Two on the Town (by DJK)

Summary:  Joe and a friend explore San Francisco with some consequences not anticipated.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,613


 

His brother’s breathing was slow, deep, and regular. Joe was sure Adam was sleeping, but how deeply? How many brandies had he, Marcus, and Mr. Bryant shared? Unless his oldest brother’s reactions were dulled by the liquor, he would wake up as soon as Joe set a foot out of bed. His middle brother, Hoss, could sleep through a stamped, but the slightest thing brought Adam instantly awake. Adam was also the suspicious one, had a quick temper, and was stricter than Pa. Was it worth the risk? If Adam caught him trying to sneak out, there would be hell to pay. If he didn’t get caught sneaking out, the price would be a lot higher when he returned. It wasn’t as if they thought they could get away with it, but if Joe had to pay the piper, he at least wanted a chance to dance.

Joe eased out of the bed and slipped across the floor to the door. Adam’s breathing kept the same steady rhythm. Joe turned the handle of the door, paused, opened it slightly, paused, and slipped into the hall easing the door closed behind him.

Joe felt a hand slip over his mouth. He stifled an exclamation. The hand left his mouth and took hold of his wrist. Joe turned toward the figure next to him. In the dark, he could barely make out the shape of a girl with her finger to her lips. Keeping hold of his wrist she led him down the stairs and through the house to the library. Closing the heavy door quietly behind them, she went across the room and lit a lamp. Joe stooped and set a rug along the bottom of the door to keep any light from being seen outside of the room. Joe breathed a sigh of relief.

Melissa had kept the flame in the lamp low. In her white nightgown and backlit by the flickering light, the girl looked ghostly. Then she giggled.

“Shhh,” Joe looked back toward the door.

Melissa put a hand over her mouth, swallowed her laughter, and then whispered, “They’ll never hear us upstairs.”

“Just be quiet. We have to be careful,” Joe admonished.

Melissa grew serious. “We don’t have to do it, Joe. If you’ll get in too much trouble…”

“We already talked about that. I just don’t want to get caught before we leave. We better hurry,” Joe urged.

Melissa went to a cupboard, opened it, and took out the clothes they had hidden there earlier. Joe came and took his clothes from her hands, and then crossed to the far side of the room.

“You promise not to look,” Melissa inquired suddenly embarrassed.

Joe blushed. “I promise. You promise too.”

“What makes you think I’d want to watch?” Melissa teased.

Joe turned his back to the girl, and then glanced back to make sure she had turned her back to him. Joe stepped into his pants and quickly yanked then into place hoping his nightshirt had covered his behind the whole time. Feeling more confident, he exchanged his nightshirt for a work shirt of blue flannel. Then he sat on the floor to pull on his wool socks. He could hear the sounds Melissa was making behind him. Unsure of her state of dress, he waited.

You can turn around, Joe.”

Joe rose and faced Melissa. The ghostly girl was gone. In her place stood a slim young boy in brown pants and a checked shirt. A tweed cap was pulled down tightly on his head.

“Will I do?” Melissa whispered.

“You’ll do,” Joe replied with a smile. “Yeah, you’ll do just fine. We’d better get going.” Joe tossed his nightshirt to Melissa who bundled it and her nightgown into the cupboard. “Come on.”

“Just a minute. I can’t find my boots. Wait, here they are.” Melissa snatched up the work boots and held them against her. Joe held his own boots in his hands. They had decided to put on the heavy footwear after leaving the house.

“Did you leave the note?” Joe asked. He still wasn’t sure about the note.

“I left it on my pillow. Whoever comes to wake me is sure to see it.”

Melissa had insisted on leaving a note telling her father that she and Joe were fine, together, and would return that night. Joe had thought about every way possible that he and Melissa could disappear for a day without any adults finding out and concluded there just was not one. Melissa said if they were going to be found missing they should do something to keep everyone from worrying about things like the two of them being kidnapped. Melissa even thought her father, brother, and Adam would be less angry if they found a note since it would show Melissa and Joe had not wanted to worry anyone. The Bryants might be less angry, but Joe did not think it would help much with his big brother.

“Well, come on then,” Joe urged and went to the large window. Melissa blew out the lamp and joined him. Joe opened the window, and they both slipped outside into the predawn darkness. Joe closed the window. Melissa took his arm and led him across the yard and through the gate. They went down the hill and stopped. They sat down next to the street to wait for the horse trolley to make its first run of the day. After putting on their boots, they sat quietly together as the darkness lightened, and the sun rose over San Francisco.

*****

The soft knocking on the door woke Adam Cartwright immediately. Normally the young man would have already been out of bed and dressing before anyone came to wake him, but last night the brandy had flowed freely while Adam had reminisced with his friend Marcus Bryant as Marcus’s father gathered a great deal of information about his son’s college life. The pleasant evening had extended into the early morning hours, and Adam groaned before he called out, “I’m awake. Thank you.”

Adam threw off the bed covers and launched himself to his feet. He immediately knew that he would be feeling the effects of last night long into today. Well, most of his business in San Francisco was already successfully completed. He would wrap up a few loose ends this morning and then surprise his little brother with an afternoon of sightseeing. He would leave it up to Joe whether it would be just the two of them or if they would ask Melissa to join them. No, perhaps it would be better if the brothers took on San Francisco alone.

Adam walked over to the washstand. He would clean up and shave before he woke Joe. That Little Joe was not already wake was no surprise to his eldest brother. Polite knocks or mere talk never roused Joe from a good night’s sleep. Staying at Marcus’s home and visiting with his college friend had made this business trip almost a vacation. When Marcus had first invited him and extended the invitation to include Adam’s younger brothers, Adam had been filled with reluctance. He had decided to simply not mention that the Bryants would welcome any or all of the Cartwrights as guests. Then his father had decided to take Hoss with him on the trip to buy breeding stock. Adam had expected a tantrum from Joe about being left behind by everyone, but Joe had just grown quiet and seemed so sad. Adam had founded himself asking Pa if Joe could accompany him to San Francisco. It wasn’t like Joe would have to sit in waiting rooms or the hotel while Adam did business. Joe would be well cared for at the Bryants’ home, and Marcus even had a thirteen-year-old sister.

