Girls, Guns, and Getting Grown (by DJK)

Summary:   The oldest Cartwright and McNally brothers are worried about the youngest.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  11,800


 

Little Joe Cartwright whirled Helen McNally across the floor oblivious to the fact that Helen’s brother Alex scrutinized their every move. Alex, in turn, was unaware of Adam Cartwright observing him. Adam walked over and stood next to Alex. “Your little sister looks quite fetching tonight.”

Alex’s reaction to Adam’s comment was a soft murmur of assent that sounded faintly like a low growl. His eyes continued to follow the two youngsters as they danced. Adam could feel the tension in his friend. Adam often told Alex that he was a poor poker player because his face was far too easy to read.

“Your brother seems to think so,” Alex stated tersely turning to look at Adam.

“Little Joe and Helen are friends, Alex.”

“Little Joe? Won’t you be dropping the little soon? This is his sixteenth birthday.”

Adam raised an eyebrow and nodded. He could hardly believe that his baby brother had turned sixteen today. Adam glanced toward his brother as Joe led Helen toward a group of young people. In truth, Joe looked quite grownup, even to his older brother. He also looked exceeding happy, but then Joe enjoyed a party more than anyone that Adam knew. The fact that the party was in Joe’s honor and marked his advance into adulthood – at least in Joe’s mind – was the icing on the cake.

“I doubt Pa, Hoss, or I will ever totally drop the little, but, then, when will you and Jeff quit referring to Helen and Paul as the babies?”

Alex gave Adam a rueful smile, “Not any time soon, I suppose.” Alex again turned to face Adam. “One thing’s for sure, Helen won’t have anything this grand for her sixteenth birthday next month. Your father has put on the largest party of the year.”

“It’s Joe’s first grownup celebration, and he’s always loved parties.” Adam looked at the expression on his friend’s face. “Okay, Pa spoils the boy sometimes, but then Joe is his baby, and Pa spoils us all occasionally, now that he can.”

“Ah, yes, fathers always spoil their babies,” Alex said glancing again at his sister. Then a smirk appeared on his face. “Actually, Papa and Helen had quite a row earlier this evening.”

“About?” Adam inquired raising his right eyebrow.

“Her dress and her hair.”

Adam turned to observe Helen once again. The skirt of her dress brushed the floor, and its neckline left no doubt that Helen McNally had taken the first steps into becoming a woman. Her hair was gathered into upswept curls leaving her neck and shoulders bare.

“I take it your father wasn’t quite ready for her to put her hair up and her skirts down.”

“No, he wasn’t ready for his little girl to dress like a grown woman.”

“I see that Helen won that argument.”

“She’s his baby, and he spoils her sometimes.” Alex gave Adam a wry grin. “She is the only one he ever spoils, but then we all spoil Helen.”

“According to Helen, you never do.”

“I suppose I am at the bottom of that list. She’s dancing with Joe again.”

Adam lowered his voice. “Does that concern you?”

“It’s just that Joe and Helen spend a good deal of time together, and they’re too old to be considered playmates.”

“Alex, Joe knows how to behave.”

“Joe doesn’t always follow the rules.”

“There are some rules even Joe wouldn’t consider breaking. Besides he’s afraid of your father.”

“Still, in some situations…”

Adam turned to watch Joe and Helen once again. “I’m not saying Joe hasn’t ever noticed what an attractive girl Helen is. He may even try and steal a kiss, but he would never pressure her to do something when she said no.”

“That’s just it. He wouldn’t press her if she said no. Adam, Helen isn’t afraid of our father. Sometimes she isn’t afraid of anyone.”

“She’d be afraid of what you, your brothers, and both our fathers would do to Joe.”

Alex grinned. “She’s more likely to be afraid of what she couldn’t keep you from doing to him.”

Adam grinned back, “Possibly.” His glance settling on another McNally brother, Adam added,” It appears you may be worrying about the wrong baby.” He gestured toward the door.

Alex’s eyes followed the gesture in time to see his youngest brother, Paul, slip out the door with his arm around the waist of a petite brunette. “Excuse me, Adam.” Alex strode off to follow the pair out into the night.

*****

Helen McNally drew Little Joe Cartwright away from the dancers to a quiet corner near the kitchen.

“I want to give you your present, Sugar,” she whispered in his ear.

“You didn’t have to get me a present,” Joe answered while grinning at the thought. Joe loved presents.

Helen handed him a small package wrapped in red paper. Joe ripped the paper away to find a small cloth pouch. He opened it, and took out a piece of folded paper.

“What’s this?” Joe inquired wondering what joke Helen was playing on him.

“Read it and you’ll see,” Helen said in her fullest southern drawl.

Joe unfolded the paper and saw it contained several sets of numbers and some figuring. Printed neatly at the bottom were the words: Joe Wins! Joe’s eyes lit up, and a grin spread across his face.

“It’s the times from when we raced Sport!”

“You won by three seconds,” Helen stated sweetly. “Happy birthday, Joe Cartwright. You were this year’s best rider in the county.”

“This year’s best rider. Gal, I’m any year’s best rider, “Joe declared puffing up with pride at his win. “I thought Paul had lost the times since he never mentioned who won.”

“Well, ’til Adam asked me who won, I don’t think any of us really thought about it, what with having Hoss catch us and the consequences and everything. Then after Adam made me think of it, I found the paper in the pocket of Paul’s vest, and I did the figuring, and I thought about not telling you, but then I decided it would make a real fine birthday present, and it didn’t really matter ’cause it was just one more race, and like I told Adam, I could do it all sidesaddle, and you can’t.” Helen looked up at Joe through the fringe of her lashes and smiled demurely. Then she tossed her head and turned to face her brother Jeff who had walked up behind her.

Jeff inclined his head toward the door with a look that sent his sister a familiar message. She turned her head to see Alex McNally walk back into the room with his hand clamped on the arm of their youngest brother Paul. The expressions on the faces of both McNally brothers told their siblings all they needed to know. “What did Paul do?”

“Well,” Jeff drawled, “The last I saw he was sashaying out the door with Becca Lee.”

“Did Papa see?” Helen inquired nervously.

Jeff shook his head. “Don’t think so. He’s in the far corner talking to Mr. Cartwright and Sheriff Coffee.”

Helen bit her lip. “Where’s Becca Lee?”

“She came back inside a couple of minutes ago and went upstairs.”

Helen knew that the upstairs guest room was being used by the ladies at the party as their retiring room. That, no doubt, was where Becca Lee would be found.

“Wait here,” she flung over her shoulder as she walked away.

“Where’s she going?” Little Joe asked slightly confused.

“To find out from Becca Lee what exactly happened outside.”

“She thinks Becca Lee will tell her?”

“Girls tell other girls lots of things you wouldn’t think they would, and Becca Lee’s hardly one for keeping secrets.”

“Is your father real strict about that kind of thing?”

“Real strict.”

“Will Alex tell him?”

“Depends on exactly what happened. That’s why Helen went to find out.”

Joe decided to wait with Jeff for Helen to return, which she did barely ten minutes later.

“Tell us,” Jeff ordered.

“Well, according to Becca Lee, she and Paul decided to go out for a breath of air, and they just kind of strolled over beyond the lights to where there was mostly just moonlight and the scent of the pines, and it was so romantic that before she knew it, Paul was giving her her first real kiss. Yeah, like I was supposed to believe that. Anyway, just as their lips parted, a voice said Paul’s name, so they both jumped, and then they saw Alex. Becca Lee said Alex said real calm-like that Becca Lee’s folks were probably looking for her, and shouldn’t she go on in, and would she excuse Paul because he wanted to have a private word with his little brother, and that’s when Becca Lee came inside. I give y’all one guess what that private word was about.”

