To the Victors (by DJK)

Summary:  Joe enters the Founder’s Day Race.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word count:  14,090


 

Joe decided now was the time to make his family aware of his plans. His oldest brother, Adam, had just announced that he would not be entering the Founder’s Day Race this year. Joe swallowed and said, “I am.”

“You’re what, Joe?” his father asked.

“I’m entering the Founder’s Day race this year.” Joe turned to look directly at his father. He watched Ben’s expression go from neutral to astonished to stern.

“No, Joseph, you are not!” Ben Cartwright fixed his youngest son with a look that said the matter was not up for discussion.

“But, Pa, I…” Joe felt Adam’s boot connect with his shin as his middle brother, Hoss, thrust an elbow into his side. “Ayeee…” Joe saw Adam’s head shake and his eyebrow rise. “What I mean is…”

“What I mean is very clear. You will not be entering the Founder’s Day Race this year.” Ben placed his fork on the table with a clang and rose. Looking down at his son, he finished with, “Perhaps in a couple of years. But for now, this discussion is at an end.”

“What discussion!” Joe’s temper shot his body up from his chair and the words out of his mouth. “I haven’t had a chance to say anything.”

Adam rolled his eyes, and Hoss slumped in his chair.

“And you had better not say anything more to me in that tone, young man.” Ben Cartwright did not abide any type of disrespect from his sons, and his tone of voice and glaring eyes signaled that Joe would regret any statement more impertinent than “Yes, sir.” “Now finish your breakfast.”

Joe dropped back into his chair, but pushed his plate away and crossed his arms on his chest. Ben had already turned and walked out of the room. The three brothers sat silently until they heard the front door slam.

Adam looked at his youngest brother, “Not wise, Joseph, not wise at all.”

Hoss patted his little brother’s arm, “He’s not going to change his mind, Short Shanks.”

Joe shrugged off his brother’s hand. “And both of you think he shouldn’t,” snapped Little Joe his head dropping onto his chest and his lower lip thrusting out.

“Actually I think he should,” Adam stated softly.

Joe’s head shot up. “You think he should?” He couldn’t believe Adam meant his father should reconsider his decision. “You think I should be able to enter the race?”

“I think Pa should consider letting you enter.” Adam looked at his brother.

At fifteen Little Joe’s slight build and short stature left him looking like an even younger boy, but Adam knew that as a horsemen Joe was much more mature than his age. “Actually, I think you could handle yourself well enough that the danger would be no more than…”

“You’ll tell Pa I should be allowed in the race!” Joe interrupted.

“Joe, I’ll ask Pa to reconsider his decision because I think he should, but don’t go getting your hopes up. The chances that he’ll actually change his mind are slim and none.”

“He’ll change his mind if you talk to him. He always listens to you, Adam. Thanks!” Joe grinned at his big brother and started shoveling the rest of his breakfast into his mouth.

Twenty-six year-old Adam had been Ben Cartwright’s right-hand in both running the family ranch and in raising his younger brothers since the death of Ben’s third wife, Joe’s mother Marie. Since Joe always decided to believe in the brightest, if least likely, outcome, he finished his breakfast while imagining himself winning the Founder’s Day Race.

Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing glances and expressive shrugs. They would put their two cents in with Pa, but both felt little brother was in for a big disappointment.

*****

Joe decided not to wait for his brothers to change his father’s mind before he began preparing for the race. They would probably wait a day or two before bringing up the matter and, truth to tell, it would more than likely take several discussions before Adam could bring Pa around to their way of thinking. If he wanted to win the race, he just couldn’t afford to wait. He would start practicing now and just not mention it. Finishing his chores with more speed than perfection, Joe told Hop Sing, their cook and housekeeper, he was going for a ride, and yes, he would be on time for supper. Joe had decided to use a stretch of Old Lawton Road for his practices. It was seldom used, but it was in good enough condition to be a safe racetrack. There was little chance that one of the hands would see him, as the section he would be using was not actually part of the ranch. It was, though, close enough to the ranch that if someone mentioned seeing him up that way, his Pa might well assume that he was on the portion of the road that crossed the Ponderosa. He didn’t need a row with his father over leaving the ranch without permission.

There was one area of Little Joe Cartwright’s life where prudence generally overrode his usually impetuous nature. When dealing with horses, Joe’s concern for their well-being often led to him taking the sensible precautions that increased his own safety. Arriving at his chosen practice site, Joe dismounted and tied Cochise in the shade of a tree. Then Joe walked the stretch of road up one side, around the tree that would serve as his turn marker, and back to the start. He scanned the road thoroughly for hazards. Confident about the condition of the road, he mounted Cochise and took his first practice run.

“What’re ya doing?”

Joe looked around to find the source of the question. Near the tree where Cochise had been tied stood a girl. Joe slipped from his horse and led Cochise toward her.

“Who are you?” Joe inquired looking at the stranger before him. She was about his height and only slightly slimmer. Her light brown hair hung in a thick braid down her back. She wore a yellow gingham dress and a neutral expression.

“Who are you?” she questioned back running her eyes over both Joe and Cochise.

They were getting nowhere fast. Joe decided to start over. “Hello! I’m Joe Cartwright. I live on the Ponderosa.” Joe pointed in the direction of his home.

“Joe Cartwright?” Joe nodded his head. “I’ve heard of the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa, of course.” The girl smiled. “I’m Helen McNally. My family has a place over there aways.” She pointed in the opposite direction. “Moved in last fall.”

“The old Kortman place?” Joe asked.

“Yeah. We better walk. Your horse needs cooling down,” Helen stated and began walking slowly. Joe walked beside her leading Cochise.

“Are you pretending or practicing?” Helen continued.

“What?” Joe looked puzzled.

“Well, obviously you were racing. Were you pretending or practicing?”

“I’m too old for pretending,” Little Joe pulled himself up to his tallest height.

“Oh, and how old is that?”

“Near sixteen.”

“You’re practicing then?”

Joe decided the truth would serve best, as it was not likely his family would hear anything he told this girl. “Yeah, I’m entering the Founder’s Day Race.”

“Is it a big race?”

“Biggest of the year in these parts. Fifty dollars in gold for the winner.”

“And anyone can enter?”

“Anyone with five dollars for the entry fee.”

“You don’t have to be old enough, uh, at least a certain age?”

“Nothing about age in the rules. Just pay the fee and race.”

“They don’t worry about a little kid wanting to race?”

“I guess they figure that’s what fathers are for.” Thoughts of his own father rose up in Joe’s mind, but he pushed them down. Adam would convince Pa to change his mind.

“There’s lots of contests on Founder’s Day. There’s something for everyone, and then there’s a big dance. Just about everybody in the county comes.”

“Do you really think you can win?”

“Sure. Cochise is the best.”

“What about his rider?” Helen asked with a speculative look.

“He’s good too,” Joe replied with a grin. “Didn’t you see for yourself?”

“Well, now, I’m use to watching the best, so I guess I’m really particular. Though I’d have to say you’re not too bad.

Joe bristled. “Just who have you seen that’s better?”

“My brother for one,” Helen stated smoothly.

“If your brother is such a great rider, you should see that he enters the Founder’s Day Race,” Joe retorted.

“He just might, Joe; he just might,” Helen stated with a sly grin.

“Well, I’m going to take another run,” said Joe turning and vaulting onto Cochise’s back.

“Go on, Joe, impress me.”

Joe took a second run. Pulling up and looking around for Helen, he saw her at the top of the rise. She was waving goodbye.

*****

Adam and Hoss separately and together pled Joe’s case with their father. Ben Cartwright remained adamant. His youngest son would not be riding in the Founder’s Day Race.

“You know why he won’t change his mind,” Hoss said to Adam after their final attempt. “He looks at Little Joe and sees his ma. Pa just can’t get over the idea that Joe’s gonna die because of a horse the way Marie did.”

“I know. Sometimes I think if we didn’t live on a working ranch, Pa never would have let Joe learn to ride a horse at all. We’re going to have to tell Joe. I don’t think he’s going to take it too well,” replied Adam as he ran the curry comb through Sport’s coat.

“Yeah, he’s gonna be real disappointed, ” Hoss sighed shaking his head.

Having just walked into the barn, Joe overheard Hoss’s last remark. “Disappointed about what?” asked Joe.

“Now, Joe,” started both his brothers. Hoss looked at Adam who nodded and continued, “Joe, we both tried, but Pa just won’t agree to you racing on Founder’s Day. Best back off for this year. We’ll keep trying gentle-like to get him ready for next year.”

“Why bother!” Every line of Joe’s body tensed in anger. He stalked across the barn floor and kicked a hay bale.

