Love Came Late (by DJK)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  45,200


 

Marie heard the door open and looked at the clock. Then she turned her head to watch the dark-haired boy who had stopped just inside the door to place his hat on the proper peg.

“Adam.”

He turned to face her, standing warily next to the credenza. “Yes?”

Marie had noticed that her stepson’s ma’am disappeared whenever her husband was not in the room. “Come here, please.”

He approached slowly to stand before her. The defiance was there etched in his stance, but he kept his eyes downcast.

“It’s been dark for over an hour.” Her simple statement was met with silence. “Why are you late?”

He threw his head back and gazed down at her. “I was delayed.”

“Delayed?” She cocked her head and raised her eyebrow questioningly.

“Yes, delayed.” It was a statement yet a challenge nonetheless.

She stood bringing her eyes level with the twelve-year-old wishing that her petit frame were taller or that the boy had not inherited his father’s height.

“And what was it that delayed you?” The question was edged with insistence.

“It was a private matter.” He gave her look that dared her to accept that any private matter of his was no business of hers. Her fingers curled tightly in the folds of her gown.

“A private matter, Adam. I doubt that your father will feel anything that keeps you from our dinner table and out alone after dark can remain private.” If she had not been looking directly into his eyes, she would not have seen the flicker of concern.

“That would be between Pa and me.” His tone was full of bravado, but Marie was focusing on his eyes.

“Yes, I’m sure you and Benjamin will have a very private discussion when he is informed.”

He swallowed as if something had suddenly filled his throat. “May I go and have something to eat?”

She had told Hop Sing to set a plate for Adam in the warmer, but she was tempted to send him to bed without it. Had not her own parents used that means to impress the lesson of promptness to meals on her? Then they both heard it, the soft sound of his empty stomach rumbling. Adam’s checks flushed at the betrayal.

“Your supper is in the warmer.” He turned on his heel and walked toward the kitchen.

Marie bit her lower lip as she watched him depart. For just that short moment, he had looked the little boy. She sighed. Ben’s first born was an intelligent, mature, and ever so stubborn boy who played the role of grown-up far too well. Still, he was but a boy, and Benjamin’s wrath was capable of cowering full-grown men. Perhaps she could simply not inform her husband of Adam’s tardiness. There were a number of things she had not shared with Ben about the boy’s behavior in the ten months she had been his stepmother.

She walked over to the fireplace and stared into its depths.

“Mama?” The voice floated down from the stair landing. Marie turned and saw Hoss looking down into the great room. “Is Adam home?”

“Yes, Hoss, he is home.” She turned and smiled at the six-year-old. “Now, it is time for you to get ready for bed, mon petit. I will be up to tuck you in and hear your prayers.” When he hesitated, she shooed him with her hands, “Quick now! Away with you.”

Hoss turned and darted up the stairs. Marie sighed again. If only Adam allowed people to love him as easily as did his brother, being a mother would be truly the joy she had dreamed.

Marie heard sounds from the kitchen and the sound of voices. Hop Sing was apparently making Adam aware that missing meals would not be well tolerated by the cook.

Marie mounted the stairs and knocked lightly on Hoss’ door before entering his room. The little boy had changed into a nightshirt and washed his face earning her smile. She walked toward him then spotted his pants and shirt on the floor. The smile faded.

“Hoss,” she chided gently, “where do we leave our clothes?”

“Sorry, Mama.” Hoss scrambled to pick up the offending garments and place them properly away.

“Very good.” Marie nodded approvingly. “Now, I shall hear your prayers.” She sat on edge of the bed as her stepson knelt beside it. Folding his chubby hands and bowing his blond head, Hoss began his nightly litany.

“And please make Pa not be mad with Adam for being bad. Amen!” Hoss bounced off his knees and onto the bed.

Marie digested his last petition. Then she heard Hoss’ soft voice.

“Are ya gonna tell Pa about Adam not coming in ’til afta dark?”

Not knowing the answer, Marie said, “Adam should have been home on time. He should not be out alone this late. He must learn this is so.”

Hoss bit his lip. “That’s ’cause he coulda been hurted, and we was worried?”

Marie brushed the hair back from Hoss’ brow. Yes, this little one had been worried about his brother, and that was perhaps the worst of what Adam had done. “A person should not do that which makes those who love him worry.”

“I’s worried now, Mama. I’s worried Adam will get a tanning from Pa.” He leaned closer as if to confide a great secret. “Pa onliest spanks me, but he tans Adam.”

“Only when Adam deserves it,” she observed.

Hoss dropped his chin to his chest and let his lower lip slip outward. “Hurts just the same. Adam ‘tends it don’t, but he cries after.”

“Perhaps Adam will have a good reason to give your father. It is not your worry, mon petit. Now, you must close your eyes and have sweet dreams.” Marie leaned down and kissed his cheek. Hoss threw his arms around her neck and kissed her back.

“Good night, Mama. I love ya. Wish I could tell Pa I love him too.”

“Know we both love you, Hoss, always.”

Marie closed the door behind her and stood in the dark hall. Suddenly she roused and walked quickly to her room. Taking her rosary from the nightstand, she sank to her knees and began praying to the Holy Mother to grant her wisdom and guide her as she tried to mother both her sons.

*****

Adam took a bite of meat and chewed slowly. With his other hand, he rubbed the sting in his backside. He told himself he should have had the sense to sit down quick the minute Hop Sing stepped into the kitchen. Hop Sing has delivered one swat with his wooden spoon and a dozen verbal lashes before ordering number one son to leave no mess and storming from the room. Adam sighed. Hop Sing would fuss at him tonight, but he would not say anything to Pa tomorrow. At the thought of his father’s return, Adam swallowed and set down his fork. He wanted his pa home badly, yet the thought of the session he and his father would surely have when Ben Cartwright learned of his son’s behavior in his absence caused Adam’s stomach to roll. He had not meant to be late, especially not this late. He had only wanted to say goodbye, but even that had gone wrong. He sighed. He had not even kept from being disrespectful to Marie, and this time she might tell Pa of his insolence. The rest of his appetite slipped away, but Adam had learned hard lessons about any food being too precious to waste when he was very young, and they keep him mechanically chewing through the rest of the food on his plate.

*****

Marie rose from her knees and walked downstairs to check the house. Knowing that everything was secured, she decided that her empty bed was preferable to the empty great room. At least if she slept, she might dream that Benjamin was already back in her arms.

She mounted the stairs and started toward her room. As she passed Adam’s bedroom door, she heard a slight sound. The door had not been firmly closed and had drifted slightly open. She paused and listened intently. She did not know if it was her ears or some other sense that told her Adam was far from asleep, but suddenly she knew that he was lying in that dark room crying. She slipped into the room, crossed to the bed, and set down the dimmed lamp she carried.

“Adam.” The utterance was soft and lilted in the way that only her Creole tongue said his name.

“Go away!” It was a vehement command.

Instead of complying, she sat down lightly on the edge of the bed. Adam was lying on his side curled around his pillow facing the wall.

“I don’t want you here!” The fervor of the statement was muffled only by the pillow in which the boy had buried his head.

Always before when he had turned his back to her, when his words or behavior had pushed her away, she had retreated, but this time she simply remained.

“I don’t intend to leave you alone crying in the dark.” She made that simple statement softly but clearly.

“I’m not crying!” Petulance took the force from his exclamation. A faint smile flickered on her lips; he sounded like such a small boy.

“Then I won’t leave you not crying alone in the dark.”

In response, he inched away from her and buried his face deeper into the pillow. Marie studied the rigid shoulders in their striped nightshirt and the dark hair that curled against his neck. If she told Ben tonight’s story, tomorrow would find the boy sobbing into his pillow again.

Hoping he had an acceptable reason for his tardiness, she ventured gently, “Adam, why were you late tonight?”

“I want you to go away!” It was a desperate and harsh whisper. Marie knew that he meant far more than her immediate departure from his room.

“I’m not, you know. I’m not going. Your father and I are man and wife, Adam. I’m not going anywhere.”

“People go away sometimes. People mostly go away.” His mutters were filled with resigned despair.

She felt the tears fill her eyes. Many people had left this child’s life; many people had left hers. Then somehow she knew the right question to ask.

“Who’s going away now?”

“Miss Clare.” He answered without thought the name slipping from his lips.

Clare? Clare DeWitt.” The name came immediately to her mind, and the memory followed.

She had been so happy to have finally reached Ben’s Ponderosa yet so nervous because she would be meeting his children, the boys who would be her sons. The pictures came one after another like illustrations in a book: the first sight of the house; a sturdy, little blonde racing out the doorthe tall, slim youth who followed him so warily;and then the woman who walked up behind Adam and placed her hand on his shoulder squeezing it reassuringly.

Ben had already told her, of course, about Clare. She and her brother had traveled the final part of the way West with Ben and his boys. They had settled nearby. The families had become close friends. Alan Dewitt had been killed, but his sister had stayed on. When Ben had faced leaving his boys for such a long time, he had known that Hop Sing would care for them diligently, but he had asked Clare, the daughter of a Harvard professor, to come to the ranch and supervise the boys’ studies. In her mind, Marie had labeled the woman the governess. Before Clare Dewitt had left the house the next morning, Marie had known that her stepsons loved the woman, that Ben considered her a dear friend, and that Clare DeWitt had hoped one day he would feel something more. They had seen far less of Clare in the last ten months then would have been expected. Marie wondered if Adam understood why Clare had kept her distance and why Marie had not been surprised when Ben had told her Clare had decided to return to the East to take a teaching position at a girls’ school.

“Ben loves you very much, Marie; that is obvious to anyone who sees the two of you together.” Clare DeWitt’s voice had been soft and not meant to carry beyond Marie’s ears. “I’m happy he has found that.”

“We are blessed to have found each other,” Marie replied in a tone that matched.

“And the boys. It is good that they shall have a mother.”

“They are good boys.” Worry had crept into Marie’s voice.

“Adam will come around.” Clare had seen enough of the boy’s reaction to his father’s new wife to understand that worry. “It’s not so much you — yourself I mean — it’s that Adam…” Her voice faded as she searched for the right words.

“Hoss,” that one word stated the hope that if one son could love her already the other might eventually love her too. “It is so easy with Hoss.”

Clare had turned to look directly into Marie’s eyes, “Hoss is like a summer meadow, full of sunshine and sweet flowers. Beautiful, yes, and close by and easy to reach. Adam, well, Adam is the high mountain glen. A hard climb but when you arrive, well, sometimes the beauty can take your breath away.”

Marie gazed across the space between her and Adam as if it were a mile wide. “You were at Clare’s? But she would not have you riding home alone in the dark?”

“I didn’t come straight home.” Then ever so faintly, “I was too mad.”

“At Clare?”

“At you.” He had said it, but it was not the whole truth. He had been mad at Marie, at his father, at Miss Clare, and most of all at himself for wanting what he knew he could not have.

“He had picked her for a mother.” That thought came to her along with the thought that a general description of Clare DeWitt and the description Ben had given of Elizabeth Cartwright matched very well. “No wonder he hated me from the start. I not only smashed his life; I shattered his dreams.” Marie trembled and reached out her hand stopping just short of touching Adam’s shoulder.

Adam’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut like a four-year-old pretending to be asleep. He sensed Marie’s presence with every bit of his body, and part of him wanted to jump up, shout, push her away, run, but most of him was just too tired to do anything even hold it inside anymore.

“You went to say goodbye.”

“I told her not to go.” His voice was so weary, but to Marie’s surprise he continued. “She tried to talk, but I wouldn’t listen. I, I, I shouted at her. I, I, I threw a fit.” The admission left his lips with a violent shudder. Marie held herself still. “She, she smacked my bottom with her ruler. Three licks!” There was petulance in his voice again; he could have been as young as Hoss. “She said she had never let Hoss and me get away with temper tantrums, and she wouldn’t start now, that she cared about what kind of men we grew to be.” His voice was full of tears. “But she doesn’t care enough to stay!”

Marie dared to touch him. She gently rubbed his back. He was so tense that it was like rubbing a worry stone. “She can still care even if she goes; she can still care no matter how far she goes.” She felt him shudder as he began to sob. She continued to rub his back until he stilled. He had cried himself to sleep. She moved more gently then she had ever before as she rose and slipped from the room.

*****

They had all slept late. Marie wondered how Hop Sing had known they needed to not be disturbed. Now they sat around the table silently eating the breakfast he had waited to prepare. The knock at the door startled them.

Marie opened the door and was surprised for only a moment. “Clare! Do come in.”

Clare De Witt smiled and stepped inside. “I, well, I’m leaving to go East tomorrow, and I wanted to tell the boys goodbye.

Hoss had jumped up to run toward the door when Marie had a spoken their guest’s name. He stopped dead and exclaimed, “Leavin’!”

Clare turned toward him, went down on her knees, and beckoned him to her. She placed her hands on his waist and looked into his eyes.

“I’m going to go back East and be a teacher, Hoss.”

“I don’t want ya to, Miss Clare.” The statement was simple and true. It slipped out easily along with Hoss’ lower lip.

She drew him to her but spoke in a clear voice meant to carry to Adam who still stood next to the dining table.

“I know you’ll miss me, and I’ll miss you and Adam and everyone very, very much,” she began.

“Then why ya goin’?”

“Hoss, you know how happy it made me teaching you and Adam. Well, there aren’t enough students here for a school and in the East there are lots of children who need a teacher.”

“There’s ladies there that can teach ’em.”

“Yes, but, well, that’s not the only reason I’m going.” She bit her lip and then continued, “Hoss, you know how happy your pa has been since he married your mama?”

The little head nodded and smiled.

“Well, he’s so happy because he and Marie have found a very special kind of love.”

“Pa says there’s a special kind of love ‘tween married folks.”

“That’s right. And that love makes a person very happy. I want to find that special love.”

“There’s lots of mens around here with no wife. You could be in special love with one of them. Couldn’t ya?” Hoss’ hand tightened on the cloth of Clare’s sleeve.

Clare shook her head. “There’s not that special love for me with any of them, Hoss. That’s why I have to go away to look for the right man.”

“The one that has that special love for you?”

“Yes, Hoss.”

“Then ya’ll be happy as Pa is now?”

“Yes. Do you understand?”

He nodded and threw his arms around her neck. “I want ya to have that special love, Miss Clare,” he whispered in her ear, “even if I’s got to miss ya.”

“Thank you, Hoss.” Then she continued in a cheery voice. “I’ll write you long letters.” She saw a frown start to flutter on Hoss’ face at the thought of trying to read any long epistles. “You and Adam can read them together, and he’ll help you write back to me. We’ll still be, we’ll always be friends.” She hugged him tight, released him, and stood. “Hoss, could you run ask Hop Sing if he could make me some of his wonderful coffee and maybe…”

“We’s got cookies. Hop Sing baked lots yesterday, and I didn’t eat ’em all.”

“Oh my, well, then maybe Hop Sing will fix coffee and milk and cookies for my going-away party. Will you go ask?” Clare watched the little boy dart off and then walked to his brother.

Adam looked into her eyes and then dropped his head. “Miss Clare, I…I…I’m sorry.”

She raised his chin with her hand. “I forgive you. Do you forgive me for the spanking?”

Adam nodded. “I deserved it.” He shrugged. “It weren’t much of a spanking anyways.”

Her pointer finger tapped his nose. “It was all that was needed.” She slipped her arm around him as easily as she had Hoss. “So you understand why I have to go?”

“Yep,” he answered softly, “but I still don’t like it.” His lower lip slipped out further than Hoss’ had. “Who’s going to help me with my studies?”

“Your Pa knows more geography and astronomy than I do and almost as much history. You don’t need me for mathematics or science, not really. Marie, can teach you French and some Latin too, I expect.” She gently tapped his temple. “That brain of yours can puzzle out most books if you try, young man, and you can write to me if you get well and truly stuck. If I don’t know the answer, there’ll be people I can ask. I’ll not be an excuse for slacking off, Adam Cartwright. Understand me?” Her voice had taken on a stern tone.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She hugged him, and Adam hugged her back so hard she could not breathe.

“Miss Clare!” Hoss came dashing back into the room, and Adam released his hold on Clare. “Hop Sing says take off ya hat and sit down to the table ’cause he’s fixin’ the ‘freshments, and we’s gonna say goodbye right. Tell her, Mama.”

“You know we must all do as Hop Sing tells us, Clare.” Marie spoke for the first time since inviting Clare to enter.

Clare laughed, “Of course I know about obeying Hop Sing!” She took Hoss’ hand and then Adam’s, and walked with them to the dining table.

Hoss had made the great sacrifice of allowing Clare the last cookie. Then Marie had sent the boys out to give Clare’s horse an apple and a drink before he had to pull her buggy home. Marie walked Clare to the door.

“Ben will be sorry he wasn’t here to say goodbye. He should be back this afternoon.”

“He said he’d see me to the stage.” Clare bit her lip. “If you mind, Marie…”

“I don’t,” Marie hurried to say, “Clare, I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“If the Lord pleases. Marie, see that Ben writes and lets me know how the boys are doing.”

“We’ll all write. Long, long letters,” Marie assured.

“Everything’s ready.” Adam’s voice reached them through the open door.

After hugs and kisses all around, Clare got in her buggy and left.

*****

Hoss heard the door open and sprang up from the floor where he had been playing with his blocks.

“Pa! PA! Pa’s home!” Hoss ran and launched himself into Ben Cartwright’s arms. Adam stood up from the table where he had been doing lessons, and Marie set down her sewing to rise and go toward her husband.

Ben scooped up his son and hugged him. Hoss smacked his father’s cheek with a kiss. “I missed ya, Pa, something awful.”

“I missed you too, Son, but I’m home now, and that’s all that matters.” Ben squeezed the little boy to him and kissed his cheek. “Boy, am I glad to be home!” Ben looked over at his wife with a special smile.

“We’re very glad too, Benjamin, that you are home. So very glad!” Marie returned his smile.

“Now, Hoss,” Ben said returning his attention to the boy in his arms, “were you a good boy while I was gone?”

Hoss nodded solemnly, “I was good, Pa. Tell him, Mama, I was a good boy.”

“Yes, he was a very good boy, Ben.”

Ben beamed at his young son and then turned his attention to his firstborn. “And you, Adam, were you a good boy?” Ben’s tone was light and teasing until he noticed Adam’s stance and bowed head. “You were a good boy, weren’t you?” Ben set Hoss back on his feet.

Adam swallowed and managed a soft, “No, sir.”

Ben’s smile disappeared, and his brows drew together. He glanced at Marie questioningly and then fixed his stare on Adam. “Do we need to have a private talk?”

Adam kept his eyes fixed on his feet but answered, “Yes, sir.”

“Wait for me in your room,” Disappointment at the souring of his homecoming added harshness to Ben’s voice. Adam darted away and up the stairs.

Hoss tugged at his father’s sleeve. “Pa, don’t bees mad with Adam, please, Pa.”

Ben patted Hoss’ head soothingly. “Marie?”

“Hoss, go help Hop Sing in the kitchen.” Marie ordered gently.

Hoss wanted to stay, but Pa was mad, so he obeyed.

“What did the boy do, Marie?” Both Marie and Adam’s faces had told him that the infraction was more than a misdemeanor.

“Let Adam tell you.” She moved closer. “Benjamin, don’t tan him, please.”

“If the boy has earned a tanning, Marie…” Obviously Adam had earned just that, or Marie would not be making the request.

“There were reasons, Benjamin, you must… “

“I must do what is necessary to teach my son right from wrong,” Ben stated firmly. As much as I hate it!” he finished to himself. “Would you have me ignore what he has done?”

“Well…no, but …It’s just…” She took his hand and raised it palm-side up. “A spanking, Benjamin, promise me it will be only a spanking for a naughty boy. That’s all he was really, a naughty boy.”

Ben sighed. “A spanking then.” Marie raised his hand and kissed the palm. Ben drew her into his arms and gave her a much longer kiss.

*****

Adam heard his father’s single knock and watched his bedroom door open. He shifted nervously, dropped his eyes, and tried to steady his breathing. He told himself it wasn’t the first time his pa had tanned him, but how he hoped it was the last!

Ben walked over to where Adam stood next to the window. His finger raised Adam’s eyes. “Tell me what you did.”

Adam swallowed twice before he could begin. “I went off to Miss Clare’s without telling anyone.”

“You left the ranch without permission and with no one knowing where you were?’ The edge to Ben’s voice cut into his son, and Adam dropped his eyes again.

“And?” Ben demanded the rest of the story with one word.

“I didn’t come straight back; I…I got home real late.”

“How late, Adam?”

“An hour after dark.”

“Adam Stoddard Cartwright!” Ben bellowed his son’s name, but then sucked down his growing anger. “Is that all of it?”

“N,n,n,n,no, s,s,sir.” Adam couldn’t keep from stuttering.

“The rest of it, Adam.”

“I was, was rude to Miss Clare, and…and dis, disrespectful to Marie.” Adam’s voice broke, and Ben could hear the tears that filled his son. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry.”

Ben glared down at his son. A tanning is exactly what the boy had earned and a severe one at that. “There were reasons.” The lilting tones of his wife’s voice filled his mind.

“Why, Adam?”

“I went to say good-bye.”

The loss in his son’s voice washed Ben’s anger away. He had not let himself think about how much losing Clare would mean to his son. Ben sighed. Still the boy could not be allowed to think that such behavior was ever acceptable. The thought of his son riding alone through the dark strengthened Ben’s resolve.

“You understand why I have to punish you even though I forgive you?”

Adam could answer only with a nod. Ben took him by the upper arm and led him over to the bed. Adam stood still and tense wishing his father had taken him out to the barn where no one else would hear. Tannings were usually administered in the barn.

Ben sat down. “Britches down and across my knees.”

Adam realized his father was going to spank, not tan, him. His eyes widened, “Pa?”

“You shall get the spanking you deserve, Adam. Now do as I said.”

Ben closed the bedroom door behind him and was surprised to see his wife standing in the hall. Marie shook her head.

“You did not stay with him.” Her vehemence made it an accusation.

“He’s twelve, Marie, not six. He doesn’t expect to be cuddled after a spanking like Hoss.”

“Twelve!” Marie spat the word at her husband. “So twelve needs only his father’s hand in judgment, not in love!” Her eyes blazed.

“It’s not that, Marie. Adam is just not one for…”

“He is your son!” Ben marveled at how a whisper could sound so much like a shout. “Go to your son, Benjamin, or do not come to me!”

Marie spun on her heel, went to her bedroom, and shut the door behind her. Ben shook his head and turned slowly. He opened Adam’s door and stepped inside the room. He gazed at his son curled up around his pillow shoulders shaking. Adam looked no older than Hoss at that moment. In three strides, Ben was across the room. Ben Cartwright was a tall man and hard work had strengthened him. He scooped up his firstborn as easily has he would have his youngest and held the boy as he cried. Then they talked quietly about Clare’s leaving and other things that had needed saying since Ben had returned from New Orleans.

*****

Hoss forgot to knock and entered Adam’s room unannounced. He walked across to where his brother lay on his bed and climbed up next to Adam’s back. Adam woke instantly and turned to face Hoss.

“Mama sent me to get ya. Supper’s soon,” the little boy announced.

Adam rubbed his hand over his face and shook his head. “I’m not hungry. Tell Marie I don’t want supper.”

“Now, Adam, you’s gots to eat,” Hoss admonished in a very grown-up tone. “Even if ya gots a sore bottom, Pa makes ya come eat.”

“It’s not my bottom!” Adam replied grumpily giving Hoss a slight push. “I just ain’t hungry!”

Hoss remained unmoved. “You ain’t hungry ’cause ya got a spanking, and ya know Pa’ll come get ya, so come on.” Hoss placed both hands on Adam’s wrist and tugged.

Adam grumbled under his breath and wished his little brother were a little more little.

“Boys, get washed and come down to supper.” Their father’s voice reached the brothers, and they both scrambled off the bed. Adam helped Hoss wash his face and hands and then steered him toward the stairs.

“Adam.”

“What?” They had reached the landing halfway down. Adam paused to gaze at Hoss.

“Ya don’t have ta worry. Ya’ll have Mama’s cushion.”

“I don’t need a cushion!” Adam sputtered.

“It’s okay, Brudder. We’s both got cushions.” Hoss tried to wink the way Adam did when they shared an understanding, but he only achieved a blink before he darted down the stairs.

Adam saw his pa seating his stepmother and felt his cheeks flush. His father would expect him to apologize to Marie. Adam paused and shifted nervously. It wasn’t that he wasn’t sorry; he just hated apologizing to anyone, let alone his stepmother. He swallowed and went to stand behind his seat. Fixing his eyes on his plate, he said in barely more than a whisper, “I’m sorry, ma’am, for…for yesterday.”

Ben cleared his throat. He expected a more specific apology from his son. Marie hurried to say, “All is forgiven, Adam. Sit down now. We must eat before the food gets cold.”

Adam slid into his chair. Feeling the cushion beneath him, he raised his eyes to look at his brother across the table. Catching his attention, Adam dropped his right eyelid in an exaggerated wink. Hoss giggled. Then both boys folded their hands and bowed their heads for grace.

Ben and Marie did most of the talking with an occasional excited interjection from Hoss. Adam kept his eyes on his plate and managed to down everything on it, but when Hop Sing brought in the Apple Brown Betty for desert, he shook his head.

“Hoss can have mine,” he muttered softly. Hoss beamed silently his mouth already full of his own serving. Ben cleared his throat. “If that’s all right,” Adam hurried to add.

Hoss swallowed quickly. “Please.”

“That’s fine if Adam is sure he will not want it later,” Marie replied glancing at Ben and then at Adam’s bowed head.

“I won’t. May I be excused? I have lessons to finish.”

“You may,” Ben acceded and then gave his younger son a significant look.

Hoss swallowed quickly remembering his manners. “Thanks, Adam.”

“You’re welcome.” Adam slipped from his chair and started to walk toward his father’s desk. As he passed his father, Ben reached out and caught his arm gently. Adam chanced a glance at Ben’s eyes. Seeing his father was not angry with him, Adam gave his pa a shy smile. Ben patted his arm, and Adam lifted his head as he went to complete his studies.

Adam felt a presence beside the desk and looked up to see his little brother leaning over the far side toward him.

“Ya almost done?” Hoss inquired peering at the paper in front of his brother.

“Almost.”

Hoss turned and darted toward his father who was reading in front of the fire.

“Adam’s most done, Pa. Will ya tell us a story please ‘fore we have ta go to bed? Please, Pa, please?”

“A story, Hoss? What kind of story?”

An expression of concentration came over the little boy’s face. He loved all his pa’s stories: stories about his sailings days, stories about traveling west, stories of great men and things from history.

Hoss smiled. “Story about when you was little, Pa. A story about you and Uncle John.”

Ben looked over at Adam and then reached out to pick up Hoss and settle the boy in his lap. “A story then when Adam is finished.”

Adam watched his father and brother and remembered when his pa would hold him in his lap to tell him stories. He wished he were still little enough to cuddle in his father’s lap. Then he blushed at the thought that he had not been too grown for Pa to hold just hours ago.

“I’m done, Pa,” Adam said as he stacked his books in their appropriate place on the shelf behind him.

“Come on then.”

Adam settled himself on the end of the settee nearest his father. Marie kept her eyes on her knitting but her ears on the exchange between her husband and sons.

“Well, let’s see. Have I told you boys about John and I and the Leigh Point Demon?” Ben began.

At the word demon, Hoss’ eyes grew round as saucers, and Marie cleared her throat meaningfully.

“A demon gots after ya?” Hoss gasped.