“Well, if Paul uses any sense at all and stays in Alex’s sight, Paul’s safe from Papa,” Jeff concluded.

“Is he safe from Alex?” Joe inquired.

“Oh, he’ll get a tongue-lashing and dire warnings, but he deserves that,” replied Helen.

“Well, that’s that then.” Jeff took his sister by the hand. “They’re playing a Virginia reel, sister. What do you say two Virginians show them all how it should be done?”

*****

“Joe! Get up, boy!”

Little Joe ignored the voice and snuggled deeper into his mattress.

Adam stared down at his brother. Curled up in bed, Joe no longer looked very grown up. Adam thought he looked about the same as he had when he was six. Adam pulled the covers off Joe’s sleeping form.

“Joe, you’ve got until the count of three. One… two… THREE!” Adam’s hand cracked down on Joe’s behind.

“Oww!” Joe came up ready to fight. Adam stepped back out of reach.

“I warned you, Joe.”

Joe decided to pout instead. Fighting would require getting out of bed. He rubbed his backside and slumped back against the pillows. “You’re just mean, Adam. I was going to get up.”

Adam leaned against Joe’s dresser. “Yeah! In another hour or two, you were going to get up.”

Joe looked at his eldest brother. “I’m not that late, am I?”

“No. Actually, Pa’s not at the table yet.”

Joe’s ire rose. “Then why…”

“I wanted to talk,” Adam replied as he took the chair from in front of the desk and sat down facing his brother.

“Why couldn’t we talk later after I got up?”

“Because I’m leaving early for the lumber camp and won’t be back for several days.”

Joe scanned his memory for anything he might have done wrong that could have been discovered by his elder brother. “Well, what do you want to talk about then?”

“You and Helen.”

“We haven’t done anything, Adam.”

“I didn’t say you had,” Adam raised his right eyebrow, “but if you have something you need to confess…”

“I told you, we ain’t done anything!” Joe’s face flushed, and his eyes flashed.

Adam leaned back. “You and she spent a great deal of time together at the party.”

“We were dancing, Adam, just dancing. Is there anything wrong with dancing?”

“Not a thing, Little Brother. The two of you made quite the handsome couple. In fact, Alex had his eye on you most of the evening.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Helen is growing up too, Joe. The two of you have to start thinking about the proprieties.”

“The proprieties?” Joe swallowed and then blushed. “Helen and I are just friends, Adam.”

“That’s what I told Alex.” Adam leaned closer to his brother and looked directly into his eyes. “Helen has three older brothers, Joe, very protective older brothers. It would be best to remember that, Little Buddy. I wouldn’t want a misunderstanding starting a Cartwright/McNally feud.”

“Helen might get me in all kinds of trouble, Older Brother, but not that kind, honest. ‘ Sides Mr. McNally and Pa would kill me if I, if we…” Joe let his words dangle.

“Just keep that in mind, Joe, at all times.”

*****

Little Joe fingered the pearl handle of his new pistol. He still could not believe he owned such a fine weapon. This birthday had been the best. His party and his presents had been more than even he had hoped. Pa had given him a hand-tooled saddle complete with scabbard that had been custom-made to fit both him and Cooch, and he would need the scabbard because Hoss had given him the finest of precision-made rifles with his name engraved in the silver-stock plates. Joe had been most surprised though when he had opened Adams’s present. The pearl handled pistol and left-handed holster were the last thing he expected to receive from his elder brother. He had hoped his pa would allow him to have his own gun, but would have bet that Adam would have argued against it.

“Adam asked Pa to let him be the one to give ya that, Short Shanks.”

Joe was startled by the sound of Hoss’ voice in the barn but not by the fact that Hoss had seemly read his mind. “Sometimes I just can’t figure out our older brother,” Joe replied. “I would’ve thought he’d be telling Pa how I’m too irresponsible for anyone to think about letting me carry a gun.”

Hoss straightened to his full height and managed his sternest tone, “Now you know the rules that go with that gun, young’un. Pa nor Adam ain’t gonna put up with no foolishness where its concerned, and listen to me hard, Joe, iff’n I find out about any, there ain’t no pleading or begging gonna keep me from going to Pa. I won’t cover your butt about that, no way, no how. Is that clear?”

Joe looked at his brother’s face. It had the one expression that Joe never misread or underestimated. When Hoss settled his mind on something, there was no changing it.

“It’s clear, Hoss. Pa and Adam and you been drilling the rules into my head since before I could talk, you know.”

“You best know that you don’t want to cross Pa on this, really you don’t.”

“Did you?”

“Nope, I had the sense to learn from the mistakes of others.”

“Adam? Really! Tell me, Hoss.”

“If ya want to know that story, you’re gonna have to ask Adam. Just take my word for it, Joe; don’t break even the littlest bit of one of them rules. Now we best get to work; your birthday’s over, boy; no more slacking off.”

*****

Joe was wearing his new pistol. He knew it would be years before he would be allowed to wear it into town, but when he was doing a man’s work around the ranch, he had the right. He felt a presence behind him only a second before he felt the pistol leave its holster. He spun around to see Helen holding the gun in her hands. He started to snatch it back, but then stopped.

“Helen, that’s loaded.” His voice snapped with an authority that imitated his father, “Hand it to me slowly!”

Helen looked coolly up into his flashing green eyes, “Calm down, Sugar. I was just looking at it.”

“Now, Helen!”

Helen held the gun out toward Joe. He took it from her and slid it back into the holster on his hip.

“Good thing I wasn’t some evil villain, Joe.” Helen gave him a mocking smile.

“I should…I should teach you that a gun’s not a toy, little girl,” Joe sputtered.

“Now just how would you go about that?”

“Just like your Pa or Alex would!” Joe drew himself up to his fullest height and placed his hands on his hips. He glared at Helen with a look borrowed from his father.

Joe was not nearly as intimidating as Ben Cartwright would have been. Still, Helen recognized that Joe was seriously angry with her. She lowered her eyes meekly and then glanced up at him through her lashes. “I’m sorry, Sugar.”

“I mean it, Helen if you ever do that again I’ll…”

“I won’t. I promise.” Helen traced a cross above her heart.

Joe relaxed his stance and dropped his hands to his sides. “What do you want, Helen?”

“Nothin’ special.” Helen walked over to a small grove of trees and sat down in the shade.

Joe did not believe her. He heard her whistle and watched a horse come to the sound. He walked over and stood looking down at her.

“There’s gingerbread in my saddlebag.” Joe loved gingerbread, but it was one sweet that Hop Sing seldom made. He retrieved the treat and sat down beside Helen. Now he knew she wanted something.

“How well can you shoot that thing?”

Joe swallowed and answered, “Adam taught me years ago.” Well, it had been almost two years. “He said I was a natural. Why?”

“I was thinking. How would you like to help me pull a prank on my brothers?”

“What kind of prank?”

“Harmless and maybe even profitable.”

“Profitable?”

Helen knew that she had his interest. “Naw, you probably wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t what?”

“Never mind.” She rose and turned toward her horse.

Joe grabbed her wrist. “Wouldn’t what, Helen?”

“Wouldn’t teach me to shoot.”

“Teach you to shoot!” Joe sprang to his feet. “What in tarnation are you thinking?”