“Joe,” Hoss’ voice took on a pleading note. Joe drove his fist into the wooden side of a stall.

“Settle down, kid!” Adam commanded. “It’s just a race. Next year…”

“Yeah, a race you rode in at seventeen. I can ride just as well as you could then. Hell, I ride as well as you do now!”

“Boy, I know you’re upset, and I’ll overlook your rudeness this time, but the tantrum stops now!” Adam’s voice was calm, but his eyes turned black with suppressed anger.” You won’t be racing this year. Accept it.”

“The hell I will!” Joe headed toward the door.

Adam grabbed his little brother by the arm as he passed. Pulling Joe to face him, Adam glared down into his brother’s angry face, “You will accept it, little brother, you most certainly will. Now, unless you want your mouth cleaned out with lye soap, the cussing ends. Do you understand me?”

Joe glared back. “I understand, Big Brother.” His tone was more challenging than submissive. Adam waited a few seconds then released his brother. Joe stomped out of the barn.

“Well, that certainly went well,” Adam’s sarcastic comment was followed by his flinging the currycomb in his hand across the barn.

“Now who’s having a tantrum?” Hoss grinned at the sheepish look that flashed across his older brother’s face. “At least it’s done.”

“I hope Joe realizes that.”

Hoss knew Adam was feeling guilty about disappointing their little brother.” Adam, you done what you could. Truth is Pa didn’t want you to race the first time neither. Remember. If it hadn’t been for Marie taking your side and then giving you the entry fee, you wouldn’t have raced that year.”

Adam remembered, ” Yea, when Pa agreed to let me race if I paid my own entry fee, he knew I didn’t have the money. Marie shocked us both when she gave it to me. Guess she knew what it meant to me. Well, Pa’s not one to make the same mistake twice.

He was clear about Joe not racing. Just said no flat out. Even little brother can’t find a way around that.”

“You don’t think Joe would try and race anyway,” Hoss inquired with a worried look on his face. “Naw, he knows what Pa would do if he disobeyed him.”

“He knows,” Adam mused, “but that doesn’t always stop our baby brother, does it?”

“But it’s not like he could convince himself Pa wouldn’t find out. Even Joe’s got more sense than that.”

“There’s no telling of what baby brother can convince himself. John Maston is in charge of the race again this year. I’ll just have to speak to him and make sure if Joe tries to register John refuses his money.”

“Adam, wait,” Hoss looked at his older brother, “don’t do that.”

“Why not? We have to make sure Joe doesn’t race.”

“Adam, Joe knows the price he’ll pay for disobeying Pa. If he’s willing to pay it, don’t stop him.” Hoss looked at Adam. “Just let it be, Adam. You don’t know Joe will even try to race, so just let it be.”

If he races and gets hurt and we didn’t do something we could have to stop him…”

“Adam, if Joe got hurt falling out of bed, you’d find a reason to feel like it was your fault. Pa knows Joe wants to race. If he talks to John Maston, so be it. Just don’t go doing Pa’s job for him. Be Joe’s brother not his older brother this time.”

Adam looked at Hoss.

Marie handed Adam five dollars. “It’s not your father’s money, and it’s not Ponderosa money; it’s my money, and I’m giving it to you.”

“But, Marie, I can’t,” Adam stammered.

“Consider it an early birthday present.”

“Thank you, Mama, thank you!” Adam threw his arms around his stepmother.

As she hugged him back, she whispered in his ear, ” Just don’t get hurt, son, just don’t get hurt.”

“I won’t talk to Maston,” Adam said to Hoss. “Just don’t get hurt, baby brother, just don’t get hurt,” he muttered to himself.

*****

After stomping into the house and up to his room, Joe sulked. He sulked for the next three days. He sulked, but without his main audience. Ben had been called away to deal with an emergency at one of the mines and had not even returned for dinner that night. Knowing the reason for his mood, Adam and Hoss decided to let Little Joe sulk in peace as long as his chores were done and his answers to questions remained simply curt not rude.

Little Joe sulked until he saw Helen McNally and decided he would race on Founder’s Day.

*****

Little Joe waited in the wagon for his brother. He hadn’t said two words to Hoss on the way into town, and he didn’t intend to say anything on the way back.

“Joe, Joe Cartwright.”

Little Joe turned to see Helen standing on the sidewalk.

“Oh, hey, Helen,” Little Joe remembered his manners and tipped his hat to the girl.

Helen smiled, “How is your practicing going, Joe?”

Little Joe glanced at the door of the bank. There was no sign of his older brother. He had been up to Old Lawton Road twice since he had seen Helen there, so he answered, “Fine, just fine!”

“I looked for you there the last three days.”

“I had other things to do.”

“Well, you better get in as much practice as you can. There’s going to be a McNally in the race.”

“Your brother’s going to race?”

“You could say that.”

“How old is he?”

“Fifteen.”

Joe studied the girl in front of him. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen.” An odd smile curled Helen’s lips.

“Oh, oh, you’re twins.” Joe figured that explained Helen’s attitude. “Your Pa approves of his racing.”

“Well, actually, Pa won’t have an opinion until after the race.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s better to beg pardon for something you haven’t been told you couldn’t do than for what you’ve been forbidden to do.”

“Your brother isn’t going to ask permission?”

“No. Joe, I’d take it kindly if you didn’t mention anything we’ve talked about to anyone.”

Joe wished he hadn’t asked his father’s permission, “No, I won’t.”

“Is there a prize for second place, Joe?”

“No, why?”

Helen grinned. “It would be nice if you got something for all your efforts.”

“I will, girl, don’t you worry, I will.”

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Helen said as she waved and walked away.

As he watched her leave, Joe told himself that if he won the race his father would realize that he should have given permission in the first place, and there would be no punishment. Joe told himself the same thing over and over again on the ride home.

Though he did not believe it even once, Joe decided that he was racing on Founder’s Day. He would pay the consequences when the bill came due.

*****

Joe rode up to Old Lawton Road for another practice. Founder’s Day was only three days away. Coming over a rise he saw a horse and rider in the middle of the road.

The rider turned, saw Joe, and waited while he rode up.

Looking at the rider, Joe said, “You must be Helen’s brother.” The resemblance was striking.

“Guess I can’t deny it. You must be Joe Cartwright.”

“That I am. Helen never told me your name.”

“You can call me Hal. Want to try a little two man race of our own?”

“Sure!”

The two riders lined up, agreed on the course, and flew off.

Joe won, but barely. Helen was right. Her brother was an expert rider. The two riders cooled down their horses and talked. Then they raced a second time. This time Joe found himself the loser.

“The next time we race, it will be the real thing. Well, may the best man win,” Joe remarked as he prepared to ride home.

“Yes, let the best rider win,” came his answer.

*****

Joe counted the five dollars again and then thrust the money into his pocket. He took a deep breath and went downstairs to breakfast. He was so nervous he barely ate. He spent most of his time pushing food around on his plate. He was not nervous about riding in the race, but he was worried his father would find out he was riding and stop him before the starter’s gun fired. Hoss and Adam kept up a steady conversation with their father, and Ben did not notice Joe’s state of nervous distraction. It occurred to Joe while he hurried through his morning chores that his brothers could not have done a better job of distracting Pa if the three of them had planned it.

Joe kept ahead of his family on the ride to town. Pa had reserved two rooms at the hotel for the night, and they placed the horses in the hotel stable. Joe listened with one ear to his father’s list of instructions and then disappeared into the crowd. The race did not begin until five o’clock. Registration closed at four-thirty. Joe planned on paying his entry fee at twenty-five after four. He wanted there to be as little time as possible for anyone to mention to his father or brothers it was a surprise that Joe instead of Adam was racing today. In order to avoid suspicion, Joe was determined to do exactly what he would have done if he had not been racing. He joined his friends for the morning’s activities and his family for lunch.

Ben noticed that his youngest was eating next to nothing and seemed distracted, but attributed it to too many purchased sweets and a desire to rejoin his friends. When Joe asked to be excused, Ben told him to meet his family at the hotel after the race to change for the dance.

Joe swallowed, managed to answer, “Yes, sir, Pa,” and darted away. Adam looked at Hoss and then suggested the three of them go and watch the footraces.

*****

Joe walked up to the registration table and laid down five dollars. John Maston looked up at him and said, “This for Adam?”

“No sir. Adam ain’t racing this year. It’s for me,” Joe answered glancing around nervously.

“Well, now, I wondered why he hadn’t registered yet. Had to talk him into giving you the chance to represent the Ponderosa, huh?”

