Rites of Passage (by BettyHT)

Summary:  In this prequel, Little Joe is moving from childhood to adulthood and has mixed feelings about how to react to his older brother who is facing the task of how to fit back into the ranch he left as a boy to go to college but returned as a man who is still the boss’ son.

rating = T  (WC = 14,378)

 

Rites of Passage

Chapter 1

Head hung low, Little Joe Cartwright walked out of the new schoolhouse ready to ride home to face trouble there too. So excited at the prospect of spending five days every week riding his new pony to town and back again at the end of the day, seeing his friends every day, and avoiding all heavy physical labor on the ranch, he had neglected to think about the possible negative aspects of daily school. One problem was that the schoolteacher had rules and expected them to be obeyed every day and all day. He wasn’t nearly as indulgent as the proud father of the youngest of three sons who had the serious, hard-working oldest son with the grand education and equally grand ideas to help run the ranch. He also had the quiet middle son who loved the Ponderosa and supported the family in every way that he could. And he had the fun-loving youngest son who could find a way to turn anything into a reason to smile, excitement, or fun. However those two older sons had traits better suited to a formal school.

“Hey, Little Joe, you gonna get a tanning this time?” Seth was always there with the wrong question, it seemed.

“No, I don’t think so, at least not until after he meets with the teacher. The note says he has to come in with me tomorrow morning to meet with him.”

“Little Joe, all you had to do was lie. He couldn’t prove nothing.”

“I couldn’t lie about it. That would have gotten me a tanning.”

“Not if your pa never found out. I’m not giving the note to my pa. What’s he gonna do? Go to my house? Good luck finding my pa there, or if he is, finding him sober enough to talk to him.”

“I gotta get going, Seth. I can’t be late today.”

Little Joe was right to be worried. When his father saw the note, he was furious. “It was only a week ago that we had you trying that fool thing with your boots. You told me then that you were ready to be responsible, but instead, I get this note and am summoned to the schoolhouse tomorrow morning.”

“Pa, it worked with Mister Harding’s boot.”

“Little Joe, Mister Harding has worn that boot that way since he was fourteen. He was sick as a youngster and for some reason that left leg didn’t grow properly. That’s why he wears a chunk of wood under his boot. It is so that he can walk more normally. It is not to be taller, and his boot is made by a cobbler who knows what he is doing. You ruined your boots by nailing those blocks of wood to the soles of your boots!”

Only a week earlier, Little Joe and Seth had cut out and nailed chunks of wood to the soles and heels of Little Joe’s boots to make him taller. The inch of height was not worth the fury he had faced from his father however at the boots he had ruined. Of course there had also been the laughter of his brothers as soon as they were away from his father’s hearing and sight. In some ways, that had been worse.

“Pa, I said I was sorry about that. I would have worn those boots the way they were.”

“You can’t wear boots with holes in the bottom. Now why am I being summoned to see the teacher? I know you tried to change the subject so I wouldn’t ask, but that won’t work.”

“Yeah, I know I’m not as good at that as Adam is. You’ve told me a lot of times how good Adam is at changing the subject. Hey, Adam is really good at breaking horses and stuff too. Do you think you could have him teach me to do stuff like that?”

“Joseph! Answer the question!”

With that, Little Joe knew that delaying was only going to make things worse so he had to tell. “Well one thing was nothing too big. I found this little frog and I had it in my shirt pocket, and somehow it got out and some of the girls squealed and that’s when the teacher got upset and demanded to know who let the frog out. I said the frog was mine but I didn’t let it out, it let itself out. He got real mad then.”

Rolling his eyes at his son’s impertinence, Ben had another question. “Now, he said it was a pattern of misbehavior and disruption of the classroom. What else have you done?”

“Well, last Friday, when Davy was in the necessary, we, me and Seth, put a rock up against the door so he couldn’t get out. We thought it would be funny to hear him yell to get out and such. But he musta had to do a lot cause he didn’t yell or nothing, and we kinda forgot we did it, and then the bell rang, and we had to go back inside, and then the teacher asked where Davy was, and I had to say he was in the necessary. I did say I would go get him when I remembered why he wasn’t back, but the teacher said we should all do our work and he would take care of Davy. When he came back, he wanted to know who put the rock there, and he was looking right at me, Pa, so I had to say I did it. Seth didn’t say nothing.”

“Seth didn’t say anything.”

“Yeah, and that wasn’t right, was it, Pa? He shoulda owned up to what he did too instead of letting me be the only one. It just isn’t fair sometimes.”