Being twelve, Joe would have preferred Marcus had a younger brother, but even a girl would do if it meant he could go with his older brother to the city. Adam had lectured Joe about behavior and repeatedly warned him about the consequences of doing anything inappropriate. Apparently all of Joe’s promises had been sincere because Joe had behaved very well and only an occasional stern “Joseph” had been need to reign in his impetuous brother. He had explained to Joe that most of his own time would be spent on business and that Joe could not expect Mr. Bryant or Marcus to leave their work to escort him about town. Actually, Joe had complained little about the lack of opportunity to sightsee. Well, this afternoon they should be able to at least visit a few of the high spots before they left tomorrow. Adam put down his razor and turned toward the smaller bed where Joe slept. As he walked closer, it became clear to Adam that his brother was not in the bed. Had Joe really managed to wake himself and then dress quietly enough not to disturb Adam? Adam’s hand rubbed the bridge of his nose. It was possible, but alarms were going off in the back of Adam’s mind. Then came the pounding on his door, and Marcus shouting his name.

*****

Joe could hear how quick and shallow Melissa’s breathing had become. Maybe she was getting scared. His own stomach flip-flopped every time he thought of his big brother. Each time they had discussed their adventure, though, Melissa had seemed much more worried about his consequences than her own.

Joe turned to look at Melissa. “Mel, you’re not starting to, um, worry about, um, what your Pa will do to you, are ya?” he asked.

“I’ve told you, Joe, Papa will be mad – Marcus too – but, no, I’m not worried about anything he’ll do. Papa never really does more than lecture me.” Melissa stared into Joe’s eyes and placed her hand on his arm. “Joe, really, you’re the one who’s going to get a… whose going to be in trouble, so if you want to go back we can probably sneak back in.”

Joe became indignant. “I told you not to worry about that. We’re going to have a great time. Some things are worth a … getting punished.” He knew Adam would tan his behind tonight; he just hoped his pa wouldn’t bust it again when they arrived home. It would depend on if Adam had forgiven him by the time they got back. If Adam had forgiven him, his big brother would tell his pa that everything had been handled. If he was still mad, he would tell Pa the whole story, and Pa would deal with the fact Joe had misbehaved while a guest in someone’s home which was as bad as getting in trouble at school.

He had behaved real well so far, so maybe Adam would forgive him quick. He really hated doing something that would make his brother angry with him. Adam had been real nice bringing him on this trip, but he had let Melissa talk him into “having an adventure.” Somehow when she talked about going exploring, the longing in her eyes moved Joe to agree. He also kind of thought Melissa would one day go exploring alone if Joe refused to go with her now. A girl by herself could get in all kinds of trouble, so Joe told himself he really needed to go with her. In fact, that was part of the reason Melissa was dressed like a boy. In some of the places they planned to go, a boy would attract less attention than a girl. Plus, pants were better for running and climbing and sneaking around. Then again, if Adam and Marcus came looking for them, they would be asking about a boy and a girl and not about two boys.

The trolley pulled up, Melissa paid their fares, and the two adventurers took their seats.

There was no turning back now, so Joe decided to enjoy the day.

*****

Adam read the note that Marcus had thrust into his hands. Anger flared in his core and then exploded outward. “I’ll kill them!” Adam exclaimed. Adam watched his friend’s face lose all color. “Stupid!” he thought to himself. “Poor choice of words, Marcus; I’m sorry. I’m sure they’ll both be fine.’

Marcus attempted a weak smile. “Of course they will; it’s just, well, with her heart condition, well, Papa and I worry.”

Marcus had told Adam about his sister’s condition and the doctor’s prognosis years ago. Adam wondered how Marcus and his father lived with the fact that Melissa’s heart could stop beating at any time.

“I can be dressed in a minute. We’ll find them in short order,” Adam spoke reassuringly.

“Of course.” Marcus placed his hand on his friends shoulder. “Adam, I’m sure it was Melissa’s idea. She wants so much to be like other children and not have so many no’s in her life.”

“We’ll find them before anything happens. Don’t worry!” Adam spoke encouragingly. Actually he was less than certain that they would be able to find two children in the hundreds roaming the city streets. He would have been more confident tracking the two of them across the high country of the Ponderosa.

*****

They rode the trolley all the way to the waterfront. The harbor was a bustling place full of people far too busy with their own concerns to notice two wide-eyed youngsters. At first, they strolled the wharves taking in the varied sights and sounds and staring intently at the vast array of sailing ships. Joe impressed Melissa by identifying the different types of ships. Joe had never before seen the real thing, but he had learned about sea going vessels from his father’s stories and Adam’s books. Joe started asking some of the more approachable and less disreputable looking men questions. Melissa listened quietly amazed at the ease with which Joe could engage strangers in conversation.

Joe felt a hand on his arm as Melissa whispered, “Joe, don’t you want to go on board?”

Joe turned to face his companion. “Go on board?” Realizing what Melissa was suggesting, he squeaked,” On board on of these ships?”

“Of course on one of these ships.” Melissa’s eyes danced. “We could slip on board, look around, and slip back off. No harm done.”

Joe shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think they like people trespassing on their ships.”

 “It’s not like going into somebody’s house, Joe. I mean, a ship is a place of business. It would be more like going into an office building,” Melissa reasoned.

“I don’t know, Mel.” Joe pulled Melissa up against the wall of a warehouse. “Let me think.” Joe studied the clipper ship docked in front of them. While the wharves were bustling with people, the ship itself seemed quiet and nearly deserted Joe imagined that most of the crew was off enjoying the delights of the city. In fact, he could see no one on the deck at present. Perhaps they could slip up the gangway, take a quick stroll around the deck, and return without anyone noticing. “If someone sees us, we’ll have to run.”

“Of course.”

They made it up the short gangway and onto the deck without catching anyone’s interest.

They carefully started moving about but became more and more careless as they became more engrossed with the sights, sounds, and smells around them. Joe sensed a presence behind them only seconds before he felt his arm being grabbed.

Well, look what we have here,” boomed a deep voice. Joe realized he and Melissa were both held in the grip of one very, very large seaman. He tried pulling free, but the grip on his arm only tightened. He might be able to break free, but Melissa never would. The realization stopped his struggles. They would have to charm their way out of this.

“What in damnation are ya doing sneaking about,” the large man bellowed shaking each of them.

“We were just looking, sir. We didn’t mean no harm,” Joe said. He tried to sound both respectful and innocent. He gave the sailor one of his sad-puppy looks and prayed. “We’ll just leave now and won’t trouble you anymore.” Joe looked at Melissa who was standing limply in the grip of the sailor’s other hand. She looked pale and her breathing was shallow. Joe hoped she wasn’t going to act like some fool girl and faint.

“When little rats sneak aboard, we usually just drop them into the sea,” the sailor stated with a grin that was neither friendly nor amused.

“Please, sir,” Melissa managed to whisper as tears spilled from her eyes, “I can’t swim.”

“Havalcheck, what’s going on here?”

Joe looked and saw that another man had walked up behind them.