“I did do some pleading about this race.” Joe thought to himself that at least he had not had to lie to answer that question.

A voice behind him said, “If you don’t mind I’d like to register before time is up.”

Joe stepped to the side and watched Hal McNally hand John Maston his money.

Maston looked at the newcomer and asked, “How old are you, son?

“Same age as Joe Cartwright there. You took his money.” Joe heard the tension and anger in Hal McNally’s voice.

“That I did, but then I know the kind of rider Joe is. I’ m not sure…”

“Joe knows what kind of rider I am!”

Joe felt both sets of eyes on him. “He’s a good rider, Mr. Maston.”

John Maston looked at the two riders in front of him. If Ben Cartwright was allowing his youngest to ride, well, there were no rules about the age of the riders, so he really had no right to refuse. He shook his head, had them both sign the register, and wished them luck.

*****

The starting line was in front of the town hall. The course took the riders down the main road out of town to the Carson Cut-off, around the spotters stand, and back to the town hall. The best place to view the largest portion of the race was a small rise just at the edge of town. Ben, Adam, and Hoss Cartwright stood with the crowd on the top of the rise. They all looked around for Little Joe but did not see him in the crowd. Of course, Joe and his friends could have decided to station themselves at the start-finish line instead. Adam scanned the starting line. From this distance he could not recognize the riders, but he did not see any pinto horses. He gave Hoss a questioning look. Hoss shrugged; then a worried expression settled on his face. He pointed toward the racers positioning themselves at the starting line. Adam turned and saw a slight figure on a pinto horse move to join them. Adam and Hoss started praying.

Ben Cartwright also scanned the riders as he waited for the race to start. When the pinto joined the others, it took just over ten seconds for him to realize that his youngest intended to race. Ben’s shock and rage held him rigid for another thirty seconds. He had only taken about five steps toward the riders when the starter fired his gun. The race was on. It was too late to stop Joe. Ben turned and faced his two older sons. “Did you know?” he hissed.

“No, Pa.” Hoss’s denial echoed Adam’s. The three Cartwrights then turned to watch the race.

For Joe, the starter’s gun brought a flood of relief. In fact, he was probably more relaxed during the race then he had been the entire day. He was surprised at how clearly he could think and how easy it was to let his instincts take over. He and Cochise had long had the ability to act nearly as one. They both loved to race. They both wanted to win. Joe guide Cochise through the crowd of racers and positioned himself with the lead group. He focused on avoiding trouble. He made the turn in fourth place and sized up his competition. He planned his final moves. He waited and then asked Cochise for his greatest effort. He pulled into the lead, but found that another horse had surged with them. The two horses galloped neck and neck toward the finish line.

As the riders passed the rise, the cheering onlookers started down toward the finish line. Seeing Joe racing neck and neck for the win, his brothers started praying not only for his survival of the race but his survival of its aftermath.

Joe crossed the finish line and slowed Cochise. Had he won? He pulled Cochise to a stop and looked around. He saw Hal McNally staring at him with the same question in his eye. Who had won? They walked their horses through the milling crowd of racers and onlookers back to the spotter’s stand at the finish line. The crowd quieted in expectation. John Maston conversed with the men standing on the platform with him. Then he announced a tie. The two youngest racers, Joe Cartwright and Hal McNally, were declared co-winners.

Neither Joe nor Hal had time to react or dismount before several of the older racers decided the young upstarts needed to be put in their place. Both winners were pulled from the saddle, carried struggling to two water troughs, dropped in, and pushed beneath the water. The crowd roared with laughter as the two scrambled from the troughs. Joe stood in the road dripping water and gasping for breath. He saw Hal McNally across from him in the same condition. Under Hal’s soggy hat was a brilliant smile. Joe knew a similar smile lit his own face.

John Maston walked up and stood between the two. “Gentlemen, there is the matter of the prize money. You know the race raises money for the missionary fund. To award a double prize…”

Joe made eye contact with Hal. He mouthed a question, and Hal nodded. “We’ll split the prize, Mr. Maston,” Joe declared.

“That we will, ” Hall added.

John Maston took the five gold pieces in his hand and handed two to each of the winners. He paused and looked at the ten dollar gold piece left in his hand. “We’ll have to…”

This time Hal mouthed a question to Joe and said,” Don’t bother. That will be Joe’s and my contribution to the missionary fund.”

The crowd cheered and then began to disperse. Joe brushed back the wet hair dripping down his face and stared at the gold pieces in his hand. Then he heard, “Joseph Francis Cartwright!” and turned to face his father.

Little Joe looked at his father just long enough to see that there was only anger in Ben’s face. Joe’s eyes dropped to the ground. He struggled to keep breathing, swallowed hard, and croaked, “Hi, Pa.”

Ben’s voice was flat and just barely above a whisper, “Get to the hotel!”

“But Co… Cochise,” stammered Joe.

“Hoss, tend to Cochise.” Ben ordered.

Standing with Adam a few steps behind their father, Hoss answered, “Yes, Pa.”

He exchanged a look with Adam, turned, and walked off.

Adam watched his youngest brother. Joe seemed to have frozen.

“Joseph, I said get to the hotel!” Ben Cartwright’s voice whipped his youngest into motion. “Adam,” Ben looked over his shoulder at his oldest son, “You will not follow us.” Ben then strode off after Joe.

Adam stayed where he was and noticed that the race’s other victor was still standing opposite him dripping water onto the street. “You’re,” Adam searched his mind for the name, “Hal Mc…”

“McNally,” Hal said taking a few steps forward and extending a hand. “And your Joe’s brother?”

“Adam Cartwright,” Adam replied shaking the proffered hand. “Are you a friend of my brother?”

“Just an acquaintance. That was your father?” Adam nodded. “He didn’t know Joe was going to race?”

“He had forbidden it.” Adam watched concern flood Hal’s face. “And your family?” Adam asked glancing around.

“They’re away. Joe’s in real trouble, isn’t he?”

“You could say that.” Adam replied. “How did you and Joe become acquainted?”

“We met a little while ago.” Hal replied. It occurred to Adam that Hal’s answer supplied little information.

“Did your family know you were racing?”

“Well, actually…”

Hoss walked up leading two horses. “This fellow needed cooling down too, so I brought him along.”

“Thanks,” Hal said.

“This is my brother, Hoss. Hoss, this is Hal McNally,” said Adam.

“Pleased to meet you. That was some good riding.” Hoss smiled at Hal and handed him his horse’s reigns.

“Thanks. I best see to Charger.” The evening breeze sent a shiver through Hal.

Adam frowned. “Hoss or I can see to your horse. You need to change out of those wet clothes,” he told Hal.

“Thanks for the offer, but I haven’t got anything to change into,” Hal smiled, shrugged, and shuddered again as the breeze blew, “It will just have to wait until I get home.”

“Where’s that?

“The old Kortman place.”

Adam frowned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Wait. We have rooms at the hotel. Come with me and dry off. You can borrow Joe’s dress clothes; I don’t expect he’ll be needing them.”

“I couldn’t. I’ll be fine,” Hal stated. Hal watched Adam’s face settle into a big brother glare.

“You’ll come with me,” Adam declared in a tone he usually reserved for Joe.

Hal looked at Hoss. “Bossy, isn’t he?”

“Stubborn too. Might just as well go alone quiet like before he picks you up and totes you there.” Hoss knew Adam had decided to big brother Hal since no family seemed to be about to look after the boy.

Hal looked at Adam who nodded and raised his eyebrow. Hal started walking toward the hotel.

*****

Ben followed his youngest son into the hotel room. “Get out of those wet clothes!” Ben ordered. Joe glanced at the dress clothes laid out on the bed. “You won’t be needing those.” Ben plucked Joe’s nightshirt out of his saddlebag and tossed it on the bed.

“Yes, sir,” Joe said softly and started to peel off his wet clothes.

Ben paced silently back and forth in front of the door. He was furious. Little Joe had openly, blatantly, deceitfully, and defiantly disobeyed him. Worse yet, Ben was sure Little Joe wasn’t sorry. Yes, he was worried about the consequences of his actions, but not sorry about what he had done. Well, he would be sorry, very sorry.

Little Joe pulled his nightshirt over his head. He started drying his hair with a clean towel. He listened to the click of his father’s pacing but avoided looking directly at him. Joe finished and hung the damp towel beneath the washbasin. Then he waited standing nervously in the middle of the room.

Ben continued to pace trying to gain enough control to speak.

