Summary: When Adam, Hoss and Little Joe sneak out in the early hours for Adam’s last childhood adventure, their father’s reaction is not what they expect. A prequel set in the months before Adam leaves for college.
Word Count: 3,520 words
The hinges on the door let out a long piercing creak as it was opened, and three boys froze. As one, they turned towards the stairs, their eyes straining upwards in the semi-darkness of pre-dawn. No feet thumped across the room above them. No lamplight slanted along the upper hallway. No voice roared from the top of the stairs.
Together they let out a collective breath, and three pairs of hands pawed at the door in their eagerness to get going.
“Go, go, go,” urged Adam in a whisper, “I’m gonna put my boots on.”
The brothers had crept downstairs, boots clutched to their chests, and Adam watched as Hoss and Little Joe ran across the yard on tiptoes and threw them in a pile outside the barn door. He held his breath as he inched the door shut and grimaced as the latch caught. The click as it lowered into place sounded like a gunshot bouncing off the walls of a narrow gully. He listened for a moment longer. Once satisfied, he shuffled to the edge of the porch in his socks where he dropped to the ground and pulled his boots on one by one. With a final reassuring look that all was still silent in the ranch-house, Adam ran to catch up with his brothers.
“We’ll take Miss Ellie, she’s steady enough and strong enough to manage all three of us.”
He heaved a saddle onto the horse’s back.
“But Adam, Pa says I’m getting bigger with every meal, how can she carry you, me and Little Joe?”
Adam dropped down to pull the cinch forward to its corresponding buckle.
“Hoss, this old lady can carry the weight of two grown men, she’ll be fine. And Little Joe’s as light as a baby possum.” He winked at the six-year old bobbing on his toes in excitement.
Miss Ellie was led from the barn and once out of earshot of the house, Adam mounted up. Little Joe was lifted into Adam’s arms and settled in front of his oldest brother who then reached down to pull Hoss up onto the mare’s rump.
The sun was pursuing its timeless path up the side of the earth, heralding its imminent arrival with a gradual lightening of the sky. The boys had their thick coats on to ward off the chilly, unheated air and their collars pulled high to their chins. A dim grey light was enough to light their way, but the pines that edged the side of the rough track loomed close, a forbidding concentration of black shadow and creatures that scuffled in the undergrowth. Hoss’s arms tightened around his big brother’s waist and Adam could feel the boy’s head move from side to side as each new sound caught his attention. He imagined Hoss’s eyes wide with trepidation, unused as he was to being away from the safety and warmth of his bed when the stars in the night sky still twinkled. Little Joe held no such fears. Squeezed between the saddle horn and his oldest brother, he was so full of anticipation at their early morning adventure that he could not stop himself from bouncing up and down; an action that caused Adam not a little discomfort.
“Settle down, Little Joe, would ya?”
“I can’t help it, Adam, I’m too excited!”
“Well jumping up and down on top of me ain’t gonna make this journey go any quicker.”
Little Joe quieted for a few minutes as they continued on their way, but it was not long before he was squirming once more.
“Adam, what did you say today was again?”
Adam looked up at a pale streak scored across the dark sky.
“It’s called the summer solstice, and it’s the longest day of the year.”
Little Joe twisted around to look up at his big brother, his hat flopping over his eyes as it knocked back against Adam’s chest.
“How can today be longer than every other day?”
Adam smiled. “Well, it’s not got more hours or minutes in it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s just got more daylight.”
There was no response from the small boy in front of him. Adam’s smile widened as he waited for the next, inevitable question.
“But if there’s more day, what happens to the night?”
“The sun rises earlier and sets later, so the night is shorter.”
There was another pause as Little Joe thought through his brother’s reply.
“But Pa wakes me up at the same time, and bedtime is at the same time, so how can night be shorter?”
There was no faulting Little Joe’s logic. Adam squeezed the boy’s belly and laughed. “Take my word for it, bud, it just is.”
The track started to descend down a gradual incline through a thick wildwood of pines. The grey light had not penetrated the canopy of forest, and thick branches huddled over the path cast the horse and it’s riders into dark shadow. Hoss’s arms once more tightened around Adam.
“You okay back there, little brother?”
There was silence then a twisting motion as though Hoss had looked behind him.
“Uh, Adam, I keep hearin’ things. I think there’s someone behind us.”
