The Question (by Doreen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6500


It was well past dusk and the sound of horses galloping into the yard made Ben Cartwright pause in his deliberations of the monthly ranch accounts that had been in desperate need of his attention over the past week.

Happy of the distraction, he absently placed down his pencil and stood up to look through the window behind his desk. As his eyes adjusted to the evening gloom outside, a smile fleetingly covered his face as he recognized the two familiar figures who, after dismounting, began to walk their mounts into the barn. But before disappearing from sight, Ben could see the largest of them covering his ears with his hands and shaking his head frantically from side to side while the smaller figure, visibly irate, continued in a one-sided animated conversation.

Although raising his eyebrow with curiosity and momentary unease at the apparent friction between the two, with a sigh of relief Ben eased back down. “Your brothers are home,” he stated towards his eldest son who was stretched out on the settee, having a well deserved rest.

Adam, who had been dozing, opened one eye and gave a slight nod of understanding towards his father. “About time too,” he grumbled as he stretched out his arms and gave a loud yawn. “I’m getting too old to be doing three loads of chores for days on end, though I must admit I was enjoying the peace and quiet around here.”

Ben chuckled. “I know what you mean, son,” he replied. “But I better warn you now I have a feeling there’s trouble brewing between the two of them.”

Adam sighed as he pulled himself up. “So we’ve just been enjoying the calm before the storm, eh Pa?” he queried, grinning towards his father. “Why oh why couldn’t I have been an only child?”

Ben smiled back, but if truth be known, Adam had missed the never boring company of his two brothers who’d been away for a few days looking over a herd of horses belonging to an old friend, Enos Milford, the owner of a large spread a day’s ride from the Ponderosa. And both he and Ben were more than pleased and relieved to have the two wanderers home safe…whatever mood they were in.

Ben returned to his columns of figures for a few minutes then he stopped, cocking his head at the sound of muffled, agitated voices outside followed by the tramp of heavy boots on the veranda.

Suddenly the door burst open and Hoss walked through with a noticeably flushed face, obviously trying hard to keep his temper under control.

Hanging his large hat onto a peg on the wall, he unbuckled his gun belt and placed it on the credenza. Then he looked back into the darkness. “I’m telling you, short shanks,” he cried towards an unseen figure, “if you don’t leave me alone and stop asking me to answer your dad burn question so help me…”

Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Adam looked over towards his usually placid brother while Ben closed shut his accounts book; the return of his boys more than a good excuse to leave the columns of figures for another day. He smiled a greeting, deliberately ignoring his middle son’s outburst. “Good to have you home, Hoss.”

The sound of his father’s voice caused Hoss to stop in his tracks and quickly glance around the room, immediately noticing the two occupants who were staring over at him.

“Oh…hi Pa, Adam,” he now smiled warmly, genuinely happy to be back, before his facial expression returned to one of deep irritation. “And believe me, after the day I’ve had, you don’t know how glad I am to see the two of you!”

There was a hint of concern on Ben’s furrowed brow as he watched Hoss make his way towards the blazing fire in the hearth without another word and stand with his back to it, warming his large frame while his expression remained glum. Ben was about to question him on the reasons for his air of gloominess when Joe suddenly appeared in the doorway, looking equally annoyed and bad-tempered.

“Damn and blast you, Hoss! Hell, if you ain’t the worst tempered, stubborn, thick-skinned and cranky individual when you ain’t got a full stomach,” Joe yelled towards his brother as he slammed the door behind him and yanked his hat off, throwing it down hard on the floor in temper. “Shoot! I’ve a good mind to…”

Then Joe clamped his mouth shut, intuitively sensing a familiar pair of dark brown eyes boring into him.

Ben stood up, folding his arms across his chest. “Joseph Francis Cartwright! That may be acceptable talk in the Silver Dollar Saloon, but in this house, I expect better language from my sons!” he cried disapprovingly. “And how many times do I have to tell you not to slam the door!”

Joe noticeably reddened and had the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry Pa,” he apologized as he offered over a nervous grin. “Guess I didn’t think on what I was saying or doing.” Then he stooped down and gingerly picked up his hat before removing his own gun belt and placing it very gently on top of the credenza next to his Stetson.