“No, you wouldn’t be willing. I’ll just…”

“Helen!”

“Simmer down, Sugar, and I’ll tell ya.” Helen sank to the ground with her skirts settling around her.

Joe took a deep breath and dropped to the ground in front of her. “I’m listening.”

“I was just thinking. If you taught me to shoot without anybody knowing, well, then we could pull a really good prank on my brothers, yours too if we planned it right. See, we could get an argument going about who can shoot well and who can’t, and at some point you say even Helen could hit that, and then we lead my brothers into betting us that I can’t ’cause they have no idea that I can, but we do because we’ll pick something that we know I can hit, and when I do, can’t you just see the look on Alex’s face, and it would be profitable if we make the right bet.”

Joe just stared at the girl.

“Well, what do you think, Sugar?”

“I think you’re crazy,” Joe answered. I must be crazy too ’cause I’m starting to think it might work.

“Crazy like a fox.” Helen smiled.

“We haven’t got any money to bet with.” Joe sighed. Helen knew he was one step away from agreeing to do it.

“They bet money; we bet something else like chores or something.”

“Could we really set it up?”

The corners of Helen’s mouth curled up. “You’re doubting me, Joe? You teach me to shoot and leave that part of it to me.”

“Adam has to be there.”

Helen’s smile widened, “Sounds good to me.”

Joe’s face grew serious. “You’ll have to do just what I say, Helen. Follow all my orders and mind me good. I won’t do it if you can’t mind me, so it’ll be safe.”

“I’ll be good; I promise. If I don’t behave, you can do what you threatened before, and I won’t tell. I promise.” Helen once again traced a cross above her heart.

“Okay then, we’ll start tomorrow.”

*****

Joe taught Helen by carefully following the steps his pa and Adam had used to teach him how to shoot. First he made Helen learn to load, unload, and clean the weapon. He repeated safety rules each time they met, and made Helen repeat them until she was afraid she was muttering them in her sleep. The first time he allowed her to fire the gun, he unloaded all but one bullet. Handing her the gun, he stood to the side and slightly behind her giving instructions in measured tones. Helen aimed at the trunk of a large pine and fired. The recoil caused her to stumble backward, dropping the pistol and landing on her behind. Joe could not hold back a small laugh at the sight of Helen in a heap on the ground.

Helen came to her feet in a fury. “You knew that would happen!”

“Now you do too.”

“You could have warned me.” Helen’s eyes were shooting sparks at Joe.

“I could have warned you all day, and it still would have knocked you on your bu…backside.” Joe stated swallowing his grin. “Now, calm down, and we’ll try again,” Joe said leaning down to retrieve the pistol.

Helen moved before she thought. Her foot came up, connected with Joe’s behind, and pushed Joe forward onto the ground. Caught unprepared, Joe landed with his face in the dirt. Hearing Helen’s soft laugh, he sprang up and spun around. The anger on his face caused Helen to take a step back.

“I’ll, I’ll…” Joe shook in fury.

“Now, Joe,” Helen began in a placating tone while taking another step back. As Joe launched himself forward, she spun and took off running. He caught her around the waist just as she was about to mount her horse. Pulling her tight against him, he held her pinned and whispered a description of his planned punishment in her ear.

“If you do, I’ll tell my papa.”

“If you tell him, you’ll have to tell him why.”

Helen paused for only a moment. “I’ll tell Jeff then.”

Joe let her go. That girl has too many darn brothers! “Go home, Helen!”

Helen mounted and then looked down at Joe. “Tomorrow ya’ll show me how to shoot and stay standing, won’t ya, Sugar?”

“Tomorrow.”

From the hill above, Adam watched Helen ride off. He had heard the shot and ridden to the crest of the hill arriving in time to see only the final portion of the scene enacted by Joe and Helen. He turned his horse back toward the strays he had been herding and pondered what he had witnessed. The thought that Helen had fired the gun never crossed his mind.

*****

Joe kept feeling his elder brother’s eyes on him. All through dinner and even while Adam appeared to be reading beside the fire, Joe realized he was being studied. The question was why. Joe knew he would find out when Adam was ready and not before, so he pushed it from his mind.

Adam heard a knock on his bedroom door. He did not bother to answer as he knew whichever member of his family had knocked would never wait for an invitation to enter. Hoss closed Adam’s door softly behind him and walked over to the bed.

“I might have been asleep,” observed Adam.

“I knew you weren’t.”

It was an unqualified statement. Adam wondered how Hoss had been so sure. Now everyone knew when Hoss was asleep or awake by the presence or absence of his thunderous snores, but Adam never snored. “What couldn’t wait until morning?”

Hoss took the question as an invitation to remain and settled himself on the foot of his brother’s bed. With only the moonlight from a single window, the brothers were hardly more than dark shapes to each other’s eyes.

“What’s worrying you about Little Joe?”

Adam sat up straighter against the headboard. “Who said I was worried about Joe?”

“You are. Why? He’s not into some mischief, is he?” Hoss had disciplined his younger brother for the only time in their lives little more than a month before, and that action still haunted his thoughts.

“Not that I know of, really.” Adam replied.

“Then?”

“Just something Alex said, and something I saw today.”

“What did Alex McNally say?” Hoss frowned.

“That Joe and Helen are too old to be considered playmates.”

Hoss considered the implications of his brother’s statement. “Those young’uns don’t think of each other that way.”

“I saw Joe and Helen up in one of the north meadows today.” Adam’s tone was overly casual.

“Doing what?”

“He chased her and caught her. Then she left.”

“Sounds like they were fussing again,” Hoss ventured. “They must have something new to argue about.”

“Maybe.”

“Don’t understand what you’re so all fired set to fret over.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose and veered to another matter. “It was a shot that brought me in their direction. Joe must have been showing off for Helen.”

“Now that may be something to get in a fret over. You going to talk to Joe or to Pa?”

“Oh, it’s not to the point where I talk to Pa,” Adam reassured, “but as he would have said to Ma, ‘I intend to nip this in the bud.’ “

*****

Joe heard his brother’s voice telling him to get up. He ignored it. He felt the bedclothes pulled from his body and listened to Adam begin to count. Before his brother said three, Joe flipped over on his back and managed to catch Adam’s descending hand by the wrist.

Caught by surprise, Adam just stood looking down at Joe. Then he smiled, “Good save, little brother.” Joe released his brother’s wrist, and Adam went to retrieve a chair.

Joe watched his brother and realized that Adam intended to talk to him. Joe told himself he had nothing to worry about, but part of him started reviewing everything he had done in the past weeks.

“Joe, remember when you opened your birthday present?”

“Of course.”

“What did I tell you?”

Joe tried to gauge his brother’s mood; it was never as easy with Adam as it was with Hoss or Pa. “Happy birthday?” Joe replied with a grin.

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose, and Joe quickly interjected, “You told me I better follow all the rules, or I’d only just be looking at my present for a long time and probably standing while I was doing that looking.”

“You were listening.”

Joe looked at the serious expression in his brother’s eyes. “Adam, I ain’t broken any of the rules. Really I haven’t. I wouldn’t, Adam. I promise I didn’t.” None of the rules mentioned not teaching someone else to shoot.

“One of those rules says that you only fire that gun with good reason. Showing off is not a good reason.”

Joe felt his ire rise with his sense of injustice. “I ain’t showed off, Adam.”

“Not even for Helen?” Adam intoned. Joe held his breath. What did Adam know about him and Helen shooting the gun?