“Caught these two hooligans sneaking about the deck, sir,” Havalcheck replied.

“Release them,” the officer ordered. The sailor’s hands dropped from their arms, but the two men still blocked any avenue of escape, so Joe and Melissa stayed put.

“Now, who are you and what are you doing here?” the officer demanded.

“We didn’t mean any harm. We were just looking around. We didn’t hurt nothing. Can we go, please, sir, please?” Joe pleaded.

“Do you know what trespassing is, son?” the officer inquired with a glare.

“Yes, sir,” Joe answered dropping his eyes to stare at the deck. “We didn’t mean to. We’re real sorry. We won’t ever do it again.” Melissa just stood silently with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“I asked your name, boy,” barked the officer.

Joe obeyed the command instinctively and answered truthfully, “Joe Cartwright.” Since Melissa appeared unable to speak, he added, “”That’s Mel.”

Joe saw the officer look at Mel and watched the man’s expression soften.

“I don’t intend to drown you, boy,” he said placing his hand on Mel’s shoulder, “though I should thrash the both of you.”

Joe gave the man a sheepish grin and said softly, “We wouldn’t want you to go to the trouble, sir.”

“I don’t suppose you would.” The officer’s mouth curled into something near a smile. The curly-haired lad with the engaging grin reminded him of his nephew, and the other boy looked positively fragile.

“Seaman Havalcheck, escort these two off the ship.” The officer pointed at the two youngsters and then gestured toward the gangway.

“Aye aye, sir,” the sailor said taking them each by the arm again.

The officer caught the sailor’s eye and then raised one finger. The sailor nodded understanding and walked his two captives across the deck and down the gangway. As they reached the wharf, he released his hold on their arms. Then, as they started to walk away, he landed one stinging swat to each behind.

*****

Adam and Marcus talked to person after person, repeatedly asking for information about a boy and girl. They knew their siblings must have taken the horse trolley, but the driver could not remember two passengers meeting Marcus’ description. No one had any information. Adam’s demeanor remained calm, deliberate, and curt. Marcus was jittery but determined. The two young men repeatedly told each other that everything would be fine while picturing calamity after calamity. Adam kept seeing his baby brother holding a dying girl in his arms. “Lord, spare the boy that,” he prayed.

*****

Joe and Melissa darted quickly up the nearest street leading away from the wharves. After going two blocks, Joe heard Melissa call to him. He turned back to see she had stopped and was clinging to a lamppost. He walked back to her.

“Joe, I need a minute,” Melissa gasped.

“Are you okay?” Joe asked with concern.

Melissa gave him a weak grin. “I don’t live on a ranch, Joe. I’m not use to all this… this exercise, and, well, I was scared.”

Well, of course,” Joe thought, “she’s just a city girl.” Joe’s thoughts reviewed the four days he had spent at Melissa’s home. She really did not do many physical things. She had servants for chores and engaged in girly, quiet activities. He needed to let her catch her breath and then slow down a bit. “I think that’s all they wanted, you, know; to just scare us into not coming back.” Joe grinned, gave his backside a quick rub, and declared, “I think they succeeded!”

“Yeah, I think they did.”

Joe looked around as he waited for Melissa to catch her breath. Across the street and a couple of buildings down, he spotted the word bakery. When Joe was excited, his appetite departed, but seeing the bakery reminded him they had not had any breakfast.

“I know what we need!” he exclaimed grabbing Melissa’s hand and leading her to the bakery. Stepping inside, the two youngsters soon found their appetites and purchased several sweets each. Their good luck returning, they spied a vendor selling sarsaparilla. Locating a quiet spot in an alley, they sat on some old crates to eat.

“Mmmm,” Joe said biting into a piece of iced gingerbread, “now that’s a good breakfast, or should I say lunch?”

“Both,” Melissa answered while chewing on a cherry tart.

Finishing their sugary meal, they discussed what to do next. They decided to visit Chinatown.

*****

Adam and Marcus had walked all over the waterfront scanning the area for their errant siblings. Adam was sure that Joe would head to that area of the city first, but if Joe and Melissa were strolling the wharves, they had managed to be wherever Adam and Marcus were not. The two young men then decided to split up. Marcus would continue searching the waterfront and then head to the beach. Adam would try Chinatown.

*****

As they waited for the horse trolley, Joe struck up another conversation, and by the end of it, he and Melissa had a new destination.

“It’s called the Cobweb Palace, and it’s just over at Meigg’s Wharf. We can walk,” Joe chattered as he pulled Melissa along. “He gave me all the directions. They have a parrot, and a monkey, and something called a kangaroo.”

“What’s a kangaroo?” Melissa inquired quickening her steps to keep up with Joe.

“Some kind of animal. See. You can see the building over there.”

After a short walk, they stood outside Abel Warner’s Cobweb Palace. The building was two-story, wooden, and decrypted. Melissa was less than impressed.

“You want to go in there, Joe?”

“Sure, “Joe answered cheerfully pulling her closer.

Melissa dug in her heels. “Joe, why don’t we….”

“You two goin’ in?” Both youngsters turned toward the gravely voice. A grizzled gray-haired man in sailing clothes sat near the door.

“Yeah, mister,” Joe replied.

“Wanna buy some peanuts for the monkey? So ya can feed him,” the old sailor asked holding out a bundle wrapped in paper.

“Sure,” Joe said reaching into his pocket, “How much?”

“Nickel.”

Joe thought the price too high but handed the man a nickel and took the peanuts. Then he pulled Melissa inside.

It was by far the filthiest building that Melissa had ever been inside. There were cobwebs everywhere. There were also hundreds of things hanging on the walls and stacked about the sides of the room. Along one wall was a bar and along another were several cages. Joe and Melissa started looking around. Melissa soon forgot about the dirt, the cobwebs, and the offensive odor as she and Joe became fascinated with all there was to see. There were teeth from a sperm whale, walrus tusks with carvings along their sides, animals that had been stuffed and mounted, other carvings, masks, and many things the children could not give a name. Joe kept asking people questions about everything he saw. Melissa believed only half of the explanations.

The monkey was free to scamper about the room. He gently took each peanut from Joe and Melissa’s hands until they were all consumed. The kangaroo was the strangest animal they had ever seen.

“Gosh, would Hoss love to see this. He loves all kinds of critters. He’s gonna be pea-green with envy when I tell him about what I seen here!” Joe exclaimed.

Before Melissa could answer, a loud voice called out, “I’ll have a rum and gum. What’ll you have?” She jumped and turned around searching for who had spoken to her. Then she heard the same phrases repeated. Joe poked her and giggled. He pointed to a large bird. The parrot spoke again but not in English. Melissa’s eyes widen and a blush suffused her face.