Ben tried to remain grim-faced but he couldn’t as he inwardly laughed at his youngest son’s visible discomfort. So instead he just shook his head, unable to stop from cracking a smile. Some things…and Joe…never changed.

With his brown eyes softening, Ben moved around his desk and closed the distance between them, placing his arm around Joe’s shoulder and squeezing it gently. “Just don’t go making a habit of it, young man,” he grinned forgivingly, pleased beyond measure to have his youngest home before releasing his grip and making for his favorite chair by the hearth, where he sank into its familiar comfortable contours with a satisfying sigh.

Realizing for once the lucky escape he’d had from his father’s wrath, Joe blew out his cheeks with relief and took a moment to hang up his jacket before walking over and easing down onto the settee, exchanging a warm nod of greeting with his elder brother, who returned the gesture equally amiably.

“So how was your trip?” Ben asked as he picked up his pipe and began to fill it with tobacco. “Did you manage to get the stock we needed?”

Joe nodded. “Everything went fine, Pa, and we managed to round up over a hundred top-notch horses, including cutters and ropers, and I even wangled the price down per head as well….”

Ben stopped what he was doing and looked up. “I don’t want old Enos thinking we’ve taken advantage of our friendship and robbed him!” he interrupted. “You still paid a fair price, I hope?”

“Of course, Pa,” Joe quickly confirmed. “Mr. Milford was more than pleased with what I offered and still made himself quite a profit, I can tell you. In fact, he was so happy with the deal, he even agreed to deliver the stock next week and so save us the trouble of sending a few men to collect them.”

“Sounds like the pair of you have done a fine job then,” Ben said with a nod of approval as he struck a match and lit his pipe. Then he looked up at a still po-faced Hoss, and keen to cheer, he smiled knowingly. “No doubt Cora supplied you with ample portions of apple pie during your visit son?”

Immediately, a huge grin spread all over Hoss’ face at the memory. “She sure did, Pa. And you know Mrs. Milford. She always bakes enough for seconds!”

“And thirds, fourths and fifths,” Joe murmured under his breath. “It’s a wonder poor Chubb could carry you after all you ate.”

Catching the slur, Hoss glared murderously back. “I only ate what was offered!”

“And the rest!”

“You sayin’ I’m greedy?”

“If the cap fits…”

While listening to the unusually strained banter between the two, Ben caught Joe’s sarcastic tone and he turned his gaze squarely on him. “What on earth is the matter with you? Surely being away for only a few days on such a successful trip is no reason to return home so bad tempered with your brother?”

“That’s right, Joe,” added Adam, equally perplexed. “I could understand if it was me you were ticked off with, but not Hoss.”

In a flash anger ignited in Joe’s eyes. “What you blaming me for? It ain’t my fault!” he cried, his voice rising to a high and argumentative crescendo. “Hoss is the one who’s been such a jerk! I only wanted a simple answer to a simple question but he refused to listen or talk to me all the way back from the Milford’s ranch, no matter how hard I tried to gain his attention.”

Hoss looked aghast. “Doggone it! That ain’t fair, Joe, and you know it!” he replied equally explosively. “It’s hardly a secret I’ve never been chatty or able to concentrate on anythin’ else when we’re headin’ for home and my stomach thinks my throat is cut so starts a rumblin’ and grumblin’ for Hop Sing’s cooking.”

“But it wouldn’t have taken much for you to give me an answer even on an empty stomach!”

“Boys! Boys!” Ben interrupted with a well practiced tone of voice that was neither raised nor menacing but totally commanding authority as his sons glared angrily at each other. “That’s enough! Do you hear?”

Accepting the reprimand without further argument, Hoss lowered his gaze submissively and shoved his hands deep into his pants pockets.

However, Joe, being Joe, couldn’t resist letting out a final loud sigh of exasperation as he looked between his father and elder brother. “But it was only one of those ipertheatrical questions and didn’t need a whole load of brain power…not even from Hoss!”

Frowning in bewilderment Adam leaned back in his seat and locked his hands behind his head. “A what?”