“Joe, I was up in the north meadows yesterday. I heard the shot. I saw you and Helen. If you had a good reason for firing that gun, tell me what you were shooting at.”

Joe dropped his eyes from Adam’s face, and Adam knew his brother was deciding just how much of the truth to tell. “I really wasn’t showing off, Adam, not really.”

“But you weren’t shooting at a snake, a bobcat, or a stray mountain lion, were you?”

“No.”

“Pa would put that pistol in the safe for a month, Joe, just for that.”

Joe looked up through his lashes at his brother. “You gonna tell him?” he inquired softly.

“Do I need to Joe, or have you gotten it out of your system?”

“You don’t, Adam. It’s out, all out.”

“None of your other friends need to be impressed? No other young ladies waiting for a young gun to admire?”

“No, Adam, not a one.” Joe held his breath.

Adam studied his little brother’s face and felt the point had been made. “I won’t tell Pa this time.” He intended to continue with a strongly worded warning, but hesitated. “I know you think I’m being too hard on you, Little Brother, but Pa’s more serious than I am about this. He really is, Joe; you don’t want to find out how serious.”

“That’s what Hoss said.”

Adam stood up and took the chair back to its accustomed place. He turned to say something about Joe and Helen being alone in the meadow, but Joe looked so young sitting there on the bed that he swallowed that comment. “Better get dressed and down to the table. If you hurry, you might even get there on time.”

Adam ducked, and the pillow hit the door instead of the back of his head.

*****

Joe swung Helen from the saddle. She looked into his face and asked, “What’s wrong, Joe? You’re not still mad, are you, Sugar?”

“No,” Joe swallowed and continued, “Helen, Adam saw us yesterday.”

Helen’s face filled with concern. “Exactly what did he see?”

“He didn’t say. Just ripped into me about showing off for you with my gun.”

“Then he doesn’t know what we’ve been doing?”

Joe shook his head. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Helen.”

“Now, Joe,” Helen placated, “it’s not like we’re doing something that’s wrong. Now is it?”

Joe hesitated, “No, but what if Pa thinks different?”

“Did your pa ever tell you that you couldn’t teach me or anybody else, for that matter, to shoot a gun?”

“No, he never did,” Joe replied.

“Then you aren’t disobeying him, now are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Has he asked you if you’re teaching me to shoot?”

“No.” Joe said more firmly.

“Then you haven’t had to lie to him about it. Have you lied to him about where you’ve been or who you’ve been with?” Helen continued cocking her head and giving Joe a small grin.

“No, not really. No, I haven’t lied to him or Adam.”

“And who could say teaching me to shoot was being disrespectful.”

Joe answered with increasing assurance, “Don’t see how anybody could.”

“Why, you even made me be respectful of you and all your rules, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I have!” Joe relaxed for the first time since talking to Adam.

“Then what have you got to be worried about, Sugar? Why your pa might just be real proud of what a fine job you’ve done teaching me when he finds out.”

“He just might,” said Joe swelling with pride at the thought.

“Well, then, let’s give him something to be proud about,” ordered Helen reaching for Joe’s pistol.

Joe slapped her hand away. “Ask for it, Helen.”

“Sorry,” Helen muttered humbly, “May I please have the pistol, so I can practice?”

Joe continued Helen’s instruction. This time he set a row of pinecones along a fallen tree to serve as targets. Then he made Helen check the weapon and load a single bullet. He placed himself directly behind her calmly speaking instructions into her ear.

“Ready. Aim. Fire!” Helen squeezed the trigger. The recoil rocked her backwards again, but this time Joe caught her around the waist and kept them both on their feet. He even managed to catch the pistol as it slipped from Helen’s hands. Her bullet had managed to hit the edge of one of the pinecones. Joe was not sure if it was the one at which she had been aiming, but Helen squealed in delight. “That’s fine, Helen,” he said encouragingly. “Let’s try it again, and keep hold of the gun this time.”

*****

Joe continued his lessons, and Helen learned to stay on her feet, keep hold of the gun, and half of the time she hit the target, but Joe had thought that she would be a better student.

After watching Helen miss three times in a row, Joe muttered in exasperation, “You best stick to riding, Helen. Seems McNallys are better with horses than guns.”

Helen turned and stuck her tongue out at Joe. “I wasn’t planning to enter the shooting contest next Founder’s Day,” she said snappishly.

“Was Hal?” inquired Joe cheekily.

“Hal’s too well-known in Virginia City,” Helen said with a smirk, “but if you take me to Genoa…”

“What makes you think I’d take you anywhere?”

“Sugar, it could be a profitable trip. They bet on the race in Genoa. We could…”

“Yeah, but I’d never live to spend the money.”

“Now, Joe, you talk like it would be dangerous.”

“Well, let’s see. I take you on an overnight trip without a chaperone. They would be lining up to kill me: my pa, your pa, Alex, Adam, Paul, Jeff, maybe even Hoss.”

Helen looked up at him coolly, “I’d save ya, Sugar. Oh, you might get horsewhipped, but Papa likes you, and Alex would tell him I was the one to blame, and Jeff would just tell Papa to get the preacher. Your Pa would put a stop to that, though.” Looking at the expression on Joe’s face, Helen dissolved into giggles.

“Oh, well then, if you got horsewhipped too, it might be worth it,” Joe remarked.

“Joe,” Helene stopped giggling to address him in a schoolmarmish tone, “the boy gets horsewhipped, and the girl gets snubbed by the respectable women of the town for years to come.”

“Well, since that would be nothing new for you…” Joe stopped and became suddenly serious. “Adam said Alex was watching us at the party.”

“My big brother probably thought we’d come up with some prank that we thought we could get away with because it was your birthday,” Helen replied dismissively.

“Adam said we needed to start thinking about the proprieties.”

Helen sank to the ground and spread her skirts demurely about her. Cocking her head to the side, she looked up at Joe appraisingly. Joe dropped to the ground across from her.

“Joe, I … I won’t ever set my cap for you.” Helen studied Joe’s face as she waited for his reaction.

“Don’t think I’d want you to,” Joe finally stated. Then a wry grin lit his face, “I know Hal too well to want to kiss you!”

Helen made a face and laughed remembering when she had convinced Joe that she had a twin brother named Hal and then dressed as a boy to ride in the Founder’s Day race. “Good! We make much better accomplices than we would lov…anything else.”

*****

Alex McNally walked over to the bar and stood next to Adam Cartwright. Ordering a beer, he asked his friend to join him at a table. As they took two seats in the corner, Adam asked Alex what he wanted.

“What makes you think I want more than friendly conversation?” Alex answered.

“I’ve told you before, Alex, your face is as easy to read as a book,” Adam replied leaning his chair back on two legs.

“Ah, yes, and Adam Cartwright is a keen reader.”

“What is it then, Alex?” Adam inquired once more.

“Nothing really. Has Little Joe been slipping off a lot lately?” Alex leaned forward and waited for an answer.

Adam took time for a swallow of his beer and then answered, “Now the answer to that would depend on what you mean by “slipping off”, “a lot”, and “lately”, but I take it that Helen has been slipping off a lot lately?”

“So to speak.” Alex replied.

“You think Helen has been sneaking off to meet Little Joe?” Adam’s chair came down with a thud. The picture of the two in question up in the north meadow came clearly into Adam’s mind.

“Yes, and the question is why does she feel she needs to sneak off. It’s not as if Papa doesn’t let her spend as much time with Joe as she wants.” Alex’s tone indicated that he did not agree with his father about that subject.