A gleam entered Ben’s eyes. He chuckled and said, “No, a demon most certainly did not get after us.” Then he added for his wife’s benefit, “Neither is this a scary story. You see, it was John and I who played the demon.”

This time it was Adam’s eyes that grew round and sparkled. He leaned closer to his father. “You pulled a prank.”

“That we did. Quite a whopper of a prank.” Ben said looking first at Adam and then at Marie who cleared her throat meaningfully once again. “And if I hear of anything remotely like this happening here abouts, I’ll know who to deal with and how.” Ben’s voice was just stern enough to hold a warning.

Adam settled back against the settee. “I only use my own ideas, Pa.” There was just enough cheekiness in the statement to show Ben that Adam was coming back to his usual self, so he let the statement pass.

“You see,” he launched into his tale, “there was a legend about a demon who haunted Leigh Point which was quite near out home. One day Jason Culbrite came to school. He had been scared when out on the point, disobediently I might add, the night before. Amy Sue Jenson started in teasing him, and her friends made him miserable about it the next two days.”

“That was mean, Pa, real mean to be teasing.” Hoss observed.”

“Yes, Hoss, it was. Jason and John were good friends, and that’s when we decide to teach Amy Sue a lesson.”

“By making her see the demon,” Adam interjected. Ben nodded. Neither of his sons had ever been able to listen to a story without comment.

“It took us almost a week to create our demon.” Glancing at Adam, he quickly stated, “No, I shall not tell you how. It’s enough to say that in the moonlight out on that deserted point with me to move it, and John to supply the sounds it was most realistic.”

“Uncle John was good at howlin’ and such like, Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss, very good. Well, Jason dared Amy Sue and some of her friends to sneak out to the point when the moon was high. He led them to where John and I had hidden ourselves and the demon. Then we put on quite a show. Those girls’ screams drowned out even John. Then they took off at a dead run all the way back to town. The thing is they didn’t bother to calm down and sneak back into their homes like any sensible boy would have. They woke half the town and blurted out to everyone that the demon was out at Leigh Point.”

“Girls don’t have any sense sometimes,” Adam observed. Marie’s meaningful throat clearing was directed at Adam this time, and he took due note of it keeping further negative observations about the female gender to himself.

“Well, while John, Jason, and I were rolling on the sand laughing our heads off, congratulating ourselves, and reliving the moment over and over; a group of men formed a posse to come to investigate.”

“Did ya hear them coming?”

“Just in time to run for cover and head home but not in time to take the demon with us.”

“Did they find it?” Adam was once again leaning over the settee’s arm toward Ben.

“That they did, and brought it back to town. We all got back into our beds without being caught, gloating about what we had done and how we had gotten away with it.”

Adam said softly, “But you didn’t, did you?” Adam could not remember his pa ever telling him about doing wrong without telling him about consequences.

“No, we did not. Every man in town took a good look at that demon, and some of what we had used to make it was identifiable as coming from the Cartwright home. Jason’s father recognized some of the rest. We didn’t know until we came home from school, and Father was home. Then Mr. Culbrite arrived with Jason and the demon in tow.”

“Ya didn’t try to lie, did ya, Pa?” A very worried look had come over Hoss’ face.

“We did not make that mistake. Our confession was quick and complete as was our punishment, but Father did take into account our motivation.”

“Did you have to apologize?”

“Yes, Adam, we certainly did. To the girls, their families, and the men who had gone out searching. That was no doubt the worst of it, but Amy Sue’s father did get to hear the reason, and he was not pleased with his daughter.”

“Was it worth it, Pa?” It would be Adam who asked that question.

He looked at his son and decided he must follow his own rules about honesty. “Not until many years later, and, as I said, Father was more lenient than I would be.”

Adam smiled. “Point taken, Pa.”

“Grandpa Cartwright forgived ya and Uncle John?” Hoss wanted to hear that those boys had been forgiven.

“Yes, Hoss, our father forgave us, as did our mother. Though some in the town kept bringing up that story for years. Why the last time I was there, I heard about it.”

“Our pa, the Demon of Leigh Point. Now isn’t that something, Hoss.”

“Sure is, Adam. Pa ifin’ ya made us a demon next Hallow’s Eve…”

“Hoss, I will not be making any more demons at all not ever.” He gave Adam a look that signaled he would not be creating demons either. “Now,” he said as he stood with Hoss in his arms and slung him over his shoulder, “it’s time you two were in bed.”

“Can I read a bit, Pa?”

“One chapter, Adam, no more.” Ben gave his son a stern look and received Adam’s nod in response. Then he took Hoss up the stairs to bed.

Ben opened Adam’s door. “I said one chapter, Son.”

Adam closed his book and answered quickly, “It was a long chapter, Pa.”

Ben walked over to Adam’s lamp and blew it out. Then he heard his son’s voice in the darkness.

“Pa, did you, well, did you pick that story, so, well, to tell me that you messed up sometimes when you were a boy?”

“We all mess up sometimes, Adam. After you confess, take your punishment, and learn from it, well, then it’s time to let it go.”

“You spank too hard to let it go quick.”

“Is that so?”

“Bottom’s still sore, and I’m still sorry, Pa.”

Ben reached out and ruffled Adam’s hair. “Remember that the next time you’re tempted to take off like that. Did you say your prayers?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you ask for forgiveness?”

“Yes.”

“Then accept it, Adam. I love you; your family loves you; God loves you. Remember that, Son.”

“I love you, Pa.”

“Sweet dreams then.”

As Ben reached the door, Adam spoke again, “Thanks for not making it a tanning, Pa.”

“You should be thanking your mother for that,” Ben replied softly and closed the door behind him.

Adam rolled over on his stomach. So, Marie had spoken in his favor. Adam did not know whether that made him feel better or worse.

*****

Adam opened his eyes to see his brother’s blue ones reflecting his face back at him. At one time he and Hoss had shared a bed every night and waking face to face with him was a common event; however, each brother now had his own bed, and Hoss seldom came to Adam’s without reason. He lifted himself up and quickly asked, “What’s the matter, Hoss?”

Hoss sat up and stated solemnly, “Adam, you can’t never do it again.”

“What?”

“You can’t never do it again ’cause I was scared, and Mama was scared. I was really, really scared, Adam, ’cause you’re my big brother. I couldn’t never be without ya, Brudder, never.”

The realization that he had caused his little brother to be truly afraid cut into Adam with a physical pain. He grabbed Hoss in a bear hug. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I’m so sorry I scared ya.”

Hoss’ arms reached up to encircle Adam’s neck, and he whispered into Adam’s ear, “I forgives ya, but ya can’t never do it no more.”

Adam’s mind searched for a way to reassure Hoss. “I won’t. Hoss, you know I won’t. You know I never do something again once Pa tans me for it.” At least not exactly the same thing,” he finished to himself.

“Pa didn’t tan ya; he just spanked ya.”

“He spanked real, real hard though. It was close enough to a tanning.” Adam and Hoss shared an intent look. Hoss considered Adam’s statement for a long minute.

“Okay.” Hoss slid off Adam’s bed. “We gots to get dressed ‘fore Pa hollers.”

“Yeah.” Adam slipped from under the bed covers.

“Adam.” Hoss had stopped to look over his shoulder at his brother. He had on his little-old-man face. “I ain’t no baby no more, so ya can tell me. Ifin’ ya can’t tell grown folk, ya can tell me.” Then his gap-toothed grin appeared, and for the first time ever Hoss Cartwright mastered a true wink.

*****

Marie walked over to where Adam was finishing his morning chores. The boy certainly was a hard worker, she acknowledged to herself, especially the past three weeks. Since his spanking, Adam had been trying very had to be a very good boy. Even with her he had been, if not warm, at least polite. He had not been insolent once since coming home from seeing Clare. She bit her lip and sighed.

“Adam.”

Adam stopped and looked up at his stepmother. “Ma’am?”

“I need to speak to you.” Her tone was serious.

Adam’s mind did a quick search to see if he might have done anything to displease his stepmother. He honestly did not think so. Then he gave Marie his full, if puzzled, attention.

“Tom tells me his wife is not well.”

Adam nodded. Mrs. Hodges was having a baby, and things seemed to be going hard with her.

“Hop Sing and I are going over to check on her and give her a hand, so you will need to watch Hoss today.”

Adam started to make a protest but swallowed it unspoken. It would not matter that his father had said he might have the day for himself after regular chores. Marie and Hop Sing were doing a good deed, so he would be tending his little brother.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Marie saw the disappointment in Adam’s eyes that she had expected, but there was no help for it.

“Hop Sing will leave you boys something for lunch in the kitchen.”

“Could…” Adam swallowed nervously, “could he pack us something instead. See, well, Pa said I could meet Ross at the lake to go fishing. Hoss can come with us. Hoss likes fishing.”

A worried frown creased Marie’s brow. “In the pond, oui, but the lake. Adam, it is a long ride for a little one, and the lake is so deep.”

“Hoss is a good rider, and he’s ridden there before.” That’s true even if it was with Pa on Buck.

Marie shook her head gently. “But the lake, Adam.” The lake could be a dangerous place for a little boy, for both her little boys.

“I’ll watch him real close, and Hoss minds me. You know he does.” Adam tried to keep the whine out of his voice, but it crept into his final words.

Marie looked into Adam’s eyes and bit her lip. If there had been insolence or disrespect there, she could have said no.

“Please.”

The word was spoken so softly that Marie was not certain he had said it. Marie told herself that Adam had been responsible for Hoss many times in many situations before her arrival.

“You must be very careful and not be late.”

“Thank you!” Without thinking, Adam took a step forward his arms reaching toward Marie. For a moment she thought he might hug her, but he stopped short. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll mind him real well, and we won’t be late.” A shy smile flickered on Adam’s lips. “I don’t want to need a cushion at table tonight.”

“Remember that.” Marie’s voice was only half-teasing.

“I will.” Adam tossed back as he darted off to tell Hop Sing and Hoss.

Marie shook her head again and then crossed herself. Holy Mother, keep my boys in your care. Keep them safe for me.”

*****

Adam looked over to watch his little brother as he concentrated on guiding his pony down the trail. Hoss’ Goldie was a sturdy, old female with a gentle but determined disposition that matched Hoss’ own. Hoss felt his brother’s eyes on him and said, “I’s fine, Adam; you’s being a worry wart.”

“I’ve got a little wart to worry over,” Adam teased. “You need to stop a minute?”

“Noo!” Exasperation had crept into Hoss’ voice. “You’s acting like I ain’t never rode no where.”

“Fine then. Come on.” Adam quickened his speed slightly, and Hoss managed to coax a little more from Goldie.

“Adam?” A few minutes had passed. “You think we could do a little swimming after we fish.”

“No!” Adam’s response was immediate and sharp.

“Why not,” Hoss whined.

“Lake water’s too cold.”

“Can’t be that cold, Adam. I’m plum hot!”

“You’re riding in the sun, and the water in the lake comes from the mountains, and I said no, and that’s the end of it.”

“Weeell, then, maybe we could just take off our boots and wade in a little. Just a little ways, Adam.”

Adam stopped his horse and fixed his full glare on his little brother. “I SAID NO!”

Goldie had stopped also, and Hoss sat in the saddle looking at his brother. Adam’s fierceness caused the six-year-old’s eyes to well and his lip to quiver.

“Don’t you go crying ’cause I said no.”

“You’s being mean,” Hoss accused.

Adam sighed. “I don’t want to be mean, Hoss.”

“Ya yelled ‘most as loud as Pa.”

“I’m sorry I yelled, but we can’t go in the lake.”

“But I just want to…”

“Hoss, if you stick even the tip of your boot in that lake, we’ll go straight home, and I’ll take you straight to Pa and tell him you wouldn’t mind me.”

Hoss gasped. The few times Adam had felt compelled to tell their pa about Hoss not minding when Adam was in charge the result had always been the same.

“I’d get a spankin’, Brudder.” Hoss’ lips both quivered.

“Hoss, if I let you put a toe in that water, Marie will have Pa skin the hide right off my backside.”

“Mama’d be mad?”

“Very!” Adam sighed again. “Marie said yes to fishing and if anything else goes on, I’ll get a tanning for sure.”

“Even if I’s the one that just up and done it?”

Adam could see there was one way to keep Hoss on his best behavior at the lake, and Adam decided he had to use it. “Marie made me responsible, so if you don’t mind me, you get your britches warmed, but I get my tail burned too.”

“I’ll mind ya, Adam; I’ll mind ya real good,” Hoss assured his brother nodding his head vigorously.

“I know you will, little brother, and we’ll catch a mess of fish to take back to Hop Sing, and Pa will see how good we were and let us come up to the lake on our own more.” Adam gave his little brother a deep smile. Hoss grinned back and set Goldie into motion once again.

When they reached the lake, Ross was already there.

“Hey, Adam, what in tarnation…”

Adam shook his head sharply and interjected, “Hoss came with me because Marie and Hop Sing had to go help Tom Hodges’s wife.” He did not say that it was a choice of bringing Hoss or not coming at all because Ross should have sense enough to see that for himself.

“Oh.” The one word summed up Ross’s opinion of the situation, but Hoss was too busy dismounting and tethering Goldie to notice the older boy’s tone or eye roll.

Adam tethered his own mount, checked that Goldie was firmly tethered, and settled Hoss with a fishing pole in a secure spot. He and Ross then settled with their poles just far enough away to whisper without Hoss following their conversation, but close enough to see everything the six-year-old did. If Hoss so much as leaned forward, Adam’s sharp exclamation, pulled the child right back.

“You’d think that having a stepma would at least mean you’d be able to have a day to yourself without the little pest now and then.”

Adam bristled at his friend’s reference to his little brother even though much the same thought had gone through Adam’s own head at times. “Hoss ain’t a pest, Ross. Don’t call him that.”

“Don’t get your tail feathers all ruffled, Adam. I didn’t mean nothing by it. Hoss is a good sort, and you know I like him. It’s just he’s a little kid; he ain’t much more than a baby even if he don’t look it.”

“He’s growing up,” Adam observed.

“Yeah, but he ain’t grown like us. There’s things we can’t do with him along.”

“We came up here to fish, and he’s doing that.”

“We could of fished at your pond, only somebody’s always riding by and noticing what we’re doing,” Ross stated with exasperation.

Adam gave his friend a long look. “Just what did you have planned that you didn’t want nobody noticing we were doing?”

“I brought some of my pa’s tobacco and two pipes I made out of cobs.” Ross’s voice had dropped to the barest whisper.

“Your pa said you could….”

“You crazy! My pa don’t know, and he won’t be finding out.”

“Pa would kill me. He’s told me more than once.” Adam shuddered at the thought.

“What he don’t know…”

“Well, Hoss, is here, so there’s no way…”

“Like I said …”

Hoss shouted that he had a fish, and Adam jumped up to help.

The boys fished for an hour and caught several fish large enough to be good eating. Hoss’ interest was waning and his squirming increasing, so Adam decided it was time to eat the lunch Hop Sing had sent. Hop Sing, of course, had packed enough for at least four hungry boys.

“Hop Sing sure makes things tasty,” Ross observed, “and he always sends something sweet.” Ross had downed six of Hop Sing’s sugar cookies.

“Yeah.” Adam stretched out on his stomach. Hoss did the same in imitation of his big brother. Ross joined them.

“There’s more fish in the lake,” Ross observed lazily.

“Yeah.” Adam continued to stare idly.

“Sally Anne’s sure getting a nice set of bosoms.”

Adam jerked up. “Ross!” he hissed. “If Hoss repeats that…”

“Hoss is asleep,” Ross pointed out, and a soft snore attested to that fact.

Adam looked down at his brother. It had been over a year since Hoss had taken a daily nap, but evidently a full belly, the warm sun, and the morning’s activities had resulted in his little brother drifting off.

“Hoss sleeps sound, don’t he?” Ross inquired.

“Pretty sound.” Ross stood up and quietly slipped a distance away. Adam followed him, but kept his sleeping brother in sight at all times. The two older boys settled themselves against a large boulder. Ross brought out the tobacco and pipes. He filled both of them and tried to hand Adam one of them.

Adam bit his lip. “I can’t, Ross. Like I said, Pa would kill me.”

“He won’t know.”

“Can’t.”

“You scared?” Ross asked with a derisive snort.

Adam fixed Ross with a look of distain. “Would you be scared of facing my pa and his belt?” Adam knew that Ben Cartwright had intimidated his friend on more than one occasion.

Ross shrugged. “Suit yourself; I’m going to smoke.” Ross proceeded to light one of the pipes and started to puff. Adam had enough sense to see that this was not Ross’s first time smoking.

“How long have you been smoking?”

“About a month,” Ross answered. The two boys had had very little opportunity to see each other outside of church for the past month, so Adam was not surprised Ross had not revealed his secret before now.

“Has your pa caught you?”

“Not once. Sure you don’t want to?”

Adam shook his head. The two boys sat together with Ross happily puffing his pipe and discussed various subjects including the recent physical development of some of the girls in their Sunday school class.

Hoss woke and raised himself to a sitting position. Adam popped to his feet, and Ross shoved the now empty pipes into his pockets.

“He didn’t see, did he?” Ross hissed.

Adam gestured for Ross to be quiet and went to his brother. “Awake now, are ya, sleepyhead?” He dropped to the ground beside Hoss.

Hoss rubbed his eyes. “Just closed my eyes a minute, Adam.”

Adam chuckled, and Ross walked up cackling. “A minute that was two hours long,” Ross commented as he too settled on the grass, “Old Man Netter don’t nap that long.”

“Weren’t napping!” Hoss’ lower lip slipped forward at the implication he was a baby who still took naps.

Adam ruffled his brother’s hair, “Call it what you want, little brother, but you’ve snored away the rest of the fish in that lake.”

“Didn’t!”

“Don’t matter if you did,” Ross observed, “It’s time to go anyway.”

“That’s right,” added Adam jumping to his feet and hauling Hoss with him. “Come on, Hosswe can’t be late.”

“Okay, okay.” Hoss shook off his brother’s hand and stated toward his pony. Then he stopped short. “You two didn’t do nothing fun whilst I was asleep, did ya?”

Ross opened his mouth ready to launch into a tirade on the wonderful things they had done without the boy, but Adam slapped him on the back and took his breath away.

“Didn’t do hardly anything but be lazy ourselves. Talked some is all.” Adam did not want his brother focusing on what had happened while he napped.

“Sure?”

“Sure!”

“Okay.” Hoss grinned and went to Goldie. Adam bid Ross goodbye and mounted. The Cartwright boys made it home with time to spare.

Marie heard the horses and looked up to watch her sons ride up to the barn. “Thank you, Holy Mother, for keeping them safe.”

Hoss slide off Goldie and ran to the porch where Marie had been doing the mending. “Mama, we’s back.” Hoss flung himself against Marie’s lap, and she reached to give him a welcome hug and kiss.

“So I see.” Her eyes scanned the youngster and then Adam as he walked up. “Safe and sound I see.”

“Just like I said we’d be.” Adam’s tone was too light for Marie to consider it insolent.

“And early too. So Hoss was a good boy?” Marie’s hand tousled Hoss’ hair while her eyes settled on Adam.

“I was real good, Mama. Tell her, Adam.”

“Well,” Adam put his hand to his chin in a gesture copied from his father. He considered teasing but said instead, “He was real good, ma’am. Real good.”

“Adam was real good too, Mama, and we caughts some fish, and ate lunch, and didn’t even touch the water, Mama, not once. We had us some fun, onliest Adam was a worry wart.”

“So Adam kept a sharp eye on you, mon petit?

“Both of them all the time,” Hoss stated adamantly with an exaggerated eye roll.

“Very good!” Marie smiled up at Adam who returned it.

“No cushion then?” Adam inquired with just a hint of cheek in his grin. Marie just shook her head gently. “Best get these fish to Hop Sing then and get to our chores.”

Marie nodded. “Clean shirts, the both of you, for supper.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Adam strode off whistling, and Hoss followed behind.

*****

Ben Cartwright listened to the sounds of his home as he stared into the fire. At that moment he was a very contented man. He had a lovely wife, two good boys, and his dream. Dinner had been not only excellent in cuisine but harmonious as well. The boys had minded their manners and chatted happily especially Hoss. Ben was pleased that Adam had taken having to tend Hoss in stride and that Marie had allowed the boys their excursion to the lake. Having grown up in the city of New Orleans and being new to the West and motherhood, Marie was a little over protective with the boys, but things were improving all around. “Yes,” Ben Cartwright smiled, “I am definitely a very lucky man.”

Ben heard his wife’s footsteps on the stairs and looked up to watch her descend them. Watching Marie was always a most pleasant experience. As she walked toward him, he noticed her smile was gone and her expression serious.

“Is something wrong, my dear?” Ben inquired.

Marie bit her lip. “Should I say? It is but a suspicion. He is too young!” She walked over to her husband, and Ben pulled her onto his lap.

“Tell me, my sweet.”

She brought the shirt she held in her right hand to his nose. “This is the shirt Adam wore to the lake. I was gathering the wash.”

Ben inhaled deeply and then did so again. His eyes darkened. Mixed in with the scent of fish and little-boy sweat was the distinctive order of tobacco smoke.

Marie saw Ben’s expression grow stern and slipped from his lap. Ben stood and called, “Adam! Adam, come down here now!”

Adam heard his father and tugged his nightshirt down. “Yes, Pa, I’m coming.” He wondered what his father could want and hurried to see.

Adam stopped short when he saw his father’s face. He had been able to read his father’s moods since he was a baby, and he realized in an instant that his father was angry. “Pa?”

“Come here, please.” Ben pointed to the spot on the floor in front of him.

Adam hesitated only a moment and then complied. He noticed the shirt in his father’s hand and paled. Ben thrust the shirt at Adam and commanded, “Smell it!”

Adam brought the shirt to his nose and knew before he sniffed what had angered his father.

“What do you smell, Adam?”

Adam tried, “Fish.”

“And?”

“Sweat.”

“Adam!”

“Sm…smoke.” The admission left Adam’s knees weak. Ben put his hand behind Adam’s head to keep it in place as he leaned over and sniffed his son’s hair. Ben straightened. His eyes flashed.

“I have told you, Adam, that you are not allowed to smoke.”

“I didn’t, Pa. I haven’t ever smoked. Really, Pa, I didn’t.” Adam’s stomach had started to roll.

Ben listened to his son’s voice and studied Adam’s face and gestures. Adam was not lying, but he was definitely hiding something.

“Someone you were with was smoking,” Ben intoned.

“Lots of the hands smoke.” Adam desperately hoped his pa would let it go.

“None of the hands were working anywhere near the lake.” Adam shifted nervously under his father’s glare.

“I didn’t smoke, Pa. I know you don’t allow it. Hoss was sleeping.”

“Ross was smoking.” It was a statement not a question, so Adam made no answer. “Adam!”

“Yes, sir. Pa, Pa, please don’t tell his father, please. He’ll think I tattled. Please, Pa.”

Ben considered and made his decision. “If the situation were reversed, I would want, would expect, to be told. I’ll speak to Henry after services.”

“Pa, please, Ross will get a tanning.”

“Deservedly.”

“But….”

“He may not be the only one.”

Adam sucked in his breath and then stopped breathing. Ben pointed to the stairs. “Go to your bed.”

Adam turned and darted up the stairs.

Marie opened her mouth to speak, but Ben shook his head.

“I’m going for a walk.”

Marie watched her husband exit the room and then retired to her own. “He will blame me for Ben’s anger.” With a sigh she picked up her rosary, knelt, and began to pray.

Ben walked to Adam’s door. Light showed at the threshold, and he knew that his son was waiting. He rapped once and walked into Adam’s bedroom. Adam scrambled to his feet and faced is father with his chin to his chest. Ben walked over and stood before his son.

“Adam, look at me.”

Adam raised his head and opened his mouth to speak, but his breath caught in his throat, and he began gasping drawing in shallow, shuddering breaths. Ben took his son by the forearms and set him back on the bed. He sat down beside Adam and placed his right hand on Adam’s neck. He began massaging gently.

“Calm down, boy. Calm down and take a deep breath.” Ben’s voice was gentle but firm.

“I…I…I di…didn’t …di…dis…obey you. I ttold R…Ross nno. I w…watched Hoss. I never let him do nothing wrong. I…I didn’t lie to you. I didn’t… I couldn’t … I can’t make Ross not do something.” Adam choked out the words slowly regaining control of his breathing.

Ben caught Adam’s chin in his left hand and turned his son’s eyes to meet his. “I’m not going to tan you, child. I’m not going to punish you. I believe you when you say that you didn’t smoke.”

“I didn’t, Pa.”

“I said I believe you, Adam.” Ben felt Adam relax slightly. “But you should not have stayed with Ross while he did something you knew was wrong for you and for him.”

Adam opened his mouth to speak, forming his lips to say but… Ben placed his finger against his son’s lips. “No buts, boy. You should have left the minute Ross decided to smoke even without you. I think part of you knows that, son.”

“Hoss was napping.” When he heard the words spoken, they sounded like a weak excuse even to Adam.

Ben tightened his grasp on Adam’s chin slightly and held the boy’s gaze. “I’m going to tell you exactly what I expect you to do if anything like this happens again. You are to leave. You are to come home if that is what is appropriate. You are not to participate even with only your presence. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.” Ben released Adam’s chin.

“Then say your prayers. It’s time you were in bed.”

Adam knelt down and completed his nightly petitions to the Lord. Then he crawled into bed as his father held back the covers. Pulling the bedclothes over his son, Ben gave Adam a gentle smile. “I love you. Sweet dreams.”

“You’re going to tell Mr. Marquette.”

“Yes.”

Adam curled around his pillow with his face to the wall. “I’m sorry Pa that I didn’t act like ya think I should.”

“I’m sure you will next time. Adam, I know that what I expect of you sometimes is very hard; you’re still just a boy, but I must teach you what is right.”

“I know, Pa. Night.” The tone was emotionless and flat.

Ben reached down and squeezed Adam’s shoulder, blew out the light, and departed.

Adam tightened his hold on his pillow and fumed. “Pa was mad, I nearly got a tanning for nothing, Ross will blame me for tattling, and it’s all her fault!” Adam knew who had to have taken his shirt to his father, and he focused his anger on Marie.

*****

He had thought about pleading once more with his father, but Adam knew that it would do no good. His father was going to tell Mr. Marquette about Ross’s smoking, and when Ross got a tanning he would blame Adam for tattling. There were few enough boys his age around, and now he would have one less friend. Adam was too disgusted with life to keep the pout from his face. Ben decided to let Adam’s sulky attitude go without correction as long as his son’s actions and mouth remained under control. Hoss knew something had happened after he went to bed, but his attempt to find out had been thoroughly rebuffed, so he spent the ride to town with a dismal look on his own face. When they arrived at the small Protestant church that had been built only a year before, Adam spotted Ross and slipped from his father’s side.

“Hey, Adam.” Ross’s greeting was cheerful, and he had yet to notice the expression on his friend’s face.

“Listen, Ross, I got something to tell ya.” Adam grabbed his friend’s arm and dragged him behind a tree. “My pa’s going to tell your pa about you smoking.”

“What! You told! Why you no-good tattle…”

“Shush! It weren’t like that.”

“Then how does your pa know?” Ross’s tone was harsh and demanding.

Adam swallowed and tried to explain. “Marie took my shirt to Pa stinking of smoke. Pa thought I’d been smoking and lit into me…”

“So you up and told him I was the one smoking to save your own tail.” Ross finished his accusation with a snort.

“No. I told him I hadn’t smoked but didn’t say nothing about you. Ross, my pa’s smart. He knew who I was with. Didn’t take him two seconds to figure it out. He wouldn’t have believed me if I had lied; he never does. I nearly got a tanning just for being there.”