Joe scowled. “You know, Adam…an ipertheatrical question. Remember I asked you one when the two of us were riding over to Carson City last month? Surely you ain’t forgotten already?”

Adam frowned in confusion then abruptly it came to him. “Ah…you mean hypothetical,” he chuckled dryly.

Joe sighed impatiently towards his elder brother and nodded. “That’s what I said, ain’t it? Ipertheatrical.”

“Yeah, and that’s all I’ve had on the trail all day — our little brother pesterin’ me to answer some darnburn stupid ipertheatrical question he’d come up with out of the blue. Shucks…he’s given me a headache with all his nagging!” complained Hoss.

Joe huffed angrily, something in the tone of his brother’s voice making his hackles rise again. Momentarily forgetting his father’s most recent caution, he stood up and stretched out his arm, wagging his finger close under his big brother’s nose. “It was not out of the blue! I’ve been thinking on it for a long time,” he cried indignantly. “And you’ve just been downright unreasonable, and if anyone has the right to a headache, it’s me!”

“Joseph! That’s enough!” Ben repeated, raising an eyebrow in such a way to indicate he should calm down…and quickly. “Now sit!”

Reluctantly, Joe returned to his seat. “But Pa, you don’t understand what I’ve had to put up with today,” he whined, looking at his father as if for support. “Every time I’d try talking to Hoss, he’d just start chanting ‘la la la la’ over and over at the top of his voice and covering his ears so he couldn’t hear what I was saying. You can’t imagine how frustrating that is on a three-hour ride, especially when his singing is toneless and as flat as a pancake!”

Hoss stiffened at Joe’s words and narrowed his eyes with indignation. He took a step forward, about to argue the point, when suddenly he paused. His little brother was right! He could do a lot of things but singing in tune, he conceded, was not one of them. So deliberately ignoring Joe’s derisive retort, Hoss now turned his attention to a bowl of apples on the coffee table, studying them closely before stooping down and picking out the largest.

There was a momentary silence, and sensing a lull between his warring brothers, Adam gave Hoss an inquiring stare. “So what’s the question that’s caused all this trouble, big brother?”

Hoss flapped his hand dismissively. “I don’t know, Adam, and I still don’t wanna to know,” he answered, biting into the juicy fruit and chewing noisily. “All I’m interested in is what’s that there dinner Hop Sing is about to give us.”

“It’s chicken,” Adam told him quickly, then realizing he was getting nowhere changed tack and looked over at his youngest sibling. “Come on, Joe. Why don’t you tell me about the hypothetical question you’ve come up with this time?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s not another one; it’s the same one I asked you.”

There was a marked intake of breath from Adam as suddenly alarm bells began sounding at the back of his mind. He unlaced his fingers and let his arms drop limply onto his lap. Oh no! He sighed with remembrance, seemingly lost in thought for a moment as his eyes glazed over at the memory. “Ah…that question,” he finally muttered despondently, feeling a headache of his own coming on at the recollection.

.*****

With peace between them seemingly once more declared, Hoss shot his little brother a confused look and frowned quizzically. “You mean you’ve already asked Adam this here question?”

“Sure I have,” answered Joe glumly. “And if you’d bothered to listen to me instead of covering your ears and la… la… la-ing all day, you’d have heard me tell you so.”

“But I don’t understand,” Hoss queried. “If you’ve already asked Adam your question, why on earth do you need an answer from me? I mean, its common knowledge our elder brother is the brains around here.”

Joe sighed heavy with frustration. “Cause he couldn’t or wouldn’t give me an answer…that’s why!”

Ben raised an eyebrow questioningly as he puffed on his pipe. “I’m intrigued, Joe. What on earth is this question? Couldn’t I help in any way?”

Adam regarded his father with mock solemnity. “Honestly, Pa, you don’t want to know or get involved,” he said quietly. Then he couldn’t help but start to chuckle. “And I can guarantee Hoss won’t either!”

Joe pursed his lips disapprovingly. “It ain’t no laughing matter, Adam,” he told him moodily. Then he turned his eyes towards his father. “Thanks for the offer of help, Pa. I may just have to take you up on it if I can’t get one of my so called brothers to give me an answer!”