“You’ve concluded that the reason for the subterfuge has to do with exactly what they are doing when they’re together?” Adam’s eyes darkened.

“Have you another alternative?” Alex’s tone was serious. “You haven’t answered my question, Adam.”

“If Helen’s been sneaking off, it’s probable that she’s been with Joe at least some of the time.” Adam’s tone was a little too causal. “But we really have no clue as to what type of mischief has them engaged.” As soon as his mouth closed, Adam regretted the choice of his final word.

“Adam, you and your family have been good friends to me and mine. That’s why I would like you to find out what our youngest siblings are engaged in. I know Joe’s just a boy, Adam, but she’s my baby sister, and the McNally temper, well, if it’s what I’m afraid of, then it would be best if you and your pa deal with Joe before I find out about it.”

Adam listened as his friend used dozens of words to convey a very simple message without ever saying just what he meant. Adam addressed his friend with rigid calmness. “I still think any mischief on their part is childish,” stated Adam emphasizing the last word, “but if it turns out that your concern is justified, Pa and I will handle it, and Joe will not see Helen at all for a very long time.”

“I’ll need to know the details, so my father can deal with Helen. Like you said before, Adam, Joe wouldn’t do anything Helen didn’t want. Whatever it is, Joe shouldn’t get all the blame.”

Adam replied with one word, “Agreed.”

*****

Adam rode quietly through the pines toward the meadow. He heard Joe’s giggle carried on the breeze and slipped from the saddle. Leaving Sport tied to a tree, he walked toward the sound. He caught the words, “Now, Sugar,” drawled in a voice that had to be Helen’s and quickened his step. He paused at the edge of the trees, and then a pistol shot rang out. Startled, he stopped in his tracks. A second shot set him moving again, and by the third shot he knew Helen was shooting at a line of targets set on a log in front of her and Joe. By the sixth shot, he was standing behind the two youngsters waiting. As Helen handed the pistol back to Joe, Adam spoke.

“Hand it to me, Joseph!” he commanded. Both Joe and Helen spun to face him.

“Adam, what?” Joe sputtered.

Adam bellowed, “I SAID HAND IT TO ME!” Joe meekly held out the pistol. Adam took it, checked that it was completely empty of ammunition, and shoved it into his waistband. “What in hel … on earth do you think you’re doing?”

Joe swallowed and glanced sideways at Helen expecting her to answer. Helen was never at a loss for words, but this time she was silent. Her eyes were closed, and all color had drained from her skin. Joe had never seen Helen look that way before. She had not looked that stricken when Pa had bellowed in the hotel room on Founder’s Day or even when Hoss had pulled her from Sport’s back. A shudder went through Joe; they were in serious trouble, and he did not even know why.

“I asked you a question,” Adam’s tone was too calm.

Joe knew that he had better answer. Swallowing again, he began, “I’ve been teaching Helen to shoot.”

“Why?” Adam growled.

It was not what Joe had expected him to say, and Joe started to stutter, “I, I, we, well, we.”

Joe looked openly to Helen for help, but before she could speak, Adam interjected, “Did you think to ask yourself why one of her own brothers hadn’t taught Helen to shoot? No, I don’t suppose you did. You’ve been used, boy.”

Joe muttered, “Used? Helen?”

Helen looked at Adam and finally spoke, “Alex told you, I suppose?”

Joe shook his head in confusion, “Told him what?”

“Helen’s father – you know her father, Joe – well, Ephraim McNally,” Adam watched Joe wince at the name, “forbade his daughter to learn to shoot and forbade all of his sons to teach her.”

“Alex thought I should be able to learn,” Helen interjected.

Adam settled his glare upon the girl, “But Alex refused to teach you, didn’t he?”

Helen bowed her head, “He wouldn’t defy Papa.”

Joe’s legs suddenly went weak, and he sat down unceremoniously on the grass. Raising his knees to his chest and folding his arms across them, he buried his head in his arms. “I’m dead,” he muttered.

Helen grabbed Adam’s arm, “Joe didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t know my father didn’t want me to learn. I tricked him into it.”

“How?” Adam demanded.

“Does it matter? Joe didn’t disobey anyone or do anything else wrong. Don’t you blame him!”

“Will your father?” Adam inquired tersely.

“No,” Helen answered quickly, but her tone was less than sure.

Adam took a deep breath and wished himself an only child. Little Joe remained in a miserable heap on the ground, and Helen looked positively frail. Once again he wondered why the mess these two created had landed in his lap.

Adam sighed, “Go home, Helen. “ Helen made no move to leave. Exasperation overwhelmed him, and Adam Cartwright swept Helen up, carried her over to her horse, and set her firmly in the saddle. “Go home!”

Helen gathered the reigns and then stopped. Leaning down she looked directly into Adam’s eyes. “Joe?”

Adam spoke so softly that only Helen could hear, “I won’t tan him.”

“Your pa?” Her voice was even softer as her breath brushed his cheek.

“Doesn’t need to know.”

Helen straightened, whirled her horse, and in a moment was flying in the direction of the McNally ranch. Adam shook his head and turned. Little Joe was exactly as he had been before. Adam walked over and dropped to sit on the ground in front of the boy.

“Joseph.”

Little Joe raised his head expecting to see his brother towering over him. His eyes widened as he looked across to see his brother’s face.

“Tell me, Joseph.”

Joe let out a deep breath. “Helen said if I taught her to shoot without anybody knowing, well, then we could surprise her brothers.”

“Surprise?”

Joe bit his lower lip. “Well, after we made a bet about what she could hit, well, then we would surprise them when we won.” Joe saw no reason to mention that they would have gladly included his brothers in the betting.

“Ahhh,” Adam’s eyes darkened, “she’s good, very good.”

“I did just like you and Pa taught me, Adam, really, I did it real safe. We followed all the rules, Adam. We did, honest,” said Joe in one rushed exclamation.

Adam believed him. “Only one thing you did wrong then, Little Brother.” Adam’s features settled into a stern frown, “Teaching Helen to shoot is just something you should not have done without asking permission, her father’s and ours.”

Joe dropped his chin to his chest. “You’re going to tell Pa.”

“No.” Adam watched his brother look up quickly and just as quickly drop his eyes once again.

“Oh,” Joe said mournfully. He bit his lip to keep from pleading for mercy; elder brother always carried out any consequences he had decided were due.

Adam came to a decision; Joe had been miserable long enough. “Your hide’s safe, kid, for now anyway.”

Joe’s eyes shot to his brother’s face. The simple fact was that Adam was not angry with him.

Adam watched relief flood Joe’s features. He laughed gently, “Now, Joe, it’s not as if I beat you daily.”

“No, once a week is usually enough,” Joe answered with a giggle.

Adam grew serious once more. “Two weeks, Joe.”

“Two weeks?”

“The pistol stays in my room for two weeks. You so much as put a finger to it, and it’s mine until your next birthday. Not to mention…”

“You don’t have to mention, Adam. I won’t touch it. But Pa’s liable to ask why I’m not wearing it.”

“I’ll deal with Pa.” Seeing his brother’s concern remained, Adam continued, “Don’t fret, Joe. I’ll just tell Pa I’m handling thingsI won’t have to give him any details.”

Joe digested his brother’s remark. “That’s why you asked to give me my first pistol, isn’t it? So you’d have some say?”

Adam nodded.

“Hoss said he learned from your mistake how serious Pa was about the rules when it came to pistols.”

Adam smiled, “Our brother was always better at that than either of us. Of course, being the eldest, there wasn’t often someone else making the mistakes first, so I could practice.”