The church bells began ringing, and both boys knew that they had better high tail it to their fathers. Tardiness to services would not go without its own reprimand.

Adam sat beside his father still, if inattentive, throughout the service. He did not even pay attention to the fact that Ben repeatedly had to admonish Hoss for squirming and making noise until he heard his father hiss, “Once more, young man, and I’ll take you out for a paddling!”

Adam glanced across his father’s chest to see Hoss turn into a statue, a statue that had wet cheeks and sniffled quietly from time to time.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Now Pa’s in a bad mood. Isn’t that just great!”

After the last hymn, Ben leaned down and whispered into Adam’s ear, “Take your brother to the buggy and wait for me in it.”

“But Pa…” Adam wanted his usual time to socialize with the other youngsters who had attended church.

“Adam, mind me!” Ben’s voice positively snapped the order.

“Yes, sir.” Adam gave the correct response, and was lucky his father was moving through the crowd too quickly to listen to the tone in which it was said.

“Come on, Hoss.” Adam’s order snapped almost as sharply as Ben’s. The tears began to roll down Hoss’ cheeks once again. Adam took his brother’s arm and led him to their buggy. He boosted the little boy onto the back seat and joined him there. Hoss buried his face in the buggy seat. Adam sighed and reached over to pat his little brother soothingly.

“Don’t cry, Hoss.” Hoss continued to sob. “It’ll be okay. No sense crying about it anyway.”

Hoss’ response was actually unintelligible, but Adam knew what had been said anyway.

“Maybe not. Pa may just fuss a little more. You were good there at the end.”

Hoss allowed a little space to appear between his face and the leather seat. “I don’t want a spankin’, Adam.”

Well, no kidding. Who does? “I don’t think Pa will give you a real spanking. Say you’re sorry quick when he gets back.” Adam started to get his handkerchief to wipe his brother’s face but decided its current condition made Hoss look about as pitiful as a body could get, maybe pitiful enough to keep Pa from spanking him.

Hoss stopped sobbing but continued to sniffle as they waited. Ben Cartwright returned a few minutes later and fixed his young son with a glare that had intimidated grown seaman.

“I will not tolerate that kind of behavior in church, Eric.”

Hoss had no idea what the word tolerate meant but fully understood his father’s message.

“I’s sorry, Pa. I’s sorry. I won’t never be bad again. Tell him, Adam, I won’t never be bad again.”

Adam wanted to speak in his brother’s behalf but knew it was better to hold his tongue.

“I don’t need a spankin’, Pa. I don’t.” Hoss ended his plea with a sob.

Ben leaned down, so he was eye to eye with the little boy. He spoke calmly and at a much lower volume than before, “Did you earn one, Hoss?”

Adam had heard that question more than once and hated it each time. He sent a metal message to his brother.

“Guess so.” Hoss’ voice was soft and wet with tears. He threw his arms around his father’s neck and clung to him. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry.”

Ben patted his son’s back and then settled Hoss back against the seat. “From now on, you will behave in church, and if I have to correct you more than once, I shall take you out and spank your bottom.” Hoss’ eyes grew wide. “Do you understand me, Eric?” Hoss was unable to speak but nodded vigorously. “Today you will spend time in the corner thinking when we get home.” Ben straightened and then climbed into the buggy.

Adam nearly snorted. His pa would have spanked him for sure even when he was Hoss’ age. Of course, when he was Hoss’ age there had been no house with corners for standing and thinking just a wagon. Adam sighed and then gave Hoss a smile. He really was happy that his pa wasn’t going to spank his little brother.

*****

After his time in the corner, Hoss played quietly on the floor with his wooden animals. Adam had settled down, as he did most Sundays, on the end of the settee with a book. After a while he felt Hoss climbing up next to him. The little boy stretched out against him, put his arm across Adam’s waist, and laid his head on his brother’s chest.

“I just wants to be with ya, Brudder. I’ll be real still.”

Adam looked down at the top if his brother’s head and slipped his arm around Hoss.

“You’re not in trouble anymore, Hoss.” He patted the thigh beneath his hand.

“Pa was real mad.”

Sometimes he wondered what Hoss would do if Pa ever did get really mad with him.

“He’s not mad anymore. You know Pa forgives ya if ya fess up and take your punishment. He hugged you, didn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

“Did he smile?”

“Yeah.”

“Then he’s not mad anymore,” Adam assured.

“Adam, I wasn’t trying to be bad.”

Adam squeezed the little boy and teased lightly, “The squiggle worm must of got into you.”

Hoss popped into a sitting position and looked first at his brother and then at his stomach.

“A worm gots into me!”

“Not a worm worm, Hoss.” Adam repressed the desire to laugh. He sometimes forgot what the six-year-old would actually believe. “The squiggle worm. It makes little boys wiggle and squirm and make noise when their folks want them to be still.”

Hoss continued to stare at his stomach. “Do you think its still in there?”

“Naw, you’ve been too quiet. I think Pa plum scared that squiggle worm clean out of ya.”

That made complete sense to Hoss. His pa could scare anything bad away.

After a few seconds, Hoss ventured, “What if he comes back next Sunday? Ya know what Pa said.”

Adam considered the situation for a moment. “Before service, I’ll check you over, and if that squiggle worm is back, well, I’ll just scare him out of you again.”

“Do ya think ya can, Adam?”

“Of course,” Adam answered his voice filled with confidence, “I’m twelve. Anyone over ten can scare a squiggle worm.”

Hoss sighed in relief. “Okay.” Then he settled back against his big brother. “I still wants to be with ya awhile. I’ll stay real still while ya read.”

Adam set his book down. “I’m tired of this book anyway, little brother. If you get one of yours, I’ll read it to you.”

Hoss snuggled closer. “Tell me a story instead, Brudder. Tell me about a good time.”

“A true good time?” Hoss nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell you about the first time I gave you a bath.”

Marie stood just out of sight and listened to the sound of her sons’ voices and giggles. She sensed a presence behind her just before two strong arms encircled her. Ben pulled his wife to him and whispered in her ear, “Eavesdropping are you, my naughty love?”

“They are very close our sons. They love each other very much.”

“As brothers should,” Ben spoke lightly, but his faced beamed.

“Not all do, Benjamin. We are most fortunate,” Marie admonished.

Ben nuzzled his wife’s neck. “Yes, my love, most fortunate.”

“Adam is so good with him.”

“He’s had lots of practice.”

Marie’s voice was the softest of whispers, “Our child will have two fine big brothers.”

“Who will love him as much as they love each other,” Ben declared gently.

“Him, Benjamin? Would you be disappointed if our child is a girl?” Marie turned in his arms to look at Ben’s face.

“Disappointed? Never! I said he only because I’m use to having boys. A daughter would be delightful. In fact, I suggest we have several of each starting as soon as possible.”

“Would now be soon enough?” Marie spoke without forethought. She had planned to wait until it was more than a suspicion, until she was sure, and until after she saw Doctor Martin.

Ben gasped. “Marie! You don’t mean… are you…”

Marie put her fingers to her husband’s lips. “I’m not sure, Ben. Maybe it’s just wishing so hard.”

Ben saw several emotions flicker in the depths of his wife’s eyes and hurried to reassure her, “If not at this moment, then soon, my love, in God’s good time.”

Marie smiled up at him, and Ben returned the smile with a wicked grin. “Of course, the Lord helps those who help themselves.” He moved his hands suggestively on her person.

“Benjamin, the boys…”

“Our boys are well occupied. Hoss will end up asleep, and Adam will lose himself in his book again. We have an hour at the least.” He leaned down and curtailed any protest with a long and exceeding intimate kiss. Then he quietly led his bride up the backstairs to their bedroom.

Adam slipped from beneath his sleeping brother and substituted a pillow beneath Hoss’ head. He would have waited for the little boy to wake, but nature’s call had become urgent. When he returned from the outhouse, Adam stopped to study his little brother as he napped. Sometimes he forgot how young Hoss was. Adam smiled. He liked being a big brother even if it was a pain sometimes. Adam reached for his book, but set it down again. He no longer felt like reading. Actually he felt like drawing. He would draw a picture for Hoss, one that would make him giggle. Adam went up the stairs to his room to retrieve his pad of drawing paper. Pausing in the hall, he heard something that caught his attention. Then he realized the noise had come from his parents’ room. He blushed. Adam had lived on wagon trains, farms, and ranches. He had spent time with farmers and cowhands. He knew what went on between a husband and wife. Since Marie’s arrival he had tried very hard not to picture his father and stepmother enjoying what Doc Martin called marital relations. Adam spun on his heel and scurried down the stairs. He did not stop until he was standing on the porch with the breeze cooling his cheeks.

“Numbel one son, come here, please.” Adam startled at the sound of Hop Sing’s voice but obeyed automatically.

When the boy stood before him, Hop Sing noticed his burning cheeks and immediately reached out to place the back of his hand against Adam’s face. Adam squirmed. “Hop Sing is as bad as Pa. Let a fellow get a touch red, and they started feeling for fever.”

“I’m not sick, Hop Sing,” Adam whined, but he resisted the urge to brush the cook’s hands away.

Hop Sing felt the boy’s cheek, his forehead, and the back of his neck before he was satisfied. “I am looking for Missy Caltwlight. You know?” Hop Sing recognized the look that crossed Adam’s face as the boy mumbled his reply.

“I think she’s with Pa…uh…somewhere.”

“Then you come. I show you.”

Adam followed Hop Sing into the kitchen as the cook explained he was going into town to see relatives and pointed out the things he had prepared for the family’s dinner.

“You tell your mama what I say.” Hop Sing finished.

“Sure, Hop Sing.” Adam reached over and snatched a cookie from the plate on the counter. He was surprised when Hop Sing did not fuss and turned to look at the little man. “These are sure good.”

“No spoil dinnel.” Hop Sing admonished gently.

“I’ll eat everything on my plate; I promise.” He decided to take advantage of Hop Sing’s good mood and turned to reach for another cookie. He felt the swat to his backside before his hand reached the plate.

“No mole!”

Adam turned around empty-handed. He looked at the cook through lowered lashes, “Yes, sir, most honorable Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing snorted but noticed the boy was now smiling. “Little boy, behave now. Can tlust in kitchen?”

Adam nodded and smiled. “Hop Sing, do…do you know some of the Chinese ladies in town?”

“Hop Sing know many fine ladies.” Hop Sing gave Adam an inquiring look.

“Um…are any of them, um… well, are any of them special to you?” The color in Adam’s cheeks heightened once again.

“Special? What kind special?”

“Like courting special.”

“Coulting? Chinese no have coulting.” Hop Sing did not appear angry or flustered by his question, so Adam relaxed.

“You must have courting, Hop Sing. How else would you get a wife?”

“Palents choose wife when time comes. Honelable palents make wise choice fol family.”

“But what if you don’t love her?” Adam was aghast at the notion of parents choosing a wife for someone.

“No love now, no mattel. Love latel. Must wed who palents think good. Palents know best.” Hops Sing nodded sagely.

Adam shook his head. He definitely did not want Pa and Marie choosing his bride with no say-so from him.

Hop Sing smiled. “Too young wolly about that. Hop Sing no talk to fathel about Chinese way for numbel one son ’til he fifteen.”

“HOP SING!” Adam exclaimed and then realized he had raised his voice disrespectfully. “Sorry,” he mumbled quickly.

Hop Sing hid his smile until his back was to Adam. “Hop Sing be back tonight. Behave!”

Adam watched Hop Sing leave. Then turned when he heard someone enter the kitchen.

“Adam? What is ya doing in here?” Hoss had awakened, heard voices in the kitchen, and come in search of company.

“Just getting us a snack!” Adam snatched a handful of cookies and called to his brother, “Come on! We’ll eat them on the porch.”

Adam was brushing cookie crumbs from his hands onto his pants and waiting for Hoss to return from the outhouse when someone stepped out onto the porch behind him. He looked over his shoulder to see his father. Ben Cartwright smiled and sat down beside his son.

“Hoss needs you to cuddle him some, “Adam said softly.

“He does?”

“Yeah.” Adam gave his father a sideways glance.

“I had trouble with those dangburn buttons,” Hoss announced as he came walking back. Then he saw his father and ran forward to throw himself at Ben’s lap.

“Dangburn?'” Ben’s voice was stern, but a smile played on his lips.

“Sorry, Pa,” Hoss mumbled, and then he saw the smile on his father’s face. Ben flipped the boy across his lap face-up, and Hoss squealed, “Save me, Adam, save me!” Ben’s fingers began tickling his little son’s belly. Adam paused just long enough to check the look in his father’s eyes and then reached out to find the spot on his father’s side where Ben was most ticklish.

Hoss giggled, Ben roared, and Adam laughed. Ben kept Hoss pinned on his lap with one hand while reaching out to tickle Adam with the other. This was only the start of the roughhousing. Two-on-one the boys waged a mock war with their father sometimes running sometimes rolling about the yard but all the while laughing and squealing in delight. Finally they lay on the grass of the side yard panting with one boy on each side of Ben their heads lying on his chest.

“Do you surrender, Pa?” Adam panted.

“Yeah, Pa, do ya ‘render?” Hoss panted in echo of his brother.

Ben chuckled, “I surrender. I surrender.” He patted each boy’s upturned bottom.

“Good.” Adam said with a huge sigh.

Hoss heaved himself up and came down half on top of Ben with his face at Ben’s chin. “I likes when ya plays with us, Pa.”

Ben raised his head and planted a kiss on the top of Hoss’ head. “I like when I plays with ya too.”

“Pa, did ya play with Adam when he was little?”

Ben felt Adam move beneath his hand and rubbed his back. “Sometimes. Not as much as I would have liked.”

“Do ya ‘member playing with Pa, Adam?”

“Yeah, I remember.” Adam’s voice was soft and muffled for his face was buried in his father’s shirt.

“Then I’ll ‘member us playing. I wants to ‘member it.” Hoss sighed contentedly. There were a few minutes of silence before he spoke again.

“Mama didn’t get to play, Pa. Do you play with Mama sometimes?”

Adam’s chortle was muffled as he pressed his faced deeper into his father’s side. Ben wondered briefly what thought had gone through his elder son’s head.

“Yes, Hoss, Mama and I play sometimes. In fact, we played earlier today.”

Adam felt his cheeks flame.

“Can I play with you and Mama next time?”

Adam tried hard to keep from convulsing. Ben lifted Hoss from his chest as he sat up. “We must all play together more often. Right, my love?” The last remark was addressed to Marie who was standing on the edge of the porch looking down at them.

Oui, we must all play more often, Benjamin, but now I must get ready the dinner.”

“I’ll help ya, Mama.” Hoss bolted from his father’s hands and ran to Marie.

“That would be most welcome, mon petit. First, we must wash the hands.” Marie led Hoss away.

Ben scooted backwards to lean against the trunk of a tree. Adam rose to his knees, but before he could rise to his feet, Ben snatched him by the waist and pulled his son backward until Adam was seated at Ben’s side cradled in his arm.

“Pa!” Adam squirmed, and his cheeks flushed.

“Afraid someone will see that I love my eldest son?” Ben’s voice was deep and gently teasing.

Adam stilled and leaned into his pa, “Guess most folks got that figured out already. Pa, I ain’t a baby though.”

“No, my baby is half-grown already.”

“Half! PA, I’m…”

“Half-grown and still my boy!” Ben planted a loud kiss on Adam’s curls.

“Pa!” Adam’s exclamation was automatic, and his squirming did nothing to move him out of his father’s embrace.

“And I shall kiss my son if I want!” Ben rained a half-dozen more kisses on Adam’s head until he quit squirming and giggled instead.

“Good thing all the hands have the day off.” Adam sighed and relaxed against his pa. Nobody had seen.

“Adam, there is something I need to say to you. I should have said it to you last night.” Ben felt Adam tense slightly and rubbed his arm. “You didn’t disobey me, you didn’t lie, and you took good care of Hoss. Son, all those things please me and make me proud.” He turned to face his son and brought Adam’s eyes to his. “Adam, you make me proud so often, my son, that I forget to tell you all the times I should.”

“I want to make you proud.” Adam’s voice was soft and very young.

“There’s not a father who’s prouder of his sons than I am of you and Hoss.” Ben watched Adam’s dimples deepen as he smiled.

They heard Marie call that it was time to clean up, and Adam started to rise. Ben watched the look that flickered across his Adam’s face.

“Wait, a minute, son.” Adam sat down once again facing his father. “Adam, are you angry with your…with Marie?”

Adam dropped his eyes to the ground and mumbled, “Some. She didn’t have to…” he let the rest remain unspoken.

“Adam, if Hoss had done something wrong up at the lake, would you have told me?”

Adam bit his lip and then answered truthfully, “Depends on what he did. He’s my brother, Pa.”

“But you would tell me if you thought it was important, something I should deal with?”

“Yeah.”

“Because you care about your little brother, and you trust me and what I would do?” Ben prodded gently.

“I trust you, Pa.”

“Adam, Marie cares deeply about you, and she trusts me too.” Ben watched Adam carefully. Adam remained silent. Ben did not press for a response. A month ago insolent words would have flown from Adam’s lips. Thoughtful silence was enough.

“Now, my oh-so-grown son, help your old man up.” Ben reached out his arm as Adam scrambled to his feet. Adam grinned, took Ben’s wrist in both his hands, braced his feet, and tugged. Ben remained immobile, and Adam tugged harder. Then, in a sudden burst of motion, Ben roared to his feet and snatched Adam off his. He tossed the boy over his shoulder and carried him protesting loudly to wash up.

*****

Marie had lost her breakfast for the third day in a row and planned to have weak tea and toast for lunch. She dropped the sock she was darning into her lap and leaned her head back against the chair. Tomorrow Ben would drive her into town to see Doctor Martin, and they would know. “Holy Mother, please let the signs be true!”

Adam leaned over the table and reread the explanation in his math text. Then he turned and studied the problem once again. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he swore under his breath. He had tried four times and still failed to solve the problem or recognize his error. Adam seldom had trouble with math, so when he did his frustration advanced rapidly, and his temper followed closely behind.

On the opposite side of the table, Hoss was having his own difficulties. His chubby fingers gripped the chalk far too tightly as he tried to form the letters on his slate. Adam’s fingers always made the chalk glide, and his letters were neat and bold. Hoss wondered why it was so easy for his brother and so hard for him. Hoss bit his lip and scowled at his writing. His letters wobbled, leaned, and jumbled together. He slapped the slate down in disgust. The table rocked, and a crack split the air.

“What in blazes!” Adam barked. “Must you throw tantrums? No wonder I can’t think.”

“I ain’t keepin’ you from thinkin’. You’re just mad ’cause ya can’t do it!”

“I can to do it! If I didn’t have a baby throwing tantrums…”

“I AIN’T. NO BABY! Take it back, Adam.” Hoss was on his feet. His face was red, and his hands balled into fists.

“A BABY, A BIG BABY…” Adam never finished because Hoss gave the table a shove that sent it against his brother’s chest. The air rushed out with a grunt. Seconds later Adam was on his feet. “Now you’re going to get it!” Adam started around the table toward Hoss.

“Boys! BOYS!” Marie caught Adam by the upper arm. “Stop! Stop now!”

Marie’s hand managed to hold Adam just long enough for him to gain some control. He stood breathing heavily and glaring at his little brother.

“No more. There will be no more of this.” Marie’s own temper had been ignited. “You will get to a corner. Both of you. NOW!”

“Mama,” Hoss whined.

“What? You can’t…” Adam was indignant.

Maintenant!” Marie pointed, and her eyes flamed.

Hoss started to slowly trudge to the nearest corner, but Adam’s glare shifted to his stepmother.

“No.” The word was not shouted but stated firmly and clearly, yet it seemed to echo in the room.”

“Adam, I said now.” Marie’s glare met her stepson’s, and their eyes locked.

“No!”

Marie felt the wave of nausea rising and broke the standoff by turning and darting from the room. She barely noticed Hop Sing as she passed him in her flight. Adam’s eyes had followed Marie, and they came to rest on Hop Sing. The Oriental’s face was rigid as rock, and his eyes were hard and black as coal. Hop Sing’s fiery outbursts barely phased Adam, but when Hop Sing’s anger turned cold and quiet, Adam gave it due heed.

Hop Sing lifted his hand and pointed to the corner behind Adam. “Shùn mìng! “

Adam knew a handful of Chinese words, and Hop Sing’s message was clear. Adam turned and walked to the corner. Standing there facing the wall, his cheeks flamed, and he fought the tears welling in his eyes. I hate her. I hate her. I hate her.

Hop Sing walked back into his kitchen, stopped to wet a clean cloth, poured a cup of water, and then walked out onto the back porch. Marie had reached the edge of the porch before sinking to her knees and losing the battle with her stomach. She now sat on the top step with her head in her hands. Hop Sing sat down beside her and handed her the cup of water while pressing the damp cloth to the back of her neck. Marie gratefully rinsed her mouth.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” she managed to say.

“Missy feel betttel soon. Hop Sing make tea to settle stomach. Missy go up and lay down,” Hop Sing instructed.

“I…I…in a minute perhaps.”

“Numbel one son in colnel now. Vely bad, vely bad. Mistel Ben….”

“No, Hop Sing, Benjamin need not know. I should never have… he’s so proud a boy…I shouldn’t have treated him like…”

“Act like naughty little boy; tleat like naughty little boy.” Hop Sing gave his opinion with confidence.

“Don’t mention anything to Ben, please, Hop Sing.”

“As Missy wish. Missy need to…” Hop Sing changed his mind and finished with “lest. Go up and lay down. Must think of numbel thlee son.”

Marie’s eyes grew wide. The she laughed softly. She really was not surprised that Hop Sing had reached his own conclusion about her condition. “You’re has bad as Ben assuming any child I have will be a boy.”

Hop Sing shook his head. “Not any child. This child be numbel thlee son. Missy must stalt take good cale.”

Marie smiled. “I’ll take good care. I’ll rest here a bit, speak to the boys, and then go lie down.

It was a sunny day, and the breeze not too strong or too chill. Hop Sing smiled and nodded. Then he rose and went to make the herbal tea his mother had used to settle stomachs.

Marie walked into the dining room and paused to study the backs of the two boys as they suffered through their punishment. She walked over to Hoss, put her hands on his shoulders, and turned him to face her. Then she went down on her heels to look him in the eye.

Hoss threw his arms around Marie. “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry!”

She lifted his head from her bosom and asked softly, “You know what you did wrong, mon petit?”

Hoss dropped his eyes but stated clearly, “I hads a tantrum, and I was mean with Adam. I’s sorry, Mama.”

“You’re a big boy now, Hoss. When you pushed the table, it hit Adam.”

“I’s sorry.” Looking over at his brother, the little boy wailed, “I’s sorry, Adam!’

Adam wanted to run to his brother, but he stood still as a statue. “I forgive you, Hoss.”

Marie patted Hoss’ back. “See, you are all forgiven and will do better from now on.”

Hoss nodded. “I no be means no more.”

Marie kissed his forehead. “Now, go finish your lessons before lunch.” She sent him toward the table with a pat on the bottom. Then she stood and walked over to stand behind Adam.

“I should not have lost my temper with Hoss.” Adam’s tone made it clear that the way he had treated his little brother was the only wrong he was going to acknowledge.

Marie wanted no more battles. “Then go and ask his pardon.”

Adam waited until she had left the room to turn away from the wall and go to his brother. “I’m sorry, Hoss. Do you forgive me?”

Hoss threw his arms around Adam. “I forgives ya, Adam. I loves ya.”

“I love you more.” His tone made it a challenge. Hoss knew the game.

“No, I love you more.”

“No. I do.”

“I do!”

“More. Bunches more.”

“Bunches, bunches more.”

Adam reached out and started tickling Hoss. “I said I love you bunches more!”

Hoss’ exclamations were lost in laughter. Adam let Hoss push his hands away. When the two stopped laughing, Adam helped Hoss with his reading.

“Boys, come to kitchen and eat lunch.” Hop Sing turned and walked back into his domain. The two boys followed him obediently. “Wash filst!” Hop Sing did not even turn to look at the boys before issuing his command.

“Where’s Mama? Why we eating in the kitchen?” Hoss inquired as he and Adam washed their hands and faces.

“Missy’s stomach upset. She lay down. Boys no bothel.” Hop Sing motioned the two boys to the kitchen table and set down bowls of hot soup.

“Mama’s sick?” Worry could be heard in Hoss’ voice.

“Missy be fine aftel little sleep. No bothel.” Hop Sing gave Hoss a firm look.

Adam took his seat and kept his eyes on the table. He wondered just what was wrong with Marie. He did not wish her to be really sick, but he was glad he did not have to face her at the table yet. He wondered if she was just avoiding being at the table with him.

“I’s done,” Hoss declared and punctuated his statement with a loud burp. With only himself and his brother at the table, he giggled instead of apologizing.

“Good thing Marie didn’t hear that,” Adam teased.

“We’s in the kitchen, Adam,” Hoss declared with a grin.

“Well, then.” Adam mustered and delivered a loud burp of his own.

Hoss laughed, and his brother joined him.

“What’s we gots to do this afternoon, Adam?”

“I’m to straighten the tack room, and you’re to help. Remember Pa said so at breakfast.”

“Hoss.” The little boy looked at Hop Sing expectantly. “You go get Hop Sing some callots filst. Take basket and fill up.”

“Yes, sir, Hop Sing.” Having only recently been allowed to go to the root cellar alone, Hoss took on such errands proudly. He snatched up the basket and quickly took off.

Adam started to rise but stopped as Hop Sing took the seat opposite him. He fixed his eyes on the table.

“Numbel one son vely naughty. Diāo pí!”

“I minded you, Hop Sing.” There was only a slight whine in Adam’s voice.

“Did not mind mothel!” Hop Sing’s voice was unrelenting.

“She’s NOT my mother!”

“She wife of fathel”

“I’m not a baby! I’m too old for standing in corners.” Indignation filled Adam’s voice.

“You thlow tantlum. You fight with six-yeal-old. You know what fathel do if he see.”

Adam swallowed. He knew. Pa would have bellowed and swatted both their behinds before making them apologize to each other and go back to work. “He wouldn’t have put me in the corner.”

Hop Sing made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “You no think while you in colnel. What youl Bible say about boy and palents?”

Adam dropped his chin to his chest and mumbled, “Honor thy mother and thy father that all might be well with thee and thou shalt live long and prosper.” Then he raised his eyes. “She’s not my mother.”

“Do you honol man if you tleat his wife with dislespect?” Hop Sing demanded.

“No.” It was barely a whisper.

“Missy do fol you what mothel do. Missy is youl eldel. Naughty to act like you did.”

Adam looked at Hop Sing through his lashes. “I have to apologize?” He knew the answer, but he needed to hear the command.

“Yes. Befole night.” Hop Sing fixed the boy with his sternest stare.

“Yes, sir, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing went back to work, and Adam slipped out of the kitchen. He threw himself down on the settee to think. I’ll never get the words out.” Adam sighed and walked over to his father’s desk. He pulled a piece of paper in front of him and picked up a pen.

Marie,

I should not have been disrespectful to you. Pa has taught me to be respectful to my elders. He would be very displeased with my behavior. I ask your pardon.

Yours respectfully,

Adam Stoddard Cartwright

Adam folded the paper and wrote Marie’s full name on the outside. Then he walked slowly upstairs. Stopping in front of his parents’ door, he stooped and slipped the note underneath. He stood there staring at the wood of the door until he heard Hoss call his name. He turned and went to do as his pa had instructed.

