Summary: A prequel story with LJ at thirteen, Hoss at nineteen, and Adam at twenty-five. In the first part, Little Joe decides to be good for three weeks as a gift to his father which sets off a chain of events while Adam decides to ride a couple of difficult horses that sets off a different chain of events. Everything comes together as does the family in time for a Christmas celebration. The second part of the story is a WHB for The Quality of Mercy and features Seth in a prominent role.
rating = T (26,563)
It was three weeks before Christmas, and thirteen year old Little Joe Cartwright was not feeling the spirit of the season. He moped around the stable as he did his chores and was so obviously unhappy that Hoss had to ask why.
“You heard Adam this morning, didn’t you?”
“Heard him? I didn’t hear him say nothing to make you unhappy. In fact, I thought things been going real well lately. I did hear him give a list to Pa and remind him to get those things in Sacramento when he was there.”
“Well you know what things those are, don’t you?”
“No, I thought I did, but I guess I don’t if they’re making you so unhappy.”
“They’re Christmas presents for us, that’s what they are.”
Stopping work and leaning on his fork, Hoss frowned and thought about everything that had been said so far. Nothing in the conversation made any sense to him to explain why Little Joe was upset. He thought it through one more time and still made no sense of it. “That’s what I thought they were. Little Joe, now why would Adam reminding Pa to get things for him to give to us at Christmas make you upset? It makes no sense to me at all.”
Little Joe dropped down on to a bale of hay looking as disconsolate as possible. “Oh, Hoss, don’t you get it. Adam is going to give us some really nice presents at Christmas.”
Walking over to stand next to his little brother to try to understand him and try to support him, Hoss was more confused than sympathetic at that point. “Yeah, and that should make you happy, shouldn’t it?”
“Not when I don’t have any money to get anything nice for him.”
“But Pa started paying you a dollar a week for chores on Saturday and after school. You told me a few weeks ago that you had near ten dollars saved up.”
“Well, that was before the big picnic and dance. I had to get something nice for Mary Lou, and then at the picnic, I sorta bet that I’d win that race.”
“You did win.”
“Well, I sorta bet that I’d win by more than I won by and I had to give up my pocketknife and a few other things I bet, except that was the pocketknife Pa gave me for my birthday so I had to buy one just as nice and give that instead.”
“That should still leave you some money.”
“Well, I saw that nice bridle that you made, and I wanted one like it, but I can’t make them like you can so I bought one for myself. I was fixing to use it next spring.”
“How much you got left to buy presents for Christmas?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Almost a dollar.”
“You haven’t gotten any Christmas presents yet and you have less than a dollar?”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m mad at Adam. He’s going to give me a real nice present and I won’t have something nice for him, and that’s going to make me look bad. If he wouldn’t give me something so nice then I wouldn’t look so bad.”
Shaking his head, Hoss gave up trying to follow that line of reasoning. “What you gonna give Pa?”
“Well, I had this idea about writing some stuff for school and then getting some good grades on it and then wrapping some ribbons on it and saying I worked real hard to show him I could do it and that’s my present to him.” Joe looked up hopefully at Hoss who nodded after a moment’s thought. “You think Pa will like that?”
“Yup, I think that’s a right fine idea. Pa will think you put some real thought into that one. At least it’s got the right spirit. You’re trying to give Pa something he really wants.”
“Too bad it won’t work with Adam. He’ll just say I should have been doing that all along anyway.”
Hoss pursed his lips as he was thinking. “You know, you could do something kinda like that for Adam. You know how you like to do things to set him off? You know how you like to see him get mad and stomp around. Well, how about if you did the opposite? How about if you did nice things for him for the next three weeks at least? You could make a list of things that you did to help him out instead of doing things to make him mad.”
“It was funny though when I dropped that harness on him from the loft.”
“How funny was it when he dumped you in the horse trough for doing it?”
“Yeah, but he had to catch me first. He was huffing pretty good by the time he caught me. For a while there I thought I might get away.”
“I saw him talking to you as he dragged you back. What’d he say?”
“He said I might run faster but he could run longer. I’m not sure what he meant, but he is a lot stronger, and I couldn’t get away once he grabbed me.”
“He meant that once he’s after you, he never gives up. He wouldn’t have stopped chasing you no matter what. You had no chance of getting away.”
“If I do nice things for him, half the fun is going to see the look of shock on his face. He’ll be wondering what trick I’ve got planned. He won’t believe I’m being that nice. This could be a lot of fun too.”
“I’m not so sure you have the right attitude for this. Maybe you ought to forget it and ask Pa for a loan against your future allowance. I’m pretty sure he’d give you some money if it was to buy presents for Christmas.”
“You think I want to tell him just before Christmas what happened to my money that I was saving to buy Christmas presents?”
“Oh, ya, that might not be a good idea.”
“No, I think I’ll try out your other ideas. That way, I’ve already got almost a dollar to buy you a present. With my allowance in the next three weeks, that gives me almost four dollars. I can still get you a present and one for Mary Lou.”
“Wait a minute. You’re going to buy Mary Lou a present, but you don’t have enough money to buy one for Pa and not enough to buy one for Adam?”
“Yeah, that’s what we’ve been talking about. Did you forget already? I thought I explained it well enough. And you gave me the solution too. Thanks, Hoss, you’re a great big brother. I knew I could count on you to help me out. I have to get going to school now. I’ve got some work to do there so I can show Pa how well I’ve been working there. It’s going to be the best present I can give him for Christmas. I’m going to be thinking of things I can do for Adam too so by the time Christmas rolls around, I can tell him that all of those were for Christmas too.”
“Joe, maybe you could just save up and buy him a present and do some nice things for Mary Lou instead?”
“But I always do nice things for Mary Lou so how would that be a present? She expects me to be nice to her. Adam doesn’t expect me to be nice to him all the time. I’m nice most of the time though, but now I won’t play those tricks on him and I’ll do some extra nice things for him. Now that’s a present.”
“Pa’s gonna be gone for a week or more for those meetings in Sacramento. This’ll be a good time for you to get started on being nice to Adam. It shur is gonna make it a lot easier on all the rest of us too to have the two of you getting along instead of butting heads while Pa’s gone.”
“Oh oh, there’s Adam hollering for me. I better go. He thinks I’m going to be late for school now cause we took too long doing chores. I’ll start by not back-talking him. You’ll see, Hoss. I can do this.”
A short time later, Adam walked into the stable looking a bit confused. He had berated Little Joe for taking so long in the stable that he might be late to school, and Joe had apologized and promised he would try to do better in the future, thanked Adam for the reminder, and then mounted up to ride to school. Adam asked Hoss if he knew what had affected Little Joe so much and wondered aloud if their father leaving again could be the cause. Hoss smiled and said that maybe their little brother was growing up some and trying to act more like a man. Adam shrugged and said he had some paperwork to do for their father and then would go to the breaking corrals in the afternoon to begin working with the horses that they had recently brought in. Hoss headed that way to repair the fencing that several of those horses had damaged in trying to escape.
“Adam, those two blacks in that group, that big stallion and the big mare are maybe too wild. Maybe you ought to think about letting them go instead of trying to ride ’em. They’re plumb mean ones.”
“I’ll take my time with them. I’ll handle the others first. Once the two of them are in the corrals for a week or more, maybe we can gentle them down some before I try to ride them. How about that for a plan?”
“I dunno. Let’s see what they’re like in a week. Maybe ask Pa what he thinks when he gets back.” As soon as he said it, Hoss knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Adam would probably take that as a challenge and he did. Hoss could see it in the way he adjusted his posture and by the look on his face. He was determined to ride those two blacks now, and Hoss felt badly that he had been the one to firmly back that idea with what he had said.
At school, the teacher was nervous all day. She kept waiting for the surprise that she was sure Little Joe Cartwright was going to pull on her or someone else. His behavior had been impeccable and that was the most worrisome thing she could imagine. He was polite. He worked diligently. He didn’t say or do anything to rile up anyone. It was a nerve-wracking day. She was so relieved when it was over, but then she knew she would spend a sleepless night worrying about what that scamp might be planning because it must be his worst yet for him to be so angelic for an entire day. He had to be setting her or someone else up for a gigantic prank. She thought and thought and couldn’t come up with a single idea of what he might be thinking of doing to wreak havoc in the school. She thought perhaps she would like to talk with his father or oldest brother about him, but she realized too that she had no complaint. His father was unlikely to accept her reasoning although perhaps his brother would. They had commiserated on more than one occasion about the mischievous boy and how he seemed to take enjoyment from making them furious. Both had pledged to try to avoid allowing him to do that, and both had failed of course. They might have been pleased to know though that Little Joe had an equally difficult day.
“Hey, Little Joe, I found a tree frog. You can do your trick and get all the girls squealing in school during reading time.”
“No, sorry, Seth, I can’t do it.”
“What dya mean, you can’t do it? You sick or something?”
“Nope, just can’t do anything to get in trouble.”
“Oh, your pa’s gone and you’re afraid of what your older brother will do to ya if you mess up in school this week while he’s in charge.”
“I am not afraid of Adam. I’m doing this for my Pa. I’m going to not get in trouble for three weeks. I’m going to do all my work and show him how good I can be in school. It’s going to be my Christmas present to him.”
“Really? I was gonna give my pa that pocketknife I won off you, but this is even better. I get to keep the pocketknife and get to make my pa happy. Hey, I’ll do it too.”
By the end of the day after two recesses and lunch, all the older boys in school had heard of what Little Joe and Seth were doing and had decided to join in. It was a harrowing day for the teacher. She kept waiting for the plot to unfold and it never did. Even after the students left for the day, she opened the door to the closet cautiously, and when she needed to use the necessary, she walked all around it and examined it carefully and then proceeded with the utmost caution when opening the door. It took her four times as long to use the necessary as usual and anyone watching might have thought her a bit daft, but she was worried. She walked the circumference of the school twice outside too looking for anything unusual and found nothing. She checked the wood box inside, the water buckets and pitchers, and the stack of rags used to wipe the board clean. All was completely normal. She graded papers, prepared lessons for the next day, and worked until her usual time but knew she wasn’t going to sleep well that night.
After school, Little Joe had gone directly home after seeing Mary Lou to her house which was conveniently on the way. As soon as he got home and took care of his horse, he did his barn chores and then went to the washhouse to clean up. He had an hour before dinner and Hoss and Adam weren’t back yet so he sat at the table and diligently worked at his homework. Hop Sing looked out and frowned wondering what he had done wrong, but at least it wasn’t his problem. He didn’t have to intervene as long as Little Joe did what he was supposed to do at home. If he was in trouble at school, that was number one son’s responsibility with Mister Cartwright away. Hop Sing did sympathize with the young man having to shoulder the responsibility of the ranch and of his youngest brother when he was only twenty-five. In his mind that was too young to have to deal with a rambunctious, mischievous teenager. He went back to preparing dinner and hoped that things could remain peaceful for the remainder of the week although he doubted it would be so. The peace only lasted until Adam got into the house to find Little Joe working on his homework.
“Are your chores done?”
Little Joe swallowed the resentment that question brought up ignoring of course that usually he needed to be reminded to do his chores and certainly needed to be reminded to do his homework. “Yes, my chores are done. I’m almost done with my homework for tomorrow, but I have to work on the writing project we have to turn in before Christmas break. I thought I would do some of that tonight. She wants three pages and we can’t write big either. She said she’s counting words and it has to be a normal sized writing and three paragraphs per page at least.”
“You’re working on your homework without being told and you’re going to work on your writing project ahead of time? What kind of trouble did you get in to at school today? Do you have a note that you’re supposed to show me?”
“No, I didn’t get into any trouble. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do. I’m growing up, Adam, in case you hadn’t noticed. I can handle my responsibilities just fine. Pa said if I do well at school this year, that I might finish up this year and start working the ranch full time next year.”
“When you’re fourteen?”
“Hoss did it. You did it.”
“I had a tutor. I didn’t have a school to go to. I did my lessons at night after working all day.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I heard it a thousand times.” Then Little Joe remembered what his Christmas present to Adam was supposed to be. “I guess that was hard on you, but this is hard on me. I’m doing the best I can, you know. I’m probably going to be able to pass the test by the end of this year.”
“You could keep learning.”
“But not in this school, and I’m not going to college so Pa doesn’t need to get me a tutor or send me off to another school somewhere. Adam, did you ever, you know, think it was a mistake to go off to college for four years. You know, was it worth it to leave here to learn all that stuff and then come back here to do what you could have done without going to school?”
That hit a bit close to how Adam felt on many days, but he wasn’t ready to have that conversation with his thirteen-year-old brother, Adam was a bit brusque in his answer. “It’s never a mistake to keep learning. Now, you better be telling me the truth about school. I’ve already had enough trouble around here for one day.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Pa wanted me to check the herd counts because he said the math didn’t add up. And they don’t. We’re missing about one hundred head. And I spent the afternoon trying to ride some of those horses the men brought in and those are the sorriest bunch we’ve had in a long time. The two best ones may not be breakable and the others aren’t going to sell for much. It’s been a bad day. I’m hoping that Hoss is going to come home with some good news.”
“What kind of good news?”
“If he found a fence down and some of our cattle strayed into a neighbor’s herd. We can get them back then probably.”
“Probably? If they’re ours, we get them back definitely!”
“It’s not always so easy especially if they’ve been grazing another rancher’s grass. We’ll have to see first where they might be.”
“You wouldn’t back down, would you, Adam? Pa would never back down. If they’re our cattle, then they’re our cattle.”
“You do your homework. I have to clean up.”
Angry at being dismissed, Little Joe was ready to retort but remembered his plan for Adam’s Christmas gift and held back. He was beginning to realize how difficult it was going to be to do this for three weeks, but he was committed to the plan so he remained silent and bent his head over his book and paper and set to work again. Adam had turned to leave but was surprised not to have an angry comment thrown his way. He glanced back at Little Joe and saw him turn to his homework. Something was going on there too, but he had bigger problems to handle at that point. He was going to have to hope that the issues with Little Joe could keep for a few days at least. He heard Hoss ride in and went to meet him instead of washing for dinner.
“Bad news, Adam. The fences are all intact all the way around those pastures. Some may be sagging a bit in some places, but none are down. However those cows got out, they had help.”