“Do you know what he said?” Joe asked. Melissa nodded. “Well, what did he say?”

Melissa shook her head.

“Come on.” Melissa shook her head again.

“Why not?”

“Joe, he was cussing,” Melissa giggled.

“Cussing. Really?”

“Really!”

“You kids gonna buy something?” This time the voice came from the man behind the bar. Joe looked at Melissa.

“I am thirsty,” Melissa said.

Joe walked over to the bar. “Do you have sarsaparilla? The man nodded. “We’ll take two.”

Joe and Melissa sat down at one of the tables to drink. After finishing, they decided it was time to go to Chinatown. Joe asked the man behind the bar for directions.

*****

Adam wished that Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s loyal friend and cook, was there with him. Chinatown was like a foreign country, and he desperately needed a translator. Even the signs were in Chinese. Trying to question people in the streets or shops was an exercise in frustration. Adam grew more and more convinced that locating Joe and Melissa would require divine intervention.

Deciding that strolling the streets of Chinatown was accomplishing nothing, Adam decided to check the one place he did not want to find the two youths. He caught a horse trolley and headed uptown to the hospital. Leaning back against the seat, Adam prayed Joe and Melissa would return unharmed and that he would have the self-control to allow Joe to remain that way.

*****

Melissa felt like she was not even in San Francisco anymore. Everything around them seemed strange: the way the people looked, dressed, and spoke; the lettering on the signs; the items displayed in the shop windows. It was fascinating but confusing, and she was tired. Little Joe was not confused. Hop Sing, still Chinese through and through even after many years in America, had always been a part of his life and had taught him some Cantonese. He understood some of what the people around him were saying and recognized a few of the characters on the signs. He knew Hop Sing had numerous relatives in San Francisco, and he had had hopes of meeting one of them. He had not expected Chinatown to be this large.

Joe, it’s getting late,” Melissa said catching the boy’s arm in both her hands.

Joe glanced up at the sun and realized how near the horizon it was. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

Then his attention was caught by something in the window of the shop they were passing. “Mel, come in here,” he exclaimed pulling the girl inside.

“What is it, Joe?” Melissa asked looking around and seeing nothing to excite her interest.

“Fireworks, Mel, they sell fireworks!” Joe’s eyes were themselves full of sparks. “Let’s buy some.”

“You want to set off fireworks?”

“Don’t you?”

Melissa had watched the fireworks the city set off on the Fourth of July. Suddenly the idea of exploding fire seemed the perfect way to end the day. “Yeah!” she exclaimed. “But how much do they cost? Do we have enough money?”

Joe dug into his pockets for his remaining cash, and Melissa did the same. They carefully counted their remaining funds.

“We’ll need trolley fare home, Joe” Melissa reminded. Joe picked up the needed amount and returned it to his pocket. “Wait. Where will we set them off? We can’t do it around here. If the sparks settled on…”

“I know.” He thought for a moment. “I know the best place. Safe too. The beach.” Adam had taken Joe to the beach to see the ocean two days before. The hour they had spent there had been the best of the trip before today.

“Right, but that means another trolley fare,” Melissa stated worriedly. Joe extracted another set of coins from the dwindling pile. “Do you think there’s enough?”

Joe bit his lip. “Probably, but we won’t have any money to buy supper like we planned.”

“We can always eat when we get home, silly,” Melissa replied dismissively.

Joe was had spent the day avoiding thoughts of their arrival back at Melissa’s house. He was sure he would have little desire to eat at that point, but fireworks were far too glorious an idea to give up for a mere meal. “Okay, let’s see what this will buy.”

Joe had done the bargaining, and Melissa had remembered that they had to buy Lucifers.

Finally, Joe had decided on one large rocket, listened to the clerk’s instructions (given in a mixture of Pidgin English and Cantonese), and walked proudly out of the shop with his purchased cradled in his arms.

*****

Adam had visited both of the city’s hospitals. Thankfully, the missing siblings had not been at either one. He had left instructions for contacting the Bryant family if Melissa or Joe were brought there after he left. Feeling defeated, Adam decided to return to the Bryant home. Perhaps Joe and Melissa had already returned.

*****

Sunset was near. The air was growing colder. The wind blew in thunder and spray as the waves crashed. The beach was deserted as far as they could see. Joe and Melissa sat in the sand and watched the power of the ocean. The gulls shrieked, but the boy and girl remained silent. Red, orange, and pink painted the clouds. Then the sea extinguished the sun.

Joe shivered and turned to Melissa, “Ready?”

“Ready!”

Joe was careful to follow the clerk’s instructions exactly. It was important that nothing go wrong. His schemes so often did, but not this time, please. He struck the Lucifer, lit the fuse, and backed away to stand beside Melissa. The rocket soared out high over the water and then burst into a million red and gold stars that dripped down into the sea. Suddenly the beach felt dark and cold.

Joe turned to Melissa. “Come on. We’ve got to get back,” he demanded urgently.

“Just a minute,” Melissa pleaded grabbing his arm, “I need to tell you something.”

“What?”

“Thank you.” Melissa spoke so softly Joe could barely hear her. He stepped closer and tried to see her face more clearly in the darkness. “This day was the best in my life, Joe; always remember I thought it was worth any price.”

Joe did not understand why Melissa’s sudden intensity frightened him. Not knowing what else to say he called,” Come on,” as he fled up the beach.

*****

Adam arrived at the Bryant home just after sundown. Marcus was there with his father.

Melissa and Joe were still missing. There was nothing to do but wait. Adam leaned against the mantle in the library and watched the flames. He had eaten nothing all day and walked for miles.

The shot of brandy he had drunk upon his arrival had warmed him only for a minute and then set his stomach rolling. He listened to Marcus pace back and forth from the window to his father’s side. Mr. Bryant’s fingers drummed steadily on the arm of his leather chair. The three men spoke only to God.

*****

Both Melissa and Joe had been very quiet on the trolley ride back to the Bryant home.

Now they stood outside the gate staring at the house. The house burned with light. Joe thought someone must have lit every lamp in the place. For Joe, the lights did not glow with welcome but blazed like the fire in Adam’s eyes when he was angry.

“How mad do you think they’ll be?” Joe muttered as much to himself as to Melissa.

“Joe, you talked for both of us on the ship. You did real well, but, well, let me do the talking when we go in.”

Joe had spent most of the ride back from the beach thinking about what to say when they arrived. Nothing brilliant had come to mind. Letting Melissa speak seemed an excellent idea, or would be if Adam let anyone speak after he started yelling. “Okay,” he answered.