Marie noticed the paper as she was repining her hair. She walked over, picked it up, and saw her name. Opening the folded sheet, she read Adam’s words. She saw clearly what he had and had not said. She refolded the paper and walked to the dresser. She buried the note among her underclothes. She debated going to speak to the boy, but obviously he had not wanted to speak to her. No doubt he fears I shall tell Ben and hopes this will keep me from doing so. Oh, mon por petit garcon!

Marie heard the boys enter. They were laughing, talking far too loudly, and slammed the door. She smiled. Adam stopped short upon seeing Marie sitting in her chair before the fireplace. Hoss dashed over to his mother.

“Mama, you all better?”

Marie gave the little boy a hug as she reassured him. “I am fine, my son.”

“Chores are all done, Mama,” Hoss declared proudly. “That tack room all put to rights.”

“Very good! We shall eat when your papa arrives.”

“I’m gonna go see what Hop Sing’s fixing.” Hoss dart away toward the kitchen.

Adam walked slowly into the room avoiding looking at Marie.

“Adam, I received your note. You have my pardon. We need speak no more of it.” Marie hoped he would realize she meant that she would not mention anything to his father.

“Thank you, ma’am.” The words were polite, but Adam’s stance rigid.

Marie hesitated. “I think,” she began then paused. “I must remember how much more grown are you than Hoss.”

“I’ll go and see that Hoss washes up.” Adam left the room without ever looking at his stepmother.

Ben sat and stared into the fire. Once again Hop Sing had prepared an excellent meal, and the boys had minded their manners. Still, Ben had known shortly after he returned home that something had happened in his absence. His inquires into how the day had gone, though, had resulted in only general references to tasks completed. Even Hop Sing had avoided a direct comment. He pondered whether to pursue an explanation. He told himself that if Marie had handled some household upset it would be better to let matters rest. His interference would undermine his wife’s authority. If something needed his attention, eventually it would become clear, and he could take action then. Ben sighed and shifted his focus. Tomorrow he would take Marie to see Paul, and they would know for sure if she carried his child. “Please God grant us this blessing…” he prayed and then rose to go to his wife.

**********

“You are sure!” Marie held her breath.

“Quite sure,” Paul Martin assured his friend’s wife. “You and Ben can expect the child at the end of November. Congratulations!”

MercimerciHoly Mother.” “Thank you, Paul. Thank you!”

The doctor chuckled. “No thanks due, Marie. I had nothing to do with it.” Marie blushed prettily. “Now the man responsible is sitting in my outer office. Is he waiting for this news?”

“Yes. We thought… yes, he’s waiting.” Marie smiled and seemed to glow with excitement.

“Then shall we go and give him the good news?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Then I shall give you both some instructions which you, young lady, will follow to the letter.” Paul took Marie’s arm and led her into the other room.

The moment the door opened Ben was on his feet. “Are you?”

Marie nodded. “Yes, I carry our child.”

The whoop of joy that came from Ben Cartwright’s throat echoed around the room and could be heard on the street outside. In seconds Marie was lifted from her feet and twirled across the room.

“Ben! Ben!” Paul chided softly. Ben stopped and gently set Marie on her feet.

“Sorry, my love. Are you all right? Here sit down.” Ben ushered his wife to a chair.

“I’m fine, Ben.”

“Ben, she is fine, and we’re going to see that she and the baby remain so. Now I want the both of you to listen.” Paul began the lecture he gave all expectant parents. Ben nodded repeatedly and committed each instruction to memory. Marie sat with a dreamy smile on her face while a chant played in her head, I’m going to have a baby! I’m going to have a baby! Thank you, Lord! I’m going to have a baby!

Marie had had another bout with morning sickness just after passing the Virginia City town limits sign. After that, she rode with her forehead against her husband’s shoulder quietly fighting her nausea and dreaming of a little boy that looked like Ben.

“Ben, I am thinking that perhaps we should wait.”

“Wait? For what?” Ben was slightly puzzled by his wife’s sudden declaration.

“To tell the boys. Hoss is so little that seven months is a lifetime of waiting. And, well, it is early yet and, well, it is not unusual….umm, things could happen.” Marie murmured the last softly and then crossed herself.

Ben did not want to think about the possibilities, but it was true that miscarriages were common particularly in the early months. “Hoss is young, but Adam…”

“Ben,” a worried tone had crept into Marie’s voice, “do you think Adam will be pleased?”

“About the baby? Of course he will be pleased. Why he took to being a big brother like a duck takes to water!”

“But, now you know it is true, Benjamin, he does not love me. He loved Inger, and he loves her son, but he does not love me. Will that keep him for loving this baby?” Marie choked out the final words that voiced her deep fear.

Ben stopped the buggy and took Marie in his arms, “No, no, my love. Adam will love this baby just as he loves Hoss, and given time he will come to love you. Adam’s not like Hoss, but then… Marie, you don’t know what it did to Adam to lose Inger. He needs time to trust, time before he can love, but he will love this baby. I know he will.”

Ouimon amour, we must give him time and much love.”

“Yes, Marie, much love.” Ben nestled his face in Marie’s hair and held her for long minutes before saying, “But I think you are right, my dear, we will wait to tell the boys.”

**********

Hoss had asked to go town with their parents, but Pa had said no firmly, and even his little brother’s welling eyes had not changed his pa’s decision. Adam looked across the table at Hoss. The little boy had spent most of his time since his parents’ departure pouting, and his lessons were nowhere near done.

“You best quit sulking, little brother. Pa’s going to expect you to have finished your assignments by the time he gets back,” Adam urged.

“Ya didn’t want to go; I wanted to” was Hoss’ sulky reply.

You’re right! I didn’t want to go. Not if she was going. “Well, Pa said no, and you didn’t get to go. You better get over it, little brother. Pa doesn’t put up with sulking, you know that.”

“Ain’t sulking!” Hoss pushed his speller away from him. “I hates doing lessons!”

Adam shook his head and then bit his lip. He resisted the urge to tell his brother to stop acting like a baby. If he and Hoss got into another fight, Adam shuddered at the thought. He squirmed in his chair. If Marie or Hop Sing had told his pa about what he had done yesterday, he knew what the result would have been. The fact that one of them might still do so remained hanging over his head. Hoss might even accidentally let the cat out of the bag, even though that could mean a spanking for his brother as well. Adam sighed. He had hated apologizing to Marie, but he figured the note had been what kept her from reporting his insolence to Pa. Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. He still had no idea why Marie had run from the room like she did. Ross said there was no understanding women, and he supposed his friend was right.

Adam finished the last of his math problems. His father had helped him with the one that had caused him problems the previous day, and he had sailed through those assigned that morning. He looked at Hoss and then rose and walked around the table to his brother.

“Want some help?” Adam’s voice was at its most brotherly.

“Yeah,” Hoss answered softly, “I’ don’t want to get in trouble for not doing my ‘signments.”

Adam sat down at his brother’s side. “Let’s get to work then.” They managed to get most of the work done before their parents entered the house.

Ben walked over to the table where his sons were working. “You boys about done?” Ben’s tone was light and easy, and both boys knew their father had returned in a good mood.

“Almost, Pa,” Adam answered quickly. He glanced over at his stepmother. She was pale but had a smile on her face.

“Well, if you boys can finish in the next few minutes, we’ll eat whatever it is that smells so delicious and then go out to the pond for some fishing.” Ben’s announcement surprised both his sons.

“Fishing, Pa?” Hoss’ voice was eager.

“But don’t we need to…” Adam knew there was work that needed doing.

“We need to go fishing,” Ben declared firmly. “Will you be ready?” His glare was teasing.

“Yes, sir!” Both boys called out and then dissolved in giggles at their matched answers.

“Get to it then!” Ben’s voice was a softly mocking roar. Both boys quickly bent their heads to the task with Adam giving Hoss a little more “help” then was strictly proper, and all assignments were complete before Hop Sing came to set the table.

They left immediately after lunch and did not return until time for evening chores. Marie stayed home- how glad Adam was that women like Marie did not like to fish- so Ben’s sons enjoyed his total attention. The sun shone, the fish kept biting, and Pa laughed and laughed. Hoss caught the largest fish, but Adam caught the most. Their pa whistled as Hoss rode home piggyback, and Adam walked home with Ben’s arm draped around his shoulders.

***********

His pa had been in such a good mood for the past week that Adam had decided to chance the request. Marie had taken Hoss up to bed, and Ben was reading. Now would be better than in the morning Adam told himself. He walked over behind Ben’s chair, folded his arms on the leather back, leaned down, and spoke softly into Ben’s ear.

“May I speak with you, Pa?”

Ben knew immediately Adam had a request he was not sure his father would grant. “What is it, son?”

“May I go up to the lake fishing tomorrow?” Adam held his breath.

Ben patted his leg, and Adam came around perching on the arm of the chair facing Ben.

“I’ll do anything you need done first, Pa,” Adam interjected quickly.

“You know that you have only regular chores on Saturday unless there is a reason.” Ben studied his son’s face.

“Hoss is going with Marie to the Jacksons. He’s going to play with Neddy and Sue while Marie talks to Mrs. Jackson, and they do, well, women things.”

“I know, and I know you are too much older than the Jackson children to enjoy playing with them.”

“Then may I go to the lake, Pa?” Adam held his breath again.

“Who will be keeping you company at the lake?” Ben inquired with a serious look on his face.

“Tim said he might be there if his father allows.”

“Tim Conner?”

“Yes, sir.” Adam’s sir told Ben what to ask next.

“Who else is asking his father’s permission?”

Adam bit his lip and then said hesitantly, “Ross.” Adam looked at the expression on his father’s face and added quickly, “I expect Mr. Marquette made sure he won’t be smoking anymore ever, Pa.”

“I would expect so.” Ben’s features softened. “There’s other mischief for boys to get into, son.” Ben’s voice was not harsh. “You remember what I told you?”

“Yes, Pa, I remember, and if anyone starts doing mischief, I’ll head home.” Adam’s eyes plead with his father to trust him.

Ben smiled. “Then you have my permission.”

Adam forgot his advanced years and hugged his father. “Thanks, Pa!”

Ben patted his son’s bottom just firmly enough for it to carry a gentle warning and then sent him off to bed.

**********

Adam sat looking out at the lake not really thinking of anything. The day was clear and sunny. He had had to promise his father not to go swimming, but he did not really mind. Just being on his own with nothing that had to be done was good enough for him.

Adam heard a horse approaching and turned to watch Ross Marquette ride up.

“Hey, Cartwright, did Hop Sing send anything sweet?” Ross went straight to the most important information.

“Lots! “Adam answered holding up a cloth wrapped bundle. “Tim’s not with you?”

“He’s coming, but he had something to do for his ma first.” Ross tethered his horse and then plopped down beside Adam. In two seconds he had one of Hop Sing’s frosted ginger cookies in his hand.

Adam decided that it was a good time to make sure that things were really settled between Ross and himself.

“Ross, I’m, well, you know, I’m sorry you got in trouble with your pa about the smoking.”

Ross swallowed. “I know it weren’t your fault, Buddy. When my pa lit into me, I ended up spilling all the beans. He would of known I was lying if I tried to tell him it was my first time.”

Adam did not need to ask Ross if he had been tanned. “Was it a bad one?” They were good enough friends for him to ask.

“Worst licken’ I ever got. Pa said that taking the tobacco was stealing. That’s why I had to drop…that’s what made it worse.”

The thought crossed Adam’s mind that stealing was exactly what taking the tobacco had been.

“When Pa got done, I figured I’d never be able to sit comfortable again.” Ross expected Adam’s admiration for surviving the maximum in punishment.

The only thought that came into Adam’s head was that with the way Ross had ridden up and plopped down without a wince his friend’s figuring had been dead wrong.

“Old folks can sure get riled up about next to nothing. Bet both our pas smoked some on the sly when they was boys,” Ross complained.

“With what Pa says about my grandfather Joseph, he would have got worse than you did,” Adam observed dryly.

“According to pas, their pas were always harder on them then they are on you,” Ross retorted.

“Yeah.” Adam kept his answer a monosyllable.

“Makes no never mind now. I just wish your stepma wasn’t such a busybody. She’s the one who caused it all.”

Adam opened his mouth, but before he could speak Ross jumped up and hailed Tim who had just come riding up. Adam looked at his friend’s back, and suddenly it was crystal clear in his mind. He was not to blame for Ross’s tanning, Pa was not to blame, and even Marie was not to blame. Ross had gotten a tanning because he had chosen to do wrong and for no other reason. It was Ross’s own blame fault. For a moment Adam wanted to tell Ross just that, but he did not want to spoil the afternoon or seem to be defending Marie. He swallowed his retort and joined his friends.

Adam rubbed his feet to warm them. He had obeyed his father and not gone swimming, but after tiring of fishing the three boys had taken off their boots and waded at the water’s edge. Adam rubbed harder. Pa was right! That blame water is just too cold for swimming. Adam pulled on his socks.

“What did you have to do for your ma, Tim?” The question was simply a conversational gambit on Adam’s part.

“Had to take some stuff over to my aunt. Mama’s been baking her bread for her and the like.” Tim’s aunt was the same Mrs. Hodges that Marie and Hop Sing had gone to visit.

“Ain’t her baby about due?” Ross inquired.

“Better be. It’s poking out to here.” Tim placed his hand an exaggerated three feet in front of his stomach. “Mama says most ladies get over the throwing up after a few months, but Aunt Clare can’t keep much down for pretty near the whole time. Papa says Conner women are just delicate that way, so it don’t surprise him his baby sister has such a time.”

Ross made a face. “Who wants to talk about women having babies! Did you hear what Old Ned did in town last Saturday?”

The conversation veered to more exciting subjects, and it was not until Adam was riding home whistling and reviewing the afternoon happily that Tim’s comments brought Adam a realization of his own. “Most ladies get over the throwing up” the statement had steeped in Adam’s subconscious like tea in the pot. Suddenly a series of observations slid in and out of Adam’s mind: Marie’s frequent absences from the breakfast and even lunch table, Hop Sing’s repeated instructions to “Let Missy rest!”, the smile on his father’s face even though Adam had heard Marie retching in their room more than once over the past weeks. “Marie’s going to have a baby!”

Adam’s hands convulsed and jerked the reins bringing his horse to a halt so suddenly Adam was nearly unseated. For a moment emotion flooded over him, and he could not form a cohesive thought. Then he slowly started toward home, but the smile was no longer on his face.

***********

Ben opened the door to Adam’s room expecting to see his son reading in bed. Instead Adam was standing by his window staring into the night. Ben walked over to his son, but Adam did not appear to notice. Ben reached out and patted his son’s backside.

“Time for bed.”

Adam startled and turned toward his pa. Ben saw the pensive look in Adam’s eyes. His son had been surprisingly quiet since returning from the lake, and Ben was now sure something was worrying his elder child.

“Yes, Pa,” Adam mumbled and walked over to his bed. Ben followed. Placing his hands on Adam’s shoulders, he turned the boy to face him.

“Adam, did something happen up at the lake?”

“No.” Adam saw Ben’s raised eyebrow. “We didn’t do nothing wrong, Pa. I promise we didn’t. We just fished and talked and roughhoused a little.” A smile appeared on Ben’s face as boys roughhousing was a given. “We didn’t swim, Pa. Just waded a little.”

Ben’s eyebrow shot up again. “Just waded a little?”

“Not above our ankles, Pa. All you said was no swimming, and you were right. That water was way too cold for swimming.”

“And if it hadn’t been too cold?” Ben questioned.

Adam looked up at his pa through his lashes, and his lips curled up. “Then you wouldn’t have told me not to swim.”

“I ought to swat your backside for sass,” Ben rumbled, but his eyes twinkled.

Adam grinned and quickly dropped to his knees beside his bed. Bowing his head he began his prayers. Ben looked down at his child’s bowed head and realized Adam had managed to slide away from revealing his worry. When Adam finished praying, Ben held back the covers, and Adam settled himself on his bed. Instead of leaving as Adam expected, Ben seated himself on the edge of the bed beside his son.

“Adam, tell me what’s been troubling you since you came home,” Ben addressed his son firmly but gently.

“Nothing, Pa.” Adam dropped his eyes. Ben knew it was a lie.

“Is Ross angry with you; is that it?”

Adam shook his head. “It’s fine between us, Pa. Ross, well, he shouldn’t have done what he did, and then he wouldn’t have gotten punished.”

Ben was glad Adam had realized the truth, but he had no idea what else might be bothering the boy.

“Did you and Tim fuss?” Adam shook his head. Ben sighed. “Well, then…” Ben rose ready to leave. Adam turned on his side and curled around his pillow. Ben paused. Hoss needs you to cuddle him some. Adam’s words echoed in Ben’s mind. Looking down at Adam, Ben knew that his elder son also needed his pa to cuddle him some. He lowered himself back down on the bed and gently pulled Adam back to his side and into the circle of his arm.

“Pa!” It was a weak protest. Ben remained silent and started to rub his son’s back. Adam snuggled against his father even as he protested, “I ain’t a baby.”

“I remember when you were,” Ben declared softly.

“When I was born?”

“Of course I remember when you were born. There’s not a man on Earth who could be happier than I was the first time I held you.”

“Then Mother died.” The statement was a toneless whisper.

Ben’s embrace tightened. “Adam,” for a moment Ben was at a loss, and then he said simply, “that is separate from my love for you. I’ve told you before, Adam, you must feel no blame. Your birth gave your mother the happiest moments of her life.”

“Why did she have to die?” It was almost a whimper.

“I don’t know, son; I don’t know.”

“Do you ever think what it would have been like if she hadn’t died?” If he had been looking at his father, Adam could never have asked.

Ben remained silent for a moment. “Yes. For a while, I thought about it a great deal. There are still times I do.”

“I wish…but, Pa, if …well, we wouldn’t have Hoss. Hoss is so like Mama. I might have another brother, but I wouldn’t have Hoss. And, and I loved Mama.” Adam’s voice had filled with tears as he spoke.

“Inger loved you, Adam, so much. They both always will love you, you know.”

Adam thought of his two mothers in heaven. “You think they talk about me?”

A smile flickered on Ben’s lips. “Sure they do. I can see the two of them chatting about you boys.”

“You think Mother loves Hoss?”

“Surely. As she has watched you grow, she’s watched Hoss too. Your mother, Adam, would be happy you have Hoss and that you had Inger for a time.” Ben spoke with confidence. Elizabeth Cartwright had been a loving woman.

“Maybe they take turns looking out for us.”

“Maybe.” Ben leaned over and blew out the bedside lamp, but he remained on the bed rubbing Adam’s back until the boy relaxed and drifted into sleep. For a time after, Ben remained in the dark room remembering.

***********

Marie stood on the porch and breathed deeply. She had managed not to lose a single meal for the past two days. At the moment she did not feel sick or even tired, and she intended to make the most of that circumstance.

“Hank, would you please saddle Dancer for me?” Marie addressed the hand working at the corral.

“Of course, Miz Cartwright. I’ll have her up to the house in about five minutes. She’s feeling a little feisty this morning. I think she’s wanting a good run.”

Marie smiled. “Well, I intend to give her one.”

Marie turned and walked back to the house pausing to wait near the mounting block. She had told Hop Sing she was going to be gone for a while, and he would keep an eye on the boys. Her sons were working on their lessons, so she had little worry that they would get into any mischief. Marie bit her lip. For the past week or so, she had repeatedly felt Adam’s eyes on her, but he always ducked them quickly away when she turned toward him. Ben had tried to get Adam to say what he was fretting over without success. Marie was afraid she knew and had not been able to bring herself to venture where a revelation might lead. She preferred to hug her happy secret to herself for a while longer.

“Here she is, ma’am.” Hank walked up leading Dancer.

“Thank you, Hank.” Marie took the horse’s reins and allowed Hank to help her mount. It was wonderful to be in the saddle again. Marie tapped Dancer’s flanks with her heels and was off.

Adam heard a horse in the yard and left his books. He walked out on the porch just in time to see his stepmother riding off. Marie was an expert but reckless rider. Adam felt first ice and then fire wash over him.

“Where’s she going?” Adam snapped at the man standing beside the porch.

Hank startled at the boy’s tone. “Just for a ride. It’s been a while since she took Dancer for a run.”

“You saddled Dancer for her! Are you a fool?” Adam’s accusation whipped out in a fair imitation of his father.

“When the missus asks me to do something, I do it.” Hank’s reply bristled with indignation.

“For the love of…” Adam’s vehement curse was lost in the stomping of his boots down the steps. He brushed by Hank and went to the barn. His horse was saddled in record time, and he took off after his stepmother.

************

Hank finished his task and joined the men working in the north pasture. He was still prickling from his encounter with his boss’s son. Soon he was venting to his friend Sam.

“That boy was acting like the king of Siam. If you’d of heard him…. I tell ya if he was anyone but a Cartwright I would have taught him a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.”

“It don’t hardly seem like Adam.” Sam had worked on the Ponderosa about twice as long as Hank “Course most young ones get a little big for their britches from time to time.”

“Well, that boy has; that’s for certain.” Hank snorted.

“Well, ifin the boss takes note of it, he’ll be whittling that boy’s behind back down to size. You can be sure of that.”

“Sooner the better.” Hank spat into the dust. The two hands walked away without realizing the man who had walked up behind them had heard the major portion of their conversation.

Yes, you can be sure of that! Ben Cartwright turned and headed back to his house.

**********

Adam had intended to catch up to Marie and, well, after a few minutes he realized that he did not know what he intended to do if he caught up with his stepmother. A few minutes later he slowed his horse and quit trying, but he did not immediately head back to the ranch. He simply trailed in Marie’s wake. At one point he caught sight of her from a rise. She was racing Dancer across an open meadow. His blood boiled. When it became clear that Marie was headed back to the house, Adam started home himself.

Marie slowed Dancer and came into the yard at a walk. She felt wonderful. She dismounted and started to lead the horse toward the barn. Then she heard another horse returning, and looked to see her stepson arrive in a flourish and cloud of dust.

“How could you!” Adam roared as he flung himself out of the saddle.

Marie’s eyes widened. She had no time to respond before Adam launched into a tirade.

“You will not do it again! I’ll not have it! Of all the dadgum stupid things you could do…..”

“ADAM STODDARD CARTWRIGHT!” Ben’s voice roared out from the porch. By the time the last syllable of his name reached Adam’s ears, all the blood had drained from his face.

Both Marie and Adam’s attention became totally focused on Ben Cartwright as he descended the porch steps and came to a stop in front of his son.

Ben’s voiced dropped to a soft yet more furious level. “Go and wait for me in the barn.” It was a simple statement and an absolute order.

“Pa…” Adam began.

“NOW!”

Adam turned and fled. Ben turned to his wife. “He will never speak to you that way again.” He turned and started toward the barn.

“Benjamin!” Marie had finally found her voice. “Don’t. You’re too angry. There must be some explanation.” Marie had reached Ben and placed a hand on his arm.

“There is no explanation that could justify such behavior.” Ben looked down at his wife. “Is this the first time?”

It is the first time he’s shouted that way! The thought delayed Marie’s answer the barest second. “The first time, Benjamin. You’ve said something is troubling him. Talk to him,”

“Oh, I intend for us to have a very necessary talk.” Ben turned on his heel and strode to the barn. Entering he saw Adam standing in the wide middle aisle.

“Pa…” Adam managed the single utterance before Ben cut him off with a gesture.

“You have said enough, boy. Now you will listen. I cannot order you to love someone; I never intended to, but you will treat my wife with RESPECT.” The word came at Adam like a wind gust. “Never, NEVER, will you raise your voice that way to her again! Do you hear me?”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“Yours needs a lesson in manners, and I intend to deliver that lesson right now.” Ben’s hands moved to his belt buckle, and Adam took an involuntary step back.

“No, Pa, I, I don’t deserve a tanning. You, you didn’t see…”

Ben was astounded by Adam’s audacity. “I saw and heard quite enough, boy.”

“B,b,but she could have h,h,urt the b,b,baby. I saw, Pa. She could have hurt our bbbabby.” Adam choked on his final words gasping for breath.

Ben stopped and then shook his head slowly. It had been this way since Adam was little. He would hold things inside too long and too hard, and when the pressure broke the dam, the boy was left shuddering uncontrollably and gasping for air. He walked over and placed his hands on Adam’s arms. There was a stool a few yards away. Ben took his son, sat on the stool, and placed Adam on his knee. Rubbing the boy’s back, he spoke evenly and calmly.

“Slow down. Take a breath. Calm down.” Ben repeated the litany over and over, but he did not promise his son that the consequences he had earned would not be forthcoming.

Eventually Adam’s breathing became almost normal and his shuddering ceased.

“She is going to have a baby, isn’t she?” Adam’s voice was still weak and watery.

Ben was not really surprised that Adam had realized Marie’s condition. “Yes, Marie is with child.”

“She shouldn’t have been riding the way she was. I didn’t think I wanted…when I saw…women got to be careful, Pa. If something happened…. I do want… Hoss wants to be a big brother. The baby’s ours too, Pa, like Hoss is mine. The baby could have got hurt. I was scared, Pa. I was so scared.” Ben had let the words gush out uninterrupted. When Adam finished, Ben drew his arms close around his son, and Adam buried his head in his father’s chest as he cried.

Unnoticed Marie had followed Ben into the barn in time to hear the last of Adam’s outpouring. She walked quietly to the two and knelt down beside Adam placing her hand on his back, she said softly, “I’m sorry, mon petit, to scare you so. I never have fear on the horse, so I do not think. I shall take more care. The babe is fine, Adam. We will keep our baby safe always, oui?” Marie took Adam’s wrist and placed his hand against her stomach. He felt a flutter beneath his fingertips and gasped in surprise.

Slowly turning his head to look at Marie he asked, “Is, is that the baby? Is it really him, my little brother?”

Marie lips curled up, “Another who thinks only of a boy. Perhaps you shall have a little sister, oui? 

“I wouldn’t know what to do with a sister.”

Nonnon, you already do, Adam. All she would want her big brother to do is love her.”

Adam almost smiled, and then he looked into his stepmother’s eyes and pleaded, “You can’t ride like that not while you’re… not with the baby, please.”

Marie took her finger and traced a cross above her heart, “I promise, my son, I shall not.” She reached out, and her fingers brushed his cheek as she rose.

“When will it be?” Adam asked shyly.

“In November,” Ben answered.

“I won’t tell Hoss then. He couldn’t bear waiting that long knowing.”

“That’s why we didn’t say anything to you boys yet,” Ben said.

“Now, we shall all go inside and…”

“No, Marie, Adam and I have something to settle first.” Ben spoke softly but firmly.

“But all is settled, Benjamin.” Marie looked into her husband’s face. “You do not still mean to…”

“I mean to do what is needed. This time I will not be dissuaded.” Ben’s tone was unrelenting. Marie knew it would do no good and perhaps much harm to argue the point in front of Adam. She turned on her heel and left the barn.

Adam dropped his chin to his chest but stood and turned to face his father.

“I understand why you lost control today, Adam, but it is not as simple as overlooking your shouting at Marie though there are other ways you could have expressed your concern.”

“I should have talked to you,” Adam mumbled not raising his head.

“Or to Marie in a respectful way or to us both. Adam, this is not the first time you have been disrespectful to Marie, is it?”

“Pa, you know…”

“Do I, son, or have things been kept from me? How many times have you shown such disrespect?”

“Not like this, Pa. Never before.”

“So today was the worst, but there have been other times you have not answered for?”

Adam managed a whispered, “Yes, sir.”

“And Marie is not the only one you treated with disrespect today, is she?”

Adam started to protest, but then he remembered the look on Hank’s face. Adam’s cheeks flushed. “No, sir.”

Ben reached out and lifted Adam’s chin until he could look directly into the boy’s eyes. “Can you still tell me you have not earned a tanning, Adam?”