Dropping his head and rubbing his neck, Adam worried about what to do next. “Any thoughts about whether it’s rustlers or whether we have neighbors building up their herds at our expense?”
“I’m thinking rustlers. This time of year, there ain’t no calves. They’re taking branded cattle. Our neighbors would have to be too worried about doing that. Ifn I had to guess more, I’d say they’re killing them and selling the meat to the miners and settlers who are pouring through here now. Most who get this far are low on supplies. Fresh meat at a cheap price would get them some money fast.”
“So they take five or ten at a time. We would hardly miss them on a day-to-day basis. A few days or a week later, they’re back for more. We haven’t missed any for a few days so we have to put out men to watch for them.”
“It’s cold and nasty out there. The men aren’t going to like it.”
“No, they aren’t so we’re going to have to take our turns too to keep the peace. I’ll offer extra pay for the nights spent out there too. We’ll have to set men up in several locations and hope we spot the rustlers. Damn, I wish Pa had figured this out before he left. I have to get those horses broke this week too. Something’s going on with Little Joe too. He’s acting strange.”
“Ah, I don’t think you have to worry about Little Joe. I think it’s all right.”
Adam gave Hoss a skeptical look. “I hope you’re right. Go on and take care of your horse. I’ll go talk to the men.” It was a long cold night for Adam who took a turn out in the cold with the men that night. They saw nothing and rode back in the next morning as Hoss and the other men were getting ready to go to work and Little Joe was heading out to school.
The men riding in were surly and that included Adam. Spending a night out in the cold without any hot coffee or anything to take the chill out of the duty was bad enough but to do it with no results made it worse. The men at least had the benefit of extra pay. They headed to the bunkhouse to get some sleep. Hoss intercepted Adam on the way to the stable.
“You’re gonna get some sleep too, ain’t ya?”
“I figured I could ride a few horses this morning first and then grab some sleep and ride a few more later in the afternoon.” Seeing Hoss’ worried look, Adam softened his approach. “Look, I was only planning on giving a last ride to the ones I gentled out yesterday, and then this afternoon, I’ll take the easier ones. I’ll save the blacks for later, all right?”
“I’d rather you not do any this morning when you haven’t slept for a full day, but as long as you take it easy.”
“Say, Little Joe didn’t give you any trouble, did he? I meant to get back here a bit earlier this morning.”
“No, he was no trouble at all. Got himself up and ready on time. You seen him leaving when you rode in. He won’t be late.”
“I was thinking last night. Do you suppose he’s behaving so well because Christmas is coming up?”
“Uh, yeah, I bet that’s it, yeah, that’s it.”
“Good. I hope he can keep it up at least for the week while Pa’s gone so I don’t have to deal with anything. I got my hands full as it is. Now you’re going to ride the fence lines looking for any tracks today, right?” At Hoss’ nod, Adam had to give him a warning. “Take a man with you. If there are rustlers out there, they aren’t going to like the idea of you doing that. Keep a man watching your back.”
“I will. I plan to stay out there too for the night. Taking enough to eat for the day. I already talked to some of the other men and we agreed on who will take up which spots tonight according to where you said you wanted men.”
“All right. I’m going to grab some coffee and get to work.”
Work went about as expected for Adam except everything took longer than expected. He was tired and that was the cause of it. The men knew it and said nothing, but Adam was upset with himself. By the time he finished with what he wanted to do that morning, it was already noon. He went in to get some lunch having skipped breakfast, and Hop Sing was ready with a stern lecture for him. He took that because he was too tired to argue, ate his lunch, and then lay on the settee where he immediately fell asleep. He awoke to the sound of Little Joe entering the house and knew he had slept longer than he intended. He sat up groggy and still tired. Not knowing that Adam had slept less than four hours, Little Joe decided to tease him a little.
“If this is what it means to get old, I think I’d rather stay young. You’re already taking naps in the afternoon?”
With a growl, Adam grabbed his hat and jacket and headed out the door. “Get your homework done.” He slammed the door before Little Joe had a chance to respond.
Hop Sing stepped out of the kitchen. “You should not poke sleeping tiger. You not like his claws to come out.”
“Why is he so crabby anyway? I was only teasing.”
“He work all night looking for rustlers. Then he work all morning with horses. He only sleep few hours, and boy poke him with words then.” Hop Sing’s raised eyebrows and stern look left no doubt as to his expectation as to what Little Joe should do.
“I’ll tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I do have good news though. I had another good day at school. The teacher keeps giving me strange looks though. She seems to think I’m doing something wrong by being good. It’s kind of weird.”
“Maybe she never see tiger cub change stripes before.”
“Huh?” Little Joe thought about that for a moment before smiling. “Yeah, that’s probably it. It’s kind of fun being good at school. It makes everyone nervous especially because all my friends are being good too. We’re all giving this to our fathers for Christmas. We’re not going to get into any trouble at school for three weeks.”
“Good, and maybe prove that you can do that for rest of school year too. Make father proud man to have son act like him.”
“But going to the end of the school year is a long time.”
“Boy wants to be man has to act like man. Man not see few months as long time, see few months as opportunity. Only boy see few months as long time.”
“That would be really hard to do.”
“You good yesterday and today and say not so hard.”
“Yeah, I did. Yeah, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. If I can do it for three weeks, then a few more months wouldn’t be so hard. Thanks, Hop Sing. You really know how to talk to a man.”
“I talk to boy about being man. I wait to see if he can do it. Now I fix dinner. You remember what you have to do.”
Dinner was late because Adam worked until it was too dark to do any more. When he came in, Hop Sing and Little Joe were upset with him. Hop Sing was upset because he had to hold dinner and it made the food less good than it would have been if served when it was ready, and Little Joe was upset because he had been practicing his apology and in general, he wasn’t patient by nature. He apologized but with less sincerity than he should have had. Adam nodded and said a simple thank you. It was quiet after that with Adam heading to bed with an admonishment to Little Joe to go to bed soon and remember to lock the doors, close the shutters, and set the firescreen in front of the fireplace.
In the morning, Adam was feeling a bit better but still was feeling the pressure of having a lot to do. He was relieved to find that Little Joe was up, did his chores, and was ready for school with no prompting. He even managed a quick thank you for that which surprised his youngest brother who left for school with a smile on his face as Hoss rode in with a scowl on his.
“I’m guessing you had no better luck last night than we did the night before?”
“Nope, and we never found no tracks yesterday neither. Adam, I got an idea and we need to talk. Let’s go inside after I put my horse away.”
Once they were inside, Hoss grabbed cup of coffee and sat at the table as Hop Sing brought out breakfast for him. Adam waited as he ate and drank some before his impatience made him ask what Hoss needed privacy to say.
“I been thinking, and now I’m wondering if maybe it’s an inside job. We never see tracks. We never notice a fence down. Nobody never sees nothing wrong but we got nearly a hundred cattle gone.”
“So we think we have men working here who are doing it. You have anything else to go on besides your thinking?”
“Well, now, I do, but ifn I tells ya, ya got to not go getting on your high horse about it all. I know Pa’s got some rules about the bunkhouse, and well, those rules ain’t exactly being followed.”
“Which rule? The one about no drinking or the one about no gambling?” Hoss frowned and Adam knew. “They’re doing both?”
“Now, Adam, not all the men drink, but there are some who have a nip at night. The other men make sure that’s all it is too. Nobody wants to take a chance on working with somebody been drinking. If there was a problem they couldn’t handle, they’d bring it to us. It’s fine. As for the gambling, they keep it friendly. Nobody can borrow to play, they limit the pots to five dollars, open with two bits, and raises are no more than two bits. It’s just friendly poker playing. Most of the time nobody wins or loses more than five or ten dollars at most.”
“All right, I can live with that. I don’t have to say anything to Pa.”
“Good. I figured you’d be all right with it. Now last night, we had a lot of time to wait, and Shorty was telling me that two of the men you hired last summer never seem to do well in those games but they always seem to have money to play and money to go to town every Saturday night too. He was wondering how they do it. It got me to thinking too. Where could two ordinary cowhands get enough money to do that?”
“By selling four or five cows a week, they could do that and more. If we let them go for the winter, they probably would have enough money to see them through even if they keep doing what they’ve been doing.”
“That’s what I figured.”
“So as long as we’re out there looking, they won’t take any but it’s still costing us money. If we don’t watch, they’ll take cows, and that will cost us money. We’ll have to keep up the looking for a while so they don’t get suspicious. Going to be some long cold nights for a bit. Maybe four more nights and then we give it up and say it isn’t working and we’re turning it over to Roy?”
“I was thinking three more nights and then it’s Saturday. Saturday afternoon, they might head to town and we could follow and see if they make a detour to take a few cows somewhere else to get some money for a trip to town.”
“That’s a good plan, Hoss. All right, three more nights. Then on Saturday, we’ll follow them. If it works out, we’ll have them by the time Pa gets back late on Saturday. All right, I have to get to work with those horses. I still need them ready by Saturday too. You get some rest.”
“You be careful, Adam. Ifn those horses ain’t broke, it ain’t the end of the world. Pa will understand once he knows what else we had to do.”
“Sure he will.”
By Adam’s look, Hoss knew that Adam didn’t believe it. Adam had set himself a task and would push himself to complete it. Hoss was still worried about those two blacks and a tired Adam trying to ride them. There was no way around it though. Adam was set on doing it and proving himself once again to his father. Hoss didn’t think that he needed to do it, but somehow Adam always felt that he had to do it. As much as Little Joe was pushed into things by his impulsiveness and cockiness, Adam was pushed by his pride. They couldn’t seem to help themselves.
That day found Adam sore from breaking horses and Hoss tired out from a night on the range, but the next day was worse for Adam as he was exhausted and still had horses to break. He had the men put saddles on the blacks but didn’t ride them. They were agitated enough with the bridles and the saddles they had to endure for most of the day. Adam had them take the tack off at the end of the day and let them run for a bit but then had them put in with some of the Ponderosa horses for the night. He thought that might calm them down somewhat because he hoped to try riding them the next afternoon. Hoss saw it near the end of the day.
“You aren’t going to try riding them two, are you?”
“I have to ride them. They’re the best of the bunch, and they have calmed down some since they first got here. As I’ve green broken some of the others, they seem to have lost some of that fight that was in them.”
“I don’t know. They still look like they got that kind of spirit that don’t let you break ’em too easy.”
“Oh, I know it won’t be easy. I’ll get some sleep tomorrow morning and have the hands run them some. Then in the afternoon, I’ll try to ride them. It may take more than one try.”
“Maybe? It’s gonna take a bunch of tries with those two.” And again Hoss regretted those words as soon as he said them. He knew Adam would take it as a challenge, and he did.
“We’ll see. Maybe only two or three each will do it.”
“Adam, don’t push it. Don’t get yourself hurt. It ain’t worth it.”
“Those two blacks are worth more than the other horses together. It will be worth it if I can tame them.” He saw Little Joe ride in at that point. “And what’s up with Little Joe. He’s been almost angelic. It makes me nervous.”
“You shouldn’t always think the worst of our little brother. He is growing up, you know. It could be that he isn’t getting into trouble any more.”
“I could accept that except it happened so suddenly. That makes me wonder what is going on. There has to be a reason for the sudden change. I think I ought to talk to him and try to find out what it is.”
“Nope, I think you ought to trust me on this one, and you ought to leave it alone.”
Looking at Hoss and the serious expression he had, Adam reconsidered. “All right, I trust you. You seem to know more about this than I do, and if you can tell me there’s nothing to worry about, then I’ll accept it.”
“Adam, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“All right, although I have to admit, I’ll probably still worry some until I know what it is, but I won’t say anything about it to Little Joe. Fair enough?”
Hoss nodded. That night he watched as Adam packed up to ride off to watch for rustlers even though he didn’t expect to find anyone. The day after that they planned to call off the search as not working. Then they would watch the two men they suspected to see what they would do. The next morning, Hoss had a full slate of tasks to do but saw Little Joe off to school first.
“How’s it going at school, Little Joe? Everything all right?”
“It’s better than all right, Hoss. It’s been fun being good. The teacher is so jumpy, she looks like she’ll hop right out of her skin if we drop a pencil. Even the little kids are behaving better with all of us being good. I think she thinks we’re all up to something, and it’s got her mighty worried. I guess this isn’t much of a Christmas present to her.”
“Maybe you ought to tell her what you’re doing so she doesn’t worry so. Seems kind of mean what you’re doing to her.”
“C’mon, Hoss. We aren’t doing anything to her. She’s doing it to herself.”
“Nah, seems to me you all are doing it to her and enjoying it too. Think about it anyway. Maybe ifn you all talk about it, you’ll see if a mite differently.”
“All right, we can talk about it, I guess. I’ll see you later. I don’t want to be late.”
Little Joe rode off then as Hoss shook his head. Little Joe could seem so grown up in some ways but then not in other ways at the same time. He hoped he would change his attitude about how they were treating the teacher. She wasn’t a bad sort in Hoss’ estimation, and having her feeling so upset seemed downright mean to him. He saw the men put the saddles on the blacks then and take them out to run them to tire them for Adam later. He shook his head at that too. He thought he ought to be back here by the afternoon when Adam decided to try to ride those horses. He got back as Adam was climbing onto the back of the black mare. She seemed reasonably calm in the chute but as soon as she was released, she gave vent to her fury at having a rider on her back. Adam gave her a good ride though and almost managed to stay on her back until she did a series of jumps followed by a kick and then a head down maneuver that sent him into the dirt. She stood heaving then with her exertion, and Adam stood with a smile.
“I almost had her, Hoss. Next time, she’s mine.”
“She rattled you pretty good though. You sure you want to try her again today?”
“I want to give her a go while she’s still winded and tired. I didn’t ride any other horses first so I would be fresh for these two. I’ll ride the stallion next, and then I’ll come back and give her another ride. I doubt I’ll manage to hold my seat on him for that long, but I might manage. Wish me luck.”
Watching the men trying to settle the stallion down in the chute, Hoss was worried. “You’re gonna need more than luck with that one. Maybe you should hold off another day. He seems too ornery right now.”
