Summary: Roy and Mary Coffee help Ben see his role as a father more clearly.
Word Count: 2884
“Adam, you get over here right now. Didn’t I tell you to watch Hoss? And here is Hoss all covered with dirt and he needs his clothes changed again.”
“Pa, you said to watch him. You didn’t say he couldn’t play in the dirt. He was having fun.”
“Young man, you are seven years old and you should know some things without having to be told. Come here and drop those trousers.”
“That just doubled the number you’re going to get. Would you like to sass me again and add on more?”
Without another word, Adam dropped his trousers and his drawers and bent over his father’s knee to get four hard slaps from his father’s hand. He knew his father must be very mad at him again because these slaps were really hard and stung badly. The last one hurt very much because his bottom was getting pretty tender by then. It was going to be hard for him to sit for several days he feared. He stood when his father was done and watched to see if his father would try to hug him. Sometimes he did, but usually he sat like he did now with those eyes glaring at him daring him to say anything. He was afraid of his father when he was like this and never knew what to do. His father had a lot of anger in him and Adam never knew when he would trigger it. Well, he did sometimes when he knew what he was doing was wrong, but today he hadn’t and had paid the price for that ignorance. He would know now that watching Hoss meant he couldn’t play. He wasn’t sure what he could do but playing was definitely not all right when they were outside.
“Are you going to say anything to me?”
“I think an apology is in order, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry.”
“Adam, I still love you. It’s just that I wish you would say you’re sorry because you meant it instead of because I told you to. Your mother would be so disappointed in you. She wanted you to grow to be a good man and you’re so often naughty. I don’t know what to do with you.”
Adam dropped his head in shame. He wasn’t sure what Pa love was. He knew what Ma love was. Ma had talked with him and told him things. She had hugged him and soothed his hurts. His Pa gave him chores to do, told him when to go to bed and when to get up, and punished him when he was bad. He guessed he was very bad because he got punished a lot it seemed. He vowed that somehow he would learn to be perfect so his father would not be so mad at him, and his mother and Ma in heaven could be proud of him instead of ashamed. He wished Ma was here because she had loved him just the way he was.
Sometimes, too, Adam wished that he had an older brother who could teach him like he was teaching Hoss, or to take the blame for things that got broken so his little brother wouldn’t have to suffer a tanning. He had vowed at Ma’s death that he would take care of Hoss, and he meant to do that by teaching him everything he could and watching out for him so he could be happy. He had laughed in church on Sunday when Mr. Reeves bent over and everyone saw that his pants were split open in the back and his red longjohns were peaking out. His Pa had been mad at him for that too, so he knew he needed to be careful when he wanted to laugh and look at his Pa and make sure it was all right to do that. He got a tanning after church in front of all the families as they left the church. His Pa said he still loved him, but Adam wondered what he meant when he said that. It sure didn’t feel like his Pa loved him a lot of the time.
On this day, they were all supposed to go to town to pick up supplies so he took Hoss inside to get him cleaned up and into clean clothing. When Hop Sing saw the dirty clothes, he raised his wooden spoon as if to strike Adam for his carelessness too, but when he saw the fear in the boy’s eyes, he knew that he couldn’t punish him. He asked him what happened.
“Hoss was playing and got dirty. I’m sorry. I won’t let him play outside anymore.”
“Boy can play; just keep out of dirt. Keep in grass so no dirt on clothes.”
Understanding now, Adam nodded vigorously. They had only lived here a short time. When they first built the cabin, the floors were dirt and Hop Sing would cut grass and spread it all over the floor to keep things clean. Adam would keep Hoss playing in the grass and there would be no more spankings, for that at least. He smiled at Hop Sing and got a smile in return. He wished his Pa would smile with him sometimes. Hop Sing helped him wash Hoss and get him dressed in clean clothing.