“No, sir.”

It was by no means the most severe whipping Adam had ever received, but it was sufficient.

**********

Hoss sat in the barn thinking and petting one of the barn cats. He called the big tom Smoke. Hoss was the only one who called any of the barn cats by name, and the only person on the ranch that caressed them. Truth was he was the only one many of the proud creatures would have allowed that familiarity. Hoss reviewed the past few days in his mind. He had looked up from his lessons to see his older brother walking out the door. After a few minutes had passed without Adam returning, he had gone to see what was happening. He had walked out onto the porch just in time to see Adam galloping out of the yard. It was then he had started to worry, and he was still worrying. He had finished his studies alone and waited. Then he had gone to wait with Hop Sing in the kitchen. He wished he had not because he had missed his brother’s return. He knew that Adam had received a tanning, but his brother had refused to say why. Mama had spent lunch frowning at Pa, and he didn’t know why. Hoss set the cat down and rose to his feet. Ever since then he had known that there was something important no one had told him. Hoss did not like not knowing, and he decided to do something about it. He marched into the house. Pa had taken Adam with him after lunch to help with the cattle, but Mama was home. Hoss strode up to Marie and set his elbows on her knees. Looking directly into her face, he made his demand.

“Mama, you gots to tell me.”

Marie set her mending aside. “Tell you what, mon petit ?”

“The secret. Adam’s got a secret with you and Pa, and he won’t never tell me, so you gotta.” Hoss’ voice was quite adamant.

Marie smoothed her son’s hair. “So you think Adam has a secret he will not tell you?”

“Pa must of told him not to tell, so he won’t. You gots to tell me, Mama. It’s a worry not to know.”

“What if your papa has told me not to tell?”

“Adam can’t tell ’cause he don’t want another tanning, but Pa won’t never tan you. Tell me, please, Mama.” Hoss gave her a pleading look all the more powerful for its simple sincerity.

Marie patted the settee next to her, and Hoss climbed into the circle of her arm. Hoss had grown up on a ranch, and she knew that he was aware that babies were not found in cabbage patches. “Hoss, you know that sometimes when married people love each other very much God blesses them with a baby?”

“Sure.” Hoss’ mouth formed an O. “Is you growing a baby, Mama?”

“Yes, mon petit l’un.”

“Where?”

Marie took his hand and placed it on her stomach and whispered, “Inside here. Sit very still and wait.” A few minutes later the child’s patience was rewarded as he felt the new life move with in her.

Hoss’ hand lifted in surprise, and his eyes widened. Then he leaned over and planted a kiss where his hand had rested. A whoop of joy burst from his lips, and his excitement propelled him from the settee to dance in delight.

“We’s having a baby. WE’S HAVING A BABY!” The child chanted at the top of his lungs. Marie was far too happy to quell his demonstration, but Hop Sing bustled in from the kitchen admonishing the boy half in English and half in Chinese.

“But we’s gonna have a baby, Hop Sing!”

“Hop Sing know Missy have baby. Now you shush, and no bothel little blothel!” Hop Sing turned and walked back to his domain.

Hoss stopped dead still and then said softly, “I gets to be a big brother!” Rushing back to Marie, he threw his arms around her in a child’s bear hug. “Oh, thank you, Mama.”

Marie’s laughter was light and warm as she pulled the child to her. “We will both thank God for this blessing, oui?”

Hoss nodded and slid to his knees. Marie knelt beside him.

“Dear God, We wants to thank you for sending a baby to grow in Mama. When it’s born, we’ll take good cares of it always. Pa and Adam will too. I will try hard to be the bestest big brother. Amen.” Marie added her own amen.

Settling on the floor she drew Hoss onto her lap. “It will be a long time, Hoss, before the baby is born.”

“How long?”

“Not until it gets cold, and we make things snug for the winter.”

Hoss’ lower lip slipped out a little. “That’s a long time to wait.”

“It takes a long time for the baby to grow strong and ready.” Marie soothed.

“Takes horses a long time too. Cats don’t take so long.” Hoss bit his lip. “Guess we’s just gots to wait.”

“Oui, but we will do special things to get ready. You will help your mama?”

Hoss nodded solemnly. “I’s mad at Adam, though, for not telling me.” The sudden petulant declaration brought a frown to Marie’s face. She lifted Hoss’ chin, so his eyes were on her face.

Non, non, Hoss. Adam knew that we had not told you because waiting so long would be very hard. It is his taking care of his first little brother that kept him from telling.”

Hoss considered the situation for a while. “Okay, Mama, I’ll not be mad, but I’s gonna tell him next time I wants to know. I ain’t a baby no more.”

***********

Marie finished listening to Hoss read his lesson and then went to where Adam was doing his math. Sitting in the chair next to his, she waited for him to finish the problem he was solving.

“Adam.”

“Ma’am?”

“I have the idea. It is just the day for a ride.” She saw the frown begin on his face and said quickly, “Dancer needs the exercise, but I think that you should ride her,oui? And you can pick a proper horse for me, can you not?”

Adam grew very serious as he considered Marie’s words. “Butter would do. She’s gentle, and what’s more she’s real surefooted. If we rode nice and easy…”

“Very easy we shall ride you, Hoss, and I.” She stressed Hoss’ name for Goldie would keep the pace quite reasonable. “Your papa did not plan to be home for lunch. We could take the lunch to him and eat there.”

“Yea, let’s take lunch to Pa!” Hoss declared with a whoop. “I’ll go tell Hop Sing.” The little boy dashed off to the kitchen.

Marie looked calmly at Adam. “The doctor said it is fine for me to ride still, Adam.” Her lips curled upwards, “You will be there to hold me to my promise. We will take no chances, and it will please your papa to see us.”

“Yeah.” A slight smiled played on the boy’s lips. “I can saddle the horses while you change.”

Marie came downstairs dressed in her riding habit. She saw Adam standing in front of the gun cabinet.

“Adam?”

“Ma’am.” Adam turned toward his stepmother with a serious expression on his face. “I…I think I should take my rifle.” Seeing the expression on Marie’s face, he continued, “I’m allowed if there’s an adult, even if Pa’s not there. Mr. Marquette’s taken me hunting, and some of the older hands.” Adam brought his eyes to Marie’s. “You’re an adult, and you’d be there the whole time. It’s not to show off. Just to be there in case. I don’t think it would be breaking the rules really.”

Marie asked softly, “If your papa thinks it is?”

“Then I’ll take the licking,” he replied simply.

Marie knew Adam had been using that rifle for years, was a good shot, and did not view it as a toy. The thought of the boy and the gun had made her shudder more that once in the past, yet Adam’s eyes looked so mature at that moment. They pled with her to trust him.

“You have my permission, Adam,” she replied formally. “I shall see if Hop Sing has lunch ready.”

Marie stopped in the doorway and listened. Adam was on his heels in front of Hoss speaking to him firmly.

“It’s staying in the scabbard unless it’s needed, and you know you’re not to touch it.”

“Not even a finger?”

“Not one tip of a finger, little brother. The first real tanning I ever got was for touching a gun when Pa said not. You go thinking you’re big enough to touch that rifle, and Pa might think you’re big enough for other things.” Adam’s tone was ominous though he knew his pa would never tan the six-year-old.

Hoss took his finger and made a cross on his chest. “I won’t touch it. I promise, Brudder.”

Adam smiled deeply. Even as young as he was, Hoss never deliberately broke a promise.

“Then we’ll just have us a high ole time surprising Pa.”

Marie said softly to Hop Sing who stood beside her. “Was I right to give permission?”

“Numel one son feel duty to take cale of family vely deep. He will be lesponsible.” Hop Sing reassured.

Seeing Marie, Hoss called out. “We’s ready, Mama.”

The three were all soon mounted and riding out of the yard.

It was a pleasant ride. Hoss chattered about the trees and the birds and every thing else that caught his notice. Adam answered questions and added his own observations. Marie mostly listened but was pleasantly surprised when several of Adam’s remakes invited her into the conversation. Marie allowed Adam to set the pace which he keep far more sedate than she thought necessary, but eventually they were on a rise above the site where Ben and the hands were working.

Adam reined in Dancer and spoke in what he hoped was a respectful tone. “I think we should have our picnic over there.” He pointed to a shady area under a large tree. “I’ll ride down and tell Pa we’re here.”

“We can goes with ya, Adam.” Hoss declared.

“Hoss, these aren’t cow ponies. There’s lots down there that could make a horse nervous.” He sent a look to his stepmother.

“Adam is right Hoss. That is a fine spot. We will make things ready while Adam brings your papa.” Marie spoke firmly.

Adam rode down. The thought flitted through his mind that it would be possible to play a grand prank on his pa, but he resisted the urge. Hailing the workers, he rode directly to his father and informed him that his wife and sons had brought him lunch and were waiting for him to join them. The concern that had entered Ben’s eyes at the sight of his son turned to pleasure. He mounted Buck and rode with Adam to the picnic sight. It was not until they were dismounting that it registered that a rifle was in the scabbard on Adam’s horse.

“You brought a rifle!” There was a snap to the exclamation.

Marie spoke quickly as she walked up and placed her hand on Ben’s arm. “He asked the permission, Benjamin, and I granted it. He has not been unsupervised.”

Ben gazed down at his wife. He knew she disliked the too frequent presence of guns in her new home and the fact that Adam even knew how to shoot. If she had granted her permission, he would accept it.

“We’re being real careful about things, Pa,” Adam added softly.

Ben smiled at his son. “I’m sure you are. If your mother gave her permission, there is no problem.”

Adam relaxed.

After they had devoured Hop Sing’s sandwiches and pie, Ben leaned back against the tree and groaned. “I don’t know how I’m going to work after a meal like that.”

“You could just play with us, Pa,” Hoss suggested happily.

“Wish I could,” Ben declared, “but there’s too much work to be done.”

“Do you want me to stay and give a hand?” Adam inquired earnestly.

“No, thank you, son. I want you to see the rest of the family home safely.” Ben gave his elder son a smile that declared he was confident Adam could do just that.

“Okay, Pa.” Adam smiled back and sat up a little taller.

“Can we’s watch ya work awhile, Pa?” Hoss loved to watch the men work with the cattle.

“Just a little while,” Ben agreed. Then he kissed his wife, tousled his boys’ hair, and mounted up. With a wave, he returned to work.

His family watched for a time, and then Adam led them home at the same sedate pace he had set earlier. Arriving in the yard, Marie started to dismount.

“WAIT!” Adam’s voice rang out, and he flung himself off Dancer. Hurrying over to Marie, he helped her to slide to the ground. Then he dropped his eyes. “I didn’t mean to shout. I just wanted…” his voice faded away.

“I know you meant no disrespect, Adam.” Marie lifted his chin, so he could see her eyes.

“Hoss and I will see to the horses. You better rest a bit.” Adam made sure his tone was respectful.

Marie smiled. She felt far too wonderful to be in need of rest but did not voice that fact. Instead she told Adam, “You did very well. Thank you for taking care of your brothers and me.” Then for the first time since she had been introduced to the boy and her kiss had caused him to flinch away, she brushed Adam’s cheek with her lips before turning to enter the house.

Adam’s hand automatically went to his face, but he did not rub her kiss away.

**********

Adam pulled the buggy to a stop in front of the mercantile. Marie waited while he set the brake and climbed down to come around and assist her. It was easier to leave the buggy with his help, and Adam was so serious about what he felt were his responsibilities on this trip. Marie smiled. Her very protective husband had decided his wife and son could take care of each other on a short trip into town, though Ben had refused Adam’s suggestion that he take his rifle for protection. Marie wondered if she or Adam had been given more instructions about what they should and should not do.

Merci, Adam,” she said as her feet settled on the ground. She stepped onto the raised sidewalk and felt Adam’s hand on her arm as he continued his duties as escort. They walked into the shade of the store, and she patted his hand.

“Adam, I’m sure you do not desire to look at material for baby clothes. Go look at what interests you while Mrs. Chambers helps me with my choices.”

Adam’s eyes strayed to the corner shelves where the books were displayed, but he asked, “Are you sure, ma’am? If you need me…”

Non, non , go, and if you find one you have not read that is not too dear, we shall add it to our purchases, oui ?”

“But Pa…” Adam began.

Marie patted her obviously bulging stomach. “Your papa is in the mood to indulge me. He will not scold.”

Adam smiled and darted over to search for the right volume while Marie walked up to the counter and began discussing the purchases she wanted to make.

“Hey, Adam!” Adam looked up from the book in his hand to see his friend approaching.

“Ross!”

He came up beside Adam and nudged him in the side. “Wasting your time in town with your nose in a book.” Ross shook his head. “Now why ain’t I surprised?”

Adam grinned. “Better than picking out lace and ribbons.” He stood up a littler taller. “Pa had me drive Marie into town.”

Ross raised his eyebrows in admiration. “That so? My pa and I came to get some tools fixed at the blacksmith. He sent me down to get some tobacco for him.”

Adam raised his own eyebrow in surprise. Ross laughed.

“He knows he’ll get every bit of it delivered, boy. My pa didn’t raise no fool.”

“Couldn’t prove that by me,” Adam teased. Ross snorted.

“My pa’s gonna take me over to Harrison’s. He’s got the newest Winchester on display. They say it’s really something. Want to come with?”

Adam bit his lip. “I don’t know if I can.”

“You can ask,” Ross urged.

“Yeah.” The two boys walked over to where Marie and the shopkeeper’s wife had their heads down over a counter full of pale batiste and colorful ribbons. Adam waited until both woman were not speaking and said politely, “Ma’am?”

Marie looked up to see her stepson and his friend looking at her expectantly. “Yes, Adam.”

“Well, um, Ross and his pa are in town.”

“How nice to see you, Ross,” Marie inserted.

“Yes, ma’am, nice to see you too.”

“Well, Ross’s pa is at the blacksmith, but they’re going over to Harrison’s to look at the new Winchester, and I could go with them if it’s all right.” Adam shifted nervously. Marie did not like guns, and he held out little hope that she would give her consent.

Ross knew his friend’s pa was quite strict about him wondering the streets of town and interjected quickly, “You could watch us walk down to the smithy’s from here, ma’am, and my pa will tend us after that. We’ll walk Adam back here.”

“You won’t be ready to go for a while, will you?” Adam knew Marie took a great deal of time to make decisions while shopping.

Marie bit her lip. Things had been better between Adam and herself, and she hated to deny him. The boy so seldom had time to spend with his friends, and his dark eyes were full of pleading. If she watched them walk to the smithy, what problem could there be?

“You will walk straight there and go no where except with Mr. Marquette?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Adam held his breath.

“Then please excuse me a minute, Mrs. Chambers, while I watch the boys.”

Adam’s face lit with a smile. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Marie walked with the boys to the sidewalk and then stood watching until they disappeared into the blacksmith’s shop. Returning to the counter, she said, “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“Think nothing of it, Mrs. Cartwright. That boy’s growing like a weed. He’ll be squiring the girls around town in no time at all.”

Marie laughed softly, “Not if Ben has his way.” The women discussed Adam, then Hoss, and then children in general as they pursued the items on the counter.

Adam and Ross looked around the dim interior of the smithy for Ross’s father. No one was in the smithy at all.

“They must of stepped out for something. We’ll just wait.” Ross settled himself on a barrel. Adam did the same, and the boys started discussing the merits of various firearms.

“What are you doing here, Cartwright?” Luke Boney made it sound more like an accusation than a question.

Adam looked at the newcomer. “Why did he have to show up?” Luke Boney hated Adam, and Adam could not understand why. When Luke’s family had first moved into town, Adam had tried to befriend him, but the boy had rebuffed every one of Adam’s attempts at friendship. Luke had proved to be a braggart and a bully, so Adam was glad now that he had decided to simply avoid the boy not long after his arrival.

“What’s it to you?” Ross tossed out his rejoinder.

“Ain’t speaking to you, Marquette. I’m wondering what made Old Man Cartwright let his baby boy loose in town.”

Adam bristled and sprang to his feet. “Watch your mouth, Luke!”

Luke was several inches taller and about thirty pounds heavier than Adam. He threw out his chest and continued his taunts. “Speaking of babies, I heard your new Frenchy ma is going to have a brat. Would have thought your pa was getting kinda long in the tooth for getting a woman like that, but I guess there are plenty of young studs out on that ranch of…”

Adam’s fist ended Luke’s comments, and the resulting fight might have caused serious injury to one or both of the combatants if Henry Marquette and the blacksmith had not entered the smithy barely a minute later and pulled the boys apart.

“Adam Cartwright, what in blazes in going on here, boy?” Henry Marquette demanded as he held Adam by the arm.

Adam was breathing heavily, but he managed to grunt, “Nothing, sir.”

Henry knew Adam well enough to realize he would not fight without reason. He turned his glare on Luke who was pinned in place by the blacksmith’s beefy hand. “What do you have to say, boy?”

“He started it, and I don’t have to stand here chawing with you.” Luke tossed an insolent look at his interrogator.

The blacksmith gave Luke a shake. “Mind your manners! Henry, this pup is always stirring up trouble. I’ll just deliver him to his pa, and you can see to the Cartwright boy.”

“Fine, Obadiah.” The Marquettes watched Obadiah drag Luke out of the smithy while Adam fixed his eyes on the dirt floor.

“Did you throw the first punch, lad?” Henry had released Adam’s arm and spoke calmly if firmly.

Adam nodded.

“Pa, that Luke, he was saying ugly things about Adam’s ma. Adam had to punch him,” Ross spoke up quickly in defense of his friend.

Henry sighed. “Your pa in town, Adam?”

“No, sir.” Adam did not elaborate.

“He’s with his ma. She’s at the mercantile,” Ross volunteered. Adam had a strong urge to kick Ross in the shin, but stayed still.

“Then that’s where we’re headed.” Henry Marquette motioned the boys toward the door. He watched Adam walk ahead of him toward the mercantile and felt a wave of sympathy for the child. Ben Cartwright was right strict with the boy and would not be pleased about this fight.

Marie heard the bell above the door jingle but did not look up until she heard her name.

“Miz Cartwright.”

She looked over her shoulder and exclaimed, “Here already!” Then she noticed the serious look on Henry Marquette’s face and the way Adam stood slightly behind him as if trying to remain unnoticed.

“Can I speak with you, Marie?” Henry kept his voice low and moved over toward the corner of the store. Marie followed. Before Henry had a chance to speak, she got a clear look at Adam. His clothes were dirty, his left eye red and puffy, and blood trickled from a split in his lip.

“Adam! You’ve been fighting!” She kept her voice low, but her vehemence was clear.

“That’s what I needed to tell you. Adam and Luke Boney got in a scuffle down at the smithy. Obadiah and I put a stop to it. Adam admitted to throwing the first lick, but Ross says he was provoked. I thought it best to bring him to you and let you know. Well, boys will be boys.”

Marie’s eyes flashed. “Thank you, Henry, for what you’ve done.” Marie’s voice was terse and clipped.

“No need for thanks. Ross and I best be getting on. Give Ben my regards.”

“Of course. You will give your wife the same from me?”

Henry nodded and hustled Ross out of the store. “Wait for me by the door,” Marie hissed in Adam’s ear. The she turned on her heel and completed her purchases in less than three minutes. When she swept out the door, Adam followed. Neither of them spoke until the buggy was well outside of town.

Marie fumed, and Adam could feel the anger emanating from her. He did not know that she was far angrier with herself than with him.

I should never have let him go. It would never have happened, I never should have let him go. Ben will be furious! Marie took her gaze from the road and slid it sideways. The trickle of blood congealing on Adam’s chin drove her anger from her mind.

“Stop.” It was neither harsh nor demanding. Adam pulled the buggy to a halt. Marie reached for the canteen of water that was carried beneath the seat. She took her handkerchief, wet it, and wiped the blood from Adam’s face. She did not speak while she cleaned his face, and Adam kept his eyes down sitting absolutely still and mute beneath her ministrations.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” I did not even ask. I should have taken him to the doctor, Marie silently admonished herself.

“No, ma’am. They stopped it pretty quick.” Adam answered tonelessly.

“Why did you fight this boy, Adam?” Marie’s voice was gently insistent.

“I can’t…” he glanced into Marie’s face and the lowered his eyes again. Then he raised his chin, “It was a matter of honor, ma’am.”

His words filled her mind. A matter of honor. How many times had she heard those words? For a moment she was back home. The heat had grown heavy and damp; the smell of moss, magnolia, and the muddy river filled her nostrils. The tall pines faded, and she could almost see the great oaks beneath which men settled matters of honor in the early dawn. She shuddered and then pushed her memories away. She sighed. Ben understood honorshe hoped he would understand his son.

“Very well.” Marie turned to look down the road, and Adam released the brake. They did not speak again until they arrived at the ranch house.

**********

Ben felt eyes on him and looked up to see two blue orbs staring back. Ben had been deep in paperwork since Marie and Adam had departed for town. Hoss had helped Hop Sing in the garden and then been given permission to play on the porch where it was cooler.

The boy had kept himself quietly occupied for quite a long time for a six-year-old. Ben smiled. Hoss’ upper lip bore a frothy white mustache; obviously Hop Sing had seen to the little boy’s snack.

“Hop Sing said not to disturb ya, Pa. I’s not disturbing, am I?”

“No, you are not disturbing, son.” Ben reached out his arms, and Hoss climbed into his lap. “Is there something you wanted, Hoss?”

“I’s been thinking on somethin’, Pa.”

“Have you? Just what have you been thinking on?”

“I’s been thinking how can I love somebody not borned when I doesn’t love somebodies who are borned.”

“Do you mean the baby? Ben asked astounded at what went on in his little one’s head.

“I loves our baby lots, Pa. He ain’t borned, but I love him. It makes me happy when I feels him in Mama’s belly.”

Ben smiled again. Hoss had taken to “feeling our baby” half a dozen times a day. “It makes me happy too.”

“See, ya loves our baby; mama loves our baby; Adam loves our baby.” Hoss leaned conspiratorially toward his father’s face. “I think Hop Sing loves our baby too.”

“I suspect he does,” Ben agreed.

“I don’t love some folks that way even though they’s nice and I likes ’em and they’s borned already. I ain’t got it figured, Pa.”

Ben tried to help his son understand. “The love you feel for the baby is a family love, and that’s a love you can feel even before someone is born.”

“Is that ’cause we’s got the same blood?”

“That’s the way some people would put it. Sharing the same blood can be like a seed that starts the love growing.”

A perplexed look came over the little boy’s face. “Buts I love Hop Sing that way, Pa. And Mama ain’t gots no blood with us. How’d the love grow with no seed?” Hoss had always been very interested in nature and continually asked questions about growing things. Ben, Adam, and Hop Sing had all taken the time to explain everything he asked about.

“Blood is one tie that makes love, Hoss, but not the only one.” Ben searched for an explanation. “You’ve seen Hop Sing take cuttings and tend them until they grew.”

“And they didn’t have no seed!” Hoss’ face lit up. “You, Adam, and me started with seed love. Mama and Hop Sing was cuttings.”

“The important thing is that the love grew because of how we tended it.” Ben did not know how much Hoss really grasped, but he could see that his son had at least settled his mind about the subject.

“When we takes care of each other, it’s like watering and weeding and such, so things grow right.”

Ben smiled and kissed the top of his son’s head. “My smart boy! All living things need loving care.”

Hoss placed his arms around Ben’s neck and hugged. “You tends us good, Pa. We’s got lots of love growing.”

Ben felt his eyes well. “Do you know how much I love you, Hoss? How much I always have and always will?”

“Sure, Pa. I’s always knowed that,” Hoss declared in a very matter of fact manner because he always had.

**********

Adam pulled the buggy up next to the house. On the way passed the corrals, Marie had called to one of the hands and given instructions that he come up to the house and see to the buggy and team. Adam climbed down and went around to give Marie a hand. He bit his lip as he turned and faced the door. His pa had stayed home to work at his desk, so there would be no postponing the consequences of his fighting.

As Marie and Adam walked into the house, Hoss squealed his welcome and jumped down from Ben’s lap

“Home already, my dear. I thought your errands would keep you until suppertime.” Ben rose to go and greet his wife and son. Halfway to them he managed his first full look at Adam’s face. The evidence was clear.

“Adam! You’ve been fighting!”

It had not really been a question, but Adam responded, “Yes, sir.”

Marie saw Hoss’ eyes widen with concern. “Hoss, go and tell Hop Sing that the things he asked for are in the buggy, and help him with them.”

Hoss knew he was being sent away, but he also knew better than to argue. He gave his big brother a look of sympathy and trudged off to the kitchen. Ben walked to within inches of Adam.

“Who did you fight?” The words were terse and clipped.

“Luke Boney.”

“Why?”

“I can’t say, sir.”

Ben drew in a deep breath. “Who threw the first punch?”

Adam could not keep his eyes on his father’s face and dropped his chin to his chest. “I did.”

“He was provoked, Benjamin.” Marie placed her hand on her husband’s arm.

Ben kept his glare on his son. “How did it happen?”

“Benjamin,” Marie spoke before Adam could answer, “Ross and Adam asked permission for Adam to go to the livery and meet Mr. Marquette, so he could take them to Harrison’s.”

“They have the new Winchester” was Adam’s whispered comment.

“So you did not see the fight?” Ben’s gaze now rested on Marie.

“No, Mr. Marquette brought Adam to me, but Ross said he was provoked,” Marie asserted.

Ben turned his attention back to Adam. Ben knew Adam, and he knew Luke Boney. “How did he provoke you?”

“Pa.” It was a plea. Adam slid his eyes to Marie, and Ben read the gesture correctly.

“Marie.” Ben’s tone was less angry then at first, and Marie had seen Adam’s nervous glance also.

“I’ll go tend to Hoss.” She turned and left the room.

“Tell me what happened,” Ben ordered.

Adam tried. “Marie watched us. We went straight inside, but nobody was in the smithy. We sat down to wait ’cause we weren’t suppose to go nowhere by ourselves, and we figured Mr. Marquette would be right back. Then Luke came in. He was nasty right off, Pa. He doesn’t like me. I don’t know why; he just don’t. I’d have left, Pa but we weren’t suppose to go off. Then he, well, he said something ugly, and I hit him. We were fighting, but Mr. Marquette and Mr. Collie came back quick and stopped it.”

“What did he say, Adam?”

“Pa, I can’t, and I can’t apologize.”

Ben spoke in measured tones, “What did he say, Adam?” When Adam simply shook his head, Ben added, “Do not make me spank it out of you.”

“He said…” Adam’s voice was barely a whisper. Ben stepped forward and leaned down as Adam suddenly buried his face in his father’s shirt and repeated word for word what Luke Boney had said. Then Adam’s voice grew clearer, “I won’t apologize, Pa. I can’t. Not even if you have to give me an extra whipping for disobeying you.”

Ben patted his son’s back. “You do not have to apologize.” Ben stared down at the black curls on his boy’s bowed head. How can I punish him? If a man had said that in front of me, I’d have punched him too! Ben took Adam by the upper arm and started to lead him toward the settee.

“Pa, please, can we go to the barn? I, I don’t want Hoss to hear.”

Ben turned toward his son and took Adam’s face in both his hands. “I’m not going to tan you or spank you or punish you at all.” He held the boy’s eyes on his. “You know how I feel about fighting. You know what I expect of you. I know you didn’t go looking for this fight.” Ben sighed. “Words can hurt. I won’t punish you this time.”

Surprise left Adam silent for a minute, then he said softly, “I’m sorry, Pa.”

Ben drew his son to him and squeezed Adam to his chest. “You’re forgiven.” He patted Adam’s back. “Go have Hop Sing fix an ice pack for that eye, and keep it on as long as he tells you. Then go do your chores.”