Unable to stop himself, Ben rolled his eyes once more. “What else did you do?”

Little Joe was a bit embarrassed about the next one. His face betrayed him as his cheeks got a bit red.

“Little Joe, what did you do?”

“Pa, Seth told me to do it, and I didn’t know why right off and then it was too late, and all the boys laughed so I couldn’t say I didn’t know.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, Pa, we had to write our spelling words on the board, and I had the words with the double o in them and Seth told me to put a dot in the middle of each o so I did. Then the boys laughed and I looked and then I knew why he wanted me to do that. It looked like I had a line of, well, you know, up on the board, and it was too late to erase them because once the boys started laughing, the teacher looked, and he was really mad. That’s when he sent everyone out of the building and wrote that note to you. I had to erase the board and wash it and then stand with my face to the corner for the rest of the afternoon.”

“Is Seth’s father going to be there in the morning too?”

“No, Seth said he wasn’t going to give him the note. Besides, the teacher doesn’t know half the stuff that Seth does. He only gave him the note because he thinks he did stuff with me.”

Somewhat relieved because he didn’t want to have to have a conference that included Seth’s father, Ben sent Little Joe to do his chores telling him that any punishment would wait until after he met with his teacher but that he would be doing his chores, having dinner, doing his homework, and then going to bed that night. Little Joe thought that sounded quite a lot like punishment already but wasn’t at all ready to say anything like that. He headed out to do his chores and met his two older brothers who were headed inside.

“Pa’s in a bad mood.”

“So what did you do this time?” Adam had that smirk that Little Joe hated especially when he had done something wrong and Adam knew it.

“Yeah, lately Pa’s mostly been in a bad mood only because of you. Ever since Adam come home from college, Pa’s been in a real fine mood except for that. You and those wood blocks had him spouting fire for three days.”

“Well, I bet you two weren’t perfect when you were young either. I bet Pa had plenty of reasons to be mad at you then too. I heard him talking to the two of you about your drinking and gambling too so I know he doesn’t think you’re perfect now either.”

Stepping close to Little Joe, Adam took his arm and spoke in that quiet menacing voice he had. “And eavesdropping is another way to make people angry and not just Pa.”

“Aw, c’mon, Adam, Pa was probably talking kinda loud when he said that to us.”

“Hoss, you know he wasn’t. He wanted me to make sure that when you went with me that I was watching out for you and not letting you play any poker unless I was in the game with you, and even then he wasn’t too sure it was a good idea. We had more of a conversation than anything. The only way he heard us is if he was at the top of the stairs listening when he was supposed to be in bed.”

“I guess so. Little Joe, you know that ain’t right to do.”

Angry then at Adam for turning Hoss against him too, Little Joe pulled his arm from Adam’s grasp and stomped off to the stable muttering that their father had told him to do his chores and they were keeping him from those. Adam left him go, but both brothers watched.

“Adam, he’s been kinda moody ever since you come home. I don’t know exactly why, but I got a gut feeling that there’s trouble brewing.”

“More likely it’s your gut feeling hungry because you haven’t had anything to eat since lunch.”

“Come to think of it, you might be right.”

Laughing heartily then, Hoss slapped Adam on the shoulder as the two resumed their walk to the house. In the stable, Little Joe assumed that Adam had said something about him and the two were laughing about him. He began to think that it was about time he did something about his older brother stealing Hoss away from him and now the two of them finding fun in their younger brother’s misery.

That misery only got worse the next day after Ben rode to school with Little Joe and met with the teacher. That talk had the teacher and Ben agreeing on every point much to Little Joe’s dismay. The end result was that Little Joe missed every recess for a week spending time in the schoolhouse doing chores, and he was on a limited lunch break as well. At home for a week, he took dinner in his room after doing his chores, then he did his homework, did some reading, and had an early bedtime. Often he slipped out of bed after his father had checked to make sure he was in bed with the lamp out. He sat by the window and looked at the stars sometimes listening to the men in the yard. On one of those nights, he heard an interesting conversation between Hoss and their father, and he tucked that morsel of information away to be used once he came up with a plan. Hoss had asked their father if Adam had ever done any of the kind of things that Little Joe did. At first saying he couldn’t remember any, Ben had finally laughed and said there had been this one time. Then he had told Hoss a story that he said needed to be held in strictest confidence because it would be terribly embarrassing to Adam if people ever found out about it especially if they talked about it.

“Your older brother is a very private man. He doesn’t like his personal affairs discussed in public. It irritates him a great deal, and is one of the things most likely to raise his temper.”