Joe cocked his head to the side and gazed at his brother, “Just what did you do?”

Adam shook his head, “No time, Joe; if we don’t get back on time, Pa will start asking questions and demanding answers.” Adam rose and stuck out his hand to Joe. Joe grasped it, and Adam pulled him to his feet. They mounted and started back before Adam spoke again, “Joe, Alex McNally knows Helen has been sneaking off to see you.”

“He …He does?”

“I need to tell him what you were doing, so he knows it wasn’t what he thinks you’re doing.”

“What does he think we’re doing?” Joe asked with trepidation.

Adam bit the inside of his cheek and answered as simply as he could, “Sparking.” Adam’s tone gave full significance to the term.

“Me and Helen!” Joe pulled Cochise to a stop. “I told ya, Adam, it ain’t like that with Helen and me.”

Adam stopped Sport and turned to look directly at Joe. “It’s not me you have to convince of that, Younger Brother. That’s why you’re going with me when I tell him.”

*****

After supper Adam approached his father. “Pa, I’m going to head into town for awhile.” Ben Cartwright raised his eyes from his copy of the Territorial Enterprise, and considered the tone of his eldest son’s remark. He knew there was a more controversial statement coming.

“You wouldn’t mind if Joe accompanied me, would you?”

Ben’s eyebrows meet. “You want to take your little brother into town on a Friday night?”

“Pa, you sound like I’ve never taken Joe with me to town. I thought Joe might enjoy going, and we could spend some time together,” Adam continued smoothly.

“Where would you be spending this time, son?”

“Well, Joe is sixteen now, Pa. I thought we might spend a little time at the Silver Dollar.” Adam schooled his face to remain nonchalant.

“You want to take Little Joe to a saloon?” Ben’s tone was cool, but his voice remained at a normal volume.

“The Silver Dollar is a respectable enough place and not too rowdy. It’s only Friday, not Saturday night, and I’ll be with him, Pa.” Adam did not mention that Alex McNally would be meeting them there.

Ben deferred comment and instead asked, “Will Hoss be going with you also?”

Adam had not thought about his middle brother. “Well, of course, if Hoss wants to go, he’s welcome, but he seemed awful tired at supper.”

“And you want to be the first to buy your baby brother a beer, is that it?”

“Well, I did do the same for Hoss. It would be like, well, a tradition.”

“If I remember correctly, there are parts of that night I would not want to become a tradition in this family,” Ben intoned.

Adam winced – how could he have forgotten how that episode ended – and said in a smooth placating tone, “Now, Pa, Hoss was sixteen, but he looked closer to twenty. Joe barely looks his age; the gals at the Silver Dollar are going to know he’s too young. Besides, I was only twenty-two, and I have more experience now in handling that sort of thing.”

Ben stared intently at his eldest, “Would you care to elaborate on the experience you’ve had, son?”

Adam grinned sheepishly and simply shook his head.

Ben continued, “Who is it, Adam, that is always commenting on how much trouble his youngest brother attracts?”

“Well,” Adam drawled, “I have to admit that Joe usually attracts more trouble than Hoss, but, the thing is, if Joe stirs up trouble, I can just toss him over my shoulder and tote him out.”

“Yeah, Brother Adam had to quit toting me anywhere about the time I turned nine.”

Ben and Adam turned to see Hoss who had obviously heard the last part of the conversation.”

Adam spoke on the assumption that the matter had been settled even though he knew it had not. “Do you want to come with us, Hoss?”

Hoss smiled at his brother. “I’ve been thinking that ya would want to do for Joe like ya done for me, and I think that’s the way it ought to be. See, you and me have done lots of things together that Joe’s been too young to be part of. It’ll be good for you two to do something grown together just the two of ya, and I’m thinking I can take Joe for his second time, just the two of us. There’s gonna be plenty of times for all three of the Cartwright brothers to share a beer now the boy’s getting some growth. Besides, it’ll give me and Pa a chance at that checkerboard.”

Adam stood up and placed his hand on Hoss’ arm. “Did I ever tell you how much I would like you even if you weren’t my brother?” Hoss grinned from ear to ear and grabbed his brother in a bear hug.

The brothers’ exchange and the thought that he spent much more time with just his youngest or just his eldest than he did with just Hoss made Ben’s decision for him. “All right! Hoss set up that checkerboard.” Ben stood and caught Adam by the arm drawing him closer. “Adam, one and only one beer and an early return. There is work to be done tomorrow.” Ben’s look told Adam the rest. Joe was his responsibility, and Adam would be held to account for any trouble.

Adam’s eyes sparkled, “We’ll be home early, Pa, so you can get to bed at a decent hour!” Ben resisted the impulse to swat his grown son as he walked away. Adam had always had the sassiest mouth of the bunch.

*****

Adam caught Joe’s arm and stopped him as they were about to enter the Silver Dollar. Joe looked directly into his brother’s eyes, and it came to him like a memory that he had not thought about in a long time. Adam had always taken care of him; Adam always would. Before Adam could speak, Joe said simply, “I’ll be good.” Adam smiled and placed his arm around his brother’s shoulders. If there were trouble tonight, he knew it would not be Joe who started it.

Adam scanned the room for the proper table. The saloon was about half full, and he detected no obvious troublemakers. He spoke to the bartender, and then led Joe to a table in the back. He tucked Joe into the corner chair where his back was guarded by the walls, and the table was between him and trouble. Then Adam took the seat to his brother’s right positioning himself so that he could watch the room and the door.

“You only get one beer, Joe, so drink it slow and make it last,” Adam said firmly but without his usual sharpness.

Joe nodded, took off his hat, and looked around. He saw Alex and Jeff McNally come through the door. Seeing Jeff was with his brother, Adam motioned to the barkeep for an additional beer. The McNally brothers joined the Cartwrights.

Jeff smiled, “Hope y’all don’t mind that I tagged along.”

“You’re always welcome,” Adam responded truthfully. Jeff’s fuse burned the slowest of all the McNally brothers.

A saloon girl in a flamboyant red dress came over with the ordered beers. Adam’s lips curled upward as he watched his little brother take in his first up-close view of the feminine enticements that the Silver Dollar offered. Joe’s eyes were wide and round, and his jaw had dropped leaving his mouth agape. He looked like a six-year-old watching fireworks for the first time. Adam’s eyes slid over to observe Alex McNally. Alex’s eyes were on Joe. Adam prayed that he had made the right choice. He reached for his beer and took a long swallow. The others joined him. Adam nearly laughed at the face Joe made when the beer hit his tongue.

Alex did laugh softly, “His first?”

Adam glanced at Joe who dropped his head slightly. “Officially,” Adam answered, and Jeff’s deeper laughter rang out. Adam decided there was no time like the present, “Alex, Helen and Joe were together today.” Adam watched Alex’s eyes start to burn and hurried to add, “They were not engaged in the mischief you were concerned about.” He watched Alex’s features lighten. Jeff lifted his hand from his brother’s arm where he had placed it moments before.

“Then what …” Alex began.

“We’ll discuss what they have been up to in a minute. First, Joe wants to say something to you.”

Joe swallowed nervously and began, “Alex, Adam said, well, he said you were worried that Helen and me, well, that we…but we weren’t…really, we never would do that. Gosh, Alex, my Pa taught me about respecting gals, and I couldn’t disappoint him like that, and Helen, you know she ain’t that kind of girl, and she told me she’d never set her cap for me, and we’re just friends.” The necessity of taking a breath forced Joe to pause. He looked carefully at Alex and then said simply, “I would never ask Helen to do anything she’d be ashamed of that way.”