Cleaned up and in clean clothing, Hoss asked Adam for a ride, and Adam let him climb aboard his back and walked him outside where their Pa was waiting with the wagon. When he saw his father’s stern look, he was afraid he had done something wrong again, but then Pa smiled at Hoss and took the toddler in his arms and climbed up to the wagon seat. Adam ran around the other side and climbed in beside his father. Sitting on the wagon seat was uncomfortable, but Adam didn’t squirm for he didn’t want to draw his father’s attention back to what had happened earlier. Hop Sing climbed in the back and sat against the side as he usually did. Adam smiled at their cook and friend, and then glanced up at his father to be sure he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Once when Ben was talking with Sheriff Roy Coffee, Adam had heard his father say that Adam’s mother had died because of childbirth. Now he was the only child she had, so he realized he had caused his mother’s death. Then Ma had taken up a rifle when they were attacked by Indians and she was killed. She had wanted to protect Adam and Hoss so he figured he was at least partially to blame for her death too. He hoped that his father would still keep him after all that because he heard of how some children ended up in orphanages when their parents left them behind. He didn’t want that to happen to him. Sometimes he cried in bed at night but he didn’t want Pa to find that out. His Pa had told him to be strong when Ma died and he knew that meant he shouldn’t cry. So he never cried when he had a tanning and that seemed to upset his father, but Adam didn’t understand why he was expected not to cry sometimes and expected to cry at others. It was easier just to never cry when his Pa was there.
Once they arrived in town, Ben gave a list of needed supplies to Mr. Cass. Hop Sing left to pick up things in the Chinese part of town. Adam had asked to go with him once, but the look on his father’s face told him not to ask that again. Adam sat in the back of the wagon, playing and talking with Hoss. Sheriff Coffee walked up to Ben and started talking. After saying hello and getting the obligatory questions out of the way, Roy had something serious to discuss with Ben.
“Ben, Mary asked me to talk with you. Sunday, at church, she was a mite upset with you spanking Adam there in front of everyone after church. Now all we saw was that he laughed just like the other children laughed when they saw ole Reeves there showing his red flag. The other parents shushed their children and explained why they shouldn’t laugh. You gave a good tanning to Adam for doing the same.”
“Roy, I have to raise my boy to be a good man. I have to teach him right from wrong.”
“Yes, you do. But is tanning the only way you got of teaching him? ‘Cause I hafta say that boy looks afraid of you most of the time. I’ve had a few runaways in my jail who got in trouble and every one of those boys ran away from home ’cause their pa was too hard on ’em.”
“So, you’re comparing my boy to those ruffians now?”
“Now, Ben, don’t go getting your temper up. I just wanted you to think about it. That boy of yours is the best behaved boy I ever met. I just don’t understand why I hardly ever see him smile and play like the other boys here. He always got that look like he’s a scared rabbit about to run. You tanned him pretty hard on Sunday, and there weren’t nary a tear on that boy’s cheeks.”
“It’s up to me to raise my son as I see fit.”
“That it is. I was just trying to see if you could take a look at how you’re doing that. Now Mary wants to know if Adam could come over tomorrow to help us out with berry picking and such. She’s wanting to make some pies and all that bending over in the berry patch makes her so darn sore.”
“Roy, I need Adam to watch over Hoss while I’m working.”
“Well, Hoss can come along. Mary can watch over him while Adam does the berry picking. Now Mary would be happy to pay him for his work with a berry pie or two. How’s that sound?”
So arrangements were made for Adam and Hoss to be at the Coffee’s early the next morning. Roy picked them up from the ranch, and Ben would come to pick them up at the end of the day and stay for dinner. When Ben arrived late that day, Roy met him on the porch with a glass of wine. It had been a long day, so sitting and relaxing with a glass of wine was just the thing. As they sat, Mary opened the kitchen window behind them to set pies to cool. The aroma drifted down around the men stimulating their appetites. Adam stayed in the kitchen to help Mary prepare dinner. Mary knew as she did that, that it was time to carry through on the plan she and Roy had concocted. She started asking Adam questions hoping his father would hear the answers.
“So, Adam what do you do for fun at home?”
“Oh sometimes before I go to sleep, I read some. I have a book Ma gave me. If Hoss isn’t sleeping, I read to him.”
“No, I mean, don’t you play?”
“No, ma’am, I have to do my chores and watch over Hoss. I guess I play with him, but I hafta make sure he doesn’t get dirty or get hurt, ’cause otherwise I might get a tanning.”
“Well, what do you do when Hoss takes his nap?”