“I’ll keep two riders in with me. If it looks bad, they can box him in and get me off of him if I even stay on him that long. Everyone here knows he’s a tough one because they’ve been working with him for a couple of days already so they’ll watch out for me.”
Hoss could only hope that was enough. As Adam settled down onto the stallion’s back, he tried to buck him off in the chute. It took much more time than usual to even have Adam ready to release the gate for the ride. Hoss had never seen a horse explode out of the chute like that before. The men on horseback in the breaking corral had a hard time controlling their horses as the stallion furiously stomped around bucking and kicking. Adam waved for the men to box the stallion in but they couldn’t get close enough before Adam went flying into the corral fence. The stallion charged him then, but the men were able to get between him and Adam. Adam rolled under the bottom rail with Hoss’ assistance. N He was bleeding from a cut on the side of his head and was holding his left arm that had taken the brunt of the collision. He flexed his fingers and gingerly moved his arm as he grimaced in pain.
“No, but it hurts even worse than if it was. Help me up, would you?”
As Hoss pulled Adam up, Adam rubbed at his left hip too but grimaced even more with the pain of moving his left arm.
“You’re gonna be mighty sore tomorrow.”
“Hell, I’m mighty sore right now. Tomorrow is something I would rather not think about at all.”
“Wow, Adam, that was some ride. You going to ride him again?” Little Joe had gotten home in time to see the ride on the black stallion.
“Thanks and no, not today. Why are you home so early?”
“The teacher wasn’t feeling good and told us after lunch to work on our writing for a while. She went outside, and we heard her puking. Then she came back inside and told us to pack up our stuff and go home. I guess we have school tomorrow. She didn’t say not to come to school.”
“But you didn’t do anything wrong?”
“Nope, I’ve been good every day this week. There’s nothing for the teacher to complain about at all.” Little Joe couldn’t help himself. He had to brag a little. “I even talked some of my friends into being good too.” Adam raised an eyebrow. “I did.”
“I believe you. I’m surprised though.” At Little Joe’s frown, Adam amended his statement. “Pleasantly surprised. It’s been a tough few days, and thank you for a bright spot.”
“You believe me?”
“Of course. You may be many things, but you don’t lie. You may exaggerate, leave things out, and try to make things look better than they are, but you don’t lie. I believe you.”
“Thanks, Adam. You going to ride any more horses today? I want to watch.”
“I want to ride that other black one more time.”
Hoss objected though. “Now that’s plumb loco. You’re already hurting. You’re in no shape to ride again.”
“Hoss, you saw her. I almost had her the last time. One more ride and I’ll have her green broke. Tomorrow, I may be too sore and tired to do it. I might have to give up on that stallion, but the mare I’m riding.”
With that, Adam did his best to stride off with confidence but his sore left hip gave him a bit of a hitch in his walk. He told the men to get the mare in the shoot. They weren’t so sure it was a good idea either but got the same argument Hoss had gotten. They brought the mare into the chute. She was more docile than the stallion, but any horse was more docile than that stallion. Adam waited until they had her calmed as much as they could. Then he moved into position and took his time settling into the saddle and getting her calm again. The ride went well and Hoss and Little Joe were cheering as Adam brought the mare to a standstill. Adam didn’t dare smile though until the two riders boxed her in and gave him a hand to slide off her backside. All would have been well except for a shriek from the stallion that got one last buck and a kick from the mare. The kick caught Adam in the back as he was sliding down and sent him face first into the dirt. Hoss jumped over the corral fence and raced to his brother rolling him over. Adam groaned and grimaced as he looked up at his younger brothers’ worried faces.
“All right, that’s the last ride for today. Help me up, would you?”
Hurt worse than he let on, Adam did his best that evening to make sure that Hoss had no idea that his vision was fuzzy and that he was having trouble remembering what happened that afternoon. He knew that he had been working with the horses so he assumed he had been thrown. Little Joe made some comments about the blacks so he assumed that he had been thrown by one or both of the blacks. He didn’t dare talk about it too much or Hoss would realize that he couldn’t remember. His head injury was more serious than he had realized. He should probably be in bed but there was a lot of work to do. If his logic was working better, he would have realized that being in bed would not have surprised anyone and that there was no work to do that night anyway. Hoss left after dinner to do the night watch for the rustlers. Hoss hadn’t noticed that Adam didn’t eat but pushed the food around on his plate. Adam was sore enough though that when Hop Sing insisted on a bath, he gave in on that point without protest. In the warm bath, he fell asleep and might have slipped under the water if Hop Sing had not come back in with a big pot of warm water to pour over his head to rinse his hair. Hop Sing pulled him up and woke him realizing too at that point that Adam was probably more seriously injured than he had admitted. He never left the washroom again until Adam was out of the bath and wrapped in his robe. Adam heard him muttering about him being too proud, but he was too worried about him to get too upset. Hop Sing saw all the bruises and the bump on his head.
“You go to bed now. I make sure little brother go to bed.” Hop Sing’s worries were confirmed when Adam agreed and went to bed. He was very worried about the number one son. The next morning when Adam woke up, his vision had cleared, but he was still dizzy and nauseated. He discovered that when he stood up too quickly and had to fall back across the bed. He rolled on his side and waited for the room to stop moving. Then he got up more slowly and dressed with deliberation. Every part of him was sore and stiff, and he had a major headache that was worse if he made any sudden movements. He headed down the stairs as Little Joe came out of his room and moved quickly down the stairs calling back that Adam should hurry because Hop Sing had promised flapjacks. The thought of that made Adam’s stomach object so he headed out to do chores without even stopping for a cup of coffee. Hoss arrived home before he finished, and Adam volunteered to take care of his horse. It took care of two issues because Hoss wouldn’t get a chance to see how slowly he was moving and he could avoid breakfast without his brothers noticing. He was too proud to admit he was hurting and belonged in bed. By the time he returned to the house, Hoss had gone to bed and Little Joe had headed to school. He met Hop Sing at the door.
“You no work today. You sit on porch. I bring you tea. You rest. I see how you are.”
“You not fine. I know what it mean when you say fine. You sit on porch and read book.”
“Ah, I don’t think I can read.”
“See, not fine. I bring tea. You sit.”
With the tea and biscuits that Hop Sing brought out, Adam found that he did feel better, but he was also drowsy, leaned back, and intended to close his eyes for only a short time. With his injuries and exhaustion though, he fell into a sound sleep. Hop Sing came out to get the tray later and returned with a blanket that he draped over the young man sleeping in the chair. He didn’t dare wake him for he knew he would never go up to his bed like he should, but if he slept in the chair, he would still get the rest he needed. Hop Sing had the men hitch up the buckboard and headed to town to get the supplies they needed. By midafternoon, Hoss awoke in time to hear a rider enter the yard. He looked out the window to see his father was back early. With a smile, he pulled off his nightshirt and dressed listening to his father yelling at whom he assumed was Adam because the words ‘proud’ and ‘stubborn’ could be heard quite distinctly. He got a little bit of satisfaction hearing his brother taken down a peg or two because he thought he needed that. He had no idea how far his father had gone with that conversation though until he got downstairs and found his father inside but no sign of Adam.
“Where’s Adam, Pa?”
“Aren’t you glad to see me home early?”
“Well, yeah, it’s real good to see you home early, Pa. I was upstairs and I heard you ride in. It got me smiling to see you back, but I heard yelling.”
“I wasn’t yelling.”
“Sorry. It sounded like yelling.”
“I arrived home on a Friday afternoon to find your brother asleep on the porch. On an afternoon! What kind of example does that set for the men? So I asked him if that meant all the work was done, and he explained about the rustlers and about the horses. So I said that he tried to take care of a problem he should have taken to Roy and the Cattlemen’s Association, spent extra money trying to do it himself with no results, and in the process failed to do the job I told him had to be done by the end of this week. I told him he was too damn proud and stubborn always thinking he can do it his way. He needed to do what I told him to do.”
“But where did he go?”
“He said the horses were mostly ready except for one. I told him to get them ready.”
“Oh, lordy!” Hoss moved fast then pulling on the boots he had carried down the stairs and grabbing his hat and coat rushing out the door without any explanation. Ben stared after him and then followed.
“Hoss, where are you going?”
“To try to make sure Adam doesn’t kill himself.”
With no clear idea what Hoss meant but impressed by the gravity of what he said, Ben followed his middle son and quickly realized they were heading to the breaking corrals which was logical. What wasn’t logical was that Hoss moved to the chute where Adam was getting ready to ride a black horse and told the men not to release the animal.
“Hoss, I’m riding this horse.”
“Adam, he could kill you. You ain’t in any shape to ride him.”
“I’ll ride him.”
“Why? Cause your pride is hurt?” As soon as Hoss said it, he knew he had used the wrong words. Adam’s jaw was set and he told the man in the corral to pull the gate. They weren’t about to countermand Adam’s orders based on anything Hoss said. Ben was coming up but didn’t understand the situation well enough to stop Adam from riding. He hadn’t heard Hoss try to stop Adam. The black stallion didn’t care about any of that of course and began a fierce effort to unseat Adam from his back. The men there swore later they had never seen a horse move in so many different ways trying to unseat a rider nor had they ever seen a rider stick to a horse like Adam stuck that day. He was literally fighting for his life knowing that to be thrown could do exactly what Hoss feared. He gave it everything he had until the horse gave up. Two riders moved in immediately and bracketed the black and helped Adam slide from the horse’s back. He did, and Ben expected a smart comment. Instead he immediately crumpled to the ground. Ben and Hoss raced to his side as did several of the hands. He was unconscious. His nose was bleeding. Ben told one of the men to ride for Doctor Martin as the others helped get Adam into Hoss’ arms. A wagon was brought around and Hoss put Adam in the back for the ride to the house. Ben climbed into the back and cradled Adam’s head noticing for the first time the crusted blood on a cut.
“What’s this from, Hoss?”
“He got throwed bad a few times yesterday. He was hurting. That’s why he was on the porch and not working.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
Hoss paused but he had to say what was on his mind. “Did you ever ask him why he was sitting on the porch and not working?”
Ben thought back to how he had phrased the question and realized it had been accusatory and not inquisitive. No wonder Adam had gotten angry and stalked off without an explanation. Ben knew how proud his son was, had poked that pride, and shouldn’t have been surprised at the result. Now he had an injured and unresponsive son in his arms and worried if he would have the chance to apologize and explain. At the house, Hop Sing had returned. When he heard what had happened, he turned to Ben.
“Why you let boy ride? He already hurt. Ride could kill him but you let him ride?”
“I didn’t know he was hurt.”
“How you not know?” Hop Sing paused and saw the guilty look. “You not ask him why he resting. You tell. All time proud stubborn man complain about proud stubborn son. Should look in mirror. Tiger cubs not come from sheep.”
Ben had no answer. Hop Sing was correct. Adam had no obvious injuries other than those suffered the day before. They undressed him and cleaned him up. Ben was shocked by the amount of bruising that he saw, but again none of that explained why his son was unconscious. It had to be the head injury. They would have to wait for the doctor to tell them what was wrong. He pulled up a chair by Adam’s bed and sat down to wait. Hoss took the other chair.
Sitting and waiting for Doctor Martin, Ben decided to explain to Hoss why he was home early. He spoke softly but clearly. “We didn’t get the contract.”
“Why not, Pa? I thought you said we had a real good chance at that timber contract.”
“We did, but we ran into some bad weather and had to stay in a stage relay station for two days. We could still have made the trip, but the roads were bad after the storms and we hit a bad hole and broke a wheel and an axle. By the time they made the repairs, we didn’t have time to make the meeting. Dave Hunter and I turned around and came home.”
“What about Barney?”
“He rented a horse at the relay station and took off cross country. I didn’t think we would be so delayed. I laughed at him doing that, but I guess he got the last laugh. I presume he was the only one who got to the meeting. He must have won the bid by default.”
“Is that why you were so upset when you got home?”
“Yes, I have to admit that was probably it, and I took my anger out on Adam. He didn’t deserve that. I know he did the best he could do.”
“Pa, I agreed with Adam on trying to find the rustlers that way. It was only when I heard the men talking that we figured it was an inside job and we mighta been wasting our time with the night watches.”
“Inside job? He never said anything about that.”
“I heard some yelling. I’m guessing he didn’t have much chance to explain himself.”
With a sheepish look, Ben nodded. “Now we’re back to my being on edge over losing that contract. That’s only money. I forgot for a little while there what is most valuable. I can only hope I haven’t lost my son because of my foolish pride. I can’t bear that thought.”
“Pa, Adam’s pretty tough. He’s probably mostly exhausted and needed some rest. Maybe that’s most of it. Maybe when he gets a chance to rest up some, he’ll be fine.”
Ben forced a small smile in answer to Hoss’ optimism, but he was worried. Paul arrived sooner than they expected. Apparently he had been on the road that morning, and Little Joe had told him that Adam had been hit in the head and kicked in the back the day before. With Ben gone on a trip, he had decided that a visit to the Ponderosa to check on Adam was a good idea. When he finally was able to get away, he was nearly there when the man Ben sent to get him told him that Adam had been hurt again. By the time he reached the bedroom, he was ready to fire off some expletives at Ben for allowing his son to ride a wild horse when he was already injured, but he held his tongue only telling Ben and Hoss to leave so he could examine Adam without any distractions. He walked down the stairs an hour later.
“I heard what Hoss said earlier. There is some truth to it. Adam is exhausted. The injury to his back is part of that as well as not getting enough sleep and the stress of what he faced this week. However, the head injury that was aggravated by that ride today is by far the most serious problem. Luckily it appears that his head was not hit by anything again, but he was bounced around very hard from what I can tell.” Both Ben and Hoss nodded in confirmation. “I did get Adam to respond to me although he was in and out of awareness. He did know me at least. He has feeling in his arms and legs. His vision is blurry, and he has memory problems. All of those things point to a serious brain injury. Luckily there is no sign of apoplexy or catalepsy.”
“Huh?” Hoss looked first at the doctor and then to his father who looked almost as confused as he was.
“He has no obvious weakness in his grip or movement on one side or the other, and no sign of a seizure or shaking. I’ll wait to see what color his urine is. I’m concerned about that with that bruising on his back. Regardless, he needs to be kept very still and quiet until we can be sure there are no more problems because of that head injury. At this point, I would say it would be safe for him to out of bed in a week, but no going outside at all for at least two weeks. No work at all until I’m sure that all his symptoms have cleared. I need to go back upstairs now. He should not be left alone for the next few days. Any fall could be disastrous.”