“I know that. I’ve seen him bristle like a porcupine when someone brings up a gal he’s been seeing and says anything about the two of them.”

Upstairs, Little Joe tucked that bit of information away as well. Somehow, one of these items was bound to be useful. He wasn’t sure which one, but he decided he was going to start learning more about Adam until he knew the best way to get back at him. He smiled then as he slid back into bed. He now had something to do in all the spare time he had in his room. He had planning to do, and the next day, he began to set the plan in motion.

Chapter 2

On Saturday morning, watching Hoss and Adam walking from the stable to the house and laughing and talking in that easy camaraderie they had infuriated Little Joe in the mood he was in. Confined to his room for dinner for the week and required to do his homework and then go to bed, he wanted someone else to feel the pain he was feeling. All week long since Adam had found out what he had done, his oldest brother had made funny comments that made Hoss chuckle or he offered that older brother advice that wasn’t appreciated. Little Joe got dressed and prepared to face another day of unpleasantness. It wasn’t going to be easy, but if he wanted these restrictions lifted, he had to prove to his father that he was sorry for what he had done and wouldn’t cause any more trouble even if that meant putting up with Adam’s comments no matter how hard that was to do. When he walked down the stairs, he saw Adam and Hoss sitting at the table already with their father. He was going to walk to the stable when he was summoned to the table.

“Little Joe, you can sit down and have breakfast with us.”

“Pa, I didn’t do my chores yet.”

“I know you didn’t do your chores yet. Your brothers did them for you. They have talked to me and convinced me that you have done enough penance for what you did at school. They don’t think you meant any harm in what you did, but they think you mainly lacked good judgment in what you did. I have thought about what happened and I have agreed that is probably so. So I have decided to go with their recommendation and end your discipline this morning.”

“Yeah, and then me and Adam thought you could help with the three horses that need breaking.”

“You’re gonna let me help break horses?”

Adam grinned then knowing that Little Joe had aspirations to break horses and saw their father roll his eyes with the same thought. “You and Hoss can work the chute. I’ll do the breaking. We only have three to do, and we already have two men to work the corral.”

Slightly disappointed but not actually surprised, Little Joe was pleased that he got to work the chute. He had never done that. Ben had a few cautions.

“Now, you need to tamp down your excitement when you work the chute. If you’re too excited, it makes the horse more excited and that would be dangerous for your brother. You have to be calm and quiet. Follow Hoss’ lead. He knows how to work the chute very well. Do what he says and keep your voice low and quiet when you talk. After you’re done there, the boys have another surprise for you.”

“Another surprise! What is it?”

“Now it wouldn’t be a surprise ifn we was to tell ya now, would it? But eat hearty cause we got some work to do before we get to the surprise.”

Excusing himself then to go check on the horses, Adam left the three to finish breakfast. He had eaten very little. Riding the back of a bucking horse with a full stomach was not a good idea so he had eaten enough only to have energy for what he had to do. He would eat more after he finished. Once they heard the front door close, Ben looked to Hoss with a question.

“How’s it going out there for him? Has it calmed down yet?”

“It’s getting better. He’s handling it better than when he first got back. Then he was as likely to get mad as anything and they knew it. Now he laughs more often than not. That goes over better with the men. He plays along with some of it, and there ain’t been nothing mean to anything. Him breaking horses has really helped. Nobody here except Charlie knew he could do that. He sticks a saddle better than anybody else. I know you won’t like hearing it, but the men bet on him at first.” As Hoss expected, Ben frowned at that. Hoss thought it wasn’t a good time to mention that he had bet on Adam and made some money doing it. “Now they don’t bet on him no more cause it’s too hard to find somebody willing to bet against him. Unless a real mean ole one comes up, they expect him to ride it to a standstill. It’s a surprise ifn he don’t.”

Listening to the whole conversation, Little Joe had some questions. “Why would Adam have problems with the hands? Is he bossy like he is with me?”

“Little Joe, he is not that bossy with you. He simply relays the orders that I tell him to give to you. But yes, he has to give orders to the men, and some were not so happy to be given orders by one so young. And he hasn’t been here for four years. He’s had some trouble because of that.”

“What kind of trouble?”

Ben didn’t want to tell Little Joe that Adam had fought with a couple of the men, and that he had had dirty tricks played on him sometimes resulting in bruises that could have been worse. But, Little Joe had asked and Ben was an honest man so he explained what had been happening. When he finished, he explained rites of passage. “You see, when you get to certain ages, you have to kind of earn your way into the next step. You have to prove yourself. When you get older, you’ll understand better, but men don’t accept you as a man only because you’re old enough, and they don’t accept you as the boss because you’re the boss’ son. You have to show that you have the right stuff before they will accept that.”