“Yes, sir.” Adam slipped from his father’s arms and headed toward the kitchen.

Ben went to his leather chair and lowered himself into it. He placed his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands. Did I do the right thing? Was it because it was Marie he slurred? If that Boney boy had insulted Adam only, would I have let it pass?

Ben felt a soft touch on his neck and then gentle hands began massaging his shoulders.

“Benjamin, you did not…”

“I did not tan him, Marie. I did not punish him at all.” Ben said tonelessly.

“It was a matter of honor then?”

Ben looked over his shoulder at his wife, took her hand, and drew her around so he could pull her into his lap. “A matter of honor?”

“That’s all he would tell me, that it was a matter of honor.” Marie’s face was questioning.

“The Boney boy insulted you. Adam defended your honor, and the family’s I suppose.”

Marie bit her lip. “I would not have him fight for words against me. I’m very sorry, Benjamin.”

“For what, my dear?”

“I should have kept him with me; I should not have given my permission.”

Ben saw the tears well in her eyes. He took her face in his hands as he had Adam’s earlier. “No, no, my love, you are not to blame. If Adam had been with me, I would have given my permission.”

“But that boy would not have said these things in front of me. Then there would have been no need for the defending of honor.”

“We can’t keep Adam in our sight at all times, Marie. That’s why we have to teach him to make the right decisions.” Ben paused. “Do you think I should have punished him?”

Marie answered him with her own question, “Since you did not, will Adam think he has your permission to fight again?”

“Adam knows how I feel about fighting; he learned that years ago,” Ben answered a flicker of anger sharpening his tone. Then he added more gently, “No, Adam will not think he has a license to fight.”

“Then why should you have punished him?” Marie smiled, and Ben drew her lips to his.

**********

Ben opened the door to his younger son’s room. Hoss was struggling to pull his nightshirt down over his head. Ben chuckled softly and walked over to lend a hand. After Hoss’ head emerged and the garment was tugged into place, the little boy smiled up at Ben.

“Thanks, Pa.” Then the smile was gone. “Pa, Adam’ crying. He says he ain’t, but he is.”

Adam had been very quiet at dinner and throughout the evening, but Ben had considered that residue from the events of the day.

“Ya didn’t tan him, so why ya think he’s crying, Pa?”

I don’t know, Hoss, but I intend to find out.”

“You’s not mad at Adam, is ya, Pa?”

“No, I am not angry with your brother, and I shall see to him, so you have no need to worry.” Ben patted his son’s bottom, heard his prayers, and hustled Hoss into bed. Dropping a kiss on the boy’s forehead, Ben blew out the lamp and went across the hall. He purposely did not knock. Ben opened the door. One lamp was lit but turned down low. In the dim light, Ben saw Adam huddled on his bed with his back to the door a forgotten book lying open on the floor. Ben walked over, picked up the book, and set it on the bedside table. He settled himself on the bed and pulled his son against him.

“What is it, Adam?” The boy just drew himself into a tighter ball. Undeterred Ben gently ordered, “Tell Pa what’s wrong. You don’t think I’m angry with you?”

“No.”

“Neither is Marie, son.”

“I spoiled it. She didn’t get to do things she went to do.” It was stated in a hesitant whisper.

“She is not upset with you, Adam. Neither of us is upset with you, child,” Ben reiterated. Instead of relaxing, Adam stiffened with the effort not to cry. Ben heard the shallow breathing of his son. Then another thought came into his mind.

“Adam, are you hurt somewhere you haven’t told us? Are you in pain?” Ben straightened and turned Adam to face him.

“No, no, Pa.” Adam kept his chin on his chest.

Even as Adam protested, Ben reached out to turn the lamp up until it burned brightly.

“Well, we’ll just check.” Ben’s fingers ran lightly over Adam’s arms and then began unbuttoning his son’s shirt.

“Pa, Paaa, that’s not it.” Adam dared to push his father’s hands away. Realizing what he had just done, he threw his body face down on the bed and began to sob.

Ben reached out and rubbed his back. He leaned down and spoke calmly into Adam’s ear. “Out with it, Adam. Now!” It was gentle order but an order nevertheless. Ben stopped rubbing just long enough to punctuate that order with a firm pat to Adam’s backside.

“You let me off ’cause I’m a k,k,kid. You won’t l,l, let me again; she w,w,w,won’t trust me. Y,y,y,you were starting….I w,w,w, wanted…it all got sp,spoiled.” Adam choked out. “N,n,now I’m b,bawling, and y,yoou think I’m a b,baby.”

Ben shook his head. “Adam Cartwright, you will listen to me. Calm down and listen.”

Adam fought to control his breathing. Ben sat the boy up and made Adam turn to look at him.

“I know you are not a baby or even a little boy, but neither are you grown, and I took that into consideration, though, to tell the truth, most men would have done the same in a similar situation. Adam, there are times when you will fight because there is no good way to avoid it. All I ask of you, son, is not to go looking for a fight or let it become your first course of action.”

Adam looked up. “I don’t, Pa; I won’t.”

“I know, son. You did not behave irresponsibly; I shall not treat you as if you had. I trust you, Adam. In many important ways I have always trusted you more than most men trust their boys.”

“You’re not disappointed in me?” It was a plea as much as it was a question.

“I wish it had not happened. I wish it could have been avoided, but I am not disappointed in you, Adam Stoddard Cartwright.” Ben drew Adam into a hug. “Don’t you worry about that anymore!” He again punctuated his order with a firm pat to Adam’s bottom. “Mind me now.”

“Yes, Pa.”

“Get your nightshirt on, and I’ll listen to your prayers.”

Adam went to change. Ben kept his seat and an observant eye on his son as he covertly checked the boy for any signs of injury that might have gone unreported by his stubborn firstborn. Seeing none, he smiled to himself.

Adam finished changing and knelt to say his prays. Unlike Hoss, his lips moved silently after reciting the Lord’s prayer, keeping his own petitions private. Ben then held the bedclothes back as his son crawled in and settled for the night. Since no one else could observe, Ben dropped a kiss on his son’s head. “Sleep tight, son. I love you.”

Adam cheeks flushed. “Night, Pa. I love ya too.”

Ben blew out the lamp and departed. Adam curled up on his side and relaxed for the first time since the fight. He sighed. He still marveled that there had been no punishment at all, well except for the fact that he would have had a new book if he had just stayed at the mercantile.

**********

Marie stepped out onto the back porch. For a minute she watched Adam as he gathered the kindling he had split. She bit he lip and walked back inside.

Adam closed the lid of the last wood box. All the wood boxes were stocked with freshly split kindling. He ran his shirtsleeve over his sweaty face. Then he heard his stepmother call him from the porch and went out to her.

“Come have some lemonade, Adam.” Marie gestured to a glass on the old porch table.

“Thanks, ma’am.” Adam walked over, lifted the glass to his lips, and downed half of it in one long swallow.”

Marie had seated herself in a wooden chair and motioned for Adam to take the one opposite her.

Adam saw the serious look in Marie’s eyes. He sat down and dropped his eyes to the table. “I’m sorry ma’am about yesterday. Your not getting things done and all.”

“I am not upset with you, Adam.” She brought out what she had been holding in the folds of her skirt and placed it on the table. “I hope it is the one you would have chosen.”

Adam picked of the book. It was the one he had been reading when Ross came into the store.

“You bought it? But you, you were really mad.” Adam looked up at Marie. His expression was puzzled and his eyes wide.”

“I suppose I knew you would have a good reason.” Marie was not sure herself what had prompted her to place the volume with her purchases in those final minutes at the store.

“Adam, your papa told me…” She saw the alarm appear in his eyes and finished quickly, “Only that the boy had insulted me.”

Adam dropped his head, so she could not read his eyes. “Adam, I wish to tell you a story. It is not one for repeating, but it is one that is true.”

Adam raised his head and looked at her intently.

“In New Orleans among my people honor is very important. Fighting for the honor is a common thing.”

“They fight duels, don’t they?” Adam had read about duels in more than one book.

Oui, the duel, it is the way for many.”

“You know men who have actually fought duels?”

A shadow flickered across Marie’s face. “Too many, child, but let me tell my story.”

Adam’s cheeks reddened. “Yes, ma’am.”

“There was a girl who lived in New Orleans, a very pretty girl.”

Adam could not help himself. “Was it you?”

Marie shook her head. “Non, it was not me, Adam, but I knew her well. She was but sixteen when she fell in love. He was sweet and gentle and loved her as well. The families approved. The betrothal was to be announced on her eighteenth birthday. Then a new man came to town. He was neither sweet nor gentle, but he was very handsome and so dashing. Much more exciting was this man then the boy she had always known. He flirted with her at several parties, filled her head with stories and endearments. She told the boy she no longer loved him. She did not know that one night the boy and the man would be at the same club. That the man would speak of how she had kissed him. That the boy would hear. That he would challenge the man because his words dishonored the girl, and the boy still loved her. They fought beneath the oaks at dawn.”

“The man shot the boy, didn’t he?”

Non, they fought with the epees. The boy was young, but his father was a master and had taught him well.”

“He killed the man?”

Non, the man lost the use of his arm, and the boy bears the scar across his face.” Her finger moved from her temple across her nose to the tip of her chin.”

“The girl?” Adam asked softly.

“She is now Sister Mary Therese. He would not offer himself to her with his disfigurement. She would have no other, so she went to God to find ease from the blame.”

Marie reached out and touched Adam’s cheek. “Let them say what they will about me, mon garcon, if there is a chance that you will come to harm.” Adam did not answer as Marie rose and walked inside.

************

“No.”

“But…”

“I have said no.”

“Pa would let me!” Adam’s temper put an edge to his exclamation.

“Your papa is away, I have said no, Adam. I shall not change my mind.”

You couldn’t stop me if I just went! Adam thought to himself. Then he thought of the consequences when his pa returned and simply ground his teeth. Instead he whined, “You’re treating me like a baby.”

Marie was sweating in the heat of a late August afternoon. She had not been sleeping well especially the last few nights when her husband had been absent from her bed, and her growing body made her increasing uncomfortable. Her temper flared. “If you continue to whine and pout, petit garcon, you shall do it standing in that corner!”

Adam’s eyes flared, but he held his tongue and turned on his heel. He mounted the stairs with lead feet, but kept his steps just the civil side of a stomp.

Marie’s fist pounded the arm of her chair. She knew Adam considered that punishment far beneath his twelve-year-old dignity, but if he pushed her again that is exactly where he would spend an hour.

Adam went up the front stairs, down the backstairs, and out onto the back porch. His eyes automatically scanned for his brother. At first he saw nothing. Then a flash the same color yellow as the shirt Hoss was wearing that day caught Adam’s eye. He peered out past the henhouse to the edge of the woods.

“Hoss! HOSS!” There was no response. Adam headed toward the spot where he had seen the flash. Just inside the tree line he saw his younger brother standing with his hands on his hips staring deeper into the woods.

“Why didn’t you answer me?” Adam snapped.

Hoss turned and retorted with an edge to his own voice, “Ya scared him off!”

“Scared what off?”

“The little coon. Adam, I thinks he’s hurt.” Anger left and concern settled in its place on the little boy’s face.

“Why?”

“Way he’s walking and not touchin’ his paw to the ground,” Hoss explained.

“Well, he’s gone now, so there’s nothing to be done. Better head back to the house.” Adam started to turn.

“We could look for him. He can’t be far, Adam. We’s can look for him, Brudder, can’t we?”

“No.”

“Yes.” Hoss puffed up in defiance.

“I said no, Hoss! We’re going back to the house.”

“You go! I’m gonna look for the little coon.” Hoss turned and started to stomp away from Adam. Adam darted forward and caught his little brother by the arm. He jerked him around. “I said…”

“OW!” Hoss wailed. Adam’s hand dropped as if Hoss’ arm had suddenly turned red hot.

“I didn’t hurt you,” Adam protested.

“Yes, ya did, Adam, and ya won’t look for the little coon with me, and he’s hurted too.” Tears started spilling down Hoss’ cheeks. “Please.”

Adam was just worried enough that he might have been too rough with his brother that he capitulated.

“Okay. Just around here a little. If we don’t find him in a few minutes…”

“We’ll find him, Adam. Come on!”

A few minutes turned into almost a half hour of ever widening searches that had the boys deep in the woods before they actually sighted the little coon. It took another hour of maneuvering and plotting before they had the little creature wrapped up in Adam’s shirt. It was not until they had started back that Adam realized how far they had wandered and how much time had passed. Then he grabbed Hoss’ hand and set out at a near trot back to the ranch house.

*********

Marie returned from yet another trip to the outhouse. She sighed and looked around the yard. Seeing neither of the boys, she called both their names. Hoss had been told not to leave the area between the house and the barn, and Adam knew he had to tell her or Hop Sing if he was going further than the range of a shout. She told herself that both boys must be inside. After all, Adam had left her presence in a great sulk. She went into the kitchen and asked Hop Sing if he had seen the boys. Getting a negative response, she began a search of the house calling their names repeatedly. After ten minutes she knew that they were not inside the house or near enough to hear her calls unless they were deliberately ignoring her. She bit her lip.

Surely Adam would not have taken off to join his friends after I denied permission. Even if he had, he would not have taken Hoss. Are they together? I don’t even know that!

Marie hurried to the barn. Both Adam’s horse and Hoss’ pony were still happily munching hay in their stalls. She told herself that at least the boys had gone off on foot, which meant they could not have gone as far. She went back to the house.

“Missy not find little boys?” Hop Sing’s voice was calm but underlined by worry.

“No. I don’t know what to do now, Hop Sing.”

“Boys wandeled. They plobably come back soon, but I go get hand to go looking. You go inside and wait.”

“But…”

“Must think about numbel thlee son. Go insidesit down. Bad boys just wandel off.”

It was still some time until dark. Marie told herself Hop Sing was right. Anger joined worry as she went to sit on the porch and wait.

Ned walked up to his boss’s wife and tipped his hat. “I scouted around a little and saw some tracks. Two sets of prints headed off into the woods. I’d say those two boys wandered off together like boys will, ma’am. Wouldn’t be the first time. Mr. Cartwright’s had to warm some britches over that before. I reckon all pas do.”

Marie relaxed just a shade. At least Hoss was with Adam, and Adam was capable of taking care of himself and his brother in the woods.

“They’ll probably be along anytime now, but if ya want me to go tracking them.”

Marie told herself there was really no need, but she answered, “Please, I would feel so much better.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ned tipped his hat and went to find his boss’s errant sons.

Within ten minutes he spotted them hurrying in his direction. He pushed his hat back on his head and positioned his hands on his hips. He had been working on the Ponderosa since the year after Ben and Adam had settled there, and knew what Ben Cartwright expected of his sons.

Adam caught sight of Ned, and a shuddered went down his spine.

“So there you youngins are.” Ned put a rumbled into his baritone, “Just what have the two of you been up to?”

Adam and Hoss had come to a dead halt in front of Ned. “We went after a coon, Ned,” Hoss volunteered not quite as aware as Adam of the trouble awaiting them. “His paw’s hurted.” Adam held out the shirt-wrapped coon for Ned’s observation.

“That so! Well, your ma sent me hunting ya. Seems nobody up to the house knew where the two of you had taken off for.” He gave Adam a hard glare. “You know better than that, boy.”

“We just went a little way into the woods. It ain’t like I don’t go into the woods by myself. I can find my way around here for at least twenty miles.”

Ned just huffed. “Save it for your ma and pa. Let’s get going back to the house.”

Hoss heard Ned’s reference to his father, and his stomach flipped. He looked up at his big brother’s face in time to see the blood drain from it. Hoss was sniffling before they had walked a hundred yards.

As Adam walked, he told himself that they hadn’t really done anything all that wrong, that Marie had no real need to worry, and how dare she take Ned from his work and send him hunting for them. His stepmother should know that he was perfectly able to take care of himself and Hoss. Marie was treating him like a baby again. By the time the ranch house was in view, a flame of anger was burning in the boy.

Marie was standing on the porch waiting when Ned walked the boys into the yard. He directed the boys toward her.

“Well, ma’am, like I thought, these two just wandered off. Chasing a little hurt coon. Met them as they were headed home.”

The concern that had marred Marie’s face changed to fury. Ned decided on a hasty exit.

“Well, I’ll take the little fellow and get him settled in a box in the barn. Then I’ll head on back to work.”

“Thank you, Ned. I’m sorry you were taken from your work.”

“No problem there, ma’am.” Ned tipped his hat, took the little raccoon, and departed.

Marie stared at the two boys fighting to control her temper. She raised her hand and pointed to the house. “Your rooms, get to them now! MAINTENANT!”

“Mama!” Hoss wailed.

“We just…” Adam began.

Marie’s fingers clenched around the folds of her skirt. “Go to your rooms and put on your nightshirts.” Her voice became deadly calm. “Do not make me repeat myself!”

Adam bit back his retort and grabbed his little brother’s hand. If she did not want to listen, well, that was fine with him. Adam led Hoss up to his room.

“We’s in big trouble, ain’t we?”

Adam wanted to deny it, but it was true. “Yeah, Hoss, but Pa won’t be home until day after tomorrow. Things will probably calm down by then.” Hoss’ face showed that he did not take much comfort from that thought. “You better do what she said. We’ll have to stay in our rooms tonight, I guess.” Adam opened the door to Hoss’ bedroom and gently pushed his brother inside. Then he went to his own room and changed.

Marie sat down in the porch rocker and rocked so hard that the porch shook.

“Boys vely bad to go off so.” Hop Sing sat down in a chair beside Marie.

“How could they, Hop Sing? I was so worried, so scared, and they….Adam knows better!”

“Numbel one son know much better, so does numbel two son. Boys safe now, Missy. You must think of numbel three son and calm down.”

Marie turned to look into the dark, almond eyes. “What should I do now, Hop Sing?”

“What Missy think needs doing?”

“They need to know that this is not allowed. Both of them deserve a good paddling!”

“Fathel not be back until Monday. Two days long time fol little one to wait fol punishment.”

Marie bit her lip and nodded. “No matter what I do, Ben will spank them when he hears. This I can’t keep from him.”

This time Hop Sing nodded. “Before you and Mistel Ben mally, Hop Sing watch boys when fathal away. Father know boys should not have to wait. He give permission for Hop Sing to do what is needed. If Hop Sing use wooden spoon on boys’ bottoms, fathel not spank when he hears.” Marie looked at him with a question in her eyes. Hop Sing shook his head softly. “Missy in charge now,” he intoned. Then he rose and returned to his kitchen.

The house was quiet, and Adam heard the footsteps on the stairs. He heard a door open and surmised that Marie had gone first to Hoss’ room. A few minutes passed before he heard anything more. Then it took a minute for him to realize what the noises he heard signified. Hoss was receiving a spanking. He dashed across his room, out into the hall, and yanked open the door to his brother’s room just in time to see Hoss slip sobbing into Marie’s arms.

“I’s sorry, Mama. I’s sorry. I won’t do it again. I’s sorry.” Hoss sobbed and rubbed his bottom.

Marie hugged him and patted his back. “I know, mon petit l’un. I knowAll is forgiven, little one.”

“How dare you!”

Marie looked up at Adam’s exclamation. She maneuvered Hoss onto his bed and walked over to Adam. Surprised at the look of resolve on his stepmother’s face, Adam took an involuntary step backward. Marie stepped into the hall and closed the door behind her.

“I am his mother,” she said simply staring directly into Adam’s eyes.

“Stepmother!”

“I am mistress of this house, and you disobeyed the rules of this house.”

Adam’s eyes widened. “You don’t think you’re going to…”

Marie took Adam’s upper arm in her hand. Temper flaring, he jerked roughly away. Marie stumbled and instinctively put her hand to her stomach. The moment he saw that gesture the fight and defiance drained out of Adam. He turned and walked into his bedroom. Marie followed with her hairbrush in her hand.

Marie walked out of Adam’s bedroom and into her own. She shut the door behind her, dropped the hairbrush to the floor, and trudged to the bed. Curling up on the covers, she closed her eyes trying to shut out Adam’s face when he told her, “I hate you.” Soon all three Cartwrights had sobbed themselves to sleep.

Hop Sing decided on supper trays. Both boys received a lecture of mixed English and Chinese with theirs. Marie accepted hers along with the friendship of a man she would never think of as a servant again.

***********

Ben urged Buck to a quicker pace. He had been hurrying since the minute that he left the Ponderosa five days ago. Now his home was in sight; his family in reach again.

Ben swung off his horse and scanned the yard. He saw the door open and his youngest run toward him.

“Pa, pa!” He caught the boy and swung him up into his arms.

“I’m glad you’re home, Pa. I missed ya.” Hoss hugged his father’s neck and buried his face in Ben’s shirt.

“I missed you more.”

Hoss shook his head. “I missed ya bunches more.”

“No, I missed ya bunches and bunches and bunches more,” Ben declared as he began tickling Hoss’ belly. Hoss’ giggles filled the air.

“Where’s your brother?”

“Helping Ned down by the corrals.” As he mentioned Ned’s name, Hoss quieted.

“And your mama?”

“She’s resting.” Hoss dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Mama takes naps now!”

Ben widened his eyes. “Does she?” Hoss nodded importantly. Ben tapped the boy’s nose as he instructed, “Just you remember to stay quiet and let her!”

“Yes, Pa.” Hoss slid down and landed on his feet. “I can go get Adam,” he volunteered.

Ben considered. “Stop at the rise and call to your brother. No further, Hoss.”

“Yes, Pa.” Hoss took off at a brisk trot.

Ben headed toward the house. Hop Sing stood waiting on the porch.

“Mistel Caltwlight, vely glad you home.”

“I’m glad to be home!” He looked at the face before him and asked, “What is it, Hop Sing?”

“Hop Sing think best to tell you filst,” he replied calmly and then proceed to give Ben a concise account of the boys’ wandering and its consequences. He watched the emotions that played across Ben’s face.

“Missy do what was needed like good mothel,” Hop Sing finished. His message was clear to Ben. They sat together quietly for a few minutes.

“Thank you for telling me, Hop Sing.” Hop Sing rose, smiled, bowed, and departed for his kitchen as Ben’s sons came into sight.

Ben watched his boys and took a deep breath.

“Welcome home, Pa.” Adam said less exuberantly than his brother but with no less feeling.

Ben drew his eldest into a bear hug. “I’m glad to be back, son. I missed you.” Then he turned to Hoss. “I think Hop Sing needs your help in the kitchen.”

“Okay, Pa,” Hoss agreed quickly glancing at his brother before darting off.

Adam dropped his head. “You want to speak to me, Pa?”

“Sit down, Adam.” Ben motioned to a porch chair and seated himself in another. “Tell me, son.”

“Hoss saw a little coon with a hurt paw. We were looking for it in the woods, and it took some time. She sent Ned looking for us. We meet him coming back. We were already coming back, Pa. She was real mad. We both got a…we got punished. We had to stay in our rooms, and we had to stay in the house all day yesterday. We read the Bible in the morning because we couldn’t go to services.” Adam tried hard to keep the whine out of his voice, but it repeatedly crept in.

“You left the yard without telling anyone?” Ben’s tone had grown stern.

“Yes, but…”

“Adam, what is the rule?”

“Let an adult know where you are going always and get permission.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“Adam, what are the reasons for that rule?” Ben’s voice was insistent.

“I know the reasons, Pa. We didn’t mean to go so far or be gone so long.”

“You broke the rules. You left your mother and Hop Sing to wonder, to search, to worry.”

“I can take care of myself, Pa, and Hoss too. You know thatshe thinks…” The defiance in Adam’s voice grew

“She thinks our sons should obey the rules. Is she wrong in that, Adam?” Ben demanded.

Adam settled back into his chair and dropped his head.

“No, but, she, Pa, she…”

“Gave you the spanking you earned,” Ben finished for him.

“She’s not our ma.” Adam’s declaration was delivered softly but was vehement nonetheless.

“Have you forgotten the spankings Inger gave you?” Ben asked just as softly.

The tears welled in Adam’s eyes. His mama had spanked him exactly three times, and he remembered each one quite clearly. One of them had been administered for wandering off without telling her. “But Mama…” Mama loved me, he finished silently.

Ben reached out and lifted Adam’s chin with his finger. “Marie is my wife too. Hoss loves her as you loved Inger. She could bear no harm coming to either of you. You were in the wrong, son.”

Adam capitulated. “I know.”

“Have you apologized?”

“No, sir.”

“Are you ready to now?”

Adam nodded his head. Ben rose and walked over to his son. He gently pulled the boy into his arms and spoke softly into his ear. “If she had not spanked you, your behind would be burning now. You might consider yourself lucky, boy.”

“She lit us up good, Pa,” Adam mumbled into his father’s shirt, “used her hairbrush.”

“You deserved it, son.” Ben raised Adam’s face, so his son could see there was no anger in his eyes.

“I’ll tell her I’m sorry.” Adam shifted nervously.

“No time like the present, son.” Ben turned the boy toward the open door and encouraged him on his way with a pat on the back.

Adam knocked on the door to his parent’s bedroom. His stepmother’s voice granted entry. He opened the door and slipped inside. Marie was sitting at her dressing table. She had been brushing out her hair in the process of preparing for dinner.

“Pa’s home,” Adam announced. He watched Marie’s face light up.

Remercier Dieu.”

“I wanted to speak to you, “Adam stated softly.

Oui, what is it, Adam?” Marie inquired.

Adam walked over to face her and swallowed. “I should not have gone off with Hoss without telling anyone. I know the rules. We weren’t in danger because I know the woods, but you didn’t know we were all right. I know better, and I’m sorry.” His eyes fixed on the hairbrush in her hand. “You have the right to enforce the rules,” he added. Then he looked directly into her eyes for the first time, “I am sorry. Pa didn’t make me say it.”

Marie’s fingertips brushed his cheeks. “You are forgiven. You know sometimes the anger comes from the worry, from the fear?”

The picture of Marie racing across the meadow flickered in his mind. “I know.”

Marie reached to set her hairbrush on the dressing table. Adam followed it with his eyes. The question slipped out.

“Did your ma use a hairbrush? To…”

“For the paddling? Oui , until I was eleven. Mama was quite strict.”

“Eleven?” Adam asked his eyebrows rising.

“My mama died when I was eleven,” Marie stated simply.

Adam’s eyes darkened in sympathy. “I didn’t know.”

“There is much we have yet to know about each other, Adam.”

Before Adam could respond, the door burst open.

“Hop Sing says supper in fifteen minutes and everybody be on time. Adam has to wash,” Hoss announced.

Marie laughed gently, “And you, mon petit. Go on, now.”

Adam walked to his brother and placed his arm around Hoss’ shoulder as they walked from the room.

Hoss stopped short in the hall. “Adam?”

Adam dropped to his heels. “What?”

“I don’t like that hairbrush.”

Adam gave his brother a wry smile. “I don’t like it either, little brother, leastways not on my backside.”

“I don’t like paddlings; they’s as bad as spankings. I don’t like mama getting mad either.”

“She was worried, Hoss.”

“I know. Next time we gets permission?”

“Next time we most definitely get permission, little brother,” Adam assured. He started to rise, but Hoss spoke again.

“I’m sorry I got you a paddling, Adam.”

“I’m the big brother, Hoss. I should have seen we asked permission. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Hoss decided a hug was better than anything he could say. Adam hugged him back, and then they both went to wash for dinner.

**********

Ben Cartwright stood behind his wife and pulled the brush gently through her long hair letting the tresses fall through the fingers of his other hand. Rhythmically he repeated the motion over and over. Actually, it was a task he loved. He had found joy in performing it for Elizabeth first, then Inger, and now Marie.