For the first time that day, Melissa pulled the cap she wore from her head. Pulling out a few pins, she ran her fingers through her hair and let it fall down her back. Then Melissa opened the door, and they walked into the front hall. The doors to the library were open. Melissa and Joe could see that Adam, Marcus, and Mr. Bryant coming from that room.

“Go upstairs and wait,” Melissa whispered to Joe giving him a push toward the stairs.

I’m not hiding behind no girl’s skirts” Joe thought to himself, “even if she ain’t wearin’ any!

“No,” he exclaimed turning toward the approaching men.

Marcus and his father surrounded Melissa enveloping her in concern and a stream of questions about how she was. His way momentarily blocked, Adam stopped and surveyed the situation. His gaze swept Joe and Melissa. He was flooded with relief when he saw no sign of injury to his baby brother or the girl.

Thank God. Thank you for taking care of them.” Adam gave one more silent prayer. Then relief left him like a receding tide, and anger crashed in like ocean waves. “Dressed like a boy, did she! No wonder no one saw a boy and girl. Where did Joe get a cap like that! Of course, they knew I’d spot a StetsonSmart weren’t theyMaybe I was just plain dumb.”

Joe watched as Melissa assured her family that she was fine, and then looked at his brother. He was too late to see the first look of relief and joy, so he saw only anger in Adam’s face. As Adam walked around the Bryants to reach his brother, Joe froze and forgot to breathe.

Grabbing Little Joe by the upper arm, Adam hissed, “How could you! How could you do such a thing!”

Marcus Bryant pulled his eyes from his sister to look at his friend. Adam had managed the entire day to keep a mask of calm in place, but now that mask had shattered. Seeing fury clearly etched on Adam’s face, Marcus placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder and said calmingly, “Let’s go in the library. We can talk there.”

The manners Ben Cartwright had ingrained in his eldest son kept Adam from shoving off Marcus’s hand. He nodded, turned without releasing Joe, and followed Marcus bringing Joe with him. Mr. Bryant kept his arm around Melissa and guided her into the library also. The five of them stood facing each other.

“They both seem fine,” Marcus began in a placating tone, “so no harm done.”

Adam’s control snapped. “No harm done!” he bellowed. “He dragged a girl with a dangerous heart condition over the hills of San Francisco while you and your father worried yourselves ill, and you say no harm done.”

Everyone responded to Adam’s words simultaneously. Mr. Bryant ordered, “Adam, calm down!”

Marcus interjected, “Adam, he didn’t know!”

Melissa turned to her father and declared, “He didn’t drag me; I dragged him!”

Joe focused on three words and repeated them aloud,” Dangerous heart condition?”

Marcus heard Joe and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Joe, Melissa had rheumatic fever when she was four. It damaged her heart permanently. She needs to be very careful about what she does.”

As Joe heard Marcus’s explanation, he remembered Melissa hanging onto the lamppost trying to catch her breath. Suddenly Marcus’s voice sounded far away. Joe fainted. Melissa screamed. Mr. Bryant took charge.

Adam and Marcus had both felt Joe start to collapse, and Adam had snatched his brother into his arms before he could hit the floor. Hearing Melissa’s scream, the Bryants’ butler had run into the room.

“Enough,” Mr. Bryant shouted. “Hobson, go for the doctor. Adam, you and Marcus take Joe up to your room and wait. The doctor is going to check out both of these children before anyone does anything else.” Her father then picked up Melissa and carried her up the stairs to her room.

Adam laid Joe on his bed. He then slid off his brother’s boots. Marcus came into the room with a small vial in his hand. He opened it and passed the smelling salts under Joe’s nose.

Joe sputtered back to consciousness.

“Lie still, Joe,” Adam commanded, pressing his brother back down onto the pillows. Glaring down at the boy, he asked, “Did you eat today?” Joe’s skipping meals was a constant concern for their father.

“Yes,” Joe answered weakly.

“When?”

“About eleven.”

“What?”

“Gingerbread and cream puffs and sarsaparilla.”

Adam simply raised his eyebrow and rolled his eyes. Marcus muttered, “Melly doesn’t like gingerbread.”

“She had cherry tarts.”

Marcus felt suddenly weak and abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed. The entire day he had eaten only a few bites of a sandwich and some coffee forced upon him by his father. Then Marcus slowly started to giggle. “What I wouldn’t give for a cherry tart!”

Adam stared at his friend. Evidently the strain of the day had taken its toll. He certainly found nothing amusing about Marcus and himself skipping all of the day’s meals while the objects of their search made themselves sick on sweets.

Marcus used Adam’s arm to pull his body off the bed. “Come with me, Adam. Joe can rest until the doctor comes.”

“I’ll stay here…”

“No, you’re coming with me,” Marcus insisted.

Adam looked first at his friend’s resolute expression and then down at his brother. “Do I need to lock the door?” he asked.

“No.”

“Don’t move from that bed,” ordered Adam in a low tone Joe recognized as dangerous to ignore.

“I won’t, Adam. I promise.” Joe’s voice was quivering.

Adam followed Marcus out of the room and down the stairs. Marcus led Adam into the kitchen. Adam had not been in that room before. It was large but cozy with a blazing brick fireplace. A small, round woman turned towards them as they entered.

“Master Marcus, I’ve got soup, hearty but light, and fresh bread for the young ones when the doctor leaves. There are ham sandwiches and cobbler for you men as well, or I can make you anything you want.”

“Hilda, I should have known you’d be steps ahead of me,” Marcus replied warmly. “Soup and sandwiches sound wonderful.”

“I’ll bring them out to the dinning room right quick, then”

“No, don’t bother; we’ll eat here in the kitchen. You don’t mind, do you Adam?” Marcus said guiding Adam toward a large pine table.

“Of course not, if we won’t be in the way,” Adam replied allowing, himself to relax a bit.

They seated themselves at the kitchen table and placed sandwiches from a platter onto their plates. The cook brought them steaming bowls of soup and mugs of hot coffee. Both men suddenly felt ravenous and focused their attention on devouring the food before them.

Having finished his soup and first sandwich, Marcus reached for a second. “I always liked when I got to eat in the kitchen as a boy. Less table manners,” he said planting both his elbows on the table.

Adam slumped back in his chair and, with a small grin, belched.

Marcus laughed, and Adam joined him.

“Thank God they’re all right. I was worried to death,” Marcus admitted for the first time.

“Now the only one that needs to worry is that brother of mine,” Adam stated as his anger surfaced again.

“You’re not being fair, Adam. Joseph shouldn’t bear all the blame. If Melissa didn’t have a heart condition, half of your anger would be directed at her.”