“Oh, you mean like me proving I’m responsible this week so I can be treated better today because I did what I was supposed to do?”

“Yes, you did what you were supposed to do and didn’t complain. That was a good sign. Now you two better get going. Adam will be waiting for that first horse.”

Quickly finishing everything on his plate, Little Joe asked to be excused and then rushed after Hoss who was already headed toward the breaking corral. They needed more horses to work the ranch, and Adam and Hoss had gone out with a few men and brought in some mustangs. The last three to be greenbroke were waiting. As expected, Adam was at the chute.

“Hoss, I’ll take the brown one first and then that light mix. I’ll save that dark brown one for last. She looks to be the most difficult so we can take our time with her if need be. I asked the men to separate her from the other two and keep her quiet. Maybe that will help.”

“Well it shur can’t hurt. All right, give me a few minutes to tell Joe what he has to do, and we’ll be ready fro that first horse.”

Hoss had Little Joe climb up the fence of the chute. “Now, I’m gonna hand the reins to you and I want you to keep her head down. I’m gonna blindfold her then. Now once Adam is in the saddle and takes the reins from you, you climb up to the top of the fence. When I tell you to, you pull that bandanna off her eyes so she can see. As soon as you do that, I’ll be pulling the rope to open the gate. Adam will be in for one heck of a ride then. Now remember that during all of this, you gotta be quiet.”

“What if I have a question?”

“You can always ask a question about what we’re doing, but you need to do it quiet like and listen to the answer. No whooping and hollering except maybe when he’s riding that last ornery one ifn he stays in the saddle long enough on her.”

Intent on doing as Hoss asked, Little Joe did a fine job with the first horse. Hoss complimented him, and after Adam slid from the horse with the help of the two cowboys in the corral, he walked back to the chute and thanked his brothers for having the horse calm before the ride.

“It helps a lot if they’re not all excited before I get them. That one was easy. I can only hope the other two go as well.”

However Adam knew that wasn’t likely. To ride a horse to a standstill in less than a minute was the best he could hope for and rarely happened. He took a short break and then told the men to get the next horse and put her in the chute. There Hoss talked softly to her and stroked her back before he saddled her. Then he talked softly again to her to try to get her calmed down about the unusual weight on her back. Little Joe picked up quickly on the strategy and stroked her neck and did the same. Hoss looked over at him, smiled and nodded. Little Joe grinned in response.

“I think she’s as ready as she’s gonna be, Adam.”

Deliberate in his actions, Adam climbed up the fence on the side of the chute and set himself above the horse slowly lowering himself into the saddle adding his weight to see how she would react. Hoss and Little Joe kept up their soothing words, which seemed to help. She was more agitated than the first one had been, but it wasn’t too bad. Adam ended up with a much harder ride and it took much longer, but again he rode the horse to a standstill. Both Hoss and Adam knew the third horse wasn’t going to be as easy as either of the first two. Adam got dumped in the dirt after about twenty seconds on her the first time. He lasted about a full minute the second time and got tossed again rolling against the corral fence stunned for a moment but not seriously injured.

“One more time.”

“Adam, you sure? You’re tired and now you’re banged up too.”

“She’s tired too. If I don’t get her now, I may never get her. Next time she’ll assume she can win, and that will make it that much harder if I can break her at all.”

Brushing the dust off the seat of his pants, Adam heard snickering among the hands who had come to watch. It was nearing noon so many of the men had finished for the day because it was a Saturday. Watching him fight this horse was probably the best entertainment they were likely to see unless there was a big fight in one of the saloons that night in town. He did wonder a bit at the laughter but put it off to the same kind of attitude that had led to a lot of the hazing he had been getting. They liked to see the boss’ son get dumped in the dirt. He had no idea there was any more to it. He guessed to that when he rode that mustang for the third time, there was likely to be betting on the outcome. He was going to make some people upset no matter what happened. That seemed to be how things had gone for him since his return from college. No matter what he did, someone was upset with him. It was either some of the hands or his father or in some cases, his youngest brother. He had to forge ahead doing what he thought was right and hope that it worked out eventually. There wasn’t much else he could do, but there were days when he wondered why he had come back. Then he saw Hoss smiling at him to encourage him, and he knew why. He loved his family and he was right where he belonged.