Flashing them both a scathing gaze, Joe then sat back dejectedly, and for a few moments, Hoss considered this statement in silence as he stared down at the oak planked floor with a thoughtful frown on his face. “This here ipertheatrical…”

“Hypothetical,” Adam interjected, automatically correcting him.

Hoss nodded. “Yeah…hypothetical,” he responded, giving his elder brother a quick look of thanks. “Anyhow, as I was about to say, this ipertheatrical question of yours, Joe — you mean to tell me the smartest mind on the Ponderosa, maybe even in the State of Nevada, couldn’t answer it?”

Joe nodded sorrowfully. “That’s right, Hoss,” he admitted, heaving a sad and exaggerated sigh. “For the first time ever, the Plato of the Ponderosa let me…himself…the Cartwright name down.”

Adam gave Joe a disparaging stare. “A touch melodramatic, aren’t we, little brother?” he told him through clenched teeth.

Avoiding his gaze, Joe chose to ignore Adam’s remark. “Bet you never thought you’d see that day, did you Hoss? Our elder brother, a failure.”

“Oh please….” Adam muttered under his breath while Hoss’ demeanor noticeably altered to one of confidence and self-belief as he stared Joe in the face, their squabble now long forgotten. “And you really think I can do what Adam couldn’t do? Answer this here question of yours?”

Joe nodded, an expression of sheer certainty flooding his face. “Of course I do, Hoss. I have the utmost faith in you,” he told him in a choked voice. Then he lowered his gaze and his chin quivered slightly…ever so slightly for effect.

And it worked! Always a sucker where his baby brother was concerned, Hoss noticed the tremble of Joe’s jaw and his hesitation, and was certain he could also see moisture building up in his little brother’s eyes as Joe calculatingly and deliberately wiped a hand across his face.

Damn! The kid’s good, Adam silently acknowledged, fighting an underlying childish urge to kick Joe in the shins and really give him something to cry about as Hoss purposely took his time to chew on the last piece of apple before throwing the core into the fire.

Then he spoke. “In that case, Joseph…just for you….”

In a flash, Adam immediately leaned forward and grabbed his brother’s arm. “Don’t go there, Hoss,” he informed him. “Believe me you’ll live to regret it!”

For a moment, Hoss hesitated at the caution given, then suddenly a look of understanding flashed across his face. “Ah…now I see what you’re up to, elder brother. You’re just worried and jealous.”

Adam flinched as if he’d been struck as he removed his hand and sank back in his seat. “Worried? Jealous? What on earth of?”

Hoss straightened to his full height. “You’re worried and jealous that, for once, old Hoss might just be able to answer a question you couldn’t and so show you up to be not as clever as you and everyone else thinks you are! So there!”

Adam’s face fell, theatrically feigning offence at his words. “That hurt, Hoss. That really hurt. I only wanted to warn you, seeing as you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for.”

“Just butt out of this, Adam,” Joe advised with a narrow-eyed glare. “If Hoss wants to answer my question, then it’s his call and it’s got nothing to do with you now!”

“That’s right, Adam,” agreed Hoss, the two youngest now allies against the eldest. “You’ve had your chance. Now it’s my turn.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Adam held up a hand for peace. “All right, all right. I was only trying to help but I won’t say another word. Only….you’ll be sorry!” H smiled wickedly as his eyes danced playfully towards his big brother.

Hoss gulped nervously. Something in the way Adam was looking at him made him wonder if he’d somehow bitten off more than he could chew. Maybe he should back out now, while he had a chance?

But suddenly there was a hustle and a bustle from the kitchen as Hop Sing entered carrying a large serving dish filled to the brim with fried chicken, potato and sweet corn. Hoss licked his lips and did a body slap on his thigh at the sight, drawing in a deep breath and appreciating the delicious smell of dinner assailing his nostrils.

“So…will ya answer my question, Hoss?” Joe asked hesitatingly again in a long practiced suffering tone that could persuade the hardest of men to acquiesce. “Will ya? Please?”

Caught off guard, unable to tear his eyes away from the delicious feast and his concentration now focused squarely on the platter, Hoss gave a barely noticeable nod. “Sure I will, little brother….I promise,” he announced in a far away voice; not really thinking on what he was saying. “But first I aims to eat til my belly is full!”

