Hoss and I want to take you two. We’ve been planning it all week.” If Adam had been hurt by Joe’s assumption, it was only a flicker in the depth of his eyes.

“But… I mean you… and we were such a trouble …” Little Joe did not manage to complete a spoken thought, but it was clear that he was referring to the fact that Adam had been the one burdened by returning three drunken children to their parents.

“I told you that I forgave you; besides I’ve gotten a lot of reading done in the past two weeks; it being so peaceful around here for a change.”

Little Joe accepted the jibe with a smile and walked over to Adam. Giving his elder brother a hug, he offered the only thank-you he could, “We’ll both mind ya and be real good. I promise.”

Adam hugged his brother in return, and before he released his hold, Adam whispered in Joe’s ear, “Unless I decide we can all be a little naughty.” Joe looked into Adam’s shining eyes. At that moment they were the eyes of a boy, and part of Joe remembered when Adam’s eyes had often looked like that.

*****

Mitch tugged up his everyday pants and started working on the buttons. The small storeroom off the church vestibule was not large enough for four, so Adam and Hoss had changed first, and now Mitch and Adam had the room to themselves.

“Joe?”

Little Joe glanced up at his friend as he pulled on his work shirt. “What?”

“Uh, does Adam really wallop has hard as your pa?”

“Yeah, but why are ya asking?”

“Umm, my pa is going to tell Adam that if I don’t mind him and my britches need warming that he can handle me just like he would you.” Mitch bit his lower lip.

“Oh,” replied Little Joe. Then noticing a slight nervousness in his friend’s eyes, Joe added, “No matter, though. Adam’s in a real good kind of mood. I don’t think he’d wallop either of us for anything but just plain setting out to be bad.” Joe paused in the buttoning of his shirt to stare firmly at Mitch. “We can’t do nothing like that ‘cause I’ve done promised Adam we’d mind.”

“I plan on minding, Joe; it’s not like I’m not. It’s just…”

“My eldest brother can be scary sometimes it you’re not used to him,” Joe teased. Then the look on Mitch’s face had him adding, “Yeah, I know, sometimes he can be scary even if ya are used to him.” Joe giggled.

“Does he do it different from your pa? Ma does it different from my pa.” Mitch inquired with boyish curiosity.

Joe pondered the questions with twisted lips. “Yeah, some, I guess. Guess it’s like most things; folks got their own style of doing it.”

Mitch’s voice became conspiratorial, “Ma didn’t tell me, but I heard her telling Pa. Miz Planchard used a switch on Sally Lynn. You ain’t never got it with a switch, have ya, Joe?”

Joe’s head shook a negative answer.

“Ma’s used a switch on me a couple of times. Stings like a hive of hornets.” Mitch shared his knowledge with solemnity.

Little Joe had no desire to dwell on lickings, his or those of others. He finished putting on his boots with a stomp, and seeing that one of Mitch’s was still lying on the floor snatched it and held it over his head. “You gonna be needing this?” he taunted.

“Give it to me, Joe. Joe, I’m telling you to give it to me. Joeee!”

Joe darted out the side door into the churchyard still holding Mitch’s boot over his head. Mitch followed. Joe backed away from his friend giggling until he bumped into something, turned quickly, and discovered he had knocked into the Reverend Shelby.

“Uhh, sorry, Reverend; I wasn’t looking where I was going. Did I hurt you?” Joe was immediately contrite.

Before the reverend could answer, a hard, deep voice spread out from a few yards away.

“Look at that, Miss Cutler. Do you see why I do not want my daughter associating with those two hooligans?” Jacob Planchard sent a glare toward Joe and Mitch.

Miss Cutler stiffened and looked the man before her in the eye. She pitched her voice with easy experience so that it would be heard by every person who had heard Jacob’s comment. “I do not see any hooligans, Mr. Planchard. I see two boys playing around as boys will. I have spent a great deal of time with both of them, and they are good boys, not perfect mind you, but good boys all the same, and when they err as boys will, I know they are held to account and accept their punishment as due. That is all I ask of any boy, Mr. Planchard.” The teacher’s eyes snapped with the same fire she used on recalcitrant students.

“Would you think them hooligans if you knew that they had lured my daughter into drinking whiskey and smoking cigars?”

Miss Cutler’s eyes widened, but she was not given a chance to reply before a soft voice filled the expectant silence.

“They didn’t, Papa. I was the one who shared the whiskey and cigars with them.” Everyone’s eyes snapped to Sally Lynn Planchard as she stood next to her mother a few yards behind her father.