Alex knew that with little brothers you sometimes knew for certain they were lying and other times you knew for certain they were telling the simple truth. Alex let out a deep breath, “That’s all I needed to hear. Joe, it’s not that I didn’t trust you;it’s just that my Pa, well…”

“He’d kill the both of us,” Joe finished softly.

Alex sighed, “I wish it were that simple.” He exchanged a look with his brother.

“Joe, Alex was worried, well, our father would never forgive Helen, never,” Jeff McNally declared softly.

Adam was not sure if he believed that Ephraim McNally would reject his daughter, but then his sons knew Ephraim better than he did. There was one thing, though, of which Adam was sure. As he watched his brother’s face, he saw Jeff’s comment settle into the depths of Joe’s mind. Helen McNally’s virtue was safe forever from Joseph Francis Cartwright.

Alex leaned his chair back on two legs. “Just what mischief were they up to?” he asked.

Joe shifted in his chair, and tried to make himself smaller. Adam cleared his throat, “Actually. Joe has been teaching Helen to shoot.”

As Alex leaned forward with a jerk, his chair legs hit the floor with a bang that turned every eye in the room toward them. Jeff shook his head slowly and then covered his face with his hands. Adam and Joe waited for Alex to explode, but the young man simply looked at Adam, “You can’t tell anyone, not anyone. Promise me, Adam, not your Pa, not anyone.”

“I hadn’t planned to tell anyone but you, Alex.”

“I mean it, Adam, promise. You don’t know what Papa said he would do. Promise, Adam.” Adam thought Alex looked as young as Joe at that moment.

“I promise, Alex,” Adam stated calmly.

Jeff McNally was gazing at Joe. “Why were you teaching Helen?” he demanded.

Alex looked at his brother, “Do you need to ask?”

“Yes, I do, Alexander.” The Cartwright brothers had never heard Jeff address his brother by his full name and wondered at the anger they heard in Jeff’s voice.

“Leave it be, Jeffrey Conner,” Alex intoned in a voice usually reserved for addressing impudent four-year-olds.

The look Jeff gave his older brother stated clearly, if silently, that the discussion would continue later in private. Adam knew that Alex had been the one to speak to Ephraim McNally about Helen learning to use a gun. Alex had discussed with him Ephraim’s adamant stance that his daughter not learn to use a gun and Alex’s own concern that Helen needed that skill to protect herself. He knew that Alex had seriously considered going against his father’s orders and teaching Helen himself, but he had not been sure that he could shoulder all the blame and protect Helen from their father’s wrath. Adam had advised waiting and looking for a way to make Ephraim appreciate his son’s concern. Perhaps Jeff thought Alex had encouraged Helen to find a teacher outside the family.

“Well,” having nothing actually to say, Adam took a swallow of beer, “the reason for the lessons aside, you can be sure that they are at an end. Joe had no way of knowing your father had forbidden Helen to learn. Now that he does…”

“I didn’t know, really,” Joe interjected, “There won’t be any more lessons ever.”

Alex turned his attention to Joe, “Just how much instruction did Helen receive?”

Joe decided to begin with reassurances, “We were real careful. Helen knows all the rules and can clean and load a pistol. I made sure she knows how to be careful and is real serious, and we didn’t play around none, really we didn’t.”

“Can she hit what she aims at?” Jeff inquired.

“About half the time,” Joe replied, “That’s what we were working on.”

Alex glanced at his brother. “Joe, did Helen ever tell you that her vision is weak in her right eye.”

“No, what…”

“You think she’s sighting improperly?” Adam interjected.

“Could be, I’ll have to… Lord in Heaven, what am I saying?” Alex McNally buried his head in his arms on the tabletop.

Jeff downed the last of his beer in one long swig and then stood. He took his older brother’s left arm in both hands and hauled him to his feet. “Come on, Alexander Conrad, it’s a long ride home.”

*****

“Adam, if we had a sister, do you think Pa would let her learn to shoot?” Joe asked as he and Adam rode through the darkness toward home.

“I think he would regret it was necessary, but, yes, I think any sister of ours would know how to shoot,” Adam responded.

“Why do ya think that Mr. McNally is so set against Helen learning? I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t let Helen do things that lots of the town ladies would say a girl shouldn’t be doing, and he lets her ride all over creation by herself,” Joe continued.

“But he insists she ride sidesaddle,” Adam stated. “Joe, lots of decisions people make, well, they’re not about things that are black and white. They’re about things that are all different shades of gray. Each person draws lines that person refuses to step across. Sometimes the reasons are real complicated.”

“Like I said, Adam, I wonder why Mr. McNally doesn’t want to let Helen know how to shoot.”

Adam sighed. When Joe could not have a definite answer, he always insisted on speculation. “It could be that he doesn’t want to admit that he brought his daughter to a place where to protect her he has to allow her to learn to protect herself.”

“Maybe. You didn’t wear your gun while you were in Boston, did ya?”

“People in Boston don’t go about wearing guns. If we lived in Boston, I wouldn’t be wearing one, and you would not yet know how to fire a pistol, let alone teach Helen.”

“Helen lives here, though, not Boston or Virginia or anyplace like that.” Joe sighed, “Adam, is it wrong that Helen knows how to shoot?”

Adam realized the reason for their discussion. “Joe, it was wrong of Helen to disobey and defy her father and to use you to do it, but, no, I don’t think it is wrong that she knows how to defend herself with a gun,” Adam said offering his brother the absolution he craved.

*****

Ben looked up at the clock as his sons entered the house and smiled. He looked intently at his youngest, and his smile increased. Then he chided himself, “They’re good boys, Ben Cartwright, always have been.”

Adam saw his father studying Joe and shook his head. When Ben’s eyes turned toward him, Adam gave his father an impudent grin. “Everything went fine, Pa. I had enough money to cover Joe’s bail and mine.”

“Adam!” Joe’s exclamation was a horrified squeal and Ben’s an admonishing snort. Hoss just let out a full-throated chuckle.

“Seriously, Pa, it was a very quiet evening. Your baby was a very good boy.” Adam made sure his tone was light enough to ward off Joe’s temper at being called a baby.

“Then only one of my sons is in need of correction this evening?” Ben asked raising his eyebrow imperially.

Adam raised his hand in a gesture of submission. “Point taken, Pa.”

“Then I think I’ll retire,” Ben said rising to his feet. “There’s a lot to be done tomorrow,” he stated pointedly.

It was Hoss who quickly offered, “We won’t be up long, Pa. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, sons,” Ben replied and turned on the first stair step to bestow a fatherly smile on all his boys.

“Goodnight, Pa,” Little Joe said, “and thanks for letting Adam take me into town.”

“You’re welcome, Joe, and thank you for sparing your old man the trouble of a necessary talk.”

All three of Ben Cartwright’s sons shook their heads as they watched Ben mount the stairs.

“So ya behaved yourself, did ya, Short Shanks?” Hoss teased.

“This time,” Adam retorted, “Just goes to show that wonders never cease.”

Joe just snorted as he plopped down on the settee. Then he grinned. “Had to lull Pa into a sense of security, so he’ll let me go to town with Hoss. Then I can have some real fun.”

“Now, young’in,” Hoss sputtered, and all three brothers started to laugh. After the laughter died, they sat in companionable silence watching the fire.

“Adam,” Joe said softly, “will you tell me about learning not to break Pa’s rules about pistols?”