Then without waiting to see if he was being followed, Hoss turned heel and made his way to the table…and supper!

*****

At Ben’s insistence, a truce was temporarily declared during dinner regarding the ‘question’, and after everything had been cleared away, he and Adam made comfortable in front of the blazing hearth with a cup of freshly made coffee while Hoss and Joe helped Hop Sing wash the dishes.

Now seated in the blue leather armchair, Adam placed his empty cup back down and closed his eyes for a moment, awaiting his brothers to rejoin them. For tired as he was, he had no intention of going up to bed…not yet. He had a feeling the rest of the evening was going to be entertaining…very entertaining indeed.

To while away the time, Ben was skimming his eyes over the latest edition of the Territorial Express until eventually Hoss appeared from the kitchen, closely followed by Joe, and both carrying a steaming drink of their own.

“You want to play checkers?” Hoss asked. “Been over a week since we last had a game.”

After taking a long swallow of his drink, Joe shook his head vehemently. “Maybe later…but first you need to answer my question,” he told Hoss firmly as he placed his cup down.

Hoss gave a loud sigh. “You ain’t still going on about that silly nonsense, are you?” he whined plaintively. “Can’t your question wait until tomorrow? It’s been a long day and my head is always clearer first thing in the mornin’.”

A faint smile touched Adam’s mouth as he heard Joe ignore Hoss’ pleading tone. “Not a chance, big brother! There’s no backing out on me now. You promised and I have witnesses, don’t forget,” he said, pointing towards the occupants of the two single armchairs.

“That’s right, Hoss,” Adam agreed as he opened his eyes and yawned. “You promised. So hurry up before I fall asleep where I sit. I want to hear you answer this question as much as our baby brother does.”

Hoss frowned at Adam’s interference. “If you’re so darn tired, why don’t you just go to bed?” he told him in a hissed whisper as he sank down onto the settee. “No one’s forcin’ you to stay up!”

“Oh but I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Adam smiled back.

Equally looking forward to the evening’s diversion, Ben now joined in, placing his paper down and settling back in his chair. “Come on, Hoss…you’ll never get any peace until you do what Joe asks. You know that, don’t you?”

Joe grinned triumphantly. “That’s right, Hoss. A promise is a promise and everyone knows I can be a real pain in the butt when I want to be!” he emphasized, though slightly aggrieved when he noticed his father smile and nod in agreement.

“Dang you, Joseph! You sure know how to twist a brother’s arm with your nagging!” Hoss complained. “Just don’t be in such an all-fired hurry. First off, I need to finish my drink.”

Looking mildly frustrated at the delay, Joe gave a sigh. “Very well but you’re just putting off the inevitable,” he cautioned as he slid down to sit by his side.

Minutes passed in silence as Ben, Adam and Joe watched Hoss sip slowly at his coffee. Hoss stared back at his father and brothers over the rim, never before making a drink last so long until eventually he’d drained every little drop and tentatively placed the cup down on the table.

“At last! You ready now?” Joe asked impatiently.

Hoss gave the merest of nods. “Suppose so,” he scowled as he drummed his fingers on the arm of the settee. “Reckon I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

Joe grinned. “I knew I could count on you, Hoss. Now…you know how many brothers you got?”

Freezing his fingers in mid-drum, Hoss frowned then suddenly his broad face beamed the biggest of grins. “Geeze little brother. If that ain’t the dang easiest iperthe…hypothetical question I’ve ever heard.”

He looked over towards Adam with a look of superiority. “You must have had a brain storm that day if you couldn’t answer that one, Mr. Plato of the Ponderosa!”

Adam laughed, ignoring the jibe. “No, Hoss…you don’t understand…that isn’t Joe’s hypothetical question. That’s what’s called a rhetorical question.”

Hoss shot him a dark look of confusion. “Ritor…A what? Don’t you get all clever with me, Adam! I’ve just about had enough of your funny soundin’ words today. What’s it mean anyhow?”

“Rhetorical? It means it doesn’t need an answer.”

Hoss’ confusion was even more apparent as he stared at his elder brother. “Then why ask?”