Shortly after that, Little Joe came running into the house. “Pa, you’re home! I saw Buck outside, and I was so excited.” Little Joe noticed that Doctor Martin wasn’t in the room even though his carriage was outside as well. “Where’s Doctor Martin? I saw his carriage?”
“He’s upstairs with Adam.”
“Oh, yeah, he said he was going to come out here and check on him. He said Adam pushes himself too hard, and he wanted to make sure he was all right. He is all right, isn’t he?”
“Joseph, Adam got hurt again today.”
“How? I thought he would take it easy today. He could hardly walk last night, and Hop Sing said he would make him rest today. He said he would give him tea to get him to sleep. He even went to be before I did last night.”
Hoss felt he should tell him. “Little Joe, Adam rode that big black today. He beat him too, but then he passed right out.”
“But why did he ride him when he was hurt? Wasn’t that kind of crazy?”
“It was my fault. I made Adam very angry with things that I said to him, and he did it without thinking about the consequences of his actions because he was so angry with me after what I said. I know he has a temper. I know because he gets it from me. I should have known better. It’s my fault.”
“Pa, now that ain’t fair. Adam’s a man. He’s responsible for what he done. He knew better, and he knows he’s got that temper. He knows he should rein it in, and sometimes he don’t. That’s not your fault. For that matter, what I said to him at the chute didn’t help either. I shoulda thought first about what I was gonna say, but there wasn’t much time. I told him it was his damn pride. Well that was the wrong thing to say too, but it was still his decision and his temper making him do it.”
“He had a head injury that probably affected his judgment though. I bear most of the responsibility for pushing him into a rash act. Hoss, you and Little Joe are blameless in this. At least you two can rest easy tonight with no guilt.”
“Pa, that ain’t exactly true.” Hoss hung his head. “Besides what I told you, I kinda enjoyed hearing you laying into Adam. It seems he’s the one always getting the praise, and I kinda liked hearing him getting yelled at like that. That wasn’t very nice of me. I didn’t feel bad about it until I realized it meant he was gonna go try to ride that black.”
“Well, then at least Little Joe is going to sleep well tonight.”
“Uh, Pa, I have to show you something. It’s not that I did something bad, but the teacher doesn’t believe me. She sent this note home. She wants to see you on Monday morning.” Little Joe handed over the note then. He had pledged to be on his best behavior until Christmas and had found especially in situations like this that is was more difficult than he expected. He waited while his father read the note. When he guessed that he was done reading, he had to apologize. “I’m sorry that it ruined your Christmas present.”
“She says that you told her that you were going to be good for three weeks and you were going to give me that for my Christmas present. Then she said that you talked the other boys into doing the same for their fathers. She said that no one has done anything wrong at school all week. She doesn’t believe you. She thinks you’re setting her up for some major prank. She said she has been sick with worry. In fact, she said she was so sick, she had to dismiss the students early one day.”
“Yeah, she sent us home early yesterday. I tried to talk to her yesterday and explain that we weren’t going to do anything bad, but she said she wasn’t feeling so good. Then today, she made me sit with her at lunch and she accused me of what she said in the note. Honest, Pa, it’s not true.”
“Why didn’t you tell her right away early this week when you knew it was bothering her?” At Little Joe’s guilty look, Ben knew. “You were rather enjoying her suffering the worry of you and the others being good.”
“I’m sorry, Pa. I kind of enjoyed the looks I got from Adam too. At least until he talked to me.”
“Talked to you?”
“Yeah, he gave me these looks like he was confused, but then I talked to him and said I was being good and hadn’t gotten in to any trouble at school, and he said he believed me. Then I felt kinda bad about it.”
“Well, we are quite a sorry lot, aren’t we. We’ve all shown some of our true colors and right before Christmas. We didn’t get the contract, we still have rustlers out there, and Adam is going to be laid up for weeks.”
Hoss wanted to bring up the only good news they had. “Pa, we did finish the horses though. We can get those delivered and get that money at least. I can handle that.”
“And go to town and talk to Sheriff Coffee when you’re done with that. We need to stop these rustlers.”
Fog, voices, and pain were what he faced each time he neared consciousness. He retreated each time. He heard his father and brothers talking but their voices were too loud and bothered him. He heard them call to him, but he didn’t want to respond. He heard another voice and knew the doctor was still there or had come back. He thought he had come back because he thought he had been there earlier but wasn’t sure. His memories were jumbled up. He remembered flashes of things, of his father angry being with him, of Hoss challenging him, of a big black horse, of rough riding that seemed to go on forever, and flashes of other things. He wasn’t sure of the order though nor why he had ended up in bed unable or unwilling to wake up entirely. His head hurt and when he had a moment to think about it, the rest of him hurt too. Mostly though, all of this was in a fog as if the parts were there but he couldn’t find them all at once because when he had one thought, the others mostly disappeared. He remembered that he had been thinking about other things but couldn’t remember clearly what they were. Gradually he understood more and more of what the voices were saying.
“Pa, you think when he’s a frowning like that he’s thinking ’bout things or is he dreaming?”
“It’s too hard to say, Hoss. Until he wakes up completely, we won’t know what’s going on in that head of his. Paul said he may have some memory problems at first but that he will know us.”
“Then what kind of memory problems is he gonna have?”
“He won’t likely remember how he was hurt. The last two days may not be clear to him. He was probably already affected from being hurt the first day, and then getting bounced around so much the second day made it worse.”
“So maybe his deciding to ride that big black was partly because he wasn’t right in the head already?”
“Well that may be overstating the case, but to some extent, yes. He may have been affected by the blow to his head the day before. Paul said it could have affected how he was thinking. He may not have been as clear headed as he normally is and he may have been acting more on what he was feeling.”
“So he got mad and did it because he was mad.”
Any further discussion on that was cut short when Little Joe came in to the bedroom softly. He whispered that Sheriff Coffee was downstairs and wanted to talk with them.
“Little Joe, you don’t have to whisper.”
Little Joe whispered again. “Doctor Martin said to keep it quiet for Adam.”
“I’m sure talking is fine.”
Little Joe still wasn’t so sure. By his observation, Adam didn’t look very comfortable when his father and brother were talking. He whispered again. “I’ll sit with him while you talk with Sheriff Coffee.” Once Ben and Hoss left the room, Little Joe very carefully pushed the door closed and then sat on the chair by Adam’s bed. He smiled when Adam opened his eyes and looked at him.
“Oh. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I would like some water.”
Little Joe poured a glass of water, and then held it to Adam’s lips as he struggled to raise his head to drink. He drained the glass though and asked for more. Little Joe gave him one more glass, and then Adam lay back and closed his eyes. He wasn’t asleep though. He startled Little Joe a bit by asking a question.
“Why is Roy here?”
“Oh! He’s here because he did what you and Hoss were going to do. He’s had men watching those two men that you and Hoss thought might be stealing cattle and he’s been checking up on them too. He said he has enough evidence already to arrest them. He came to tell Pa before he takes them in. Clem is here with him.”
“That was fast.”
“I don’t know. It took four days.”
“Yeah, you’ve been in bed here for four days. Pa and Hoss and me have been taking turns sitting with you. Hop Sing takes turns too. Doctor Martin said we couldn’t leave you alone because if you tried to get out of bed and fell, it would be real bad.”
Putting a hand to his chin then, Adam felt a growth of beard that matched what Little Joe had said. His little brother smiled and got one in return.
“I liked it better when you sat with me.”
“Yes, your voice didn’t hurt my head. You whispered too which made it a lot better.”
Little Joe sat up a little prouder knowing that he had instinctively acted more in tune with what Adam needed than his father and Hoss had. He knew that Adam told him often that he was smart and needed to use his head more than his heart to make decisions. He guessed that he had used both to make that decision and it had turned out to be a good one. Anxious for his father and middle brother to return so he could tell them how well he had been doing, Little Joe was surprised by Adam’s question.
“Why aren’t you in school then?”
Looking a bit unwilling to answer that question, Little Joe squirmed under Adam’s gaze realizing that even with a head injury, his brother could be intimidating with that stare of his. Adam said nothing more but continued to stare until Little Joe had to say something.
“Uh, Pa had to go see the teacher on Monday morning on account of the note she sent home. She got upset because we were all being so good all week and when I told her I was the one who started it, she thought I was pulling some kind of big prank. When I told her the truth, she still didn’t believe me so she gave me a note to say that Pa had to come in and talk to her on Monday morning. That really ruined my Christmas present to Pa, don’t you think, Adam?”
“Yes, it did, but now get back to why you aren’t in school today?”
“Well, that was yesterday morning, and when she told Pa what she done and why, he got kinda mad at her, and she got mad at him, and well they got into quite an argument. He told me I don’t have to go back to school with such a ‘ninny’ for a teacher if I don’t want to.” Little Joe saw the shocked look on Adam. “It kinda shocked me too. He said it in front of her too. Now he was mad, and I guess he’ll have to go back and apologize to her, don’t you think?”
With a smile, Adam closed his eyes. “Yes, I think he will.” When the door opened, Adam opened his eyes again to see Sheriff Coffee enter with his father and Hoss.
“Ah, good to see you awake, boy.”
With a slight grimace, Adam closed his eyes before opening them again. Little Joe thought he ought to say something before anyone else talked. He whispered. “Adam says your loud voices hurt his head. He likes it better if you whisper.”
Ben was a bit perturbed to be taking instructions from his thirteen-year-old son, but Adam nodded slightly to indicate that he did agree with what Little Joe had said. Neither Ben nor Roy found it easy to whisper but they did speak very softly for Adam’s benefit.
“We caught those rustlers. It wasn’t only the two men you suspected. They had help from a couple of the miners here and a couple of other men. They cut out a few head and herded them to where the others were waiting. They butchered them on the spot, split up the meat to be sold, rolled up the hides after they cut out the brand, and then buried the rest. Altogether, I got six men in jail. It wasn’t only your ranch they was stealing from neither but they did take more from here than from any of the other ranches.”
“Yes, Roy said it saved a lot of time to have you and Hoss narrow down the suspects to those two. By doing that, you saved us money and saved the other ranchers money too. There’s a small reward that the Cattlemen’s Association gives for help in situations like this. You and Hoss are getting it.”
“Pa, don’t you put most of the money into that?” Adam wasn’t sure that it was fair for that them to take the money if it came from the Ponderosa.
“Yes, I do put in half, but the other ranchers put in the other half. I think that’s fair and you boys deserve that reward. If I’m paying into that fund all the time, I see no reason that the Ponderosa shouldn’t get the benefit from it too.”
Having delivered his good news and seeing that Adam was going to be all right, Roy took his leave. Ben had some bad news to deliver to Adam then. He told him about losing the contract and that he hadn’t been able to get to Sacramento.
“So you weren’t able to buy those gifts for Little Joe and Hoss that I asked you to?”
“No, I’m sorry I wasn’t. I guess that there’s a lot of bad news too despite all of our good intentions. In fact, there’s one more piece of bad news. This morning, that big black got brought back. Hoss delivered those horses on Saturday but they think that the big black isn’t a suitable horse for ranch work and brought him back. We had to refund the money for him. At least they found the rest of the horses acceptable so the contract was fulfilled.”
“Ah, Pa, could I talk to you in private?”
A short time later, Ben walked down the stairs. He told Little Joe that he was writing a note of apology to the teacher and that Little Joe would be returning to school the next day. He also said that he had an errand and would be gone for a day probably. Hoss would be in charge while he was gone.
“But, Pa, what about Adam? What if he tries to get out of bed?”
“Adam has assured me that for the next two days, he will follow all of the doctor’s orders exactly and will give you no trouble. He promised and you know that Adam always keeps his promises. I have a trip to make and I need to go before the weather turns stormy. Adam gave me an idea of someone who might be willing to buy that big black.”
“I’ll let you know after I see if it works out. I don’t want to build up any false hopes.”
Hoss and Little Joe had to accept that but they were curious. They knew though that Adam wouldn’t likely tell them any more than their father had so they had no choice but to wait.
Two days later, Ben arrived home late in the day. He was tired and needed a shave. He said he had sold the black and said nothing more. After dinner, Hop Sing got a bath ready for him, he shaved, and then he spent some time up in Adam’s bedroom visiting with him. The next day, he went to town and came home in an even better mood. He told Hoss to come with him as he hurried up to Adam’s room. He found his oldest son trying to read and frustrated that his vision was still making the written word a bit too blurry to do that easily. Ben pulled a telegram from his pocket.
“I was going to give this to you, but under the circumstances, I’ll tell you what it says. Barney tried to take advantage of the other bidders not being at the meeting and set his prices very high. The company rejected his bid and has reopened the bidding process. We have been invited to submit a bid again and we can do it by mail this time. They will choose whichever bid they prefer and not necessarily the lowest bid. They will weigh all factors.”
“So our past work with them, the prices we offer, and any guarantees we think we can make or anything else would be considered?”
“Exactly, and Barney’s attempt at price gouging will of course be a factor for him so that makes us more competitive right from the start.”
Hoss had to smile seeing both Adam and his father smiling together with all the past hurts forgotten. They were ready to move forward and work together. “It looks like it’s going to be a good Christmas now. Things are really looking up.”
“Hoss, Adam and I have cooked up a bit of a surprise for Little Joe. We have something we would like you to do too.” And Ben then filled in Hoss on the surprise and the part they hoped he would play in it. They still had well over a week to get ready. Hoss found that he couldn’t stop smiling when he knew the plans. “Little Joe is still being good for everybody even though everyone knows it’s his present to you. He’s trying to show that he’s growing up. Hop Sing said he ought to behave at school until the end of the year. I think he might even try to do it.”
“Try? You don’t think that he can?” Ben tried to look serious but he couldn’t hold it for long and had to crack a smile. Hoss had worried for he thought perhaps he was the only one who doubted his little brother’s ability to stay out of trouble for four months, but he saw Adam’s big grin then too.