*****

Adam opened the door to the hotel room and motioned for Hal to enter. Hal walked in and stood uneasily in the center of the room. Adam followed and walked over to the towel hanging below the washbasin. “You can get out of those wet things and start drying off. I’ll get Joe’s clothes from next door,” Adam said turning to hand the towel to Hal. Adam stopped talking and stared at Hal. Hal’s wet clothes clung to his body and his hat still dripped water. Something was not right. Why was Hal still wearing his hat? He should have taken it off long ago. Most of the riders hadn’t even worn a hat. What reason could a person have for walking around in a dripping wet hat? Hal watched Adam’s eyes as realization dawned in them.

“Take off your hat, Hal.”

“Just you go ahead, Adam,” Hal said making no move to remove anything.

“Take off your hat, Hal.” Adam repeated curtly his eyes darkening.

Hal’s posture changed. Speaking very softly, Hal asked conspiratorially, “Promise not to tell?”

“No,” Adam responded flatly.

Hal shrugged. “Didn’t think you would.” Hal reached up, fiddled with the hat, and finally removed it. Holding the wet hat with its fringe of brown hair in one hand, Hal pulled hairpins with the other. A minute later Helen McNally stood before Adam her wet hair hanging down to her waist.

Adam raised his eyebrow and asked,” Hal McNally did you say?”

“I answer to Hal,” Helen smiled wryly,” but my name is Helen.” Then suddenly she sneezed.

“Hal or Helen, you need to get out of those clothes.”

“I can hardly…” Helen began.

Adam flushed, grabbed a nightshirt from his saddlebag, threw it at Helen, and stomped from the room slamming the door behind him.

Adam leaned against the wall between the two hotel room doors. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. The biggest race in the county had just been won by his baby brother and a slip of girl neither of whom should have been in the race in the first place. If the town found out about Hal McNally being a girl, there would be no end to the fuss. Adam winced. Then there was the fact that there was no way he could let a young girl ride two hours alone through the night to what he bet would be an empty house. And just where was her family? What kind of family left a little girl alone? Then there was Joe. He had yet to hear anything from the other hotel room. Now when his father yelled no walls could contain the sound, and when Little Joe was getting tanned his howls could shatter glass. Either his father was too angry to allow himself to speak, or baby brother was dead already. Most of all Adam wondered why any of this mess should be his problem. Adam heard the door on his right open. He turned and stood in front of the half opened door. Helen McNally had changed into his nightshirt. It was too large in everyway and hung in folds to the floor.

“Adam…” They both heard someone coming down the hall. Suddenly Adam felt someone push by him, and he took a step to the side. A teenage boy pushed the door the rest of the way, shouted Helen’s name, turned, and swung his fist into Adam’s mouth.

Caught off guard, Adam stumbled into the hotel room, lost his balance, and crashed into a chair.

“What in tarnation!” Adam saw the boy coming toward him and scrambled to his feet.

Helen shouted the name Paul and grabbed the boy’s arm. He flung off her hands and continued toward Adam. Adam blocked Paul’s second punch and pushed him back. Paul steadied himself and then came forward again. Just as Adam decided he would have to knock some sense into the boy, Ben Cartwright walked up behind his son’s attacker and wrapped his arms around the lad pinning Paul against his chest. Paul started struggling and a few seconds later Helen swung a pillow catching her brother full in the face with enough force to pop its seams and send feathers flying about the room.

Hearing a commotion, Hoss hurried up the stairs to the hotel room. He looked in the door and gasped. In the room was an angry boy who looked like Hal McNally only a few inches taller, several pounds heaver, and slightly older. There was also a girl who looked alot like Hal wearing Adam’s nightshirt. Adam was standing next to a broken chair and wiping away blood from a split lip. Little Joe in his own nightshirt and their pa with his hands on his hips were also there. Feathers swirled through the air landing on everyone. Hoss decided the open doorway might be the best place to stay.

“Hoss, close the door,” Ben ordered. Hoss stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “Adam, perhaps you would favor us with some introductions.”

“Me? Adam’s tone made his frustration clear.

Ben glared at his eldest. “The girl is wearing your nightshirt.”

“Father, let me introduce you to Miss Helen McNally,” Adam said with exaggerated formality. “This lad and I have not yet been introduced.” Adam glared at his attacker and wiped blood from his chin. Ben’s eyes grew darker at Adam’s impudence.

“He’s my brother Paul,” Helen interjected. “Paul, this is Ben Cartwright and his sons: Adam, Hoss, and Joe.” Helen pointed to each of them.

“Now that we know who everyone is, who is going to explain what is going on?” Ben asked in a controlled and quiet tone his sons knew signaled great anger.

Everyone seemed to look at everyone else expectantly. Then Helen said, “Well, Mr. Cartwright, it’s a long story.”

Ben stifled a groan. He was in no mood for long stories. “I want an explanation now!”

“I only meant, I mean, uh, maybe you would like to sit down,” Helen replied nervously.

Ben glanced around the room. The only chair present was in two pieces.

Paul McNally spoke for the first time. “She’s not dressed; neither is he.”

Helen rolled her eyes. She was completely and decently covered by Adam’s nightshirt, but she reached over, picked up a blanket, and wrapped it around herself. Joe blushed realizing he was in his nightshirt in front of Helen. Hoss shook his head, picked up Adam’s suit coat, and tossed it to Joe. Joe put on the oversized garment. There was no way he was going to miss this explanation.

“I suppose I…” Helen started. Looking first at Joe and then at Adam, she found she had been elected. His sons knew it was doubtful that Ben Cartwright would throttle a young girl. Anyway, she was safer than the rest of them. “Well, I guess I should start at the beginning and tell it straight through.”

Ben put his fists on his hips, stared down at the girl, and said, “Without any further delay!”

“Well, when I saw Joe practicing for the race…” Helen began.

Ben’s glare shifted toward his youngest son. Joe shifted his weight nervously. She would have to mention that.

“He told me about the race. We hadn’t heard anything about Founder’s Day. We’ve stayed pretty much to ourselves this winter and all. Us being Papa, Paul, and our older brothers, Alex and Jeff. Our oldest brother Daniel lives in Virginia. He’s married and…”

Ben cleared his throat.

“Well, anyway, I thought about how I’d like to be in the race, but never could just because I’m a girl which isn’t fair, but that’s the way people are, and it made me mad, so I didn’t mention Founder’s Day to my papa or my brothers because they’d go and get to do what I couldn’t which isn’t fair, and I figured somebody would tell them eventually, but nobody did. Least ways none of them said anything.” Helen paused, swallowed, and started again. “Then Papa said that he, Jeff, and Alex would be going on a trip to deliver some horses and look at some breeding stock. He was going to trust Paul and me to keep things going at the ranch because we would only need to do the routine things, and, anyway, they would be gone two weeks. When I figured out that meant they’d be gone for Founder’s Day, I decided that I could maybe race after all seeing I’d only have to get around one person instead of four.” Helen looked at her brother and bit her bottom lip.

Then she continued,” I remembered when Paul and I tricked…”

Paul’s sudden jerk upright caught Helen’s attention, and she started again. “I made a plan as to how I could ride in the race as Hal instead of Helen. So I started practicing. Then I decided I should practice being Hal too. I saw Joe in town and told him a McNally would be in the race and let him think I meant a brother who he sort of figured was my twin. So I went as Hal to Old Lawton Road a couple of times, and one of the times Joe showed up. He believed I was Hal, and we raced twice, and we each won once, so if Joe had a chance of winning, I did too. Then I thought how if Paul wasn’t around, my chances of racing would be about ninety-nine percent instead of fifty-fifty, so when he started wishing he could go for a quick trip to see his girl, I encouraged him. I could stay three nights by myself, be perfectly fine, and wouldn’t tell Papa or Jeff or – heaven forbid – Alex…”

Everyone’s eyes settled on Paul who looked as if he would like to sink into the floor. Helen looked at the faces of her listeners and picked up the pace of her story. “He left, and I raced. We won. Paul, Joe and I won, and some of the other racers, kind of as a joke because we’re younger, I guess, they dunked each of us in a water trough which is how come we were soaking wet. Then when Mr. Cartwright and Joe went to the hotel, Adam and I were talking, and Hoss brought up the horses, and I was shivering when the wind blew which made Adam get all big brother bossy.” Helen glanced at Adam and amended, “I mean he got concerned and told me I needed to change, and I should have just said I would, but I told him the truth that I didn’t have anything to change into. Then he decided I could come to the hotel and change into some of Joe’s clothes because he wouldn’t be using them because he wasn’t suppose to race, and he didn’t give me any choice, so I came with him. Hoss took care of the horses, so they’re just fine.” Helen looked around at her listeners again.