Ben covered his mouth with his hand to hide his amusement as Joe rolled his eyes and forcibly poked Hoss in the side to regain his attention.

“Look! Concentrate on me, not Adam,” Joe told him with a scowl. “You’ve got two brothers….”

Then Joe paused. “That’s right, ain’t it Pa?” he asked with a mischievous smirk. “Just two brothers each? Unless there’s more we don’t know about that you’ve hidden away all these years!”

Both Adam and Hoss chortled at Joe’s bold impudence, but though laughing inside, Ben decided to play the stern father card and remained sour faced, failing to return the grin and instead his eyes narrowing in just the way Joe had grown to recognize over the years when he’d overstepped the mark.

So sensing there needed to be an urgent moving on of the subject, Joe quickly diverted his gaze back to Hoss and squeezed his arm. “You agree you’ve got two brothers?”

Hoss grunted in agreement. “Yep…okay…I’ve got two brothers. Though at this moment in time, I’m a wishin’ I only had one,” he grumbled under his breath.

Joe chose to ignore the mutterings of discontent. “So all I’m asking you is…”

Suddenly Adam interrupted. “You can’t ask Hoss your question outright just like that Joe!” he told him in all seriousness. “You need to elaborate…paint a picture…the same way you did when you asked me. Otherwise, it would be a waste of your multiple talents for story telling.”

Joe paused. Sometimes he never knew whether his elder brother was really making fun of him….or not. But finally deciding to accept his instruction as a compliment he grinned. “Okay Adam…thanks. Guess I have got a sort of natural ability for this sort of thing, what with my intelligence, vivid imagination, and excellent way with words.”

“And modesty. Don’t forget being modest,” Adam smiled, slanting his father a glance and giving him a wink.

“Can’t argue about that,” agreed Joe a little too smugly before returning his attention to the matter in hand. “Now here’s the thing Hoss. One night while we’re all asleep, there’s a fire here on the Ponderosa.”

Hoss frowned questioningly as he looked towards the blazing hearth. “A fire? But why do we have a fire? Is it winter?”

Following his brother’s gaze, Joe puckered his brow, bemused. “Winter? What you talking about, Hoss? It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or not!”

Hoss scowled. “Well it matters to me! You know how I suffer with my corns when it gets cold.”

Joe gritted his teeth. “Okay…it’s not winter. Does that make you and your corns happy?” he demanded. “But anyway, it’s not that kind of fire.”

Hoss looked back at his brother. “Not that kind of fire?” he queried, narrowing his eyes with suspicion. “Then what kind of fire is it?”

“It’s a fire fire. You know, the sort that makes a house catch alight.”

“How?”

Joe gave a pathetic little shrug. “The house just catches fire! Doesn’t matter how!”

Hoss shook his head and scowled…again. “Of course it matters!”

“Okay…okay! A burning log slips out the hearth and onto the carpet. Satisfied?”

Hoss shook his head once more. “Wouldn’t happen.”

Joe threw up his arms in exasperation. “What do you mean it wouldn’t happen? It’s my question! It happened!” he squeaked. “Heck! I never had this trouble when I was asking Adam!”

Hoss was unrepentant. “I’m telling you, little brother, it wouldn’t happen.”

Unconsciously Joe tightened his fists into a ball of frustration. “Okay, Mr. Know It All. Do tell me, why wouldn’t it happen?”

Hoss looked over towards his father. “Pa always makes sure the fire is well dampened down if he’s the last to bed,” he declared. “And he’s drilled into the three of us to do the same since we were knee high to a grasshopper. So I’m telling you, short-shanks…it wouldn’t happen! No way! That’s right, Pa, ain’t it?”

Ben smiled and gave a silent nod as Joe took a deep, deep breath to steady his growing irritation. “Very well; bad example,” he accepted, clenching and unclenching his fingers as his eyes wandered around the room for inspiration. A small smile then formed on his face and he stared back at Hoss triumphantly. “The lamp gets knocked over. That’s what causes the fire.”

Three heads turned and followed Joe’s gaze, all staring for a moment at the offending lantern that always sat on a shelf behind Ben’s desk and was always left alight through the hours of darkness.