Marie closed her eyes and slowly relaxed. She loved him, and his presence was all that was needed to make any moment better. She gave a mummer of contentment. Ben set the brush on the dressing table, lifted her hair from her neck, and pressed his lips the smooth skin he had reveled.

“I missed you so,” he whispered. He had been five nights without her in his arms.

“I missed you more.”

He heard no lightness in her words only a deep need. He placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. She buried her face in his chest as his arms closed around her. Ben lifted her and carried her to the old rocking chair. Settling into the soft cushions, he cradled his wife on his lap.

“Promise me you won’t go away for a very long time.” Marie wanted to say ever.

“I can’t promise that, love, but I promise I’ll be here when the babe is born. Nothing could keep me from being with you.”

“I need you, Benjamin. Do you know how much?”

“Almost as much as I need you, my love.” She snuggled closer, and for a few minutes they were simply together.

Her whisper was so soft that Ben barely heard the words. “I was so scared. I thought of them hurt, gone forever, and I would have lost everything I love. You would have hated me because I didn’t keep them safe.”

“I could never hate you, Marie!” His declaration was vehement. Would I have blamed her?

“They’ve wandered off from me too,” he soothed.

“Hoss wanted to help the little thing, and I paddled him for it,” Marie rebuked herself.

“No, you paddled him for disobedience, for breaking a rule that is there to keep him safe.”

“They’re just little boys. I was too harsh.”

Ben raised her face, so she could look into his. “Sometimes we must be harsh to protect them from a world that can be far harsher.” He sighed. “On one of the first wagon trains Adam and I traveled with for a time, a little girl went off after her puppy. She got lost. We found her body three days later. The first time Adam wandered off….well, all I could see was….” His voice choked, Marie put her arms around his neck pulling him to her.

After a minute he straightened. “I know it’s hard to do. To see them cry.”

“Adam didn’t cry. Not in front of me.””

“He has a wide and stubborn streak of pride.”

“He does not think of me has his mother.” She stood and walked over to the window.

There was no breeze. “Maybe he never will.”

“Give him time.” It was all Ben could say. He came to stand behind her and slipped his arms about her waist. She turned to settle once more in his arms. “It would be easier to wait if I didn’t love him so already.”

***********

Hoss came down the stairs alone. He stopped and chewed his lips. Then he walked over to the settee and crawled up beside Marie.

“Mama?”

“Yes, mon petit l’un.”

Hoss snuggled against his mother. “Adam told me to go away.”

“Was he busy?”

“No. He’s mooning.”

“Mooning?” Marie’s brow wrinkled.

Ben came up behind them and asked, “Mooning over what, Hoss?”

“He wants to dance with that Daisy Buckhole.”

“Daisy Buckholtz,” Ben corrected automatically.

“Yeah. He’s mooning ’cause he can’t.”

“Why can’t he?” Marie queried. “Is she not coming to the Harvest Social?”

“She’s coming.” Hoss nodded solemnly. “Adam can’t dance.”

“He cannot dance? But I have seen him,” Marie observed.

“Not that kind of dancing. He can’t do the twirlly kind that boys do with girls, like you do with Pa.”

“Oh” came from both parents’ lips.

“I suppose he doesn’t.” Ben looked across at his wife.

It is a mother’s duty, the teaching of the social graces! “If I simply ask him, he will not let me,” she answered her husband’s look. Then she smiled her lips curling at the corners. “But we will be smarter, n’est pas cette droite?”

Ben leaned over and kissed his wife’s brow, “We shall leave it to you, my dear.”

***********

Adam looked up from the book he was reading. It was one that Miss Clare had sent to him with her last letter. He sighed and watched as his stepmother stood before the fire humming softly and swaying in time with her self-made music. The sound was pleasing, and the firelight danced on her curls.

Ben walked up behind his wife and said softly, “It’s a shame we shall not be able to dance at the social.”

“A woman heavy with child does not make the best partner,” she replied softly.

“There’s no other partner that interests me, my dear.” Ben turned Marie to face him and took her in his arms. He began to lead her in a sweeping dance as she hummed the tune to a popular song. With a final flourish, he bowed and kissed her hand.

“I wants to dance, Mama. Dance with me,” Hoss demanded running up and planting himself in front of Marie.

Le plus certainement.” Marie smiled and this time Ben’s baritone humming set the music for a lively dance. “Thank you, sir!” Marie leaned down and planted a loud kiss on her little one’s cheek. Then she turned to Adam. “Your turn,” she invited lightly bestowing her most charming smile on the boy.

“Yeah, Brudder, it’s your turn.” Hoss encouraged as he winked at his pa.

“I, I don’t…” Adam shook his head slightly.

“I shall show you. A young gentleman must learn these things, nest pas?”

Adam rose shyly and went to stand before her. Softly she began giving him instructions and gently positioning his arms and feet. Ben began humming, and Marie counted. Adam began leading her in a dance. The second time he trod on her foot, Marie could not manage to hide her wince. Adam dropped his hands from her, and jerked back.

“I can’t! It’s stupid! I don’t want to dance with you!” He dashed to the front door and slammed it behind him.

“ADAM!” Ben bellowed and took a step to follow his son.

“No, Benjamin, this I shall see to,” Marie spoke with determination and walked with measured steps to the door. Opening it, she looked out to see that Adam stood just beyond the porch steps. She stepped out and closed the door softly behind her.

“Adam Stoddard Cartwright!”

Adam turned to face her.

“Should I send you to your room and get my hairbrush?” Even with only the dim light that came from the windows and a quarter moon, Marie saw his eyes widen.

“Nooo, I didn’t mean…” Adam shifted nervously, “I’m sorry.” He dropped his head and stared at the ground.

Marie descended the steps and went to stand before him. “No one learns without stepping on the toes. Better mine than some lovely young girl’s. We will begin again.”

She took him through the dance three more times there in the empty yard. The third time he did not step on her toes even once.

“See, now the toes of the mademoiselles are safe. You would like to dance so at the Harvest Social?”

Adam hesitated and then answered, ‘Yes, ma’am.”

“Then we shall practice each night.”

“But,”

Marie shook her head. “It is my gift to the little mademoiselles.”

Adam ducked his head and whispered, “Do you think someone would want to dance with me?”

Her laughter was warm and gentle, “Adam, you know you have the looks that are pleasing; others have told you this?”

“Yes, but…”

“You have also your father’s charm with the ladies when you smile.” She tapped lightly the spot where his dimple was not showing.

“What if she says no?”

“Then you shall bow nonchalantly and walk away. You shall see the girl who looks at you with the large eyes, and you shall ask her. She will dream of you all night, and the other silly thing will be green with the envy as she watches.”

Adam’s dimple appeared.

“You will soon be as fine a dancer as your father,” Marie declared.

“Pa has always liked dancing. I remember him dancing with Mama.” Adam declared and then swallowed as his own words came to his ears.

“It is a happy memory?” Marie’s voice was smooth and soothing.

“Yes.”

“It is good to think on happy times. I remember my papa and mama dancing. He was a very fine dancer my papa.”

“Your pa?”

“He died when I was sixteen.” She felt more than saw the tremor that ran through him and continued quickly, “He was not the strong one like my Benjamin. One of the city’s fevers – the one that took Mama – left him…” her hand made a gesture, and she tapped her chest, “with the lungs that were weak.”

“He was an invalid?”

Oui, and then, well, I think without Mama he had no more the will to fight. No, Papa and Benjamin they are not alike. But now, it is time to go inside.”

“Umm,” Adam hesitated, and Marie turned again to look at him. “I was, was rude and, and disrespectful. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

“Of course, you are forgiven.” She waved her hand dismissively. “It is forgotten.”

“Pa won’t have forgotten,” Adam murmured. “Pa doesn’t allow disrespect.”

“It is I to whom you show the disrespectI shall see to the punishment.”

Adam shifted nervously. His stepmother was not angry, and his pa surely was. Her hairbrush would probably be less severe than his belt or even his hand. “Yes, ma’am.”

He walked slowly toward the door.

Ben had taken Hoss up to bed, and then returned to his chair to wait. He watched his wife and son enter the house.

“Adam.” His father’s tone told Adam the extent of Ben’s displeasure.

“Benjamin, I have told Adam the punishment is for me to administer. N’est pas cette droite?”

“Certainly, my dear.”

Marie pointed to the spot in front of her. Adam placed himself exactly as ordered.

“You have apologized, and I have accepted.” She wanted this to be clear to Ben. “So there is no need for the hairbrush, but there must be the consequences.”

“Yes, ma’am. I, I am sorry.”

“The tantrum was that of a little boy, Adam.”

Adam nodded.

“So the punishment of a little boy is justified?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You shall stand half of the hour in the corner before lessons tomorrow, and there shall be no reading all day except for the lessons I set.”

Adam managed to stifle his sigh and answer, “Yes, ma’am.” He turned to face his father. “I am sorry, Pa.”

“As your mother told you, son, you’re forgiven. Now, go on up to bed. I’ll be up to hear your prayers.”

“Yes, sir.” He turned back toward Marie. “Good night. Thank you for teaching me.”

Marie smiled. “It is my pleasure. Goodnight, Adam.”

Adam went upstairs, and Marie went to her husband.

“Are you sure the hairbrush was not needed?” Ben inquired of her.

Oui, this time I am sure.”

“If there is a next time, there shall be a necessary talk,” Ben declared firmly.

“Ben…”

“That is certainement!”

*********

“It is very kind of you, Henry, to take Adam. You’ve my thanks,” Ben declared.

“No trouble at all, Ben. It’s a treat for Ross having his friend with him to go to the social and spend the night. It’s just too bad that Marie being so far along keeps the two of you from attending.” Henry Marquette glanced over at the two boys talking excitedly on the porch of the Marquette house.

“Well, even if it was proper for a woman with child to show herself at such events, I don’t think Marie would be up to it.”

“Not much more than a month to wait, is there?”

“About six weeks, if the babe’s on time. If he takes after his mother, he’ll be late,” Ben chuckled.

“You’re thinking it will be a boy for certain.” Henry raised his eyebrow.

“Well, we all seem to think of the baby as a boy, but if it’s a girl, that’ll be just fine.”

“As long as the babe’s healthy.”

“As long as he’s healthy!” Ben heard his own words, and the two men chuckled.

Ben called for Adam. Since Ben and Marie would not be attending the Harvest Social due to Marie’s pregnancy, the Marquettes had invited Adam to accompany them and to spend the night afterward. Adam would come with the Marquettes to Sunday services and simply go home with his father. Adam walked up, and Ben put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. They walked over to where Buck was tied. Ben turned his son to face him.

“You know how I expect you to behave,” Ben began.

“Yes, sir.”

“You know that if you get up to any mischief, Ross’s father has my permission to warm your backside.”

“Yes, sir.” Adam knew the two fathers made that agreement anytime one of the boys stayed with the other.

“You know that if you make that necessary, you and I will have a talk of our own?”

“I know, Pa.” Adam’s tone was resigned. His father expected him to be a proper guest and cause no problems for his hosts.

Ben smiled. “I know you do, son. Have a good time.” He gave his son a hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ben knew his body blocked the sight of anyone near the Marquette house, so he quickly planted a kiss on his son’s brow.

“Paaa!” Adam’s wail was a whisper, and he squirmed away from his father. Ben chuckled, whispered “I love you,” mounted, and rode toward home.

Adam darted back to Ross, and the two boys drifted into the barn eagerly making plans for the evening.

“You’re gonna ask Daisy then?” Ross leaned forward awaiting Adam’s answer.

“Sure,” Adam tried for a nonchalant air, “or any other gal who catches my eye.”

“Except for Delphine,” Ross’s voice was adamant.

“Except for Del; I know you’ve got your eye on her. I wouldn’t do that, Ross,” Adam reassured his friend.

“Okay! Boy, this is gonna be some night,” Ross declared happily.

“Yeah! It’s gonna be some night!” Adam echoed his friend.

Mrs. Marquette called from her open door, “Boys, you get in here and start getting your baths. I have no intention of being late to the social. The two boys exited the barn and headed inside eager to obey. They too did not intend to be late to the social.

***********

Marie shook her head and frowned. Ever since Adam had left for the Marquettes that afternoon, Hoss had been grumpy and obstinate. If his behavior continued in the same vein once Ben returned, she was afraid the little boy would find himself having an uncomfortable night.

“Hoss, do you wish to be sent from the table.” Ben’s voice signaled that he was reaching his limit of patience.

“No.” Hoss’ tone was simply sullen.

“Eric!”

“No, sir.” His tone was still sullen, and he threw his napkin to the floor.

Ben exchanged a glance with Marie.

“I believe an early bedtime is in order,” Ben declared sternly.

“NO!” Hoss’ howl echoed through the dining room. This time his fork hit the wooden planks

Ben’s anger flared. Hoss had been not quite four the last time he had said no to his father in that manner. Evidently, the lesson his son had learned that day had faded and needed to be re-taught. Ben placed his napkin on the table and stood. “Excuse me, my dear, Eric and I have business upstairs.”

Hoss’ protest was lower in volume but just as vehement. He slipped from his chair and started to dart way, but Ben’s long arm caught him at the waist and lifted him from the floor. Hoss struggled until the tone of Ben’s low, “Be still” made the boy realize he had gone too far. Marie bit her lip as she watched Ben carry their son up the stairs.

When Ben came back down the stairs, she met him with his after-dinner coffee. He took a deep swallow and realized she had laced it with his best brandy.

“Thank you, my love. I don’t know what got into that boy.” Ben gave his wife a faint smile and rubbed the redden palm of his hand across his brow.

“You talked with him after?”

“Of course. All he said really, besides that he was sorry, was that he wanted Adam. It’s not as if Adam hasn’t spent the night away from home before. Do you suppose all this was because he’s jealous that his brother got to go to the social?”

Marie shook her head gently, “Not jealous exactly, non, but… Our little one is very sensitive to some things, Benjamin, even though he is too young perhaps to even understand what it is he senses.”

Ben gave her a puzzled look. She motioned for him to sit. Standing behind him, she began to massage his shoulders.

“The years between them, Hoss and Adam, well….” Marie searched for the words to express her thoughts. “Hoss is a little boy; Adam is young, oui, and still a boy, but not still the little child as his brother is. He is going from his childhood into his youth. I think Hoss senses that Adam is going someplace he cannot yet follow. It is not the going to the social without him, but, I think Hoss knows that this time, well, Adam will not miss him, can you understand me?”

Ben placed his hand over his wife’s. “I think I do. Hoss feels Adam is growing up and leaving him behind.”

Oui, at least tonight.”

Ben pulled Marie onto his lap. “I don’t think Adam is missing us either.”

“Some things in the growing are easier without the parents’ eyes.” She nestled her head on Ben’s shoulder. “I do wish we might have seen his first dance.” Her tone was wistful.

Ben rested his hand on Marie’s swollen belly. “I wish we could get this little one birthed and grown just a bit and then stop time. Keep them all from growing up and away from us.”

Oui,” Marie murmured, “Such a sweet dream.”

**********

Daisy Buckholtz stood giggling with two other girls. She had already turned thirteen but stood a head shorter than Adam. She was dressed in a swirl of blue and white made of batiste, ribbons, and lace. Her pale gold hair fell in waves to her waist, and her every line was delicately drawn. Ross elbowed Adam. They exchanged arm punches, challenged each other with a look, and advanced on the feminine trio.

“Uhm, Delphine,” Ross began,” Umm, would you like to dance with me?”

“Sure.” Delphine smiled at Ross, and the two went toward the area reserved for dancing.

Adam cleared his own throat. “Daisy?” Little Constance Trevor giggled and nudged her cousin.

“Yes, Adam?”

“Would, would you give me the pleasure of this dance?” Adam tensed awaiting her reply.

Daisy’s eyelashes fluttered, and she murmured, “Of course, Adam Cartwright. I’d love to.”

He offered his arm in the manner Marie had taught him and walked her toward the dancers. The music began, and he took one of her hands in his and placed his other hand at her waist. Counting silently to himself, he began to lead her in the sweeping circles of the dance. Relaxing more and more with each step, he looked into her wide, blue eyes and forgot to say a word. Neither child noticed the many pairs of eyes that watched them. When the music ended, he made a courtly bow and led her back to her cousin.

A wave of triumphant filled him, and he exchanged a jubilant look with Ross who had just led Delphine to the punch bowl. The he heard Daisy accept the invitation of Matt Conrad who was almost sixteen. Adam turned away feeling deflated; then he saw Lilly Ann. She was a quiet girl of eleven with plain features and a slight lisp. You shall see the girl who looks at you with the large eyes, and you shall ask her. She will dream of you all night… Adam heard Marie’s words whispering in his head. He walked quickly over and asked Lily Ann to dance. She was so stunned that she could not speak, but when she managed to nod her head, Adam took her hand. At the end of their dance, Adam looked and saw the thankful adoration in the girl’s face, and realized it was a truly wonderful night.

**********

As soon as Hoss spotted his brother outside of the church, he took off running and calling Adam’s name. Ben watched as Adam dropped to his heels to hug his little brother.

Henry Marquette walked up and stood beside Ben. The two men gazed at their sons.

“Any trouble?” Ben inquired.

“Not a bit, Ben. Both them boys were too busy thinking themselves gentlemen to give a mite of trouble.”

Ben Cartwright relaxed. At least he would not have to administer another spanking.

“Glad to hear that. The dance went well then?”

“You should have seen them, Ben. Ross danced about a dozen times with little Delphine. She’s a sweet child, that one.”

“That she is,” Ben agreed.

“First time out, your boy danced with that little blonde of Eban Buckholtz.”

“Daisy,” Ben interjected.

“Pretty thing that one. She and your boy made quite the pair. Had all the old biddies commenting on how sweet they looked.” Ben smiled at his friend’s comment, and Henry continued, “Then he surprised them and took a turn with Thad’s youngest. That little gal stayed lit up the whole night after that dance. After that your boy, well, Ben, he proceed to ask every little wallflower and unattached old lady there to dance. When he danced with Old Widow Handy, well, she had tears in her eyes. Said she hadn’t seen such a fine young gentleman since she left the Carolinas.” Henry turned to look in Ben’s faced. He chuckled at the astonishment he saw there. Clapping Ben on the back, Henry declared, “You should be right proud of that boy, Ben, right proud.”

“I am, Henry. I am!”

***********

“I missed ya, Adam. I missed ya!” Hoss declared throwing his arms around his brother’s neck.

Adam hugged Hoss, but was slightly taken aback at the intensity of his brother’s greeting. “I was only gone overnight, little brother.”

Hoss’ lower slip slipped into a pout. “I gots a spanking, and you weren’t there after,” he accused.

Adam frowned. “Why’d you get a spanking?”

“Had a tantrum at Pa.” Hoss mumbled his confession.

Ross, who was standing next to Adam, rolled his eyes. “You should have had better sense.”

Adam saw his brother’s eyes darken and smacked Ross on the shin. “I’ll see you after services,” he said pointedly, and Ross walked off to join his mother.

“Was it a bad one then?” Adam inquired softly into Hoss’ ear.

Hoss nodded and held out four fingers. Adam squeezed his brother to his side. “Did you say you were sorry?” Hoss nodded again. “Did Pa say he forgave you?”

“Yeah.”

“Then don’t worry, little brother. Just be extra good today, and we’ll put Pa in a good mood.”

“Okay. Brudder, ask Pa if I cans sit next to you, please.”

“Sure.” Adam stood as his pa walked up. He gave Ben a slightly cheeky grin, “Did I get a good report?”

Ben was too pleased with the boy to tease him. “A very good report.” He put an arm around each of his sons and guided them into the church. When Adam asked, Ben allowed Hoss to sit between the two of them.

***********

On the way back to the ranch, Ben first questioned Hoss about the Sunday school lesson and then questioned Adam about the sermon. Satisfied with their answers, he smiled and listened to the two boys chatter. Adam let Hoss lead the conversation and seemed to have noticed that his little brother did not want a recounting of the Harvest Social. As usual, Hoss wound down and drifted to sleep leaning against Adam.

Ben spoke softly so as not to awaken the little boy, “You had a good time at the social last night?”

“Yeah, Pa, I had a real fine time!” Adam declared matching the volume of his voice to his father’s.

“Especially the dancing?”

“Yeah! I see why you like dancing so much, Pa. It can be…”Adam faltered as he searched for the best word, “well, it can be pretty pleasurable!”

“A number of people mentioned your choice of partners to me.”

“They did?” Adam held his breath. Ben pulled the horses to a stop, so he could turn and look directly at his son. The uncertain look in Adam’s eyes caused Ben to reach out and cup his son’s cheek in his hand.

“I’m so proud of your actions, son, so very proud.”

“But I had a good time doing it, so it’s nothing to be proud of.”

“Adam, I’m proud that you would think to give others pleasure. I’m even prouder that you are so fine a person inside that you can appreciate the joy to be found by doing just that. I’ve been proud of you for many things, son, and I’m sure I will be proud of you for many more in the future, but the most special of these are the times you show me that you are the kind of person your mother dreamed you would be, the kind of person she was.” Ben’s soft tones took away none of the impact of his words.

His pa seldom spoken of his mother to Adam, but Ben had always made his son believe that Elizabeth and now Inger were in heaven watching and loving him still. “Do you think she’s proud of me?” It was the softest of whispers.

“Very proud as is your Mama Inger and as Marie will be.”

Adam’s gaze dropped for a moment, and then he smiled deepening his dimples to their fullest.

Ben chucked his son’s chin and took up the reins once again. “It’s a fine thing to feel proud of a son,” he declared.

Adam’s smile turned into a playful grin. “Can you hold that feeling, Pa?”

“And how long should I hold it?”

“Until, say, the next time I pull some darn fool stunt.”

Ben put a mock sternness into his voice, “Looking to make me go easy on you, are you, boy?”

“Well, it should be good for a little leniency, now shouldn’t it, Pa?”

Ben seemed to consider Adam’s statement. “I suppose it should.”

“How much?” Adam’s voice walked the fine line between teasingly respectful and impudent.

“Mmm, let me see,” Ben’s tone matched his son’s, “I’d say three licks worth.”

“Three? I was thinking more like five, “Adam bargained.

“We’ll settle on four,” Ben declared.

Suddenly serious, Adam asked, “Really, Pa?”

Ben once again matched his son’s tone, “Really.”

Adam drew in a deep and satisfied breath. “That could take the whole tanning away if I don’t do something very bad!” “I’ll remind ya, Pa, when the time comes.”

“I’m sure you will, son; I’m sure you will.”

The house drew into sight, and Adam ventured, “Pa, you’re not mad at Hoss still are you?”

“Of course not.”

“Then can I take him fishing at the pond until dinner?”

Ben pulled the horses to a stop in front of the barn. “Change your clothes first.”

Adam jostled Hoss awake. “Come on, sleepyhead, we’re going fishing!” He half dragged the boy from the buggy.

Hoss snapped awake. “Fishing! Oh, boy!” He took off toward the house. Adam followed speaking over his shoulder, “I’ll see to the horses after I change.”

“I’ll do that. You two just bring back a full string of fish,” Ben ordered.

“Thanks, Pa.” Adam darted into the house, but stopped short when he saw his stepmother. He walked over to her.

“You had the good time, Adam?”

“A very good time. Pa can tell you about it.” He shifted nervously and whispered, “She said yes.”

“I had never the doubt.” Marie’s eyes twinkled.

“I, I remembered what you said,” Adam stated softly, and then he caught Marie in a quick hug. “Thank you!”

He was gone up the stairs before Marie found her breath. The tears welled in her eyes as she said a prayer of thanks to the Lord and the Virgin who was also a mother.

**********

Adam finished dumping the last load of mucked straw, and gazed toward the house. Then he turned and returned through the drizzle to the barn. Though his afternoon chores were done, he was in no hurry to return to the house. During this last week in October, the only thing worse than the weather had been the temper of everyone in the family including his own. In the past week, he had fought with his brother repeatedly and nearly been on the receiving end of more than one necessary talk from his stepmother, father, and even Hop Sing. Just that morning, Marie had reached her limit of listening to brotherly squabbles and given both of them the choice of the corner or the hairbrush. Adam had chosen the corner since there was little chance anyone else would appear at the ranch house and add to his humiliation, but the thought of it all still smarted. Adam took off his slicker, climbed into the loft, and threw himself down in the hay. The damp gave the chilly air bite, and he burrowed deeper. He sighed. If it started to rain again, the decision would be made for him. Sneaking off to play pranks with Ross in the middle of a fall downpour would be more than stupid even if it were All Hallow’s Eve. Adam heard the barn door open and shut.

“Adam?” It was his stepmother’s voice. He considered ignoring the call knowing that she could never climb up to look for him in the loft, not with her belly swollen by eight months of pregnancy. “Adam!”

Adam sighed. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Where are you?” Marie’s voice carried up to him.

“In the loft,” Adam answered begrudgingly.

“Come down, please.” It was clearly an order.

“Yes, ma’am.” Adam rose and made his way down the ladder at a pace that made his reluctance clear.

Marie watched her son’s descent and sighed. Then she placed her hand to her back and bit her lip. She schooled her features as Adam turned to face her.

“Is there something you wanted?” Adam asked. Then he noticed the pale look on her face.

She held out her hand. In it was an old sack. Adam knew exactly what it contained.

“Is this yours?”

He considered lying. Deniability was exactly why he had hidden the sack outside of his own room.

“It is, isn’t it?” Marie asked in a more demanding tone.

“Yes, ma’am.” He managed to keep any trace of impudence out of his voice.

“The pranks these are for, do you still plan on playing them?”

I’m not that stupid! “No, ma’am.”

She proffered the bag. “Dispose of them then.” Adam took the bag and gave her a questioning look. “I have your word?” Marie asked in return.

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam stated and waited for her decision.

“Then there is no need to trouble your father.” Marie turned to go, stopped, clutched her stomach, and went to her knees with a low moan. Adam dropped the bag and rushed to kneel beside her.

“What? What’s wrong?” Marie merely moaned again in response.

“What should I do? What’s wrong?” Adam’s young voice held an edge of panic.

Marie managed to take in enough breath to answer, “Just help me to my feet. I’ll be fine.”

Adam helped Marie stand and take two steps before a cry that was pure pain was wrung from her lips, and she went to her knees again dragging Adam down with her.

“Adam, I, I need your papa. I need, Ben.”

The thought of turning the problem of his stepmother over to his father’s capable hands thrust Adam immediately to his feet. Then he stopped and stared at the spot where Marie had been standing when she first went to her knees. If he had not just mucked and swept out the barn floor, the puddle he saw there would have held no meaning for him, but the sight of it transfixed him.

“Adam! Hurry, please.” Marie’s cry was accompanied by another low moan. He glanced at her again and took off running.

The slam of the door being thrown open echoed through the house. Ben Cartwright’s head snapped up. He had been sitting at his desk working on some contracts. He opened his mouth to shout, but then his eyes caught sight of his son. Adam was flying through the door covered in mud from where he had slipped and fallen. The boy stopped short in front of his father’s desk pale and gasping.

“PA! Pa, you got to come! She’s… she needs you. The baby, I think the baby’s coming.”

Ben had sprung to his feet at the sight of Adam’s bloodless face. By the time he heard the word baby, he was coming around the desk and heading toward the door. “Where?” he shouted.

“The barn,” Adam managed to answer as he turned and followed Ben out.

Ben reached the barn door and paused only long enough to scan the building’s interior. Moments later he was at Marie’s side. Kneeling down, he took his wife in his arms.

“Ben, Ben, the baby,” Marie cried her hands clinging to his arms. “My water broke.” The last statement was desperately flat in tone. They both knew it was far too soon.

“It will be fine, love,” Ben murmured lifting her from the dirt floor.