“Hoss, don’t worry. We know how hard he’s trying, and we know that even if he fails, he will have given it his best shot. I’m already impressed that he’s gone this long. He’s shown some strength of character with this. Even if I doubt that he can make it to the end of the school year, that doesn’t take away from the respect I have for him and what he’s accomplished especially talking the other boys into being more mature as well.”
“Yeah, that surprised me. I don’t think that will hold, but at least for now that teacher has some peace and quiet, but she sure is a suspicious one. She didn’t trust Little Joe even when he told her the truth. She ain’t a very good judge of character.”
“Pa, you may need to hire a new schoolteacher. This one seems a bit high strung.”
“Yes, Abigail Jones was our second choice. This one seemed more enthused about teaching but perhaps Abigail would be a more stable one. If this one quits on us, at least we know that Abigail is available. I’ll talk to her about being a substitute and about the possibility of stepping in full time to see if she’s agreeable. Perhaps when you’re feeling better, you could come along and help me persuade her if she needs persuading. Your college degree should impress her.”
“All right, I’ll help you out with that as soon as Doctor Martin says that I can get out of here. So far he’s been rather strict about saying I have to stay here in this room.”
“I think until your vision clears, that’s the best idea. When you can see clearly, I’m sure that he’ll let you do quite a bit more.” Ben saw the look Adam had at that point. “And don’t even think to try to deceive him. You will stay here in this room until your vision clears. You don’t want to make Hoss and I live with the guilt if something happens to you, now do you?” Adam sighed in frustration at being trapped in his room. Ben softened his approach. “Perhaps tomorrow, Hoss and I can get you downstairs for breakfast and the rest of the day if you promise to rest and not overdo things. You can take a nap in the downstairs guestroom and Paul can see you there if he stops by tomorrow.”
“Thank you. Yes, I will take it easy if you will get me out of here. I promise.”
The next day when Doctor Martin arrived and found Adam seated by the fireplace playing checkers with Hoss, he was going to object until Ben interceded.
“Paul, it was my idea. Adam couldn’t do anything in his room because he can’t read. Hoss and I helped him dress and helped him down the stairs this morning. He hasn’t tried to walk without one of us being there, and he has the downstairs guest room to take a nap if he gets tired. I’ll help him walk there if you would like to see him.”
Mollified by the precautions they had taken, Paul did a quick examination of Adam who said he would submit to an exam right there. He pulled off his shirt for Paul who found his recovery to be progressing well. Paul cautioned them to continue to be careful. “Any head injury is not to be taken lightly. Bleeding occurred inside the skull and there is nothing that any doctor can do to stop it if it starts again. There is likely still blood there that needs to dissolve much like a bruise needs to be dissolved by the body. You know that it can take weeks for a nasty bruise to disappear entirely. When you see that awful bruise on his back fade away, then you know that the one on his brain is gone too. Keep that in mind.” Adam’s father and brothers were a bit shocked then as they saw how dark and multicolored the bruise on Adam’s back still was and then imagined such a bruise on his brain. Paul saw the looks. “Yes, it’s good for you to think that way. He’s got a serious injury even if you can’t see it, and he needs to take great care for at least another week to let the healing progress without interruption.”
Little Joe had a question. “So, in a week could we have a snowball fight because we always have one when we bring the tree into the house?”
Ben knew how the horrified doctor was going to respond and answered before he could. “Joseph, this year, I’ll take Adam’s place in the snowball fight, and he can have my spot yelling at the three of us to stop at that tomfoolery and get the tree in the house without making such a mess.”
With a grin, Adam agreed. “Can I do the rest of what you do, Pa? I seem to remember a handful of snow down the back of my neck when I was carrying the tree and couldn’t defend myself.”
“Now, son, revenge is for the small minded people of this world, don’t you think? If you’re being me, you should be forgiving and supportive.”
“Oh, ya, Pa, and I remember some other things ya done. I hope you’re telling Adam he can’t do none of them things neither.”
Laughing, Paul said his goodbyes and left the family in good spirits. Over the next week, Ben made another few trips to town. He had sent the letter with the timber bid and anxiously awaited a reply and had sent an order to Sacramento and hoped the item would arrive in time for Christmas. He also purchased a few items for Adam who couldn’t shop and other things to make the Christmas celebration special even if they weren’t going to have as sumptuous a Christmas as they had the previous year.
On Christmas Eve, the traditional snowball fight took place with Ben throwing snowballs with his younger sons as Adam watched from the porch. At first, Little Joe and Hoss were a bit hesitant to throw at their father, but after a few in the face from him, they retaliated in kind. Ben noted the wistful look Adam had even though he was smiling. He called a halt to the snowball fight.
“All right, for this year only, Adam will throw snowballs but no one will throw any at him. Is that clear?”
With big grins, Hoss and Little Joe readily agreed. Adam smiled and moved to the snow banks nearest the house and began to pack some snowballs as the others quickly moved to defensive positions because he was known for his accuracy as much as Hoss was known for his power. They did that for several more minutes and then it was time to get the tree inside and get it decorated.
By that evening, the house was decorated and the smells of Christmas baking had everyone ready for Christmas. It was a quiet celebration that evening but there was good news. Ben pulled out the thick envelope he had brought home with the rest of the mail. He had guessed what was inside but had not opened it. He did and to the cheers of his sons found the accepted bid for the timber contract. They all slept well that night and the next morning were up early to open their gifts. The package from Sacramento had arrived in time, and Hoss got wood carving tools from his father and Adam and got some soft wood that Joe had collected from the scraps at the carpentry shop in town and hidden away in the stable. Adam got books and some sheet music for guitar which were always his favorite things to get because it gave him something to do in the winter months. Ben got his usual tobacco, pipe, and slippers from his sons as well as Joe’s good behavior for the three previous weeks. Joe had also taken on Adam’s chores while he was injured and had cleaned up the tack room for him. Joe got a new set of reins and bridle that Hoss had made for him. He looked and there was nothing else under the tree. Ben and Adam smiled at him as Adam explained that his other gift had not arrived yet and might be delayed because of the snow that had been falling that day. He was disappointed but also intrigued as to what it could be. When they heard horses in the yard a short time later, he was going to run outside.
“Joseph, first of all, you need to put on your coat and hat. Furthermore, I should be the one to greet any guests who are arriving so you need to wait for me and your brothers.”
Properly chastised, Little Joe waited and then walked outside with his brothers who followed their father to greet several Paiute in the yard. Ben raised his hand in greeting as did Adam who gave the traditional Paiute greeting as well. Adam walked to the back of the group and was handed a rope. After thanking the men, he led a pinto pony toward the house and suddenly Little Joe knew. As the Paiute left, he grabbed the rope when Adam offered it.
In a tremulous voice, Little Joe had to ask. “Is it mine?”
Ben answered with pride in what he and Adam had accomplished. “Yes, son, we traded the big black for him. They wanted that horse, and we asked them to find us a pinto pony for you. He’s not ready for riding yet, but Adam will work with you to train him. He’s our present to you. Merry Christmas, son.”
As Little Joe was getting to know his new horse, Hoss stepped up beside his father. “This is what you and Adam were talking about in secret?”
“Yes, Adam knew that Numaga had a desire for a black horse. He had heard him talk about it. He guessed that he wouldn’t be able to resist that big black once he saw him. He asked me to take him up there to see if we could trade for a horse more suitable for ranch work for Little Joe to use.”
By then Little Joe had turned around to thank them once more. “He’s perfect. I love his colors.”
“You always said you thought pintos were so wonderful that Adam wondered if the Paiute could get one for you. They drove a hard bargain. I had to give them five cows too, but we got the horse for you that we wanted.”
“Pa, Adam, thank you. It’s the best Christmas ever. I’m going to love this horse. He and I are going to be the best friends a man and a horse ever were.”
“Son, you showed over the past three weeks that you were ready for more responsibility. I hope you can remember that any gift like this carries a great responsibility. This horse needs you now, and you can’t let him down not even for a moment. It takes more than good intentions. You have to carry through.”
“I will, Pa. I won’t let you down, and I won’t let him down, Pa.”
Hoss had moved to the other side of the small horse and was rubbing his neck in appreciation of the pretty animal. “What are you gonna name him, Little Joe?”
“I dunno. He looks like an Indian pony. He should have an Indian name. I was reading in the paper about some Indians helping out the Butterfield stage line by selling supplies to them. One had a name that sounded like something that might work. It was Cochise. I think I might name him Cochise. Yeah, Cochise.”
The family moved to the stable then and got the horse into the stall that Hoss had prepared for him. Little Joe might have spent the whole day in the stable but Ben insisted that everyone had to go inside to warm up and have their Christmas dinner. Then of course, Little Joe headed back out to the stable and Hoss went with him. Adam settled into his favorite chair with one of his new books, and Ben leaned back in his red leather chair sipping a cup of coffee and marveled at how well things had worked out.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue, but Little Joe’s mood was dark as he rode Cochise home from school. He should have been happy. It was the first day he had ridden the pinto to school. Adam had worked with him and the horse for months and had finally pronounced the horse and the rider ready to go solo. Little Joe had thought it was long overdue, but Adam had explained that the horse had to see the ranch as home so that if anything happened he would return and not run off. The argument that swayed Little Joe the most though was that spring had been slow in arriving and the roads had been treacherous much of the time. Adam had said that the older sturdier horse that Little Joe had been riding was less likely to rush and less likely to be injured in those conditions. He was worried about the young pinto with those thin legs getting hurt if he slipped on an icy patch or stepped in a hole he couldn’t see because of water or mud.
“Little Joe, Cochise will get a bit bigger and probably stronger over the next few years. He’s barely a yearling now. I wouldn’t let a cowhand ride him yet, but you’re light so you won’t harm him by riding him. Your weight and the weight of the saddle won’t be a problem for him, but if he should slip or stumble, those legs of his could be damaged. You know what happens most of the time when a horse has a damaged leg.”
Little Joe knew only too well what happened and had witnessed it. He had ridden a horse without permission once and tried jumping a fence. The horse had been injured, and his father and Adam had made him watch when the horse was shot. Then he had been required to help dig the hole to bury the animal. He never forgot the sounds of that injured animal nor the look in its eyes. He would never treat a horse that way again in his life.
Accepting Adam’s reasons for keeping Cochise at home until it was completely safe to ride him to school, he had been waiting since Friday to show him off to Mary Lou. He had ridden to her house that morning planning to escort her to school as he had almost every morning that school year. When he got there though, Seth was there. Mary Lou had told him that it was over between them and that Seth was her new beau. She hoped he wouldn’t mind but she said that he was gone too often and Seth was there more often. He couldn’t object too much because Seth was his best friend. He couldn’t lose his gal and his best friend in the same day, but it hurt. When he got home, Adam and Hoss were in the stable taking care of their horses. They expected to hear a story of how Mary Lou was impressed, but instead Little Joe snapped at them.
“Why should she be impressed by my horse? She’s Seth’s girl now. I don’t have a girl to impress, but I got a great horse, don’t I?” He finished with Cochise quickly instead of spending as much time as possible with him. “I’m going in the house.”
When Little Joe stalked off toward the house, Hoss turned to Adam. “Guess you were right about that Seth. He’s a weasel.”
Little Joe had made an about face because he had left his satchel in the stable. He returned and heard Adam’s reply to Hoss’ statements. “Seth is definitely a weasel. You can’t trust him at all. He’s probably been after Mary Lou all this time. Some day, he’ll end up in prison because he got caught in one of his schemes or dead because he provoked the wrong man. I hope by then that Little Joe has come to his senses and found a decent friend. That one is only trouble. Of course taking that two-timing little Mary Lou off his hands did him a favor.”
Furious at what he had heard, Little Joe retreated to the house and headed to his room where he stayed until dinner. He spoke little saying a simple thank you when Hoss mentioned that he had brought in his satchel. After dinner, Little Joe did his homework and then went back to his room. Ben asked if Hoss and Adam knew what was wrong, and they told him what Little Joe had told them not knowing he had heard what Adam had said about Seth.
“A betrayal like that is hard to take, but Little Joe always bounces back. He’ll be fine in a day or two. We’ll all give him some leeway, right?”
The look Ben gave his two older sons made it clear that his question was meant as an order not a plea. They nodded. The next morning they didn’t tease Little Joe who spoke only to ask for what he needed at the table. When he headed off to school, his family was worried but not too much. He had been on such good behavior for so long, they guessed that he wouldn’t break his pledge with only a few weeks of school left.
At school, Little Joe felt some heartache seeing Seth arrive with Mary Lou, but both of them smiled at him and came up to him with warm greetings. Mary Lou even brought him some of her mother’s cookies.
“I know you like my Mama’s sugar cookies. She likes you too so I asked her if I could bring some to you. She said surely I could. We’re all still friends, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, Little Joe, Mary Lou and I were talking. If this is gonna come between us then you and her should be together again, and I’ll be the friend to both of you. How about it?”
“You would do that for me?”
“Of course we would. We’re your friends. I’m your best friend, ain’t I? That’s what best friends would do. Mary Lou and I been friends a long time same as you and her. She just wants to spend some time with me now, but if that was to make it hard on you, then I won’t do it. All right?”
“Seth you are a good guy. You’re not at all what Adam said you were.”
Seth stopped and jerked Little Joe’s arm hard forcing him to turn toward him. “What did Adam say I was?”
Unfortunately, Little Joe repeated nearly verbatim everything Adam had said. Mary Lou was shocked but Seth was incensed.
“That’s downright nasty. I got a right to get even with him for talking about me like that. If I was a grown man, I’d have to call him out for saying things like that.”
Immediately, Little Joe got worried. Seth had quite a temper and had been known to seek revenge for actual or perceived slights. “Seth, he was talking to my brother Hoss. He didn’t know I could hear him.”
“Still, he had no right to talk like that.”
The tone of Seth’s comment had Little Joe even more worried than he had been. “You won’t do nothing though, will you?”
Shrugging and then laughing a bit, Seth denied that he would. “I guess it just made me mad for a minute. You know me. I can’t stay mad for long.”
It was time to go inside for school then. The matter didn’t come up in conversation again. When the day ended, the three walked to Mary Lou’s house. Little Joe said goodbye there and mounted up to ride home. As he rode out of sight, Seth smiled and looked down at Mary Lou. He couldn’t help chuckling a bit as he saw her staring at the departing Cartwright.