“Surely if one of us knocked over the lamp they’d right it straight away?” Hoss questioned. “Stands to reason!”

“Maybe they were blind drunk! Didn’t even know what they’d done!”

Again a look of reason flashed across Hoss’ face as he focused his gaze on their father once more. “No way, little brother. None of us would ever dare to get that drunk if they wanted to see another birthday!”

Joe opened his mouth to argue but then grudgingly nodded his head in agreement. “Okay…bad example.”

There was a moment’s pause as Joe concentrated his thoughts. “Got it!” he finally grinned with a click of his fingers. “The wind forces the front door open and blows over the lamp.”

“Sorry, little brother,” Adam interrupted with a sly smirk, keen to add his two cents worth to the more than amusing proceedings. “Nothing but nothing short of a hurricane would ever open that door, and seeing as we haven’t had one around here in my lifetime, I’m thinking the chances are…”

Joe exhaled heavily. “All right! All right! Bad example!” he cried again then rose and began pacing the floor as three pairs of eyes followed his every move.

He stopped in mid stride. “The stove catches fire?”

Hoss shook his head. “Hop Sing always makes sure it’s out and cold before he leaves the kitchen.”

Joe began pacing again, murmuring quietly to himself before suggesting hopefully. “A candle is left unattended?”

Adam offered over further unwanted input. “It’s not the Dark Ages, Joe! This is 1860! We use oil lamps now remember?”

Joe sighed. He was running out of options. “Pa leaves his lighted pipe lying on his chair?”

At this point, Ben’s face flashed with horror at the thought. “Okay Pa….bad example,” Joe admitted before his father could rebuke him for such a suggestion.

“Indian attack?” By now Joe was clutching at straws.

Three heads shook from side to side then as one cried out. “Bad example!”

Laughter filled the room as Ben, Adam and Hoss fell about at their shared joke, but failing to see what amused them so, Joe eased down into his chair, a look of imminent defeat on his face. His shoulders slumped but he wasn’t done…yet.

“Lightning strike?”

There was silence. Joe sat up and cautiously looked from one face to another then repeated his suggestion with a little elaboration towards his big brother. “There’s a bolt of lightning that strikes the house and it catches fire. Would that work for you?”

After a moments thought Hoss nodded. “Sure…that works.”

“Thank heavens for an act of God!” Joe muttered.

“Was there thunder? You know how I likes a loud thunderstorm,” Hoss exclaimed enthusiastically.

Joe glared at him, nodded and moved to continue but Hoss wasn’t finished yet.

“And is there rain? Can’t have thunder and lightning without a good downpour.”

Joe gave a thin lipped smile. “Thunder, rain, lightning…you can have as much as you like of them all, Hoss. Now can I finish?”

“Sure. But could you start your question again? I’m kinda confused.”

Joe’s eyes flashed wildly as he bit back an improper and totally inappropriate retort. He took a deep breath and nodded. “During a wild midsummer storm with torrential rain…and ear-splitting thunder, a bolt of lightning hits the roof and sets the house ablaze. There’s flames flickering and licking everywhere, up the stairs, across the landing. Me and Adam are in our rooms, both trapped and unable to escape the blaze. However, you come to the rescue but can only save one of us before the whole house burns to the ground. Who would you choose?”

For half a minute, Hoss stared open mouthed and dumbfounded. “Joseph if that don’t take the biscuit! Why, I’ve never heard such a stupid question in all my life,” he finally declared incredulously. “How do you expect me to answer that?”

“But you’ve got to answer, Hoss,” Joe cried with frustration. “Adam couldn’t…wouldn’t…and I need to know.”

“Why?”

Joe banged his hand on the arm of the settee with impatience. “I just do! It’s important!” he cried heatedly.

At this point, an equally puzzled Ben joined in the conversation. “Joseph, there’s no wonder your brothers can’t give you an answer to such a bizarrely strange question. I think it’s only fair you explain yourself.”

For a moment Joe remained tight-lipped, stubbornly refusing to say a word, but finally he gave a sigh of resignation. “Very well, Pa. But only if you all promise not to laugh.”