“It’s just animals, Hoss, or your imagination.”
“I’m not joshin’, Adam, I think I can hear a horse.”
Adam sighed and reined Miss Ellie to a lumbering halt. The boys sat unspeaking in the middle of the track for a full minute, and heard…nothing. Even the ground-crawlers and the birds waking to announce the day in a chorus of song were silent. Adam broke into the stillness.
“See, I told you, there’s nothing there.”
“I don’t like this, Adam.”
“Hoss, what are you so worried about? You know these woods like the back of your hand. You’re so jittery.”
“Yeah, Hoss, you’re so…jittery,” chimed up a small voice.
Hoss leaned around his big brother’s back. “Shut up, Little Joe.”
“You shut up!”
“Why don’t you both shut up!” Adam’s raised voice echoed off the spindly pines. He took in a long breath of air. “Look, I promised you an adventure, probably the last one before I go to college, so enough with your jawing.” He turned around the best he could—it was a tight fit with all three of them—to look at Hoss. “There’s nothing following us, so stop fretting. And you,” he poked Little Joe in the shoulder, “stop teasing your brother.”
There were mumbles of acquiescence. Adam nodded, satisfied, gathered the mare’s reins and nudged the docile old lady back into motion.
The three travelers did not say another word as Miss Ellie trudged along the tree-filled ridge that bordered the big lake. The water was hidden from view as they descended, but then came a break in the trees. Adam pulled their mount to a stop and they gazed over the scene before them. Little Joe mouthed a wow and Adam grinned as a wide smile of wonder opened up the child’s face.
The lake was bathed in a silver sheen from the pale sky above, and the unbroken surface rippled in the almost windless air. In the distance, a lone eagle—silhouetted black against the glistening light—soared inches above the water, its wingtips stirring the surface into flickering movement. Then, a vein of orange and red flared over the low horizon, reflecting off the cloudless sky upon the tranquil waters.
“Come on, it’s not long now,” said Adam, and he kicked Miss Ellie into a canter down to the cove that was their destination.
Within minutes they had arrived at a rocky, boulder-strewn beach. Adam clasped Little Joe’s wrist to lower him to the ground and straightaway the boy scampered to the water’s edge. Hoss slithered off the back of the mare and soon followed, dancing across the pebbles on his tiptoes.
“Put your boots on,” Adam shouted to his brothers who were playing catch with the lapping water.
Hoss looked up and put his hand to his mouth. “I forgot to pick ‘em up. They’re still next to the barn.”
Adam groaned. “Well, be careful, you can’t run around barefoot, not on this beach.” He untied his bedroll from the saddle and unfurled it over the stones so they would have something to sit on. But then he heard a squeal and a splash, and spinning at the waist he saw Little Joe on his backside in the water, his pants soaked and most of his shirt and coat too. A pair of wide eyes stared at him, clearly unsure at the reaction he would receive.
“Little Joe! I said to be careful.”
“I slipped, Adam. I was tryin’ to catch a fish I saw.”
Adam raised his eyes to heaven as he stomped down to the water. He picked his little brother up, held him at arm’s length, and carried him back to the blanket.
“You’ll catch your death,” he said as he stripped Little Joe down to his underdrawers and rubbed him down briskly with the blanket. The boy stood shivering in the pre-dawn chill but with a grin on his face as he enjoyed his big brother’s attentions.
With a last—affectionate—rub over Little Joe’s hair, Adam shook his head and could not help but smile at the impish face that grinned back at him. “Here, keep the blanket around you, it’ll keep you warm until the sun comes up.”
There was a sudden yelp behind them. Twisting around, Adam saw Hoss on his butt, his foot clutched in the air. Adam rose to his feet, his hands on his hips.
“What have you done?” Some trip this was turning out to be.
“I done trod on somethin’. It hurts awful bad, Adam.”
Adam pursed his lips, his eyes narrowed to a blazing scar in the dawn twilight. “Let me see.”
Hoss’s big toe was bleeding, the skin broken where he had trodden hard on a jagged rock.
“You’ll live,” said Adam. “I’ll wash the cut and get a bandage.”
Hoss’s big toe was soon wrapped in a huge padded swathe of white cloth. Little Joe waddled over in his oversize blanket and hunkered down next to them, his arms around his knees.
The little boy laughed. “Your toe looks funny, Hoss.”