“See, I told you it would work. He had no idea we didn’t mean a word we were saying this morning. Little Joe will believe anything we say.”
“Seth, do you think he believed you when you said you wouldn’t get even with Adam?”
Seth draped his arm around Mary Lou’s shoulders in an act of familiarity that said they had been seeing each other much longer than the weekend or so that they had led Little Joe to believe. “Of course he did. He dropped it, didn’t he? Now, what do you want me to do?”
With a sneer, Mary Lou raised her chin in the air as she answered. “Well, he did insult me too. He should have to pay for that, don’t you think. I mean, a man doesn’t let a man insult his gal, does he?”
“No, no, he doesn’t. But a man take his time and makes sure he doesn’t get caught either. There’ll be an opportunity to pay back Adam Cartwright for what he said. We’ll just have to wait for that opportunity to present itself.”
Mary Lou couldn’t help grinning. Being with Seth was far more exciting than being with Little Joe especially since Little Joe had decided to try to curb his behavior and act more like a man. She thought it was getting to be rather boring being with him. This intrigue with Seth was going to be quite a bit more fun.
All the way home, Little Joe was troubled by what Seth had said. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to break the bonds of friendship and say anything to his brother about what Seth had said but realized he had already broken the bond of brotherhood by repeating Adam’s words to Seth and Mary Lou. He had promised to be good and act more like a man. Overall he had done well for months, but every now and then, his temper had gotten him to do something he regretted. This was one of those moments. The more he thought about it, the more he knew what he had to do and the more he dreaded doing it. What he anticipated was so much worse than what happened that he found it a bit shocking.
“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say?” Little Joe had gone to find Adam who was at the breaking corrals. Once Adam had some time to talk, Little Joe told him the whole story. Adam had made a comment about wishing Little Joe hadn’t repeated something he heard while eavesdropping and that was it.
“He’s fourteen. It’s not like he’s going to call me out.”
“No, if Seth does something, he’ll want it to look like an accident so no one will know it was him. He never wants anyone to blame him for anything. It’s how he does things.”
“So he’s one of those who likes to laugh in private at others suffering.”
“Some people, like Hoss, enjoy laughing with others and can’t find any better way to to have fun. Some like me are amused by things in the world and laugh along with people many times. We enjoy the humor they bring to life. You and Hoss bring a lot of fun into the world for others to enjoy. But there are some who like to laugh when others are hurting. They know that good people wouldn’t approve so they laugh in private. They enjoy hurting others and controlling others. It makes them feel bigger and better.”
“Now you’re insulting Seth again.”
“No, Little Joe, I’m warning you. He’s trouble. What I said to Hoss was said privately but I would say it to you or to Pa too. Seth is going to do something to hurt someone very seriously someday because he’s out to help himself. If someone stands in his way, he’ll move them out of the way, and he’ll enjoy doing it.”
“But you’re not worried?”
“He’s fourteen. He’s not dangerous yet.”
“If you’re right about him on those other things, then I think you’re wrong on that one. He said he wouldn’t do anything, but if he does, you won’t see it coming.”
With that, Little Joe left to ride back to the house to do his chores and get his homework done. It was a routine he had established before Christmas and stuck to ever since. Hoss sauntered over after Little Joe left.
“Looked like you two was having a serious conversation. Nothing wrong, is there?”
“Little Joe heard me call Seth a weasel yesterday and told Seth that today at school. Apparently Seth didn’t like it much and threatened to revenge. Little Joe was warning me.”
“Well, didn’t you tell him that it was me who called that little varmint a weasel? You was only agreeing with me.”
“But I did agree with you. There was no need to drag you into it. He held his temper rather well. He’s been doing better with that.”
“Yeah as long as you don’t make some smart mouth comment, he does.”
“I held my comments to serious ones. I told him my honest evaluation of Seth. He didn’t like it.”
“You tell him that one’s a snake in the grass ready to strike friend or foe?”
“More or less. Little Joe doesn’t want to believe anything bad about Seth. Unfortunately someday, he’s probably going to find out the hard way that Seth is exactly what we think he is. Meanwhile, maybe you could watch my back a bit. He may be fourteen, but he’s likely to try to think of something to get even with me. Little Joe thinks he’ll try to make it look like an accident.”
“So you’re not so sure the little rattler ain’t got his fangs already. He ain’t likely to try anything on the ranch. You watch yourself ifn you ride off the ranch though. You let me know, and I’ll ride with ya. We don’t need to tell Pa why.”
“You’re good at coming up with reasons. Think of some.”
“We’ve got enough going on with the trouble with the Taylors over those water rights. Ever since the storms made that creek switch course, they’re claiming we can’t use it any more even though it says the border is the creek and doesn’t specify where the creek bed is.”
“It’s your turn to ride on over there to check on the men. I’ll keep ’em working here.”
“It’s late enough that I’ll probably be late to dinner. Tell Pa not to worry and ask Hop Sing to hold a plate for me. I’ll be back before dark though.”
“That’s why I like having the morning check. I never miss a meal.”
“I guessed that’s why you volunteered to take it. You never volunteer for anything unless it has to do with food.”
“Now hold on there. No need to get insulting.”
“Not insulting. Only observing.”
“Yeah, that’s probably true.”
The brothers laughed as Adam mounted up to ride to the disputed creek area to make sure there was no trouble. They easily outgunned the much smaller Taylor ranch so the issue was deadlocked with no give on either side. Adam hated to see the friendship lost over such an issue but Taylor had instigated the dispute so it was his place to end it by pulling back. He refused to do so despite Hiram Wood showing him the legal papers backing the Ponderosa position. It would likely end up in court and the friendship would remain forever fractured. Every day for the next week, the wary watch continued without incident until the night that Adam did not return at dark. Ben stood and worried on the porch as Hoss and Little Joe tried to tell him there was nothing about which to worry, but they knew too that something was very wrong or Adam would have been home.
What had happened was Seth. He was working for the Taylors after school every day. He arrived that day at their ranch with the youngest Taylor draped over his horse. The hands and the family rushed to him and pulled him from his horse. He was pale and his shirtfront was soaked with blood from a bullet wound in his chest. There was no exit wound. Seth had wadded up his bandanna and the boy’s into a makeshift bandage that had done little to stop the bleeding.
“I saw him get shot. I couldn’t do anything to help him. I don’t have a gun. I got to him as fast as I could though and brought him here.”
“Did you see who did it?”
“It was hard to see in the trees. I’m not sure.”
Dev Taylor was insistent. He wanted to know who had shot his son. “Who do you think shot Zeke? Who did you see?”
“I think it was Adam Cartwright. I mean he was in all black and he was on the Ponderosa shooting toward your property. I guess if it wasn’t Adam, I don’t know who it would have been. I couldn’t swear in court that it was Adam. I couldn’t even tell the sheriff that I was sure it was him. It’s just that I thought it was him.”
“Where was it?”
“On the way here. You know, near Plum Bottom Creek.”
“Damn those Cartwrights. They couldn’t wait to smash us down. They had to turn bloodthirsty too. Well, I’m going to have to go after that bastard now.”
Dev’s two older sons looked to him. With tears in their eyes for their little brother, they made a pledge. “Pa, you stay with Zeke. We know where to find Adam. We see him ride that way every day. We’ll find him and bring him to ya.”
“Boys, you be careful. I don’t want another son hurt.”
Isaiah reassured his father as much as he could. “We’ll be careful. We’ll bring him back here too. He’ll be the only one hurting when we do.”
Jacob was quick to add an amendment to that statement. “Except for Ezekiel. Pa, what are we gonna do with Adam?”
“So? If Zeke dies, he’s gonna hang. Right there in that tree next to the damn creek he wants so bad, he’s gonna hang for shooting my boy.”
While that conversation was taking place, Seth hung in the background. The family had talked as they carried Zeke inside and got him undressed and into a bed. They sent a hand for Doctor Martin, and his mother and sisters began doing their best to clean him up and stop the bleeding as his father and brothers talked. It was only when Isaiah and Jacob left that Dev realized that Seth was still there.
“I’m sorry, Seth. I should have thanked you for bringing my boy home. Ifn you hadna been there, he woulda bled to death with no one there to help him. He might still die. Them chest wounds is nasty business. When he shot him, he meant to kill him. Probably thought he had. It was only you bringing him here that give him a chance to live, and I thank you for it. Ifn you could do your chores and those of the other boys, that would help us out a lot. Do ya mind? I’ll pay ya extra for all ya done.”
“No extra pay is necessary, Mister Taylor. I was only doing what any decent man would do. I only wish I had a gun so I could have done something about the man who shot him.”
“Ifn youda gone up against that Adam Cartwright, you’d be dead now. He’s shot gunfighters, so a boy like you wouldn’t stand a chance. He’s a killer, and he’s about to meet his Maker and spend the rest of his days in Hell.”
“Yes, sir, I reckon he’s going to get what he’s got coming to him now. Yes, sir, I reckon he does.” And Seth couldn’t stop smiling later as he worked at the chores in the stable.
It was dark and Ben was worried. Adam was never late except when things happened that he couldn’t control. He had taken a ride out to check on the men watching their cattle near the Plum Bottom Creek pastures and had not returned. Ben asked some of the hands if they had seen Adam but none had. It was as if he had vanished. That wasn’t possible so the only conclusion the worried father could draw was that someone or something had helped him to disappear. It was too dark to go out to try to discover who or what that might be so Ben could only wait and hope that somehow he was wrong and Adam would ride in with a different explanation of why he was so long overdue. Hoss suggested that several times as he tried to reassure his father and himself that his older brother was not in some serious predicament all by himself. Hoss was remembering that Adam had asked him to watch his back. Although he couldn’t imagine that Seth could possibly have done anything to Adam on the Ponderosa, Hoss had a niggling worry that somehow Seth was mixed up in this. He turned to Little Joe at one point with a question.
“Did Seth say anything more about getting even with Adam about what you told him Adam said?”
“No, he said he wouldn’t, and it never came up again.” Pausing with a suspicious look as he evaluated what his big brother had said, Little Joe’s temper rose a bit. “Seth didn’t have anything to do with Adam disappearing. He was at school all day and he went to work on the Taylor ranch after school like he does every day now.”
Ben’s interest was raised. “What is that all about? What did Adam say and why would Seth want to do anything about it?”
“Well, after Seth stole Little Joe’s gal away from him I told Adam that Seth was a weasel. Adam agreed with me but Little Joe overheard Adam say that and told Seth that Adam called him that. Adam said that Mary Lou was a two-timer too. After Little Joe told Seth that, Seth said he was gonna get revenge on Adam. Adam and me been watching for Seth to do something since then. I didn’t figure Seth could do anything to Adam on the Ponderosa. Still don’t. This is somebody else, and I’m thinking it might be that Taylor bunch.”
Ben gave Little Joe a withering look, and Little Joe knew it was because he had repeated a conversation he had heard by eavesdropping. “I’m sorry, Pa. After I did it, I told Seth that he better not do anything to my brother. He said he wouldn’t. I came home and told Adam all about it right away and admitted that I had eavesdropped. I know that doesn’t make up for what I did, but I tried to do my best after I messed up.”
“I don’t think Seth could have done anything to Adam on the Ponderosa. I agree with Hoss on that. I don’t think we should be blaming the Taylors though without even one bit of evidence pointing in their direction. We don’t even know what’s happened to Adam and why he’s late. He could have gone to town for some reason or perhaps Sport pulled up hurt. He would walk that horse home slowly rather than risk him being lamed.”
Everything Ben said was true but did nothing to reassure any of them because they all had a feeling that something was very wrong. Someone would have seen Adam if he was walking his horse home. He would have told one of the hands if he was going to town. He would have fired off three shots to summon help if he had been able to do so. Something had happened to him so fast or so devastating that he had not been able to do that which to Ben and Hoss especially was the most frightening point of all.
As Ben and Hoss suspected, Adam had been taken with no chance to fire a shot. He had seen Jacob signaling him as if to talk. Not knowing what had happened to Ezekiel, he rode toward him thinking that there was going to be a request for a meeting of some kind, but instead as he neared Jacob, Isaiah came in behind him with his gun drawn and Jacob drew on him as well. It would have been foolish to try to draw with two guns on him so he had only asked what they wanted.
“You know what happened. Drop your gunbelt and get off that horse.”
Complying but still wondering what it was that he was supposed to know, Adam waited for more information. He tried to get an answer from Isaiah by asking again what he was supposed to know. He didn’t get an answer as Jacob came up behind him and slugged him across the back of the head stunning him. Then he was thrown over the horse like a sack of grain with his hands tied to the stirrup on one side and his feet tied to the stirrup on the other side. His horse was led to the Taylor ranch as he endured the painful ride. His hat fell off soon after they began the ride but that wasn’t noticed. It was trampled under the hooves of Jacob’s horse with the dark color blending into the debris on the ground. The two brothers took a route intended to confuse anyone trying to track them arriving at their ranch hours later to be met by their father.
“Did anyone see you?”
“No, we did it like we said we would.”
“Where’s his hat?”
“He must of lost it along the way. Probably right away. Don’t worry, Pa. No one, not even Hoss can track him here.”
“Good, get him into the storeroom. Keep him tied and gag him.”
“Doc’s working on him now. Say’s he can’t go after the bullet right away. Says he’s got to stop the bleeding first to try to save his life. It’s looking real bad, boys. Real bad.”
Aware enough then as he was dragged from the horse, Adam asked how Zeke got shot.
“You ought to know, Cartwright. We know you’re the one who shot him. If he dies, you’re gonna hang. I’m gonna hang you myself. I’ll put that noose around your neck and haul you up that tree and watch you kick and squirm until the life is squeezed outta you. You’re gonna pay for what you done. Just because your family is rich and powerful and knows every rich and powerful man in this territory, it don’t mean you’re getting away with this. You’re gonna pay. I’ll make sure of it.”
“I didn’t shoot Zeke. I didn’t even know he was shot until now.”
Furious, Dev hit Adam then knocking him to the ground and then kicked him a few times. Once Adam stopped moving, he told his boys to do what he had told them to do. He stalked back to the house then to wait for the doctor to tell him if his youngest son would live.