Realizing the light-hearted mood of the past half hour had now taken a dramatic change of direction, three heads nodded as Joe then took a calming breath. “You know how when I go to bed at night, nothing seems to wake me until its way past dawn?”

“And how!” agreed Hoss. “I’m sure a herd of buffalo tramping through your room wouldn’t rouse you and that’s a fact.”

Joe nodded with a faint smile. “It’s never bothered me before to be such a heavy sleeper but…well a while ago, I started having this dream. It was the same one night after night,” he explained but now when he spoke his voice was little more than a whisper.

“There was a fire here at the house while we were all in bed. You all escaped but I stayed fast asleep even though you were all shouting at me from the yard to wake up, to get out. And though the flames were crackling and snapping, loud enough to wake the dead, and my blankets were smoldering round the edges, on I slept, snoring away till…till it was too late. Then I’d wake up.”

There was a protracted silence and noting his brother was visibly shaken by the recollection, Hoss gently squeezed his shoulder. “Shucks, Joe. You’ve been getting yourself all bothered over nothin’. We ain’t ever had a bad fire here. Don’t reckon we ever will.”

Joe’s sad eyes flittered around nervously. “I know that but I got to feeling a bit…well, scared. And that’s why I came up with my question. I knew I was being stupid but I just needed to know one of you would choose to come and wake me up and save me if it ever happened, not forget about me and leave me fast asleep to die.”

For a moment, Ben stared at his dejected youngest and the sight tore at his heartstrings while Adam cleared his throat that had tightened at his brother’s confession. “You weren’t being stupid, Joe,” he told him sympathetically. “And now that I know the reasoning behind your question, I’ll give you your answer. If I have to choose, you’ll be the one I wake up and save from certain death rather than big brother here….should it ever happen!”

Joe swallowed back a sob. “You will?”

“Sure he will,” Hoss confirmed with a smile. “And I promise yours will be the scrawny hide I wake and whip off to safety first rather than elder brother…should it ever happen.”

Joe visibly sighed with relief, now with complete peace of mind. “Geeze…you’re the best brothers a brother could have,” he said giving Adam and Hoss a genuine look of thanks. “What would I do without you two?”

Ruffling his hair Hoss grinned widely. “Shoot, Joe…that’s what we’re here for — to look after you.” Then he rubbed his eyes tiredly and stood up, letting out a loud yawn, now feeling thoroughly worn out. “Anyway, think I’ll turn in. It’s been a long, long day one way and another.”

“Good idea, big brother,” Adam agreed wearily as he and Joe also pushed themselves off their chairs, equally bushed. “You comin’ up, Pa?”

“In a minute,” Ben answered, bursting at the seams with pride as he watched his sons make their way slowly up the stairs. “Night boys.”

Three figures paused and looked back as one; all smiling towards him. “Night Pa,” they echoed before continuing on their way and finally disappearing from sight.

For a few minutes more, Ben remained still, listening to muffled conversation, doors being shut and the clump of footsteps overhead until all went quiet. Taking a final puff on his pipe, he carefully tapped out the small amount of tobacco still inside and then purposely laid it securely on the mantelpiece.

Rising from his seat, and although feeling slightly over cautious, Ben then purposely took longer than usual to double check the dying embers of the fire  and next made sure the stove in the kitchen was out and cold, even though Hop Sing had never failed to do the chore in over twenty years.

And when returning to the living room, Ben once again turned down all the lamps as he’d done routinely every evening and made his way to the stairs. But at the bottom step, he paused and looked towards his desk. “Oh well…better safe than sorry,” he silently decided, feeling a little foolish as he walked over to the one oil lamp that had always been left to burn during the night and turned down the wick.

Making his way by touch in the darkened house, Ben then went directly up the stairs without incident, and once in his room, sat down on the bed in thoughtful contemplation as his mind went over the evening’s conversation. For he couldn’t help but wonder…

If ever there was a fire at the house — and heaven forbid there would be such a catastrophe — and if he was placed in the terrible position of having to rescue and save one of his boys above the others, which one would he choose?

And for once Ben had no clear cut answer to his silent query.

That really was….without a doubt….The Question.

***The End***

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