Adam acquiesced with a look and a gesture of his hand.

“Melly planned it before Joe even arrived, you know.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Actually I am. I realize it’s the major reason she begged us not to tell Joe about her heart.”

“I don’t know. This is just the sort of escapade Joe would originate.”

“I might be partly to blame. I told Melissa a few of those oh-what -my -brother- Joe-did tales that you’d told me. It no doubt gave her the idea that he would be a perfect accomplice.”

“The perfect accomplice. That’s an apt description of my baby brother.”

“Adam, Melissa usually is very obedient, especially for a child whose father and brother are afraid to scold or punish her. She can be headstrong and manipulative though. We’ve reason to be angry. It’s just, well, Joe shouldn’t bear the brunt of twice as much anger because Melissa won’t bear the brunt of any.”

“If you’re trying to convince me that, since you can’t risk punishing Melissa, I shouldn’t punish Joe, don’t bother,” Adam stated firmly.

Just then Hobson came into the kitchen and announced that the doctor had arrived.

*****

Adam walked into the room, and Little Joe stiffened. Looking down at his younger brother, Adam ordered,” You’ll mind the doctor, Joe, and no whining. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Adam,” Joe replied sitting up on the bed.

The doctor was friendly and efficient has he examined Joe. Joe answered his questions respectfully and tried not to squirm. He hated to be fussed over by doctors, and he knew he did not need one, but he did not want to give Adam any more reasons to be angry.

“Nothing wrong with this lad that one of Hilda’s good meals won’t cure,” the doctor concluded. Adam thanked him, insisted on paying for the doctor’s services, and escorted him down to the library. They passed Hilda on the stairs. She was carrying a large covered tray.

“Miss Melissa already has her supper, and the lad will have his in two shakes,” she informed the two men.

“Just the medicine I ordered,” the doctor exclaimed.

“Thank you,” Adam said. “Please tell him I expect it all to be eaten by the time I return.”

“That I will, sir.”

Mr. Bryant and Marcus met Adam and the doctor at the bottom of the stairs. After assuring everyone that Melissa simply needed to rest and had not really harmed herself, the doctor departed. Adam turned to go back upstairs, but Mr. Bryant stopped him.

“Leave it for tonight, Adam. I’ll see the boy goes to bed after he eats. You and Marcus go rest.”

Adam suddenly felt too weary to argue with his host, and far too weary to deal with Joe.

Tomorrow would be soon enough.

*****

Marcus had kept Adam downstairs talking until he was thought Joe would be asleep. Joe was not asleep, though, when Adam came back to the room, but he pretended to be, and Adam accepted the pretense.

Coming awake with a start, Adam recognized the sound of the door. “Where in blazes does he think he’s going!” Adam threw back the bedcovers and started to rise. Looking toward the door, he became aware that someone was coming into, not leaving, the room. That someone was not Joe. It was Melissa. Realizing he was wearing only a thin cotton nightshirt, Adam sat back in the bed and pulled the covers over his lap.

Melissa walked over to him. She was wearing her nightdress and robe, and her feet were bare. Instead of asking what she was doing there, Adam remarked, “You shouldn’t be barefoot.”

Melissa sat on the foot of the bed, drew her feet up under her hem, and said, “There! Now can we talk?”

It crossed Adam’s mind that even if the child was only thirteen, the gossips would considered it scandalous for her to be on his bed talking to him. Hopefully no gossips would ever know.

“What would you like to talk about?” he inquired.

Melissa bit her lip, dropped her head down, and said earnestly, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam stared down his nose at the girl. “Are you really?”

Melissa’s head jerk up, and she looked directly into Adam’s face. She was not accustomed to anything other than immediate forgiveness. Adam’s expression had not even softened.

Adam continued, “For what are you sorry?”

Melissa dropped her eyes to her hands as they twisted the belt of her robe. “I’m sorry about how worried Papa, Marcus, and you were. I’m sorry about all the time Marcus and you spent searching.” Melissa looked at Adam through her lowered lashes. “Mostly I’m sorry you’re going to punish Joe.”

Adam reached out, placed his hand under her chin, and lifted her head until she was looking directly into his face. “But you are not sorry that you did it, are you?” He dropped his hand.

Melissa shook her head. “I just can’t be. You don’t understand!”

Adam frowned, and his eyes flashed. “There are some things you don’t seem to understand, little girl,” he snapped. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and pointer finger, took a deep breath, and continued more softly, “Do you realize what it would have been like for Joe if you had collapsed or d… worse? It would have torn him to pieces. He would have carried the guilt the rest of his life. He feels guilty enough as it is.”

Melissa’s eyes filled with tears. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. Please don’t hurt him any more!”

“Joe has consequences when he disobeys. If he doesn’t receive them from me, he’ll have them from our father,” Adam replied flatly. “Go back to bed, Melissa. You should be resting.”

“Will Joe hate me?” Melissa asked, tears flowing down her cheeks.

“No,” Adam and Joe answered almost simultaneously. Adam and Melissa turned to look at Joe who was getting out of his bed. Adam wondered how long his brother had been awake. Joe strode across the room to stand beside Melissa. Seeing her tears, he looked at Adam and spat out,” You made her cry!”

Adam refused to feel like a bully. “Sometimes everyone needs to hear the truth.”

“You shouldn’t upset her. She could…could…”

“Joe, I’m…I’m sorry I got you in trouble. I’m sorry.”

Joe looked back at Melissa. “Your heart was bothering you when we ran from the ship. You should have told me.”

“I couldn’t, Joe. Remember what I told you on the beach? Please forgive me, Joe.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, I forgive you.” Joe looked at Adam.

Adam knew Joe was worried because Melissa was upset. Adam looked at the weeping girl and became concerned. “Melissa, calm down. Everyone forgives you. Everything will be fine.”

Melissa turned toward Adam. “Do you forgive Joe?”

Adam smiled weakly. “I always forgive my baby brother.”

“Then you won’t punish him?”

Adam wanted Melissa to calm down. Besides, there was always Pa to handle things. “I promise.” Joe’s eyes widened.

“And you promise not to tell your father?”

Adam knew he was being manipulated but capitulated. “I won’t promise something that will put me into a position where I have to lie, but I promise Pa won’t punish Joe either.”

Melissa relaxed and stopped crying. “Thank you.”

“Go back to your room, Melissa. You need to rest, and Joe and I need to get dressed.”

Melissa smiled at Joe, and then left the room.

Joe opened his mouth to speak, but Adam stopped him with a gesture. “Joe, just get dressed.”