Jacob Planchard quickly turned to granite, and no one watching would have been surprised to see Sally Lynn literally melt beneath his glare.

“You lied to me, girl! It was you…” Jacob took a step toward his daughter, and Eva Planchard moved forward.

“She has been punished, Jacob. It will not happen again.” Eva’s words stilled her husband for a moment, but the fire did not die in his eyes.

The smooth voice of the Reverend Shelby slid between Eva and Jacob. “Well, then, it would seem there is only the need for forgiveness left.” The Reverend quickly came to Jacob’s side and placed a hand on his arm moving him toward the church. “But that is a matter best handled inside.” The Reverend continued to steer Jacob toward the church and held out his hand to Sally Lynn. She took it, and a minute later the three of them disappeared into the church. Eva turned to Ben Cartwright who had heard everything from a spot a few yards beyond Little Joe and Mitch.

“Ben, please wait, Sally Lynn will be wanting to speak to the boys.” Then she turned and walked into the church.

Joe’s eyes had followed Eva’s to fix on his father.

“Wait here, boys. I’ll explain to Hoss and Adam. You may talk to Sally Lynn when she comes out, Joe. I’m sure you may also, Mitch.”

Joe watched his father walk off and then turned back toward his friend. The only emotion he could read on Mitch’s face was concern. “We’re not in trouble, Mitch. Pa weren’t mad, and your folks don’t have reason to be either. Hey, did you hear what Miss Cutler said!”

“I ain’t worried about being in trouble. Joe, do ya think Sally Lynn’s pa will give her another tanning?”

“Naw, not with the Reverend talking about forgiveness and all. It’d be like not listening to God.” Joe did not see the concern leave his friend’s face. “Maybe it’s a good thing, Mitch. The Reverend’s real good at teaching about forgiveness and stuff. He may be just the man for the job with Mr. Planchard.”

“You think so?”

Little Joe nodded, and then realizing he still held Mitch’s boot, he handed it back to his friend. Mitch seated himself on the ground to pull it on, and Little Joe flopped down beside him to wait. The Reverend Shelby and Mrs. Planchard exited the church first and went to talk to Ben Cartwright and the Devlins who were talking together next to the Devlins’ buggy. Then Sally Lynn came out and walked directly to Joe and Mitch.

They scrambled to their feet and smiled shyly at her when she walked up.

“I’m real sorry I got you two in such trouble.” Sally Lynn kept her head up, and the boys could see the tears that hung on her lashes like dew. “I’m even more sorry that I lied on you. That was real wrong, and I’ll understand if ya can’t forgive me, but Adam said you might, Joe, if I told the truth, so I’m asking you both. Please forgive me.”

Before Joe could answer, Mitch exclaimed, “Don’t worry none, Sally Lynn, we forgive ya, don’t we, Joe?”

Mitch’s exuberance brought him a wide-eyed stare from Little Joe. Then Joe looked at Sally Lynn and said, “Sure we do, Sally Lynn. We do have that bond and all.”

Sally Lynn’s smile was hesitant but slowly lit her face. Then in front of God, a couple of dozen on-lookers, and her father who had just then come to stand on the church steps, Sally Lynn hugged first Mitch and then Joe brushing their cheeks with her kiss. “Thank you!” Then she turned and darted to the shelter of her mother’s arm.

Joe rubbed the spot where Sally Lynn’s kiss had landed as if to clean it away. He turned and saw that Mitch was not doing the same.

“She looked like an angel, didn’t she, Joe?” Mitch said softly.

Joe sighed and shook his head. He had two older brothers, and he knew the look that was plastered on Mitch’s young face. “Girls!” He punched Mitch in the arm to startle his friend from his reverie, and then took off in a flat-out run. “Last one to the horses is a rotten egg!” Joe smiled as he beat Mitch to where Adam and Hoss waited.

“About time you two got around to coming over. We’ve got to get started, or I’m gonna die of hunger before we get to the falls,” Hoss boomed.

“Now, Hoss, they were delayed by a young lady. A man has to mind his manners with a lady.” Adam’s voice teased smoothly.

Joe sputtered and then felt his feet leave the ground as Adam hoisted him into the saddle. He looked over and saw that Hoss was doing the same to Mitch. Joe took a deep breath and then laughed as he watched Hoss and Adam mount their horses. He had the whole rest of the day to spend on an adventure with his big brothers and his best friend. Now that was a bit of heaven that did not need any angles with long, flowing curls.

***The End***

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