“Then Pa says I gotta help Hop Sing. Usually, Hop Sing has me chop kindling or get wood for the stove. Sometimes he has me get the eggs from the chickens or milk the cow but he doesn’t ask me to do that if Pa is home.”
“Well, once, the chickens scared me some and I dropped the basket of eggs and a lot of them broke. And once I was hurrying to the house with the milk pail and it bumped my leg and I spilled most of it when I fell. Pa tanned me good for being ‘irresponsible’. He said he still loved me, though. What do you suppose he means when he says that?”
Mary had tears in her eyes for this little boy who wasn’t allowed to be a child. She knew she should keep going so his father could hear the effect he had on his son, but it was breaking her heart to hear how calmly this boy explained being abused. Oh, it wasn’t physical abuse. Nothing like that happened, even if he did seem to get tanned a lot. It was the emotional abuse of a father ignoring his son’s needs.
“Oh, I think your papa loves you, but just has a hard time showing you. Now what about Hoss? What does he do during the day?”
“Oh, I watch over him and make sure he smiles and plays. I’m teaching him everything I know. I’ve been teaching him words. He talks very well for such a little guy. He don’t say them all right but I understand him. Lots of times, I take to him to show him the baby animals. He really loves that. I give him rides but he’s getting pretty heavy so I don’t know how much longer I can do that. And if he breaks something or makes a mess, I tell Pa I did it so he don’t tan Hoss. I can take it a lot better than he can.”
“You’re a very good big brother.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I try to be. Ma’am, if my father doesn’t ever want me no more, do I hafta go live in an orphanage or could I come live here? I’d work real hard for you and not laugh or do any bad stuff.”
“Oh, Adam, your father would never abandon you. What makes you think that?”
“Well, I heard him tell Sheriff Coffee once that I made my mother die. And then when Ma died saving us, well, that was some my fault too. I think that’s why my Pa doesn’t like me much even, if he says he still loves me. I guess he says he still loves me ’cause he has to ’cause he’s my Pa, but he don’t want to, maybe. He don’t ever smile at me the way he smiles at Hoss. Sometimes he laughs but then he stops and looks at me. It makes me wonder what he’s thinking when he does that.”
On the porch, Ben was standing by the window now with tears streaming down his face. How could he have been so stupid and so blind? How much did he really expect a seven-year-old to understand, even one as bright as Adam? He worried all the time about Adam being on his own and having to work so hard for such a young boy, but Adam hadn’t understood the worried looks. Ben had been upset and angry at the world for the death of both of his wives, but had never blamed his oldest son. He carried a lot of grief and sorrow within his heart and the only things that assuaged the pain were his sons. What Adam saw was concern, but his interpretation was that his father was upset with him. Ben had to talk to him so he would understand.
Ben walked to the kitchen door. “Adam, maybe we should go home now.”
With a disappointed look, Adam slid from the chair next to Mary and went to pick up Hoss.
“Oh, Ben, you can stay for dinner. The boys have been looking forward to it all day.”
Holding Hoss, Adam walked over to Ben and was astonished to see tears on his father’s face. Whenever he had been sad and cried such as when Ma died, Pa had said be strong and don’t cry. Now his father was crying. He didn’t know what to do.
“Do you want to stay for dinner, Adam?”
Looking at his father trying to determine what the correct answer was, Adam was confused. He didn’t know what was happening.
“It’s all right, son. If you want to stay, just tell me and we’ll all stay.”
“Yes, Pa,” was said hesitantly and with a little stutter. This was new territory for Adam and he wasn’t sure how to act. Ben took Hoss from him and sat down on a chair. He motioned Adam over to him. He put his arm around his son and pulled him into an embrace. “I’ve been doing a bad job of being a father to you, and I’m sorry. I will try to do better.”
“That’s all right, Pa, I still love you.” Adam stood stiffly in the unaccustomed embrace of his father.
Ben thought that he had made amends and could undo the damage. As Mary saw the little boy who seemed so unaccustomed to being hugged, she wondered, though, if those early lessons would ever be undone. Or would this boy grow to be a man trying to please his father and hiding his thoughts and feelings while doing and saying what he thought his father wanted until the day came when he didn’t want to do that anymore, and then he would leave?