Ben cleared his throat, and she continued,” Something gave me away, and I knew he knew, so I took off my hat and told him my name was Helen. Then he got mad and threw the nightshirt at me and went into the hall while I changed. Then I opened the door to tell him I had changed, and we heard some one, and it was Paul who couldn’t have done what he said he was going to do because he wasn’t supposed to be back until tomorrow night.”

Paul spoke for the second time. “I got to worrying.”

“Well, he saw me, and then he punched Adam and wouldn’t stop going after him until you came and pinned him, and I hit him with the pillow just to get his attention. I guess that’s about all.”

“I would think that is quite enough,” Ben stated thinking at least he had not had to drag the story out of the girl question by question the way he always had to do with his sons. Paul and Joe thought that Helen had said more than enough and should have better sense. Adam thought life must be much simpler for those lucky enough to be an only child. Hoss just considered himself lucky that his only part in the whole story had been taking care of the horses, and, as Helen had said, they were perfectly fine.

Paul McNally walked over to Adam and spoke softly, “I’m sorry I hit you. I lost my temper when I saw you with Helen, and she wasn’t dressed.”

“I was dressed,” Helen snapped. “Stop making it sound like I was naked!”

Paul glared at his sister and continued, “I should have known; anyway, I apologize.” Paul extended his hand to Adam.

Adam looked down at the boy and saw his sincerity. He shook Paul’s hand and said, “Apology accepted.”

“Now,” Ben’s tone commanded everyone’s attention. “When will your father be back, Paul?”

“Three, maybe four days.”

“Helen, are the animals at your ranch cared for until tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I can’t order you two to do anything,” Ben Cartwright stated “but I strongly advise you to make use of this room tonight and meet us for breakfast in the morning.”

Paul looked at his sister. They both recognized an order when they heard one no matter how it was worded, and it just seemed wise to follow orders.

Paul swallowed. “If you think that’s best, Mr. Cartwright.”

“You have a bedroll?” Ben queried. Paul nodded. “Then get it, and if you are still concerned for your sister’s virtue, sleep in front of the door.” Ben then turned his attention from the McNally children to his own sons.

“Joseph, go to the other room and wait for me. Hoss, gather all your and Adam’s things and take them to the other room. Adam, I know there’s not a vacant room in the hotel tonight, but see if Thompson can round up some extra blankets and pillows.” His sons immediately began to follow his orders. Ben turned back to Paul and Helen. “Do either of you plan to leave this room tonight?”

“No sir,” Helen quickly answered.

“Pa,” Hoss spoke in a respectful tone, “Helen and Joe ain’t had no supper, and Joe ate next to nothing today.”

Paul quickly stated, “I’ll get something for Helen and me when I get my bedroll.”

“Good.” Ben turned on his heel and walked out of the room, and then into the room next door.

*****

Joe wondered if he was better or worse off then before Helen – how in tarnation had she fooled him into believing she was a boy – had explained things to his father. He quickly stood at attention when his father walked into the room.

“Joseph, if I did not have responsibilities as a member of the town council and the Founder’s Day committee, you and I would be returning to the ranch. As it is, you will get on that bed, and you will not set so much as a toe to the floor for the rest of the night.

Do you understand me?”

“Yes sir, Pa.”

“Hoss will bring you supper which you will eat. Your brothers and I will be checking on you periodically, and each time you had best be found upon that bed. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes sir, Pa,” Joe answered nodding his head in emphasis and backing up to sit on the bed.

Ben turned as his two eldest sons entered the room. “Hoss and Adam is there any reason that either of you should remain in this room also?”

“No, Pa,” came each answer.

“Then let’s change.”

*****

When Hoss returned with Joe’s supper, he was sitting on the bed with his back against the headboard and his knees under his chin.

“Here you go, Short Shanks; the food’s mighty good.”

“I ain’t really hungry, Hoss.”

“Did Pa tell ya to eat?” Joe nodded. “Then ya best eat.”

“I will later. At least he didn’t say I had to keep it down,” Joe muttered.

Hoss placed the food on the dresser and sat down on the bed facing his little brother. “Now, Joe, you knew you’d be in for it when Pa saw you race. You knew there weren’t no maybe about his saying no.”

“I thought…”

“Seems to me you couldn’t of done no thinking, if you didn’t realize how mad Pa would be at all of us.”

“Why is Pa mad at you and Adam? You didn’t know anything about it.”

“No, we didn’t, but Pa figures we encouraged you when we asked him to change his mind, I guess. Least ways, we were on your side about it, so now we’re on Pa’s bad side.”

“I didn’t mean for it to be that way. I just wanted to race.”

“And you were going to have things your way even if you had to be deceitful and disobedient to do it,” Hoss said in a stern tone he seldom used with his little brother.

Joe shuddered at the words disobedient and deceitful. They were two of Ben Cartwright’s three major sins. He thrust out his lower lip. He had anticipated his father’s anger, but he had expected Hoss to be more understanding.

Hoss shook his head at Joe’s sulky demeanor. He reached out with his right hand and with a push to Little Joe’s shoulder pinned his little brother’s face down on the bed. Then his left hand landed a powerful swat to Joe’s unprotected behind.

“Owwww!” Joe sprang up as Hoss removed the hand that had held Joe down. “Hoss, that hurt!” Joe’s eyes watered and his hands automatically started to rub his stinging behind.

“Meant for it to. You take to pouting with Pa, and you’ll make things worse.”

“Don’t think it can get worse,” Joe said crestfallen that even Hoss was angry with him. “Pa doesn’t even care that I won.”

His baby brother’s despair melted Hoss’s resolve to be stern. “Now, Punkin, he cares,” Hoss said pulling Joe to him. “We’re all real proud of how ya rode, and even more proud of how you handled winning. Pa just won’t mention it until later.”

Joe instinctively threw his arms around his big brother’s neck exactly has he had countless times when Joe was a small child. “I’m scared,” he whispered into the massive shoulder. “Pa’s gonna kill me.”

“Nah, he may take off a little hide, but he’ll let you live. He’ll even forgive ya, Joe.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“I am. He forgave me, and he forgave Adam. He’ll sure enough forgive his baby.”

“You did something that made Pa this mad?” Joe sat back and looked into his brother’s face.

“Sure did.” Hoss smiled at his brother. “Adam did too.”

“How come I didn’t know about it?”

“You’re too young to know everything Adam and me done.”

“Tell me what ya’ll did,” Joe demanded.

“No way.” Hoss shook his head.

Joe bit his lip. “It’s gonna hurt a lot, ain’t it?”

“Now, Joe, Pa’s getting older; he must be losing some of the power in that swing of his.” Hoss laughed. “Stay put now, and eat your supper!”

*****

Adam kept worrying that Little Joe would panic and be foolish enough to run away. Shortly after Hoss came to the dance, Adam went to check on his little brother.

Joe had not lit either lamp and was sitting in the dark. Adam wanted to be able to read his brother’s face, so he lit a lamp. The remains of Joe’s supper were on the floor next to the bed. Adam doubted that much food had actually gone down Joe’s throat.

Joe did not even turn to look at his eldest brother. He just stated flatly, “I’m here.”

Adam sat down on the bed facing his brother. “Question is, are you planning to stay?”

Joe looked directly into Adam’s eyes. “I thought about running away, but…” Joe shrugged.

“But what?” Adam had to be sure that Joe knew to stay put.

“But Pa, Hoss, and you would just come after me, and Hoss is the best tracker in the county. You’d find me, and even if Pa let me live, you wouldn’t,” Joe stated simply.

“Right you are. Just remember it!”

“I will, so you can go back to the dance.”

Adam shifted slightly, but remained seated. “We’ve something to settle first.”

Joe dropped his eyes from Adam’s face and hung his head. “I’ll tell Pa that you and Hoss didn’t know nothing about me racing.”

Adam sighed. “He knows. He also knows it’s because we decided not to know, but that’s between Pa and us. Remember our conversation in the barn?”

“I didn’t lie to you, Adam. I said I understood, and I did. I didn’t even decide to race until later.”

“You’re telling me this whole time you didn’t tell me one lie,” Adam inquired frowning.

“Uh, not exactly.”

Adam’s frown deepened. “After Hoss and I spoke to Pa for you, well, you should not have…”

“I’m sorry, Adam, truly I am.”

Adam’s expression changed, and in one swift move he pulled Joe face down across his lap. Like he had a number of times when Joe was little, Adam delivered three swats to his youngest brother’s behind. The only difference was the force of the blows. Adam then set Joe back on the bed. Once again Joe was on his knees with his hands rubbing his behind. He opened his mouth to speak.