*****

Adam spent the day finishing his business and did not mention Joe’s escapade. Joe apologized to both Marcus and his father and then simply did whatever he was told. The next morning, the Cartwrights thanked Mr. Bryant for his hospitality, and Adam extended invitations to the Ponderosa. Then he and Joe left for home. On the train and then the stagecoach, the two brothers spoke to each other only when necessary. Adam read while Joe watched the countryside pass by.

*****

Ben Cartwright looked at his eldest son as he sat reading. Only Adam had not turned a page in over five minutes. Hoss was tending a sick horse, and Joe had already been sent up to bed, so Adam and Ben were alone.

“Adam, tell me what happened on your trip.”

Adam looked up at his father. He had been expecting this conversation. “You want to know about my trip?”

“Yes, I want to know about your trip.”

“Pa, I’ve taken more than one trip.”

“The trip to San Francisco.”

“I’ve been to San Francisco more than once.”

“The last trip when you took Little Joe.”

“I’ve told you about it. You’ve seen the contracts.”

“It’s not business I’m concerned about.”

“It was a business trip, Pa.”

“What happened with Joe?”

“Joe visited with the Bryants while I did business.”

Ben frowned and felt his irritation grow. He had taught Adam at a very young age not to lie, so Adam simply answered him with statements that were true and revealed nothing. His eldest engaged in these conversations as if playing chess and often played his father to a draw.

Ben waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “So be it. I’ll ask your brother in the morning.”

Adam set his book on the coffee table. He leaned forward placing his forearms on his thighs. He smiled sardonically at his father and said, “No fair, Pa.”

“I intend to find out what is troubling two of my sons and has them acting like they were introduced to each other yesterday,” Ben stated resolutely. “I don’t intend to play this game of twenty questions anymore.”

“You’ve asked me, Pa. It’s not fair to ask Joe because you don’t like my answers.” Adam knew he was angering his father.

“Exactly what is unfair about it?”

“Unfair advantage, Pa. You’ll ask Joe. Unless he lies to you, he won’t say. Then you’ll play your ace.”

“My ace?”

“You’ll hook your thumbs on your belt buckle, glare down at baby brother, and tell him he can answer you before or after a trip to the barn.”

“If necessary.”

“As I said, Pa, not fair.”

“Adam, tell me what happened on your trip to San Francisco with Joe before I decide you’re not too old for me to play my ace, as you call it, with you!” Ben’s face gave no indication that he was joking.

Adam knew is father intended to find out what had come between his two sons and would force the story from Joe. He decided it was better for him to explain and considered how little he could revel while satisfying his father.

“Pa, it’s just, well, before we left, I promised Joe a tanning if he misbehaved.”

“Are you telling me Joe’s sulking because you tanned him?” Ben interrupted. Ben did not think that was the case.

“No, he’s not because I didn’t.”

“So Joe behaved himself?”

“For the most part.”

“And for what part didn’t he?”

Adam chose his words with great care, “Shortly before we left, Marcus’s sister convinced Joe to join her in an, well, an escapade. Remember I told you about his sister and her heart condition years ago. Well, she didn’t want Joe to get in trouble, and I was worried about upsetting her, so I promised her I wouldn’t punish Joe.”

“Then why haven’t you told me what he did, so I can deal with it?”

“Well, Pa, I had to promise that you wouldn’t punish Joe either.”

Ben Cartwright’s face darkened, his scowl drew his eyebrows into a single line. “You, Adam, do not promise anyone how I shall deal with my son.”

“Pa, you need to understand…” Adam’s words were cut off when his father stood and interrupted.

“Adam! I want to know now what Joseph did.”

A voice from above their heads caused both men to turn toward the stairs. “I snuck out.”

Joe stood on the stair landing in his nightshirt. He had obviously been listening to the conversation between his father and his brother.

“Join us, Joseph,” Ben ordered pointing to the settee. Joe slowly walked down the stairs and over to the settee. Looking first at his father and then at Adam, he sat down his hands between his legs and his chin on his chest. Adam leaned back in his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Ben looked down at his youngest son. “Look at me, Joseph!”

Joe raised his eyes to his father’s face.

“Joseph, what do you mean you snuck out?”

“Melissa and I snuck out of the house and went places by ourselves.”

“What places?”

Joe bit his lip, swallowed, and then stammered, “The… the beach, the…whar… wharves, on a…a ship, and a…a…. Chinatown.”

Adam knew no more of the details of Joe’s adventure than his father did. His stomach sunk with each place named. When the recitation ended his first thought was, “Thank the Lord he didn’t say the Barbary Coast!”

Ben took a deep breath. His voice went to the gruff low tone his sons knew signaled he had gone past angry. “You and a young girl gallivanted around some of the worst parts of San Francisco on your own!”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Little Joe’s voice quivered. “I’m sorry, Adam.”

“I told you were forgiven, Joe,” said Adam flatly.

Joe spun to face his brother. “But you didn’t! You didn’t really forgive me; you just told Melissa that, so she wouldn’t be upset.”

Adam knew what Joe had said was partly true; he had not completely forgiven his brother.

Ben waited for his eldest to reassure Joe that he was forgiven, but Adam made no attempt to speak. Ben put his hands on Joe’s shoulders, turned Joe toward him, and then seated him on the settee again. “Joseph, tell me exactly what happened,” Ben ordered.

Joseph gave a general but accurate account of his and Melissa’s actions from the time he had left his bed until they returned to the house leaving out only the buying and firing of the rocket. Those were just details, after all.

“Then when we got home I found out about Melissa’s heart, and I fainted, and Mr. Bryant made the doctor come, but I was fine, and Melissa was as fine, well, as fine as she ever is,” Joe finished.

Ben looked at his youngest son. The boy was consumed with guilt. Ben knew that the only person who could relieve that guilt was Adam. Ben focused on his eldest. Adam’s expression betrayed no emotion. Ben knew the blander the mask Adam wore the more his emotions were churning beneath it. “Joseph, go up to your room and wait for me,” Ben instructed.

Joe looked out of the side of his eyes at Adam. Then rose and went up the stairs.

Hearing the door to Little Joe’s room close, Ben spoke to Adam, “Son, what your brother did was wrong, but do you truly think it was unforgivable?”

“No, Pa, I don’t think that at all. Part of me forgave him as soon as he walked in the door. I know he regrets what he did. It’s not that either. It’s complicated, Pa. A person can’t just order himself to feel something.”

“No, you can’t. Adam, what’s keeping you from forgiving Joe?”