Hours later, Adam awoke in great pain and did an inventory. He determined that as far as he could tell, nothing was broken, but his head hurt and he had a terrible headache. His ribs and legs hurt and he assumed that was from being kicked. His arms were sore and stiff from being tied behind his back, and he was quite chilled lying on the cold, bare dirt floor of what seemed to be some kind of small building. It didn’t smell like any kind of animal so he assumed it was a storage building of some kind. He could hear people moving about occasionally outside and thought that probably meant he had not been unconscious for very long. It was still probably evening. He wondered what his family was thinking and if they realized he was missing. If they did, he had to wonder too if they had any idea where he was. He had to hope that his younger brother, Hoss, could track him here. He knew Hoss was an excellent tracker, but he had been awake for part of the ride and it seemed that they had been doing all they could to mask their trail.
Later, Jacob and Isaiah returned. Isaiah carried in a lantern and Adam got the first look at his jail. It was a storeroom as he had guessed but there wasn’t much in it. It appeared that the Taylor ranch had fallen on hard times if their storehouse was empty. Adam guessed that there was some significance to that information but didn’t know what it was at that point. Jacob kept a rifle trained on him while Isaiah freed his hands and feet and told him to stand in the corner to relieve himself. His fingers were numb and it took him some time to undo his pants and manage that. It was a great relief. He buttoned up his coat before he buttoned up his pants. He knew it was the only thing he would have to try to stay warm for the night. Jacob grew impatient.
“My fingers aren’t working very well after my hands being tied for so long. You’re welcome to button my pants if you want it done faster.”
Adam knew it was a risk being such a smart mouth but they expected it of him and it helped give him time to finish what he was doing. He finally managed to button up his pants as well. Neither brother seemed to notice that his coat was now buttoned up as well. His arms were tied behind him again and he was shoved to the floor and his legs were tied together at the ankles. The two brothers left then. Adam heard them push something up against the door of the storehouse before walking away. He guessed he wasn’t going to get anything to eat or drink. Based on what Dev Taylor had said, they didn’t think he was going to live very long. He wondered who had shot young Zeke Taylor and why. No one on the Ponderosa would have done it. They had no reason to do it. Hiram Woods, the family lawyer, had assured them that they had a rock solid case to take to court. They had no worries. Someone wanted to make significant trouble, but Adam couldn’t guess who would benefit by starting a battle between the two ranches. He tried to sleep, but found it elusive both because of the questions he kept asking himself and the uncomfortable situation in which he found himself.
On the Ponderosa, Ben couldn’t sleep either even if he was uninjured and much more comfortable. Hoss finally gave in to exhaustion and fell into a restless sleep. Little Joe had succumbed a few hours earlier. Ben nodded off only a few times as he sat in the red leather chair by the fireplace hoping that Adam would stride in that front door but he never did. Ben planned to leave at first light and look for him. He wouldn’t rest until he found him. Just before dawn, Hop Sing brought him a cup of coffee and a light breakfast on a tray. Both of them looked up when they heard the sound of someone coming down the stairs. Hoss was up and ready to help.
“You need the best tracker in the family this morning. I reckon that’s me, and we’re gonna go out there and find Adam.”
When Ben and Hoss were saddling their horses, Little Joe came into the stable. He looked from one to the other.
“Were you going to go without me?”
Ben didn’t have time to discuss the issue and was brusque. “We need you to cooperate with us in this, Little Joe. Hoss and I will be tracking and can’t be distracted. You need to go to school. I want you to watch Seth and talk to him. If you notice anything out of the ordinary or get him to admit anything, I want you to tell the teacher that you have to leave early today and you come back home to tell us what you learned. Otherwise, please stay at school and let us do what we have to do. I don’t think Seth had anything to do with this, but I won’t dismiss what you and Hoss think until we know for sure.”
Swallowing his resentment and at least glad that his father had given him something to do, Little Joe remained silent watching his father and brother finish their preparations and then mount up to ride out. He waved as they waved but said nothing. He trudged to the house to have some breakfast and get ready for school. He rode to school and when he saw Seth, he realized he was ready to do as his father asked even though he didn’t think Seth had done anything to Adam. Walking with Mary Lou, Seth greeted him as soon as he saw him.
“Little Joe, are you all right? You look tired or sick. I’m not sure which.”
“I’m tired. I didn’t sleep real well last night, and I got up early. My brother Adam is missing. Pa and Hoss went out looking for him this morning.”
Seth smirked. “They checking with the saloon girls? I hear he likes a couple of them gals a lot.”
“Seth, it isn’t something to joke about. My brother could be hurt.”
“Sorry, Little Joe. I didn’t think you’d be so touchy about Adam seeing as how he’s such a problem for you a lot of the time.”
“Yeah, we have some trouble between us sometimes, but he’s my brother, and he looks out for me too. I don’t want anything bad to happen to him.”
“I guess I didn’t know that. Well, I’ll be careful what I say then.”
Little Joe thought he detected a hint of sarcasm or something else there. The words definitely were not sincere. Mary Lou was smiling up at Seth too as if they were sharing some kind of private joke. Little Joe didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything there on which to base a conclusion. He had nothing concrete to tell his father. “Did you happen to see Adam at all yesterday?”
“Me? No, I went to the Taylor ranch, did my work for them, and then had to hurry to get home before dark.”
“Well, you have to ride right along part of the border between the two ranches when you head to the Taylor place. I just wondered if you happened to see Adam when you were at that section.”
“Nope, I rode in a different way yesterday. I never got near the Ponderosa.”
Then Little Joe knew he was lying but didn’t know what significance that might have. He had seen Seth head out by the usual route toward the Taylor ranch. He was covering something up, but there was no way to know what it was. Little Joe stayed at school and several times tried to get more information from Seth and failed. He rode home at the usual time to find his father and Hoss getting home at about the same time. They were tired and discouraged. He said nothing at first as he listened to them discuss their day.
“Pa, whoever was out there was riding in a roundabout way on purpose, I’m sure of it. But you know that the general direction was to get closer and closer to the Taylor ranch even if we lost them tracks and never picked them up again.”
At that point, Little Joe thought he should mention what he suspected about Seth. “Pa, Seth didn’t tell me the whole truth about something today. I asked him if he saw Adam yesterday, and he said he took a different way to the Taylor ranch, but I know he didn’t. Maybe he saw something, and he’s afraid to say something. Maybe those Taylors did something to Adam, and Seth is afraid to say anything about it.”
“More likely if they did something to Adam, he’s happy about it and wouldn’t tell us because of that.”
“Hoss, that’s not fair. You don’t know Seth like I do. He’s never hurt any of us so why do you have to say mean things about my friend?”
“Stop it, both of you. It’s Adam we should be worrying about, and your fighting doesn’t help us with that. Now, I should go talk to Seth, and it wouldn’t hurt for me to go over to the Taylor place to do it. That way I could see if there’s anything going on over there that looks suspicious.”
“Pa, ifn you’re going over there, I’m going with you. The mood that bunch is in lately, they could up and shoot you just for being there.”
“Hoss, you can go, but you keep that temper in check and your pistol in your holster. Don’t give them any reason to start a fight at all. You hear me on that?”
Little Joe ended that discussion though before it developed any further. “Pa, Seth probably isn’t at the Taylor place any more. He said there was some kind of trouble there and he was only going to do the chores and then head home because they wouldn’t be doing any other kind of work.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“He didn’t say exactly but only that one of the boys was hurt and the doctor was there. He was real tight with information. It was hard to get him to tell me anything.”
“Well, that certainly doesn’t sound like Seth. I wonder what’s wrong with one of the Taylor boys. Well, then I’ll ride to the Pruitt place and talk with Seth. I want to know what he knows. We can ride over to the Taylor place tomorrow if we don’t get any answers. Hoss, you can ride with me. We’ll head to town and talk to Roy after we talk with Seth. We know Adam is in some kind of trouble based on what we found today.”
Little Joe still hadn’t been told what they had found so asked. Hoss explained that they eventually found tracks of three horses including Sport because of the special shoes Adam liked to make for his horse. The tracks took a very roundabout way but seemed to be edging closer to the Taylor ranch when they lost the tracks and hadn’t been able to find them again despite many hours of looking.
“They definitely didn’t want us finding those tracks. I’m thinking that Adam was tied because otherwise he would have found a way to leave us some kind of mark or signal so that we could track them. Whoever it was must have known that and kept him from being able to do anything.”
“You think the Taylors did it.”
“I do, but Pa says we can’t accuse ’em cause we ain’t got no real evidence. In my mind, it’s already adding up.”
“Boys, you need to heed me on this and not accuse them. It’s too easy for the innocent to suffer if accusations are tossed about too easily. Keep that in mind.”
Hoss and Little Joe grudgingly accepted that. An hour later, Ben was questioning Seth who denied again that he had seen Adam the day before but did admit he had taken the usual route to the Taylor ranch.
“Why did you tell Little Joe that you went a different way?”
“I know that you Cartwrights and the Taylors are in the middle of a big mess. I didn’t want to be caught in it. I figured to stay out of it by saying I wasn’t anywhere near where Adam was. Those Taylors probably did something to him, and I don’t want to be blamed for it.”
“No one is blaming you, Seth. We only want to find out if you saw Adam yesterday.”
“Well, I guess I did. He was riding up in the trees along that fence line you got there. He was all alone. Then I rode to the Taylor ranch.”
“Did you see anyone else?”
“No, why would I see anyone else. I didn’t see nobody.”
“All right. No need to get upset. We’ll be on our way now. We’re going to go see the sheriff next.”
“The sheriff? What are you going to tell the sheriff?”
“My son is missing. I’m going to tell him that.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess that’s important to tell the sheriff. All right, then, Mister Cartwright.”
As Ben and Hoss rode away, they looked to each other with the same kind of look that said they wondered why Seth had been so nervous, and they wondered what he was not saying because it was clear that he was keeping some things from them. When they got to Roy’s office, they found out what that was.
“Zeke Taylor’s been shot? Who did it?”
“No one seems to know. The Taylors said they don’t know. One of their hands brought him in from the pastures. They said that’s all they know.”
“Roy, they don’t have any hands. They let them all go after the spring drive because they didn’t make enough money to keep them on. I know that because we hired some of them who came looking for work. The only one who works for them is Seth Pruitt who does chores for them so the others can do the heavier work.” Suddenly Ben and Hoss knew some of what Seth had been keeping from them. He had been the one to bring Zeke home to the Taylors. He had also seen Adam. Ben had a sudden and terrible thought. He looked to Hoss.
“Hoss, you don’t suppose that Seth told the Taylors that Adam shot Zeke, do you?”
It took Hoss only a moment to think that through. “That damn little weasel wanted revenge on Adam. You bet I think he told the Taylors that Adam shot Zeke.”
Roy wanted to know what they were talking about, and although Ben wanted to head out immediately to the Taylor ranch, Roy insisted that he explain everything that he and Hoss had just discussed. It made a great deal of sense to him too so he agreed to ride with Ben and Hoss to the Taylor ranch.
“Now, Ben, I’m the law here so you better follow my lead in this. I’ll handle it. You hear me on this?”
“I hear you, Roy, but if they’ve hurt Adam because of lies Seth has told them, then there’s going to be hell to pay.”
“You know that it will be through me and a court of law though. It won’t be by you and Hoss today. Ifn you can’t agree to that then you ain’t coming with me.”
“All right, but I want you to search that place for Adam. He’s there. I know he is.”
Recognizing all the signs of dehydration although Adam wouldn’t have called it that, he worked at keeping his fingers from going numb and did his best to move his legs too despite his wrists and ankles being tied and left to lay on the floor in a cold storehouse with no food and no comforts of any kind. He suspected they wouldn’t have to hang him if they left him here much longer. The way his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth when he fell asleep for brief periods and his lips felt dry and ready to crack, he suspected he would die of thirst before they could hang him. He did wonder if he would be able to keep his senses because he knew that men lost their mental faculties if denied water too long. It had not happened yet but exhaustion, cold, and thirst were certainly robbing him of the edge he would need to escape if the chance ever presented itself. The brothers had not been back for a very long time. He didn’t know if that was good news or bad but suspected it wasn’t good. He was surprised then when they suddenly rushed into the storehouse. He thought that something must have happened to Zeke and his future had been determined, but instead Jacob roughly pulled his head up by the hair and Isaiah pulled a dirty bandanna around his head and gagged him before they dropped him back on the floor. Isaiah whispered furiously to him then.
“Doc got most of the bleeding stopped but said he had to go after the bullet cause it was up against a spot that was causing some of the bleeding. It don’t look good for our brother so you know what’s gonna happen to you. Your pa and the sheriff are here now but don’t make a sound or I’ll put a bullet in your head. That might mean your pa would want to shoot it out with us and he could die too. You care for him at all, you’ll stay quiet.”
Jacob left then, but Isaiah stayed with him. Adam knew that if he made a sound to try to get his father’s attention or Roy’s, it would likely be the last thing that he ever did and probably put their lives in danger too. He couldn’t see Isaiah’s face but the way he had talked was enough to know that he was ready to explode with fear and anger. Adam knew he would be the recipient of whatever Isaiah chose to do to vent those feelings. He stayed silent and still. Outside, Ben and Roy had confronted Dev Taylor.
“Now, Dev, I know Zeke’s been shot, and I know that you probably think Adam Cartwright done it. Adam Cartwright is missing. I got to say if you have anything to do with that then you’re gonna have some trouble with the law. You can’t decide who gets punished based on what you think mighta happened.”
“I never said it was Adam Cartwright who done it.” Roy waited and with a look cautioned Ben and Hoss not to say anything either. The silence made Dev say more. “Maybe I know more than you know.”
“What is it you know, Dev? You tell me and I’ll do whatever the law says I should do.”
“You would never arrest a Cartwright. You’re friends with them.”
“Dev, I follow the law. Now it’s up to the law to decide who gets punished for shooting your boy. Ifn you got Adam Cartwright here, you need to turn him over to me right now.”
“I got the doctor inside trying to dig a bullet out of my boy right now. I ain’t got time for this foolishness.”
“Then you go take care of your boy, and we’ll just take a look around while you’re doing that.”