“Don’t you dare ask what that was for,” Adam admonished before Joe could get out a single word,” or the next three will be on your bare behind.”

Joe bit his lip and wiped his eyes. “I know what it’s for. You really did try to change Pa’s mind. I’m sorry.”

Adam reached for his brother again; this time pulling him into an embrace. “I forgive you, baby brother.”

“Baby,” Joe sputtered but not loud enough for his brother to hear.

*****

Ben Cartwright was the last to rerun to the hotel that night. He knew that Hoss had taken Joe some supper and that Adam had checked on the boy shortly thereafter. When he had told Adam to check a second time, his eldest had said he would of course do what his father asked, but that he was sure there was no need to check on Joe. Ben had told him to do as he saw fit. Throughout the evening, Ben had had several discussions with other council members about Helen McNally, Joe, and the need to revise the race rules. It was hard to believe those two children had bested grown and experienced riders. Thank heaven neither of them had been hurt, as another rider had.

The light in the hotel room had been turned down very low but not blown out. This had been a wise decision as Ben’s three sleeping sons covered most of usually open floor space in the room. Evidently they had decided to leave the bed for him alone even though it would accommodate two. Ben carefully made his way around his sons, changed from his dress suit to his nightshirt, and then sat down on the bed. He looked at each of his sons. As he had since he was a toddler, Adam slept on his stomach with his right arm curled around his head. Hoss as always lay flat on his back with his hands resting on his chest and snores emanating from his open mouth. Joe, for the moment, was curled up on his side with his legs tangled in the blanket that now covered very little except his feet. Ben knew if he looked again at Joseph in five minutes the boy would be in an entirely different position. Joe moved as much in his sleep as he did when awake. Ben felt extremely weary. Much of his anger had receded. He really had no reason to hold Joe’s actions against his older brothers. Joe had made his own decisions and would have to pay the consequences. Tomorrow would not be an easy day.

*****

There was very little said the next morning as the Cartwrights dressed and went down to breakfast. Helen and Paul McNally were waiting for them in the lobby. Helen was wearing her Hal clothes without the hat. Her long hair hung in a braid down her back. Her figure and posture were clearly feminine. Each Cartwright asked himself how he could have believed Helen was Hal. The conversation at breakfast was the general get-to-know-you type common between people who have just met. Everything appeared calm, but tension lay just beneath surface. Everyone at the table ignored the looks they received and the whispers around them, but they were all aware they were the objects of gossip.

Hoss, Ben, and Helen ate automatically. Adam ate with a concentrated effort that he had perfected long ago. His reaction to tension, nerves, fear, or any related emotion had always been a rolling stomach. Joe moved the food that had been ordered for him around on his plate. Any heightened emotion took away his appetite, and if the emotion was negative, he gagged as the fork reached his mouth. Paul had declined to order any food at all and sipped a mug of coffee. His eyes stayed down, and he spoke only when asked a direct question. When Ben had finished his food and second cup of coffee, he cleared his throat and looked at Paul.

“When will your father and brothers be back, Paul?” Ben asked.

Paul looked up for the first time since the meal had started, “Three, at the most, four days.”

“I’ll be over in four days to speak with your father.”

“He’ll know about what happened by the time you arrive.” Paul stated softly.

“That would be best, son,” Ben replied. “It’s time all of us headed for home.”

As they were walking to the hotel stable, Adam felt a hand on his arm. He turned to see Paul who asked to speak with him a minute.

“I just…I know you accepted my apology yesterday…it’s just…the more I thought about it, you were trying to look out for my sister and the only reason you needed to was that I wasn’t doing it like I should. Then I give you a busted lip for your trouble. I’m really sorry.” Paul dropped his eyes to the ground as he waited for Adam’s reply.

Adam habitually studied the people around him. He had spent a great deal of time at breakfast observing both Helen and Paul. By the end of breakfast, he was sure that Paul McNally was by far the most repentant of the three transgressors. Looking at Paul now, the word forlorn came to Adam’s mind. From the morning’s conversation, Adam knew the seventeen-year-old boy did a man’s work along side his father and brothers. His body was lean but strong and well muscled, yet all morning he had carried himself with the air of a cowed child. “I forgive you,” he said placing his hand on Paul’s shoulder.

“Thank you.” A slight smile flit across Paul’s face then twisted into a sardonic grimace. “It’s nice that someone can,” Paul muttered to himself.

“Your father and brothers will too,” said Adam realizing just what fear haunted the young man.

“Papa and Jeff, maybe after awhile, a long while. Alex never, “Paul finished with a humorless chuckle.

“They’ll all forgive the both of you.”

“Oh, they’ll forgive Helen. What she did is understandable. What I did, well, not one of them is going to understand that. Thing is, I started worrying as soon as I was out of sight of the ranch. The farther I rode the worse calamities I imagined. When I camped that night, I could barely sleep, and when I did, the nightmares came. Well, I turned around and started back at first light. I ran into a family headed into town for the dance. When I heard about Founder’s Day, I thought I better ride through town instead of around it. If Helen had heard and come into town for the dance, well, I had to make sure she wouldn’t be riding home at night alone. Then in town I heard a Hal McNally had won the race. I knew it was Helen because… Well, anyway, I knew it was Helen. I asked around and someone told me that he saw the boy and Adam Cartwright headed to the hotel. I went to the hotel, asked after the Cartwrights, and he sent me upstairs. When I saw Helen, I just lost it, and, well, you know the rest.”

Adam rubbed his jaw and laughed. “Yes, I know the rest.” Then Adam grew serious again. “Paul, with three older brothers, I’d bet you don’t get much practice being the older brother. Everyone makes mistakes. You learn from them and get better with practice. I’ve been working at it since Hoss was born; I still don’t always get it right.”

Adam saw the same glint come into Paul’s eyes that he had seen in Helen’s when she asked if Adam would tell. Paul grinned and said, “You don’t want me to tell Joe that, do you?”

“Let’s keep it our secret,” Adam said looking over to see that his father was speaking with Helen McNally.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Helen had begun, “I really am sorry for any trouble I caused you or your family. I am sorry too if I what I said or did encouraged Joe to race. I didn’t know you had told him he couldn’t.”

“Racing was Joseph’s decision. No one else is responsible for what he did,” Ben said sternly.

“Yes, suh,” Helen responded. Her southern accent became more pronounced as she spoke. “I know he has to take the consequences, just like Paul and I will when we tell Papa, but, well, it’s not my place, but then my brothers always say I have a hard time recognizing my place because I spend so little time there…”

“If there’s something you wish to say, young lady, say it.” Ben ordered calmly.

“Well, my oldest brother is a lawyer,” Helen began again and looked up at Ben nervously.

The girl obviously found it impossible to come directly to any point, Ben thought. “Yes, you told us that at breakfast.”

“Well, he told me about mitigating circumstances and how they don’t excuse something but can be taken into account when considering p… punishment.” Helen paused.

“And just what mitigating circumstances do you think I should be aware of?” inquired Ben.

“You know Joe didn’t race cause of the prize money or such. I mean winning the money is nice, but that’s not why he raced.”

“The way Joseph and you acted about the prize money was the only admirable moment in this entire incident. That doesn’t lessen Joseph’s disobedience.”

“Yes suh, but he didn’t do it to be defiant or anythin’ either.”

Ben stared down at the girl. “And just what do you think was Joseph’s reason for defying me?”

“Joe’s a real good rider, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben felt himself becoming exasperated. “I am aware of how well my son rides.”

“I don’t think Joe realizes that. I mean, I think, well, Joe just wanted to prove to you how good he is at what he does best. To show you he can be best at something, and he didn’t think you’d give him the chance.” Helen searched Ben’s face for a sign as to whether she had made things better or worse for Joe.

“You want me to believe that while Joe’s actions were wrong his motives were pure,” Ben responded.

“I guess that’s what I wanted to tell ya,” Helen said with a sigh. “I think Paul’s ready to leave.” As Helen hurried to join her brother, she decided that Mr. Cartwright saying Joe instead of Joseph was a good sign.

Ben’s eyes followed as she joined her brother. Ben knew punishing his baby was going to be a difficult task, but at that moment he was extremely glad it was Ephraim McNally, not he, who had to punish that girl.

*****

Next to nothing was said as the Cartwright’s rode back to the Ponderosa, though all of them had their mind on the same concern. Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe speculated about what exactly their father would do to Joe, and Ben considered what exactly he should do to Joe. When they reached the ranch, they automatically cared for the horses and did the barn chores. Then Ben said, ” Adam, Hoss, you have work down at the corral.”