“I don’t know if I even know the answer to that question. Pa, I was so worried not just about what harm could come to the two of them, but what it would do to Joe if Melissa got sick or, my God, died. I went to the hospitals, Pa.” Adam sprang from his chair and started to pace about the room as he continued, “Marcus and his father. You should have seen their eyes, Pa! Then the two of them saunter in. I was so relieved one minute and so furious the next. Too furious. Then, before I could deal with Joe, Melissa came to me. When she got upset, I got scared, and I would have promised her anything. It just keeps running through my mind: what I should have done, what I didn’t do, what I should do, what I can’t do.”

“Adam, I take it you didn’t speak with Joe before tonight?”

“I started to, many times. Every time I felt my anger returning, so I’d told myself to just forget it.”

“But you haven’t and neither has Little Joe. Neither of you will until you settle things between you.”

“If I knew how to settle them I would.” Adam looked at his father and read his expression. “Okay, I’m ready to listen.”

“Sit down then.”

Adam sat on the coffee table across from his father.

Ben began. “Adam, you need to tell Joe why you’re angry.”

“Joe knows what he did.”

“But not how it affected you. He needs to know what really needs to be forgiven. You’ve forgiven him for the missed business appointments, missed meals, sore feet,” Ben continued. “You need to tell him what you haven’t forgiven.” Ben knew how hard this would be for his eldest son. Adam hated to revel himself to anyone.

“So I tell Joe how he hurt me, and if he fells badly enough, you think I’ll forgive him?” Adam said with a tinge of sarcasm.

“The point isn’t to make your brother feel bad,” Ben frowned.

“I know, Pa. I’ll try to help him understand.”

“Adam, there’s something more.” Ben paused to considered how best to explain.” Son, whenever you’ve done something wrong, I’ve forgiven you.” Ben watched Adam nod and then continued, “Tell me when it was that I told you that each time.”

It was not a difficult question for Adam. “After you punished us.” Adam looked at his father. He had always known that no matter what he did if he confessed and accepted his punishment his father would forgive him.

“You haven’t forgiven given Joe because he hasn’t accepted his punishment, but then he can’t accept what hasn’t been given.” Ben leaned back to study Adam’s reaction.

“I promised not to punish him, Pa. You’re the one who taught us a Cartwright always keeps a promise,” Adam challenged.

“Your problem, son, is that you’ve made a number of promises that are in conflict. You have to sort out which one needs to be kept. And if you’re going by my teaching, when did I tell you it is acceptable to break a promise?”

“When keeping it would cause more harm than good.”

Nearly finished, Ben rose and asked a final question, “Why did the girl make you promise Joe wouldn’t be punished?”

“She wanted to save his hide.”

“Do you think she’d be any less concerned about saving his spirit or his relationship with his brother?”

Adam rose and asked softly, “If I don’t punish Joe, will you?”

“I’ll do what I think is best for my boys,” Ben replied.

*****

When he heard the rap on the door, Joe jumped up. He had been waiting for his father and was surprised to see Adam enter.

Adam saw his brother’s puzzled expression and the way he drew back. “Sit down, Joe.” Adam’s tone was firm, but Joe heard no anger in his brother’s voice. He sat down on the edge of his bed. Adam picked up a chair, set it directly in front of Joe, and sat down with his knees almost touching his brother’s.

“Joe, Melissa and you had a good time that day, didn’t you?”

It was not the question Joe had expected. He looked up at his brother and replied, “Yeah.”

“Joe, I planned to have a good time that day. Finish my business quickly and then take my little brother out on the town. I was even going to let him pick the places because he’d been so good.”

“Oh,” Joe gasped and dropped his chin to his chest.

Adam put his hand under Joe’s chin and raised his head until he could look directly into Joe’s eyes. “I didn’t have a good time, Joe.”

“I know.”

Adam placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “No, little boy, you don’t. You’ve never had to spend hours worrying that your little brother was hurt or in trouble, and you couldn’t find him to help. I was scared, boy. I was so damn scared!” Adam felt the child tremble beneath his hands.

“I… I thought you’d just be mad. I didn’t mean to hurt you, Adam, I didn’t.”

“I know you didn’t mean to, Joe, but you did. Melissa hurt her brother and father too. If Marcus had held you responsible, it would have meant the end of our friendship. You have to think about what your actions can do to other people, Joe.”

Joe was crying and could barely speak. “I’m sorry, Adam. Please don’t hate me, please”

“Hate you, Joe? I couldn’t hate you, baby; I love you.” Adam pulled Joe to him. “Didn’t you hear what I told you? It hurt because I love you so much.”

Joe leaned into his brother’s chest. “I love you too, Adam, and I won’t ever do it again.”

Adam set Joe back on the bed and took Joe’s chin in his hand. “I have to make sure of that, Joseph,” Adam said sternly. Joe had heard that tone before and knew what it signified. “Joe, we talked about behavior before we left, didn’t we?” Joe nodded. “What did I tell you?”

“You said if you had to tell me to stop doing something more than once you’d warm my britches,” Joe mumbled quoting his brother.

“And?”

“If I disobeyed you in a major way or disrespected our hosts, you’d use your belt on my bare behind,” Joe continued, growing softer with each word. “Are you going to tan me?”

“Yes.”

“You promised Melissa you wouldn’t.”

“I’m going to have to break that promise to keep some others I’ve made that are more important.”

“Promises you made about taking care of me and helping me grow up good?”

Just those kind of promises,” Adam said.

Finished with Joe’s punishment, Adam threaded his belt slowly back through the loops on his pants. He waited a few minutes then turned his brother to face him. Looking directly into Little Joe’s eyes, he declared firmly, “I forgive you, brother.” Then Adam drew his baby brother into his arms and held him tell he stopped crying.

Joe stepped back and spoke quietly, “Adam, if you forgive me, does that mean you’ll take me with you on another trip?”

Adam favored his brother with a deeply dimpled smile. “Sure I will!”

Joe gave Adam a wicked grin. “Without worrying that I’ll sneak away?”

“Won’t worry a bit, little boy. I’ll just remind you about how your tail feels right now,” Adam teased.

Joe thrust his lower lip into a pout and rubbed his backside. “You won’t have to. It’ll probably still be aching!”

“Get to bed, boy,” Adam ordered, flinging back the bedclothes with a snap. “You’ll get no sympathy from me.”

Joe crawled into bed and settled on his stomach. “You know, Adam, it’s not fair.”

Adam decided to take the bait. “Okay, Joe, what’s not fair?”

“You always get to be the big brother,” Joe whined.

With a sardonic grin, Adam replied, “You’re right this time, Joe. It’s not fair.”

“Oh, well,” Joe mumbled as he snuggled into the clean sheets and shut his eyes, “At least now I can tell Hoss about the kangaroo.”

Adam’s eyebrow rose. “What kangaroo?”

***The End***

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