Adam looked at his little brother. “Why is it important to you to know, Joe?”

“Not to tease ya, Adam, really not. I, well, I can remember when Hoss wasn’t grown, but, well, I try, but I can’t really remember you like that, like somebody who’d do dumb kid things and get in trouble with Pa. Gosh, Adam you know every dumb thing I’ve ever done.” Adam cocked an eyebrow, and Joe giggled, “At least all the ones I got caught doing.”

“Tell him, Adam,” Hoss encouraged gently.

“All right, all right,” Adam capitulated.

“Actually, Pa taught me how to load and shoot a pistol before he left to go to New Orleans.”

When you were eleven!” Joe exclaimed in astonishment.

“Things were different then, Joe, and Pa knew he’d be gone for a good bit. He thought I should know, so he taught me. I think he thought it safer if I did disobeyed him for me to know what I was doing than not.’

“Pa gave you a gun when you were eleven,” Joe muttered.

“Good gracious no, boy! He taught me how to shoot and forbade me to touch a gun except with him standing next to me or if it was the only way to save my life, only he didn’t even say that part aloud. As soon as he got back from New Orleans, I started begging for a gun of my own. Pa kept saying no, of course, and Marie, well, she had fits every time I mentioned it.”

Hoss and Adam exchanged a look as the thought crossed both their minds that aggravating his new stepmother was a good share of the reason Adam kept asking when he knew the answer would be no.

“I begged regularly for four years,” Adam sighed, “Then when it was time for my fifteenth birthday, I told Pa that I only wanted a pistol and holster and if I couldn’t have that, I didn’t want anything.”

“So Pa got you a pistol?” Joe never listened to a story without inquiry or comment.

“Not exactly. Pa decided to teach me a lesson and took me at my word. He didn’t get me anything for my fifteenth birthday.”

“He didn’t?” Joe was horrified.

“He didn’t.”

Hoss spoke for the first time since the story had begun. “Ya could see Adam was waiting for Pa to pull out a present from some hidey hole, but he didn’t. Adam got sadder and sadder as the day went on, and Ma got madder and madder. Actually, Pa had a present hid away, but he had told Ma that he wouldn’t give it to Adam until the boy asked for his present. Adam didn’t say nothing, though.”

“Anyway, three days later I found a second-hand pistol and holster on my bed. Your ma bought me my first handgun, Joe.”

Joe gasped, and his eyes widened, “But you said…”

“She couldn’t stand to see Adam so sad and couldn’t get Pa to get over his stubborn or Adam either, so she up and done it,” Hoss interjected. Actually he had gone with Marie when she made the purchase. “It’s my money, not your pa’s or the Ponderosa’s,” Hoss could remember her saying, “We shall make Adam smile again, yes, we shall. Then we shall pray to the Holy Mother to keep him safe.”

“Ma bought the gun, but Pa set the rules. I don’t have to tell you what they were.”

Joe rolled his eyes, “I know ’em by heart.”

“Well, I knew them, but one day I decided to bend them just a little. I wore my gun when I was going to meet some friends. None of them had one of their own yet, and I swaggered up like the cock of the walk. Well, wearing it for them to see turned into shooting it for them to watch. Next thing I knew I decided to try a fancy draw. Gun went off, bullet hit a rock, ricocheted, and grazed my horse. I thought of about a hundred wild stories to explain that graze while I walked that horse home, but I never could get away with a flat-out lie to Pa, so I just told the truth.” Adam stopped speaking and stared into the fire.

“Pa was really mad, uh?” Joe inquired softly.

Adam did not answer, but Hoss did, “Only time Pa tanned Adam in front of me and Ma.”

Joe looked over at his elder brother with belated sympathy.

“I deserved every lick. Never got that gun back at all,” Adam said rising from his chair. Then he smiled at his little brother. “Got a brand new one on my sixteenth birthday. Now, baby brother, get to bed.”

*****

“Joe.” The soft, southern drawl to his name alerted Joe to the fact that Helen McNally was addressing him. “You willing to speak to me, Sugar?

“No,” Joe stated flatly keeping his back to the girl.

“Willing to listen, then?”

“Not if you don’t mean what you’re saying.” Joe’s tone remained cold.

“Adam told Alex once that if you accept a penance, you can be forgiven.”

Joe gave up and turned to face Helen, “You have to repent first, Helen, and you ain’t sorry.”

“I’m sorry I deceived you. Truly I am, Sugar.”

“You’re just wheedling, Helen. You always call me Sugar when you’re wheedling.” Joe’s face still held a frown.

“I usually bring gingerbread when I’m wheedling.” Helen held out a cloth wrapped bundle.

Joe shook his head. “The price for that is probably way too high. What do you want me to do now? Take you to San Francisco?”

Helen eyes widened. “Now there’s an interesting thought, but no,” she shook her head sadly and looked at him through lowered lashes, “I just want you to forgive me. Please?”

Joe stepped back and leaned against the tack room wall, “I could confess to your pa, Helen. Adam promised, but I didn’t.”

Helen did not flinch but said calmly, “You could, Joe. Papa wouldn’t really blame you, and Adam would keep you out of trouble with your father.”

“Don’t be so sure I won’t, girl.” Joe’s tempered flared.

“If you feel guilty or if that is what it will take for you to forgive me and be friends again, well, Papa’s in the house talking to your father.” Helen’s voice remained steady, and she looked directly into Joe’s eyes.

“Alex believed your father would do what he promised.” Joe thought Helen must believe she could wrap her father around her little finger.

“Oh, Papa always does what he says. He never makes an idle threat.”

“Then how come…”

“Joe, I knew what would happen to me if Papa found out even before I decided to get you to teach me. When Adam saw us, well, for a few minutes I was worried I couldn’t keep you out of real trouble with him.”

“So, you were only scared for me?” Joe’s tone had become cynical.

“I didn’t, I still don’t want Alex in trouble with Papa.”

“Why would Alex be in trouble with your father?”

“Papa holds him responsible for putting the idea of learning to shoot in my head.”

Joe sighed, “I won’t tell. Not for you, for Alex.” He turned his back to the girl and began again the task of straightening the tack.

“Would it make a difference if you knew Alex took care of punishing me?”

A little,” Joe thought, but he answered, “Anything he did, you deserved.”

“Joe, I am sorry for how I hurt you. Please forgive me.” The tremor in Helen’s voice made Joe turn and look again at the girl. Her eyes were liquid, and the tears slipped down her cheeks.

“No fair! No fair at all. How come girls get to cry without having to be embarrassed about it?”

“I just…I didn’t want…, I’m sorry, really I am,” Helen sobbed.

“You got a handkerchief?” Joe inquired gruffly. When Helen shook her head, Joe dug a clean cotton square from his back pocket and handed it to her. “Quit your squallin’. I forgive you.”

Helen smiled at Joe and wiped her face. “Thank you.” Holding out the bundle of gingerbread she still held, she added, “Want this?”

Joe always felt that you either forgave a person, or you didn’t. If you did, well then, that was that. “Sure, I do.” He took the gingerbread and unwrapped it. Taking a big bite, he leaned once more against the wall. “Ya know, Helen, it would have been a real whopper of a prank.”

Helen smiled ruefully, “And profitable too.”

Joe giggled, “You should have seen Alex’s face when Adam told him.”

Helen bit her lower lip and looked pensive. “Joe,” she admonished, “he was worried about me.”

“Well, Sugah,” Joe drawled, “That’s what big brothers are for!”

***The End***

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