“That we do, Pa” Adam answered. Ben’s eldest sons glanced at each other and at their youngest brother before leaving the barn. Joseph moved to follow his brothers.

“Joseph.” Joe stopped with his back to his father. “Turn around, please.”

Joe knew the time had come to pay for his decisions. He just hoped the price wouldn’t be too high. He turned and looked at his father.

“It’s time we discussed your behavior.”

“Pa, I… I’m sorry.” Joe dropped his head and stared at the floor.

Ben looked at his youngest son. “Look at me, please, when we’re talking.”

Joe lifted his head and dragged his eyes to his father’s face.

“Please explain what it is you are sorry for,” Ben demanded.

Joe had been considering what he would say to his father since he had ordered him to the hotel the day before. Everything he had considered seemed likely to add fuel to his Pa’s anger. He decided the less he said the better. “For the wrong decision I made.”

“And what was that wrong decision?”

“To ride in the race without your permission.”

“Without my permission?”

“Against your wishes.” Joe was trying hard to avoided any form of the word disobey.

“You had no respect for my wishes. You disobeyed me. You defied me. You deceived…”

“I didn’t lie to you. Pa,” Joe interrupted.

“You told the truth each time you went to practice for the race?” Ben inquired angrily.

“Well, not exactly,” Joe murmured, wishing Helen had skipped parts of her explanation.

“So you have been repeatedly deceitful, disobedient, and disrespectful,” Ben declared.

Joe recognized the “Three D’s” as Adam called the three transgressions guaranteed to elicit a tanning from their Pa. If committing one of them was grounds for the severest form of punishment, what punishment would be administered for the commission of all three?

Joe’s voice caught in his throat, and he softly croaked, “Yes, sir.”

“Then you understand why you will be punished.” It had been phrased as a statement, but Joe knew he was expected to answer. He tried to speak, but no sound came out, so he nodded his head.

Ben spoke calmly, “First of all you will not profit from your disobedience. Where is your prize money?”

Joe dug the two gold coins from his pocket, and held them out to his father. Ben took them from his hand and placed them in his own pocket. “Joe, the way you handled the prize money, you and Helen both, that is something, the only thing, about which you should feel pride. You may decide what good you would like to do with this money for someone else and let me know.”

“Yes, sir.” That wasn’t too bad. He could live without the money.

“Until I say differently, you will go no farther than the yard unless you are told to accompany one of your brothers or myself. That will only be to accomplish some chore or attend church. When school is in session, you will, of course, attend.”

“I understand, sir.” There was over a week left in the school break. This restriction was going to be a long one.

“You will busy yourself productively. I shall see that you have little time to plan any further escapades.”

“Of course, Pa.” Well, extra chores always seemed a part of any punishment. Joe held his breath waiting to see if there was more to come.

Ben focused on his son’s eyes. He could read most of Joe’s reactions with little effort. “Joseph, before you receive your tanning, I want you to answer one question.” Joe’s reaction to the word tanning, assured Ben that the boy had not outgrown that means of punishment. “Was winning the race worth it?”

Ben hardly listened to Joe’s murmured no, for he had seen the opposite answer in his son’s eyes. He took his son’s chin in his hand and held Joe’s eyes on his face. “Listen carefully, Joseph. When I decide you may not do something because I deem it unsafe, you will not disobey me. I shall do whatever is necessary to assure that you do obey me. Last night I considered an alternate punishment to all of this. At one point I planned to make sure you would not ever race without my permission by simply selling Cochise.”

Joe’s head snapped back and his mouth opened. “You couldn’t. Cochise is my horse!”

Ben growled,” Boy, until you turn twenty-one you have no legal ownership of anything. This time I shall not exact that price, but know this if ever you race again without my express permission, I shall remove temptation by selling Cochise.”

Joe stopped breathing. He knew his father meant every word he said.

“Do you understand me, Joseph?” When Joe did not answer, Ben grabbed his son’s upper arm. “I shall not repeat myself.”

“I understand,” Joe managed to answer.

“Then let’s finish this.” Ben walked Joe over to stand in front of some stacked hay bales. “Drop your pants and bend over,” he said as he pulled his belt from his pant loops.

As Ben pulled his belt back through the loops on his pants, Little Joe eased his pants back up. Joe was glad his father had waited until they were alone in the barn to administer his punishment. He had not been able to keep from crying out, and he was still crying like a little kid. At least no one else was around to see or hear. Joe felt his father’s hands on his shoulders. Ben turned his son around to face him. Then he said the words he always used to end any session such as this. “I forgive you, son. You know that I love you, don’t you.”

“Yes, Pa. I… I love ya too.”

*****

Adam and Hoss had walked part way to the corral and then stopped at a point were they could observe the area between the barn and the house without being noticed from either.

Hoss leaned his oversized frame against a tree and spoke to his older brother, “Pa’s gonna blister Little Joe’s behind.” His worry was clearly etched on Hoss’s face.

“Baby brother is only going to get what he deserves,” Adam replied, but Hoss saw his nervous glance toward the barn. Both of them remembered what it was like to be on the receiving end of their pa’s belt, and both hearts ached at the thought of their little brother’s misery. Sometimes it amazed Adam that he repeatedly had to fight the desire to blister Joe’s behind himself and then just as often battle the desire to prevent his father from doing exactly that.

“Pa seemed to have cooled down some this morning,” Hoss ventured.

“If Joe can just keep from riling him up again.” Adam had grave doubts on that score. “Did you talk to him last night?”

“Joe or Pa?”

“Joe. I know you didn’t talk to Pa.”

“Yeah, Joe and I talked.”

“We did too.” The two brothers exchanged a look that let each of them know the other had settled things with Joe.

“Golldurnit, Adam, did you see him and that little gal ride? It sure enough was some race.” A grin spread across the big man’s face.

“Well, he certainly showed the benefits of excellent instruction in horsemanship,” Adam quipped. He then gave a slight bow as if accepting the accolades of an unseen audience.

“Couldn’t have done it without us,” Hoss declared. Then the worry lines descended once more to his face as he and Adam both had the same thought, “He shouldn’t have done it at all.”

“Think Pa’s still mad at us?” Hoss asked his older brother.

“Not mad really, but we’re going to hear some choice comments about our responsibilities as older brothers, I’m sure. Since you’re only six years older than Joe, most of those will probably be aimed at me.”

“Adam, what if Pa and Marie had had another baby? What if they had had a girl?” Hoss asked as a look of horror crossed his face.

“A little sister like Joe,” Adam groaned. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

They both laughed. Then Hoss pointed back toward the house. They watched their father and brother walk slowly from the barn to the house. Even from that distance they could tell from the way he moved that Joe had received his punishment, but then at least little brother was still able to walk.

*****

Attendance at meals was required unless excused due to illness. The results of punishment were not considered illness. Adam went to Joe’s room to get him for dinner. Joe was lying on his stomach staring at the wall.

“What are you thinking, Little Buddy?” Adam said softly. Joe blushed. It was not the reaction Adam had expected. “Come on, Joe, you can tell older brother,” Adam cajoled sitting on the bed facing Joe.

“Actually I was thinking about Helen. About how she looked this morning, I mean. It was more than just her hair; her body looked different. She looked like a girl,” Joe explained blushing more profusely and gesturing toward Adam’s chest. Adam bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. “Even when her shirt was wet, she didn’t have… she didn’t look like that. I wonder how she did it.”

“I can tell you,” Adam stated.

Joe eyes widened, “You can?”

Adam had seen the evidence with Helen’s wet clothes the night before. “She bound herself,” he whispered to Joe.

“What?” Joe said with a confused look.

“Wrapped herself like the doctor wraps someone with broken ribs,” Adam elaborated, complete with gestures.

Joe grimaced, Adam lost his battle not to laugh, and then they both started to giggle.

“Glad you can laugh, Little Buddy. Pa must have gone easy on you.”

Joe shook his head and said, “Don’t know how I’m gonna sit to eat.”

“Bring one leg up under you. Your thigh will take the pressure instead of your behind,” offered Adam as brotherly advice.

“Pa will just tell me to sit proper,” Joe replied dejectedly.

“I don’t think so, Joe. Are your restricted?”

“Yeah. Adam, Pa said if I ever do it again, he’ll sell Cochise.”

Adam heard the fear in his brother’s voice. Everyone in the family knew how much that horse meant to Joe. Adam realized just how upset his father had been. “Then, Brother, don’t do it again,” was the only advice he could offer.

*****

Ben made his trip to the McNally ranch as scheduled. When he returned, he simply reported that he had discussed things with Mr. McNally, and everything was settled. Ben offered no additional details, and his sons decided it was best not to pursue any. Adam was surprised when later that day, his father handed him two letters.