His comment was met with a glare. But no one could remain angry for long at Little Joe’s guileless expression and open-mouthed grin, and before long, all three boys were laughing at the huge pad of material on Hoss’s toe.
“It’s a good thing I’m not going to medical college,” said Adam, “I don’t think I’ve got the aptitude for it.”
He looked across the lake towards the distant low-lying mountains and saw that the orange and red streak had intensified into a rich golden hue.
“Look, the sun is about to rise. Let’s settle down and watch. And try not to get into any more trouble.”
Adam reached out his arms, and like fledglings under a mother bird’s wings, his two younger brothers shuffled close to his side. He hugged them tight, aware of the chilly air on Little Joe’s naked skin and their bare feet. Pulling off his jacket, he laid it in front of them.
“Scoot your feet under there to keep warm. As soon as the sun hits they’ll soon heat up.” He looked down at both boys tucked beneath his arms and frowned. “Weren’t your feet cold on the ride out?”
Hoss looked up. “I was too scared to notice.”
Little Joe pulled his brother’s arm tighter around his neck. “And I was too excited.”
Adam chuckled and gazed out over the water. The pale colorless sky had brightened to that of a sage flower and a fiery yellow flare the color of corn peered over the low mountains.
There was a low sigh from Hoss. Adam saw his middle brother’s lips turn down at the edges.
“What’s wrong, Hoss? Aren’t you happy to see the sun rise on the longest day of the year?”
Hoss sighed again. “Yeah, but I wish Pa were here. I feel sorta guilty that we snuck out and left ‘im.”
Little Joe’s head lowered down to his chest and he started to pick at a loose strand on the edge of the blanket. “Me too.” He raised his head, his eyebrows drawn low. “What’s guilty?”
Adam looked at the small boy with his mop of thick wavy hair and large hazel eyes staring back at him.
“It’s when you know you’ve done wrong and feel bad about it.”
Little Joe went back to pulling at the loose strand. “I feel guilty too then”
Adam looked at each of his brothers in turn and then up at the brightening sky. A low heavy sigh escaped him.
“Yeah, I feel guilty too.”
“So you should!” A loud voice thundered across the beach and the three boys scrambled to their feet. Little Joe’s blanket slipped from his shoulders and he whipped behind Adam’s leg to peep out at his father as he strode across the beach towards them.
“Uh, Pa, I can explain,” stammered Adam.
“You can, can you?”
Was it possible for his father to grow in height as he watched, or had he shrunk from the shame of sneaking out in the early hours of the morning with his two younger brothers?
“What possible excuse do you have for dragging your brothers out whilst it was still pitch black outside?”
“Pa, it wasn’t quite pitch—”
“And where are your brothers’ boots?”
“They got left behind by mist—”
“Why is Little Joe wearing only his underclothes?”
“He fell in, Pa, if you’d only just—”
“He fell in! He’ll catch his death.”
At any other time, Adam would have smiled that his father had repeated what he himself had said only minutes earlier. Like father like son.
“Excuse after excuse. Such sorry excuses.”
“I rubbed him down with the—”
“And what’s happened to Hoss’s foot?”
Adam did not even try to respond. He hung his head, conscious of his brothers mirroring his actions. They stood in a chastened hush.
“I’m sorry, Pa.”
There was no response. Adam braved a look. His father stood with his arms crossed across his chest. But did he detect a slight softening of his pa’s stance?
Ben Cartwright took a step forward. “Whatever possessed you to do it, boy?”
Adam sighed and whipped the hat off his head, letting it flap against his leg, and took a hesitant step towards his father.
“It’s just, well, I’m leaving, Pa, I’m not going to be here next year. I wanted something to remember, to think back on when I’m up to my neck in college work. I wanted…” he paused and lowered his head, “I wanted to see the midsummer’s day sunrise with my brothers.”
“But not with your father?”
Adam’s head rose sharply. The tension fell from his face as he shook his head. “No, Pa, that’s not it at all. We just thought…we thought you’d…we didn’t think you’d…” his voice petered off.
“You thought I’d say no.”
Three heads nodded in unison. Little Joe and Hoss sidled up next to Adam and pressed in close. He put his arms around their shoulders.
“Did you think to ask?”
The side of Adam’s mouth quirked upwards.