“Pa, the doctor…I’ll go for the doctor,” Adam declared and turned to saddle his horse.

“No!” Ben felt the terror around his heart grip more tightly. The complications of the situation flashed through his mind. The hands were all working too far away to be of any use. Hop Sing had taken the wagon into town. Adam was too young to send through a storm in search of the doctor, but he was also too young to be left alone with a woman in premature labor. Still, Marie needed a doctor. Ben stood frozen by indecision. Marie’s low moan broke through his thoughts, and he sprang into motion carrying her in his arms to the house.

Adam watched his father walk out of the barn. He knew his pa did not want him riding off alone, but there was no one else to send. Adam made his decision. He saddled Buck because he was the strongest and fastest mount at hand and took off toward town.

Ben laid Marie on their bed. “Adam, Adam go get….”

“He ain’t here, Pa.” Hoss’ voice was weak and scared. He had seen his father carrying his mother and followed them up the stairs.

Ben turned toward Hoss scanning the room. Realizing for the first time that the boy had not followed him, he raced to the window. Peering through the increasingly heavy rain he saw the barn door open wider and saw a horse being led out. He pushed up the window and called Adam’s name. The boy did not even hesitate as he mounted the horse and rode away. Ben cursed softly under his breath and then beginning praying. Marie moaned, Hoss cried out in panic, and Ben begged the Lord to keep them all in His hands.

Going back to Marie’s side, Ben began to care for his wife. He could not leave Marie alone with a frightened six-year-old, so he would have to have faith that God would ride with his son.

*****

Doctor Paul Martin took his eyes from the rode for a moment to glance at the boy next to him. Adam Cartwright had burst into his office wild-eyed and soaked to the skin. The boy had demanded that the doctor come with him because his stepmother was having her baby. Paul had soothed the boy, agreed to go immediately to the ranch, and told the youngster he should dry off and wait at the office. The boy had simply refused to be left behind. Finally, Adam had agreed to leave Buck at the livery and ride with the doctor in his buggy. He sat there now wrapped in a blanket and absolutely still. Paul sighed. He wanted to say something encouraging or comforting to the child, but he had learned long ago it was better not to offer false platitudes. Premature childbirth was dangerous for the mother and most often fatal for the baby. Paul focused once again on the road and urged the horses to a faster pace.

Adam climbed from the buggy quickly and then stopped dead in his tracks. He spun on his heel. “I’ll…I’ll take care of your horse, sir.” Suddenly he did not want to enter the house.

Paul put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Okay, son, thank you. But promise me you’ll dry off and put on some warm clothes right after. Then something hot to drink.” The child had been shivering for the past half hour.

“Yes, sir.”

Paul let himself into the house. As he crossed to the stairs, Ben Cartwright appeared above him.

“Doctor? Adam, my son…”

“He’s seeing to my horse and buggy.” Paul started to mount the stairs. “He needs to dry off and have something hot to drink. Stubborn lad you have there, Ben.”

One finger of fear loosened its hold on Ben’s heart. “I told him no. I owe that boy a tanning for disobedience.”

“One I’m sure he won’t ever get.” Paul observed with a smile.

The doctor stepped up beside Ben and noticed the little boy standing in his shadow. Paul looked at Hoss and smiled. “I need you to do something for me, young man. Can you go downstairs and wait for your brother? When he comes in, I want you to see that he changes his clothes. Think you can do that?”

Hoss considered the doctor’s request. “I’ll make him,” he declared.

“Good boy!” Paul patted Hoss on the head. The two men watched the little boy start down the stairs.

“Marie?” Paul asked softly.

“In here,” Ben said leading the doctor toward the bedroom. “She’s …she needs you. You have to…”

“I’ll do all I can to save them both, Ben. All that I can.”

Adam entered the house and walked over to the fireplace.

“Adam!” Hoss’ voice caused his brother to turn his back to the fire. “Adam, ya gots to change. Now!”

Adam gazed down at his little brother. Hoss stood with his hands on his hips and a stern scowl on his face. Actually, he had achieved a fine imitation of their pa.

“In a minute. Is the …”

“NOW!” Hoss stomped his foot. “We don’t needs ya getting sick on top of ever’thing else. Doctor said soon as ya come in.” Hoss grabbed his brother’s wrist and yanked. Adam felt himself take an involuntary step forward.

Hoss pointed toward the settee. Laid there warming before the fire, was a towel and a complete change of clothes for Adam.

“I can’t change in here,” Adam mumbled.

“Mama sure ain’t coming down, Pa and I don’t matter, the doctor don’t neither, and anybody else’ll knock.”

Adam could think of nothing to refute his brother’s logic. He realized his was shivering and decided only sheer contrariness was keeping him standing there in wet clothes. He started to unbutton his shirt. “Did you bring these down here?” he queried.

“Sure, and when you’re done changing you’re gonna drink some of Pa’s coffee. It’s the onliest thing that’s hot.”

Before Adam could answer, he heard his Pa’s footsteps on the stairs. Both boys turned their attention to Ben.

“The doctor is with Marie. I’ll be helping him. You two boys stay down here.” Ben tried to sound matter of fact, but both boys could hear the strain in his voice. “Get changed, Adam, and then the two of you get something in the kitchen.” Ben turned to go back up stairs.

“Adam’s having coffee, Pa,” Hoss announced, “It’s hot.”

“Fine. Adam, keep the fires going, and the hot water kettle full.” Ben mounted the stairs again. Then he stopped and turned back to his sons, “Things will be fine, boys. It just might take some time for this baby to be born.” Hoss accepted his father’s words, but Adam knew they were simply what their pa hoped would be true.

It was over an hour before Marie succumbed, and her screams began to rip through the house. After the second scream, the bedroom door flew open as Adam ran into the room. He stopped staring at the sight before him. Then the shuddering and gasping began.

“Ben!” The doctor’s single word conveyed a complete order. Ben eased away from Marie and went to his son. Placing his arm around Adam’s shoulders he turned him back toward the open door. Adam started to struggle trying once again to face the bed.

“I…I’ve got to t,,t,tell h,h,her….I d,dd,didn’t m,mean it. I’ve g,g,got to t,tell her!” Adam words were nearly unintelligible.

“Adam, calm down, son. Let’s just go…”

“Nooo.” It was a wail of despair. “I’ve got tell her! If she….I’ve got to tell her.”

Ben held Adam by the forearms and tried to fix the boy’s eyes on his face. “You can tell her later, son. Just calm down.”

“Let me, please let me tell her. I didn’t mean it. I don’tI really don’t.”

“Tell her what, Adam? What didn’t you mean?” Ben asked in exasperation.

Adam shuddered violently and then was still. It was barely a whisper, “I don’t hate her.”

“You told Marie you hated her!” The rage swept through Ben like a flash fire. His hands tightened on Adam’s arms.

“I didn’t mean it.”

Never had Ben heard such a plaintive note in his son’s voice. The rage burnt out, and he drew the boy to him.

Another scream was wrung from Marie’s lips. “Ben.” Paul Martin wanted the child out of the room.

Then Marie managed to speak. “Adam?” The boy was out of Ben’s arms and at the bedside before his father could stop him.

“Don’t die. Please don’t die. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. I didn’t mean it. Don’t die!” Adam was kneeling and sobbing with his face buried in the bedclothes.

Non, non, mon fils. I am strong enough. The Virgin Mother is with me.” Marie placed her hand on his dark curls. Then another contraction seized her and tore her breath away.

Ben lifted Adam to his feet and took him from the room. “Go downstairs, son. It’s all right. She knows now. Go on. Hoss needs you.” Ben returned to the bedroom shutting the door behind him.

Adam walked slowly down the stairs and over to the settee. Hoss was huddle faced down on the dark cushions sobbing. Adam lowered himself, so his arms were around his brother, and his body shielded Hoss from the cries that still pierced the air.

“She said she won’t go, Hoss. She said she won’t go.” He whispered in the little boy’s ear.

*****

Adam sat up suddenly hearing the sounds approaching from the kitchen. He rubbed his eyes as his ears were assaulted by a stream of mixed English and Chinese. Hop Sing was home! His tirade made it clear that he was unhappy no one had sent for him and that he had had to find out in the street that Missy was having her baby. Well, actually at the livery where he had spotted Buck. Hop Sing continued to sputter about low fires and little boys with no supper as the cold darkness that had settled in the room seemed to push back a little.

“Sorry, Hop Sing, I didn’t…. I should have…” Adam mumbled in apology.

“No mattel. Hop Sing hele now and see to evelthing.” Hop Sing continued bustling about, and the fire was soon blazing brightly again. Adam and Hoss watched quietly from the settee. Then all three of them froze. A high thin wail descended from above. Not a cry of pain and not Marie’s.

“Numbel thlee son have good lungs,” Hop Sing observed with a nod as a second wail followed the first.

Adam and Hoss sprang from the settee, but Hop Sing blocked their way. “Missy and little blothel not be leady fol visitols yet. Boys wait!”

“But…” Adam was trying to maneuver past the little man. Then they heard steps on the stairs.

“Boys!” Ben was standing on the landing. “Boys, you have a little brother! The doctor thinks they’ll both be fine. We just have to take good care of them.”

Hop Sing harrumphed. “Doctol know we take best of cale. No wolly. I take cale these two now; you and doctol take cale of Missy and babe. Then come down and eat.”

“But I wanna see my brother,” Hoss wailed.

“In time.” Hop Sing’s voice was adamant.

“Hop Sing’s right, son. There’s still some things to be done. You mind Hop Sing, and I’ll bring you up in a bit.”

“Pa, we just…” Adam started.

“You heal fathel! Hop Sing need to get wooden spoon?” Hop Sing’s question made it plain that he was in charge and argument useless.

“No, Hop Sing,” Adam capitulated.

“Noo,” Hoss echoed softly, and Hop Sing bustled the boys off to his domain.

When Ben and the doctor came down they found two clean boys in nightshirts and robes eating pancakes and drinking hot chocolate.

“Pa! We had to wash, and Hop Sing says we gots to go straight to bed after we meet little brother,” Hoss announced around a mouthful of fried ham.

“Hoss.” Ben’s admonishing tone made the little boy swallow quickly. “Hop Sing is absolutely right,” Ben observed.

“But it’s starting to get light outside,” Hoss declared this time without exhibiting chewed food.

“We’ll draw the curtains,” Ben stated in a tone that put the subject to an end.

“How are they, Pa?” Adam queried softly.

“They’re resting.”

“They should be fine,” Paul Martin added his reassuring pronouncement. “Two strong fighters you have up there, Ben.”

Ben beamed. Hop Sing walked in with another platter of pancakes, one of eggs, and two mugs of hot coffee. “Eat befole food gets cold,” he ordered setting the food and coffee down and gesturing to the ham, potatoes, and biscuits that were already there.

“Don’t mind if I do.” The doctor took a seat and began to fill his plate.

“It does look good.” Ben joined him. Knowing that they would not be going upstairs before the men had eaten their full, the two boys settled in and finished their breakfast.

Adam and even Hoss knew better than to interrupt the adults’ conversation, but neither boy could keep from fidgeting. Ben finally put down his fork and placed his attention on his sons.

“Well, boys, I think I have some introductions to make.” He watched smiles spread across both young faces. He turned to the doctor. “I’m sure Hop Sing has more coffee and biscuits if you’d like.”

“Well, I could probably fit in one more.” Hop Sing appeared as if on cue, and both men chuckled.

“If you will excuse us then,” Ben continued.

Paul nodded. “Of course.”

Ben accompanied his elder sons up to the bedroom. Everything there had been cleaned and freshened. Marie lay propped up on soft pillows with her hair brushed smooth and shining around her head. In her arms was a blanket wrapped bundle.

Hoss was the first to reach the bedside. “Mama, Mama,” Hoss started to crawl onto the bed. Ben reached to stop him, but Marie pulled him to her side. Nestling against her, he said softly, “You was hurting, and I was scared.”

“Oh, mon petite, that is the way it is with women when the baby comes, but now there is no pain only joy.”

“Adam said you wouldn’t go away.”

“I could not go way; I have my boys to care for, n’est pas cette droite?” She hugged him and then reached around him to push the blanket back from the baby. “Now you must meet your frere.”

Hoss peered at the infant while Adam leaned over the little boy to gaze at his newest brother.

“This is Joseph Francis Cartwright.” Marie pronounced proudly.

“He’s too little.” Hoss bit his lip.

“All babies are little at first,” Adam observed, but he too thought the baby far too small.

“I weren’t never that little,” Hoss declared.

“Well that may be true, but you, boy, were an exception at the other end.” Ben chuckled gently and ruffled Hoss’ hair trying to cover the concern that still held his heart. The babe had come too soon and was much smaller than he should be. The doctor, though, said his heart and lungs sounded strong.

Adam dared to reach out and lightly touch the soft baby cheek. “He is too little for that big name. Aren’t you, Joe?” The baby made a soft sound that Adam and Hoss took for assent.

Hoss bravely sent his own hand toward the child. His finger contacted with the tiny waving hand, and the miniature fingers paused and clung. Hoss laughed in glee. “He is a strong one, Pa!” Then he cooed to the baby, “You’re a strong one, Little Joe. Yes, you are! But don’t you go thinking you can get stronger than me, ’cause I’m your big brother. I’m Hoss. That’s Adam. He’s our big brother that we gots to share. You won’t mind sharing. We’ll share lots a things.” Then he dropped his voice to a whisper, “Adam’s a good big brother, and I learned from him.”

Adam’s dimples deepened. He bent over both children and whispered, “Hoss is a real good brother too, Little Joe, and we get to share him. You just stick with us, and you’ll do fine.”

Little Joe gave a tiny grunt and waved his arms. Ben and Marie exchanged a glance over the heads of their sons. Neither had ever seen more elation in the other’s eyes.

“Um, I think it’s time all my boys got some rest.” Ben patted both Hoss and Adam on the back.

“But, Pa…” Hoss began.

“New babies need lots of rest, and your mother needs rest too.” A stern tone had come to Ben’s voice.

“It’s hard work getting a baby born, I guess,” Hoss said as he considered his father’s words.

“For us all,” Marie stated softly.

“Now, off you two go,” Ben ordered, but neither boy made a move toward the door. “Boys!” Ben urged more sharply. Adam took Hoss’ hand and pulled him from the bed.

“Come on, little brother!”

“I ain’t the little brother no more, Adam!”

“You’ll always be my little brother,” Adam declared. Hoss’ stance grew adamant, and he crossed his arms on his chest. “Oh, all right! Come on younger brother before Little Joe sees how Pa treats naughty sons.”

“Precisely,” Ben gave his middle son a significant look. Hoss decided his point had been made and followed Adam from the room.

“Pa, can I sleep with Adam, please?” Hoss pleaded when they reached Adam’s door.

Ben looked questioningly at his eldest. Adam nodded.

“I suppose that would be fine.” Ben saw the boys settled and tucked into Adam’s bed.

“Pa.”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“We got us a good strong one.”

“Cartwrights always have strong babies,” Adam declared firmly, “I told Mama Inger that before you were born.”

“Yes, it seems that the Lord has seen fit to bless this family with three fine, strong sons. Two of which will be reminded of how strong their father’s hand can be if they don’t settle down to sleep right now.”

Hoss ignored the admonishing tone in Ben’s voice. “I love ya, Pa.”

Adam saw the sternness leave his pa’s face. “I love ya too, Pa,” he echoed softly.

“I love you both. Now go to sleep.” Ben shut the door behind him and walked on air down the stairs to bid the doctor thank you and goodbye.

Before Paul Martin had been escorted out of the house, both boys were asleep. They slept so soundly that even Little Joe’s regular wailing did not awaken them.

*****

All Hallow’s Eve passed without Adam even giving a thought to the pranks he and Ross had planned to play. Adam and Hoss had slept through the day, visited Marie and the baby for a second time, dined in the kitchen, and gone early to bed. All Saints Day dawned bright, clear, and full of promise. The disposition of everyone on the Ponderosa was as sunny as the weather.

Hop Sing poured Ben a third cup of coffee. Ben thanked him and then gave Hop Sing a significant look.

“Hop Sing need little boy’s help,” the smiling Oriental stated giving Hoss the last biscuit.

“I’m almost done, Hop Sing,” Hoss declared agreeably smearing the biscuit with peach preserves.

“Come then,” Hop Sing encouraged, and Hoss followed the cook back to the kitchen.

Adam set his napkin beside his plate, looked at his father, and then dropped his eyes focusing on the last sip of milk in his glass.

Adam swallowed and asked hesitantly, “Pa, are…are you going to punish me for disobeying you?”

“No, son.”

Adam raised his eyes and looked at Ben. “You would have had to send me, Pa.”

“I know, Adam. You did what you felt you had to do, and this time I’m not angry with you.” Ben smiled at his eldest. “You did well in a difficult situation.”

Adam allowed himself a slight smile.

Ben’s face grew serious. “Adam, that does not mean that I ever want you to put yourself in harm’s way again, or that I’ve changed my mind about disobedience or its consequences.”

“I know, Pa.” Adam paused, swallowed again, and then asked in a faltering voice, “Are you going to punish me for… for what I said to M…to her?”

“No. That is part of the past and has been settled between the two of you.” Ben gestured for his son to come to him, and Adam slipped from his chair and crossed the few steps between them.

“You know you are never to say or do anything to hurt Marie like that again?”

“Yes, Pa, I know.”

“You will answer to me if you do.” Ben’s voice was clear and firm but held no edge.

“I know.”

Ben’s arm circled his son’s waist and pulled the boy onto his lap. Adam squirmed.

“Pa, I’m too big!”

“You may someday be too big for my lap, but none of my sons will ever be too big for my arms,” Ben stated calmly as his arm encircled the youngster and patted the side of his leg.

Adam allowed himself to relax against his father’s broad chest resting his head familiarly against Ben’s shoulder.

“Adam, you know that you said that to hurt her.”

Adam’s reluctant assent was muffled by Ben’s shirt.

Ben’s finger raised Adam’s chin until their eyes met. “You are smart enough, Adam Stoddard Cartwright, to realize that those words could only hurt someone who loved you.”

Adam’s eyes turned liquid and his long lashes dropped to his cheeks.

“She loves you, child, simply and totally. You will not use that to hurt her again.”

“Pa, I… I won’t, Pa. I promise.”

“Good boy!” Ben replied softly dropping a kiss onto the dark curls beneath his chin.

“I…I…I love her too.” Adam burrowed deeper into his father’s arms.

“She knows, Adam. She knows.” Ben whispered as he held his son and rubbed his back.

*****

Hoss stopped and stepped back into the shadows. Then he turned and darted back into the kitchen. Hop Sing turned at the sound of the boy’s feet and watched him crawl onto a chair at the kitchen table.

Hoss answered Hop Sing’s questioning look, “Pa and Adam are still talking. Adam’s sitting in Pa’s lap.” It was a simple explanation that the boy knew the man would understand. He paused to consider the situation and smiled. If his big brother could still sit in their pa’s lap it was a good sign that Adam was not as grown as Hoss feared. It also meant that it would be a good long time before he would have to give up sitting there himself.

“Hop Sing, did ya use to sit in your pa’s lap?”

“When Hop Sing little, he sometimes sat in lap of Honolable Fathel.”

Hoss tried to imagine Hop Sing as a boy but could not quite capture the image. “Do you miss your pa, Hop Sing?”

“Yes,” Hop Sing answered solemnly. Then he smiled and tapped his chest. “But whole family hele in Hop Sing’s healt always.”

Hoss considered that statement and then observed, “Good thing ya gots a real big heart to carry them in, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing’s smile widened.

Hoss smiled back and declared, “And ya gots us to love ya, so that’s good too.”

“Vely good.”

A wail from upstairs caught the attention of them both.

“He’s sure got a big cry for somethin’ so little,” Hoss observed.

“Numbel three son have stlong spilit.”

The wailing continued. “He does it a lot too.” Hoss sighed.

“Will fol a long time. You get use to it soon.”

Hoss nodded, but he was not too sure that he would ever get use to his little brother’s cries.

*****

Marie knew some women had to return to their work almost immediately after giving birth, but Ben and the doctor had insisted that she stay in bed or at least in her bedroom a few days and rest. Her Benjamin was very protective, and this time she would indulge him. It gave her a chance to savor the task of caring for her newest son, her petit Joseph. After all, she had not been lonesome; her men folk had kept up a steady stream of visits.

Marie heard the light rap on the door and granted entrance. She was bending over the baby who lay on the bed and looked over her shoulder to see her eldest enter.

Adam held up a pile of clean, folded diapers. “Hop Sing sent me up with these.” He walked over to stand beside Marie. “You sure do go through them fast enough, little brother.”

Marie let out a slight harrumph at the implied insult to her little one and then relented, “Thank you. It seems we are in need of one of these right now.” She took the diapers and turned back to the baby.

Adam watched as Marie changed Little Joe. “Good job,” he said cheekily when she finished, “You’re almost as fast as I use to be.”

“Is that so?” Marie said arching her eyebrow.

Adam gave her a wicked grin. “Had to be fast on the trail.” Adam bent over the bed to wave his finger in front of the baby. “You’ll probably gain speed with practice.”

“Ah, yes, speed can be important.” Marie’s own lips curled into a grin that Adam did not see. Neither did he see the movement of her hand.

“Owww!” Adam snapped upright and rubbed the stinging spot where his stepmother’s swat had landed.

“The respect is also important,” Marie chided lightly without any sting in her words.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll remember that from now on.” Adam turned back to the baby. Leaning down, so they were face-to-face, Adam whispered loudly and conspiratorially, “Take note, Little Joe, our ma’s hand is as quick as Pa’s even if it ain’t as big.”

Little Joe reached out and waved his hands. The left hand patted against Adam’s cheek. Adam blew gently raising the wisps of hair that already fell over Joe’s forehead. Little Joe squirmed in pleasure. Adam scooped the baby from the bed and held him against his shoulder. He smoothly danced the baby around the room holding his head securely and patting the small bottom.

Marie watched them her eyes filling with tears. She had heard Adam’s reference to her as their ma, and the joy took her breath away. She hummed softly as she watched her eldest cradle her youngest and thanked God she had not given up in those dark days when her firstborn was taken from her. She had not dared then to even hope for the joy she felt now.

The door swung open, and Hoss darted into the room followed by Ben. Adam looked at the faces around him and knew that he would soon be handing the baby over to another doting relative.

Marie went to Ben and slipped into his arms. He held her as they gazed at their sons. Marie began to hum softly, and Adam started his slow dance once again with Hoss following in his wake.

*****

Adam held the baby on his lap firmly supported against his chest. Hoss stood at his big brother’s elbow watching intently. Adam dangled the pen in front of Little Joe’s hand until the tiny fingers closed around it. Then he closed his own hand over his baby brother’s and moved the pen slowly over the heavy paper. Finished, he set the pen down and turned the baby to face him.

“Good job. Good boy!” he cooed and rained kisses down on the smooth cheeks and forehead.

“Good job, Little Joe,” Hoss echoed. “He’s gonna be a smart one like you, Adam.”

“All Cartwrights have good minds, Hoss,” Adam stated confidently. “Go sit. You can hold him while I put this away safely.”

Hoss puffed out his chest and went to sit in the big leather chair. He scooted firmly back against the seat, and Adam placed the baby in his younger brother’s arms. He made sure Little Joe was positioned securely.

“I’ll tell him about the three bears, Adam. He likes when I does the growls.”

“That’s good. I’ll be back down in a minute.” Adam darted up the stairs. His errand completed, he headed back to the great room.

At the top of the stairs, he stopped. He could hear Hoss’ voice and the baby’s happy squeals. He smiled and put his foot on the first step. Then he stopped and gazed at the banister. Pa and Marie were away. Hop Sing was in the middle of preparing for the special dinner. Hoss’ eyes would be fixed on Little Joe. Adam gave into the urge and slid down the banister to the first floor. Whistling, he strolled nonchalantly into the great room.

“Adam, Little Joe wants to play.”

“Okay,” Adam spread an old quilt in front of the fireplace. He took Little Joe from Hoss and laid the baby on his belly upon the quilt. Hoss scrambled from the chair and joined his brothers. The two older boys took turns entertaining Little Joe for over an hour.

Hop Sing came out of the kitchen. “Time boys get clean fol dinnel. Need to change clothes fol special meal. I bathe baby.”

“Do we have to take baths, Adam?” Hoss’ voice carried his most whiny tone.

Adam sighed. He did not want any fuss, so he made the supreme sacrifice. “Yes, but we’ll take all our baths together. It’ll be fun. Won’t it, Little Joe?” He nuzzled the baby’s belly and set him giggling. “See.”

A frown came over Hop Sing. “Must be caleful with baby in water.”

Adam straightened, “I’m always careful with Little Joe.”

“I keep eye, so boys no get silly,” Hop Sing declared.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Okay. Come on, Hoss.”

The three boys spent more time playing and giggling than washing, but managed to exit the tub clean enough to meet Hop Sing’s standards. Hop Sing took Little Joe and dressed him while Adam got Hoss and himself into their Sunday clothes.

*****

Marie walked into the house laughing. Ben came up behind her and nuzzled her neck wrapping his arms around her waist and squeezing gently.

“Benjamin!” Marie slapped playfully at Ben’s hands. He whispered in her ear, and she laughed again. Then she slipped from his arms and took off her wraps. Walking toward the fire, she stopped at the sight of her boys decked out in their Sunday finery.

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed.

“Happy Birthday, Ma!” Adam and Hoss sang out in practiced unison while Little Joe added a well-timed squeal of glee. Hoss ran to give his mother a hug.

“Hop Sing fixed everything special, Mama. We all took a bath and dressed up just for you.”

Marie smiled and kissed Hoss. “So handsome you look. I shall dine with the four most handsome men in the country, oui? “

“And we shall dine with the most beautiful woman!” Ben came up and took Marie in his arms. He gave her a long kiss that lasted until Hoss started to giggle. “Happy birthday, my love!”

Adam brought Little Joe over. He reached out his arms to Marie who took and covered his face with kisses. Then she handed her youngest to his father. Turning, she hugged her eldest brushing her lips across his cheek. Adam offered her his arm and escorted Marie to the dining table. Hop Sing had set out the best china and silver which gleamed in the candlelight. In the middle of the table was a pile of wrapped packages. Adam seated his stepmother as the rest of the family took their seats.

“Those can not be for me!” Marie said laughingly.

“Can’t open them ’til after we eats the cake, Mama. That’s the rule!” Hoss announced with great seriousness.

“Then we must eat quickly, must we not?” Marie gave Hoss an exaggerated wink.

Hop Sing brought in the first course, and the meal began. After all Marie’s favorite dishes were served, Hop Sing made his grand entrance with a candle-topped cake. Marie clapped her hands in appreciation and insisted Hop Sing take his place at the table for his share.

“Now you gets your presents, Mama. Take that one first,” Hoss instructed.

“This one?”

Hoss nodded.

Marie picked up the package. A card made of expensive paper lay on the top. She picked it up. The edges had been carefully cut into tiny scallops. A rose colored ribbon had been glued inside the scallops. The careful, precise printing could only be the work of her eldest. “It read: Happy Birthday and God’s Blessing to the Best Mother in the World. From your loving sons.” Below the printing were three signatures: Adam Stoddard Cartwright, Eric Gunnar Cartwright, and Joseph Francis Cartwright. Marie’s eyes filled with tears. Whatever is in those packages, I’ve already received the greatest gift of all!

After the boys were in bed, Marie placed the card between the pages of her Bible. Many years later Adam and Hoss would show it to Little Joe and tease him about the only thing he had ever written with his right hand.

***The End***

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