“They’re from Helen and Paul McNally. They asked me to deliver them,” Ben said and then shook his head in response to his son’s unspoken question. “I’ve no idea what they’re about. Helen did talk to me about something though.”

“What, Pa?”

“She had a suggestion for the Founder’s Day Committee.”

“A suggestion?”

“She thinks we should add two additional races. One for youngsters, say thirteen through seventeen, and one for the ladies. The prize wouldn’t be a problem, just make it half of the entry fees with the other half going for charity. Adjust the rules however we think would make things safer. She says it will eliminate the need for anyone else to repeat Joe’s and her mistakes.”

Adam raised his eyebrow. “What did you say to that?”

Ben grinned. “Actually, I told her I’d present her idea to the committee. She’s a mighty persuasive child.”

Adam looked at his father mockingly and asked, “Ever wish you’d had a girl, Pa?”

“Not lately,” Ben laughed, “not lately.” He walked away, and Adam looked at the letters in his hand.

He opened the first one. Paul McNally had written formally thanking Adam for accepting Paul’s apology and forgiving him. Adam hoped the young man would forgive himself. Next Adam read the letter from Helen McNally. In the letter, she first apologized for the trouble she had caused him and thanked him for his concern for her wellbeing. Then Helen once again surprised Adam. She explained how concerned she was about Paul and asked for his help. Adam folded the letter and put it in his pocket. He liked both Helen and Paul, but he was not sure he should interfere. Adam decided to ponder the situation for a while.

*****

Two days later chance gave Adam the opportunity to answer Helen’s request. He was in the mercantile when a customer walked in. Adam smiled and thought that he had never seen a family that so strongly resembled each other. The young man walking toward him was older, taller, and heavier than Paul McNally but quite obviously related to him.

“Mr. McNally, might I introduce myself? I’m Adam Cartwright.”

“How did you know who I was?” was the man’s puzzled reply.

“I know Paul and Helen. Though I don’t know if you’re Jeff or Alex.”

The young man laughed. “I’m Alex,” he said extending his hand. “Papa always says none of us can deny the others. I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Call me Adam. Mr. Cartwright is my Pa,” Adam replied shaking Alex’s hand.

“Just like Mr. McNally is my father. I want to thank you for helping my sister.”

“I’ve been thanked more than enough for what little I did.”

“And Paul…did he apologize properly for the hitting you?” Adam recognized Alex’s tone as one he had used before in connection with his younger brothers.

“He apologized much more than necessary. I told him all is forgiven, and I meant it.”

“That’s good of you. What can I say? The boy has the McNally temper.”

Adam grinned. “Tempers I understand. The Cartwrights have a few of their own. He was just being protective of your sister.”

Adam saw the anger flare in Alex McNally’s eyes. “Protecting our sister. He was a day late and a dollar short, not to mention just plain wrong.”

“He’s just a boy. He made a mistake,” Adam stated calmly.

Alex growled, “Abandoning our sister was more than a mistake!”

“Paul is afraid you won’t be able to forgive him.”

Alex heard the rebuke in Adam’s voice. “If you’ll excuse me now…”

“Actually I can’t,” Adam replied taking hold of Alex’s arm. Alex tensed, and his hands curled into fists. “Please, let’s go where we can talk.”

“I don’t…”

“Please. Let’s go have a drink.” Adam released Alex’s arm. Alex shrugged and followed Adam to the saloon.

Adam and Alex seated themselves at a table in the back corner away from the few other occupants of the saloon. Adam waited until their drinks were sitting on the table in front of them.

“Helen asked me to speak with you. She felt I might be able to convince you…” Adam began.

“To forgive Paul,” Alex interrupted with a shake of his head. “Why would she think a stranger could convince me of anything?”

Adam leaned back in his chair. “Well, if you’d like, I can read her reasons to you verbatim, but your sister, Alex, is somewhat lacking in brevity, so might I summarize?”

Alex leaned back also and said,” Summarize.”

Adam took a swallow of his beer and continued,” One, I remind Helen of you as to my –quote – brotherly attitudes. Two, she feels we could meet on common ground from shared experience. Three, she thinks you need to be spoken to by a big brother and yours is – again I quote – woefully far away.”

“And just what does she expect you to say?”

“Perhaps that she wasn’t exactly abandoned. She is fifteen, not ten.”

“And you think a fifteen year old girl should be left alone!”

“No, I don’t, but then I’m not seventeen. It would be much easier to convince someone who is seventeen that someone who is fifteen is nearly grown. Helen feels guilty because she did a lot of the convincing. That’s why it’s important to her that you forgive Paul.”

“No one needed to convince Paul; Paul can always convince himself it’s all right to do what suits Paul. I should have known … well, that something would happen.”

Adam watched Alex McNally’s face and realized the source of his anger. “You convinced your father to leave Paul in charge.”

Alex stared at Adam but did not answer.

Adam understood that Alex was angry not only with Paul but with himself. He was holding himself responsible for allowing his siblings to be in a position to put themselves in harm’s way.

“Alex, if your father is anything like mine, he made his own decision.”

“Does your father not give weight to the counsel of his grown sons?’

“Yes,” Adam admitted. “Paul didn’t mean to betray your trust in him. Hell, Alex, he’s your baby brother. That’s what baby brothers do.” Adam watched the flicker of emotions on the other man’s face. He relaxed, leaned his chair back on two legs, and crossed his arms on his chest. Slowly a deep smile spread across his face. This smile was the one that delighted his family and friends because it was so rarely seen. It was also the smile the charmed every female who witnessed its appearance. This time the smile simply confused Paul McNally. “Take my advice, Alex, its time to settle things between you and Paul. Spank your baby brother, and then forgive him.” Alex ‘s eyes widened. “Well, figuratively if you prefer, though literally has its own satisfaction at times.”

“My father already…”

Adam shook his head. “If your father blistered Paul’s behind, I’m not surprised. Pa gave Joe’s behind more licks with his belt then he ever has before. That’s not what I’m talking about.” Adam saw confusion on Alex’s face. He tried again. “You wouldn’t by any chance be Catholic, would you, Alex?”

The confusion on Alex McNally’s face deepened. “No, we’re Methodists.”

“Well, my stepmother was Catholic. She told me about penance. A Catholic confesses a sin to the priest, and the priest gives them a penance and then forgives them. The penance isn’t like a real punishment. It’s more a something you accept to acknowledge you’ve done wrong.” Adam was not sure that he was explaining things clearly, so he paused to consider how to continue.

“So Paul accepts some penance, and I just forgive him?”

“You remember he is your baby brother, and you forgive him.”

Alex’s mouth twisted into a wry grin and a glint came into his eye, “And you recommend a few swats to his backside?”

“Unless you have something better in mind,” Adam replied with a laugh.

A moment later they both straighten and turn to look at the door, as a voice called, “Alex.”

Adam stared at the man crossing the saloon. He had no doubt that this was Helen, Paul, and Alex’s father. The resemblance was clear, but it occurred to Adam that their mother must have been a small woman because Mr. McNally was one of the tallest men Adam had ever seen. His build was lean but substantial. He looked like someone had carved him from granite and then painted on his skin. Adam’s own father could be quite intimidating especially when angry, but this man would be intimidating even if he were laughing. How had Paul and Helen ever managed to speak when facing him?

Adam and Alex both stood. “Papa, this is Adam Cartwright,” Alex introduced his companion. “Adam, my father, Ephraim McNally.”

Adam shook the older man’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“The pleasure is mine.” The three men sat down, and Ephraim turned to his son. “You, of course, have been paying for the drinks.”

Alex McNally looked sheepish. Adam spoke up, “I wouldn’t allow it.”

Ephraim McNally’s eyes narrowed as he looked at his son. The he turned to Adam. “You will allow me to buy the next round.”

“Yes, sir, thank you,” Adam replied respectfully.

“How is your father, young man? I enjoyed meeting him if not the reason for it.”

“He’s just fine, Mr. McNally. I’m sure he’d like a chance to talk to you under better circumstances.” Adam answered. The three men talked as they drank the beers that Mr. McNally had ordered. Then Ephraim grinned at Adam.

“Adam, you watched the race, didn’t you?” Ephraim asked.

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Well, at the time we talked, I did not ask your father about the race itself, and I would not want my daughter hearing of my interest, but, son, tell me how she rode.” Ephraim and Alex both leaned closer.

Adam smiled again and leaned his chair back on two legs, “Well now, there were twenty-two riders. All ages and sizes….”

***The End***

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