“You ain’t got no right to look around my place. I ain’t broke no law. You leave now. You’re trespassing. You’re the law. You know I got a right to tell you to leave, and you gotta leave ifn I tell you to leave.”
As Roy and Ben confronted Dev, Hoss turned his horse and made a wide circuit of the yard riding close to the stable which was closed up tight. He called to his father and Roy a few minutes later though. “Pa, Roy, there’s tracks here from Sport. Adam’s horse has been here recently. These tracks ain’t been ridden over and right here they would be ifn they was more than a day or two old. Adam’s horse has been here. Adam must be here too.”
Roy turned back to Dev who looked nervous but even more angry than he had been before. “Oh, we found his damn horse wandering on our property. An abandoned horse is anybody’s to take, ain’t it?”
Before Roy or Ben could respond, Dev’s older daughter came out to tell him something and he turned and rushed inside his house. Ben and Roy moved to where Hoss was examining tracks. “Pa, Adam’s horse is in that stable. Adam has to be around here somewhere. I think we ought to look around while they’re busy.”
“Where are Jacob and Isaiah?”
“Yeah, that’s got me worried too. Maybe they’re guarding Adam?”
“Ben, you and Hoss be careful and take a look around. I’m going up to the house to see if I can find out what’s going on. Maybe I can talk a bit of sense into Dev when you’re not in sight. You two be real careful though, and if one of his boys orders you to back off, you back off now, you hear?”
Reluctantly, Ben and Hoss agreed. In the house, Doctor Martin was telling the family members what he had found. It wasn’t good news and tears were flowing. “I’m so sorry, Dev. That bullet bounced around in his chest some before it stopped. It did too much damage. The bleeding is stopped now, but he lost too much blood. I don’t think he can make it with what he has left.”
“How can a bullet bounce around in a man’s chest like that?”
“Well, these small caliber bullets tend to do that. They hit a bone and go off in a different direction. A larger caliber bullet breaks the bone or shatters it and keeps going right through. Either way is devastating but this way takes longer.”
“What do you mean ‘small caliber bullet’ that done this?”
“I’ve taken too many bullets out of men out here not to recognize the calibers by now. This one has to be about a thirty-one so he must have been shot with a pistol. My uncle had one when he was in the navy. They issued a small cap and ball pistol to officers. I suppose in close quarters on a ship, it would be effective. Out here men seem to prefer the larger calibers for pistols.”
“But somebody must a got up close to him to shoot him with a little pistol like that.”
“Yes, those are usually pocket pistols. They’re favored by women and gamblers mostly.”
Dev turned and whispered furiously to Jacob. “Go search him and search his saddlebags. See if he has a small pistol on him somewhere.” Then he turned back to his wife and daughters and the doctor who were staring at him in consternation. “Jacob is gonna check something out to see if we can figure out who shot Zeke.”
“No, he isn’t.” Roy had intercepted Jacob at the door and turned him back inside. “Dev, I heard what the doctor said. I heard what you whispered to Jacob too or enough to know that you probably got Adam outside there somewhere. Now you know he didn’t have nothing to do with this. You better not have hurt him or you’re gonna be in serious trouble.”
Dev’s wife turned to him. “Dev, what have you done?”
“Seth said he thought it looked like Adam. He said he saw a man riding away, and it looked like Adam Cartwright. What was I to think? He brought my boy home shot in the chest and said that. Jacob and Isaiah went and got Adam. We been holding him so he wouldn’t get away with it. Now I don’t know what to think.”
“Dev, you do know. Adam didn’t do it. Now where is he?”
Pausing to think, Dev knew the sheriff was correct but took some time to admit it to himself and then to verbalize that conclusion. “Jacob, you show the sheriff, and you tell Isaiah not to do anything. Tell him I said it’s over and to let Adam be.”
“Dev, I’m going with Jacob, but this isn’t over yet. A lot depends on how Adam is.”
“I know. I’ll face whatever I have to face. Things have been going bad for me for the last couple of years, and it got a whole lot worse when Zeke got shot.”
Dev’s wife was crying facing the loss of her youngest son and now possibly her husband and other two sons going to jail for what they had done to Adam. Roy followed Jacob out of the house and quickly informed Ben and Hoss that they were going to rescue Adam. Jacob called out to Isaiah at the storehouse that their father had said it was over and they were to release Adam to his father and the sheriff.
“He shot Zeke. I ain’t gonna give him up.”
“Zeke got shot with a thirty-one caliber, Isaiah. Adam carries a forty-four. He didn’t shoot him. Seth said he wasn’t sure it was Adam. We should have waited. It’s all our fault. Now I’m coming in. Put up your rifle. It’s all over.”
Pushing in behind Jacob, Ben and Hoss moved quickly to Adam getting the filthy bandanna from his mouth and cutting the ropes that bound him as Roy escorted the Taylor brothers from the storehouse. Hoss told Ben to help him get Adam into his arms so he could carry him outside into the light where he set him carefully on the soft grass. Ben cradled Adam’s head.
“Son, how badly are you hurt?”
After the gag and no water since he had been kidnapped, Adam couldn’t speak. He tried but failed. Roy handed his canteen to a grateful Ben who held it to Adam’s lips. Adam tried to grasp it with his hands but couldn’t hold it with his swollen fingers that were still numb. Hoss knelt by his side and began to softly massage one hand and then the other. Soon Doctor Paul Martin was there too.
“Once I found out that they had held him tied up for so long, I guessed my services might be needed here. Ben, give him a good sip every five minutes while I check him over. Hoss, would you pull off his boots so I can check his feet?” While Roy stood watch with Jacob and Isaiah, Ben and Hoss helped Paul care for Adam until Paul was ready with his evaluation. “He’s exhausted and too cold. We need to warm him up, but none of the injuries are serious from what I can see. He should spend a day in bed after a warm soothing bath. Some of those bruises are likely to get worse, but nothing seems to be broken. He’s got a good-sized lump on the back of his head, but he’s alert and responds to our requests. As soon as he has enough to drink and can talk again, we can ask him if there’s any other pain he’s feeling, but overall, I can say he should be fit enough to go home.” Paul was sure that was what both Ben and Adam wanted to hear. Nearing the end of the day and with the temperature dropping, Paul was more concerned about a chill than anything. “Ben or Hoss, do you think you could give him your coat to help warm him. He’s too cold. I have a blanket in my carriage you could wrap around him, and I could give him a ride home too.”
“Thank you, Paul. I think we’ll take you up on that.”
“Ben, what do you want me to do about Dev and his boys? By rights, I ought to arrest all three of ’em.”
“Not now, Roy. Not with Zeke hurt like he is. Come on out to the ranch tomorrow and talk with Adam. It’s really up to him and what he wants to do about Dev and his boys and what they did to him.”
As expected, Hop Sing fussed over Adam when he got back to the Ponderosa insisting that he drink tea even while he rested in a warm soothing bath. Ben brought his shaving kit to him as well as his sleepshirt and robe. Adam frowned at the sleepshirt but knew his father would insist he wear it especially after Doctor Martin had said he needed to stay warm after being so chilled. He conceded that point at least for the first night back at home. Little Joe and Hoss kept finding reasons to come into the washroom too to check on him.
“Instead of creating a draft every time you open that door, why don’t you just perch on a bench or something and stay. You can tell me what happened while I was tied up. I still don’t know exactly why I was chosen to be a guest of the Taylors.”
As Little Joe dropped his head, Hoss decided he would find a diplomatic way to explain it if he could while Ben mixed up the shaving lather for Adam.
“Well, it seems that Seth was riding to the ranch when he heard the shot. He rode that way and found Zeke. He said he saw somebody riding away on our side of the fenceline and he said it looked like you dressed in dark clothes. The Taylors admitted that he said it only looked like you and he couldn’t say it was you. They just figured it was, and them boys set out to get you figuring you tried to kill their brother.”
“So Seth got his revenge.”
“That’s not fair.” Little Joe felt that he had to defend his friend, but Hoss’ next statement surprised him into silence too.
“Little Joe, maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, and only Seth knows that, but ifn Zeke hadn’t been shot with a thirty-one caliber, then them Taylors might of killed Adam on Seth’s say so. That’s mighty serious, and Seth’s got to realize he needs to be careful what he says about folks. Out here saying something like he said can get a man killed. He knew that and meant to get Adam killed or he was just plain foolish about it. Either way, he needs to apologize to Adam.”
Little Joe had gone silent and somewhat pale. The others assumed it was because he had realized then that the Taylors had meant to kill Adam. Ben tried to make him feel better.
“Son, don’t fret about it so. We would not have let them hurt Adam. Roy would have stopped them too. You don’t have to be upset about that. It didn’t happen. Adam is back home, and we can put this behind us now.”
Little Joe nodded as if he agreed with that, but he left then. He was worried to the point of being sick. He knew that Mary Lou’s parents had given her a thirty-one-caliber pistol for Christmas. He had fired it at her place when they had done some target shooting under her father’s supervision. It seemed like a huge coincidence that Zeke had been shot with a thirty-one-caliber gun and then found by Seth who was Mary Lou’s current beau. That night, Little Joe found sleep elusive as he tossed and turned. The next day at school, Seth asked about Adam. Little Joe told the story and watched to see how Seth reacted. He acted as if he was happy that Adam had been rescued which reassured Little Joe. When Little Joe had a chance, he asked Mary Lou about her pistol. She claimed that her father kept it in the house only allowing her to use it for target practice when he was there. He was reassured by what he found out, and he let his suspicions fade away. His family never did though wondering for years whether Seth was somehow involved in shooting Zeke.
The next day, Roy arrived on the Ponderosa with bad news. Zeke had taken a turn for the worse and wasn’t expected to survive. He had lost too much blood and was fading away. Adam chose not to press charges against the Taylors at that time, but did say that he would if there was any more trouble from them. Roy said he would inform them of that, and thanked Adam for being so forgiving.
“That family is going through an awful lot. I had to tell them just last week that the bank is foreclosing on them. I had to deliver the papers to them. I reckon they’ll be moving on. I can’t see them staying here with all that’s happened and then losing the ranch too.”
In other circumstances, Roy knew that Ben might have bailed the Taylors out of their financial difficulties, but not after what they had done to Adam and with the attitude they had. They would resent any help that was offered. When Roy left, Adam offered a theory to his father.
“I bet they were hoping you would offer money to settle that boundary issue peacefully. It was extortion as much as anything. They had no chance in court and couldn’t afford a lawyer anyway.”
“You’re probably right. They wouldn’t accept help, but they would have done something like that. I can’t say that I’ll miss them as neighbors.”
“I still can’t understand why anyone would shoot Zeke though, and I don’t know anyone who carries a thirty-one caliber pistol. I’ve known a few to carry a thirty-eight caliber but thirty-one is very small.”
“I’ve wondered the same thing. I guess we may never know.”
“I wonder if Seth owns one.”
“Roy said he checked that out. He doesn’t and no one in his family does either. Roy checked in town to see who may have purchased one lately, and only Rupert Fenton bought one. He gave it to his daughter, but he keeps it locked up in his house except when he’s teaching her how to use it. Roy said he couldn’t find anyone else who owned one. I’m sure with all the people moving in and out, there are others but there’s no way of knowing who could have one.”
“Pa, could someone have shot Zeke in order to blame me?”
Ben sat by Adam’s side and thought about what his son had asked. It seemed preposterous on the surface, but with no other viable explanation, perhaps something bizarre was the answer. As he asked the next question, he guessed the answer. “Did you have someone in mind? But you do. Seth?”
“Pa, he’s at the center of this. He found Zeke. He’s the one who said it looked like me riding away. He’s the one who said he was going to get revenge on me. He covered up what he knew to Little Joe and to you.”
“It’s hardly enough to accuse him of shooting Zeke and framing you for it. Zeke is dying. Whoever shot him in the chest must have known it would likely kill him. That’s cold-blooded murder. I can’t believe a boy like Seth could do something like that.”
“Maybe not.” But Adam carried doubts about Seth from that time forward. He tried to warn Little Joe about him but with no success. Little Joe’s answer was much more defensive than their father’s had been when Adam warned him that some day Seth was going to go too far and get in serious trouble. Little Joe said he would be there to help keep Seth in line.
“You can’t tame a wolf, Little Joe. Men have tried, but sooner or later, they show their true nature.”
“Adam, you can’t predict the future.”
“I don’t have to predict the future. I can see where Seth’s tracks have been and where his trail is headed. I’m worried about you if you’re with him. You can get in a lot of trouble with the wrong friend.”
“Well then I guess if that happens, I’ll learn from my mistake. You did. Pa said you had some friends who weren’t the best when you were my age. He said you were smart and learned from your mistake.”
“Yeah, I did. A smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from other men’s mistakes.”
“I want to help you, Little Joe. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I won’t be. I can take care of myself.”
“Know that I’m here if you need me. I always will be. We may have our differences, but we’re brothers, and that means more than anything.”
“I know it does. I know you always have good intentions. It’s that sometimes I don’t want the help. I hope you can understand that. I need to stand on my own. It’s the way I am.”
On trial for murder, Seth Pruitt tried to convince Joe that he had done nothing wrong. He tried to tell him that it was only a mercy killing. Joe wavered at times until he got a short letter from Mary Lou Fenton Smalley who had married and moved to California.
“Dear Little Joe, I hope you don’t mind me calling you that but it’s how I remember you. I was such a silly girl. I never should have left you for Seth Pruitt. In time I understood that, but at first I thought he was more exciting. I learned otherwise when he borrowed my small pistol. When he brought it back, he threatened to burn down our house with all of us in it if I ever told anyone. He scared me out of my wits. When he tired of me and turned to another girl, I was so relieved. When I was old enough to have the courage to tell the truth, it didn’t seem to matter. Zeke Taylor was buried and his family was long gone and no one knew where they were. Seth wasn’t trying to hurt Adam any more. I took the coward’s way out and never told anyone. I’m sorry, Little Joe. I knew then that our friend was a murderer. I was too afraid to tell anyone because I worried about what Seth might still do. Now you know too. He will get his just reward. I’m sorry it took ten years, but at least justice will finally prevail. Too bad no one saw him for what he was at the time. A life could have been saved. I will carry the guilt for the rest of my life but I hope you can forgive me. Your friend, Mary Lou”
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