Ben stepped forward and knelt on one knee before him, his large hands curling around Hoss and Little Joe’s heads.
“Boys, am I so frightening that you couldn’t ask? All of this sneaking around could have been avoided.”
Adam looked down at Hoss and then at Little Joe who both met his gaze with one as perplexed as his. Little Joe looked at Hoss and Hoss shrugged as he looked back at Little Joe. Adam found his voice.
“You’re not mad, Pa?”
Ben chuckled. “No, Adam, I’m not mad…anymore.” He rose to his feet. “Just next time, ask.”
A sudden burst of golden light lit up their faces and they all turned as one to witness the creation of a bright new day. The warmth crept up their bodies from their feet to their hairlines and tingled across their skin as the lingering darkness of night was chased away by the sun.
“Come, boys, sit, sit.”
Together the family sat down on the rocky beach and raised their faces to the sun, unwittingly mimicking centuries of worshipers before them. Little Joe climbed into Adam’s lap and Hoss leaned in close to his older brother, his hand rested on his father’s knee.
The sun was a glare and they all had to shield their eyes from its rays as it climbed through the sky and reflected off the lake surface. A finger of gold reached out across the water towards where the family sat in awe at nature’s spell-binding show of splendor.
They did not speak or move until the sun had completely risen above the distant mountains and it was only when Little Joe stood and shook off his blanket and clasped his arms around his pa’s neck that the spell was broken.
“Thanks, Pa, for not being angry too long.”
Ben laughed and patted the boy’s narrow frame. He pulled back to look into his face. “It’s difficult to stay angry on a day such as today.”
Adam was next in line for a hug.
“Thanks for bringing us, Adam. I don’t want you to go away but if going away means we get adventures like this, then you can go away all the time.”
They laughed and climbed to their feet; Adam with a small boy’s legs hooked around his waist and a pair of arms around his neck.
“Come on, boys, it’s time we were home for breakfast. Hop Sing will be wondering where we are and has probably already threatened to leave for China.”
As they followed the track home to the big wooden ranch-house—Little Joe had chosen to sit with his father for the return journey—Adam threw a question out to his pa.
“Did we wake you when we left, Pa? We didn’t think we’d made a sound.”
Ben kept his eyes on the trail ahead. “You three boys were as quiet as one of those mice that live in the barn and which make you jump when they suddenly scurry across the floor in front of you.”
Three heads nodded in mutual understanding.
“No, a father just knows. I woke up in the small hours feeling…something wasn’t right. You’ll understand what I mean when you have children of your own. I checked your rooms and you can imagine my fright to find you were all gone.”
“But how did you find us?” asked Hoss.
“I tracked you. There was just enough light to see where you had led Miss Ellie out behind the barn and mounted up. It didn’t take long before I could hear you talking ahead of me.”
Hoss poked Adam in the back of his shoulder. “I told you we was bein’ followed.”
Adam pulled Miss Ellie to a stop. His father soon followed suit, turning in his saddle to face his oldest son whose head was cocked to one side.
“You were there the whole time? You saw Little Joe fall in; you saw Hoss cut his toe?”
Adam nudged Miss Ellie along the track until he was beside his father.
“But you acted like you didn’t know what happened?”
“Well, I couldn’t let you get away with scaring your old pa half to death, could I?”
Adam tutted. “Pa,” he said in an admonishing tone.
Ben reached out and laid a hand on his boy’s arm. “Son, I didn’t only see your brothers’ mishaps. I watched a young man looking after his two brothers with care and love. I’m proud of you, son.”
Adam ducked his head down to hide the rosy blush that colored his cheeks.
“And then,” Ben looked over at Hoss and squeezed Little Joe who had leant back against his chest, “when I heard you all admit your guilt, I knew I couldn’t stay hidden in the trees any longer. You knew you’d done wrong. I just drummed it in a little further.”
They rode on a short way and then a small voice said, “Pa, I learned a new word today.”
“I know you did, son.”
“Guilty. It means when you feel bad for doing something you know is wrong.”
“Well done, Little Joe, that’s right.”
They rode on in silence, and then Little Joe piped up once again.
“Do you feel guilty for making us feel bad when you weren’t really mad at us?”
Ben looked over at Adam and Hoss, both wearing grins from ear to ear, and reached around to chuck under his youngest’s chin. He laughed.
“Let’s go home, boys.”