The third ride was the hardest even if the horse was tired. She was also a stubborn, ornery horse and did everything she could do to dislodge the rider on her back who was also getting tired. It was the longest ride Adam could remember having but he could feel that he was getting control and refused to give up. Finally the horse stood with her head down, trembling, and slowly relaxing those big muscles. He felt the tension in her begin to lessen and hoped it was over. It was silent at the corral as the men watching knew it was the critical moment. Little Joe, in his high-pitched voice, yelled out his premature congratulations.

“Whooee, Adam, you got her!”

It was all it took to send her off on another circuit of the corral, but she had little energy left and that was it. She gave up, and Adam had ridden another one to a standstill. The two hands rode in to help him from the horse. He staggered to the corral fence and dropped down. Hoss rushed to his side with two concerns.

“Adam, you hurt?”

“No, but I feel like one of those noodles that Hop Sing likes to make. I don’t think I could stand right now even to kiss the prettiest girl in the Comstock.”

“Adam, he didn’t mean no harm. He don’t understand things so well yet. You’re not gonna be mad at him, are ya?”

“I might be except I don’t have the energy to be mad right now. Could you help me stand up? I don’t think I could do it by myself, and I don’t want the men to see me crawling to the house on my hands and knees. They’ve had enough laughter at my expense.”

“Yeah, I heard ’em laughing earlier. You got any idea what that was about?”

“None at all. It seemed odd, but I guessed they liked seeing me hit the dirt.”

“It wasn’t that. They was saying some things about it. It didn’t make sense to me. They were betting too so half should have been happy for ya cause they won money on ya.”

“Oh, well, not much I can do about how they see me. I do my best, and they still treat me like I’m some greenhorn they can make quit. Hey, where’s our little brother?”

“He’s over by the hands talking with ’em. I think he’s afraid to come near you after what he did.”

“I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’s impulsive.”

“Huh?”

“He does things without thinking about what could happen next. I’m beginning to think that may never change. If you remember, his mother was a lot like that.”

“I don’t remember her very well except she was real purty and talked real nice to me.”

“Well, he got those traits too. He’s a pretty one, and he can certainly talk nicely when he wants to do that. Now let’s tell him where we’re going so he can get things ready. I want to sit and rest before we go to the lake to sit and rest.”

Chapter 3

Watching their little brother climb up on the highest boulder and splashing into the lake after yelling for them to watch, Adam turned to Hoss with a big grin. “How many times is that?”

“Twenty-four by my count. I mighta missed a few though doing other things. I know you had your eyes closed a few times.”

“It wears me out watching him sometimes.”

“I know. I don’t think I ever had that much energy.”

“He never gets tired when he’s playing.”

“Wish he had that kind of energy when he’s working. He’s plumb tuckered out just getting ready to work most times.”

While Hoss had spent a little time fishing, he had met with no success so he settled in the water next to his older brother who had spent most of his time soaking in the warm waters in the shallow bay. Little Joe had hoped for diving from the rocks into a deeper bay but Adam had preferred the option of sitting in the water warmed in the shallows so that he could soak away the soreness of the week of horsebreaking that he had done. Hoss took a look at the bruises that were sprinkled liberally around Adam’s body.

“You get all them bruises from breaking them horses?”

“Mostly but a few were from when they loosened my cinch when I wasn’t looking. And the big one on my hip is from when they let go of that heifer just before I put the branding iron on her. For a while, I thought something might have actually been broken. It hurt enough, but it’s not too bad any more.”

Shocked, Hoss could only stare at first but then got his voice back. “You broke horses on a hip you thought might be cracked? Are you crazy?”

Twisting a little in the water to stretch his sore back, Adam avoided answering. Instead he used his more famous tactic. “Any food left in that basket?”

“Don’t go changing the subject. Now the hands went too far with some of what they did, and you know it. You shoulda gone to Pa and had him do something about it.”

“And then what? Boss’ son goes running to Papa when he gets a little hazing? It would never stop if I did that. It hasn’t been bad since the heifer thing. I think that got them worried too. I could hardly walk after that one, and ride home nearly did me in, but I think I’m through the worst of it with the hands now. I put up with what they threw at me. That has to count for something. I didn’t give in. I took it all even if I lost my temper a few times. Even that has to count for something. I’m not a pushover.”

“No, you sure ain’t. Hey, I got a question for ya though. You got any idea what they was laughing about at the corral this morning? I thought maybe you tore your pants or something, but I didn’t see nothing like that.”

“No, I heard it too and wondered about it. There must be some funny story going around. I don’t know what it is though. There haven’t been any more pranks that I know about, and they would never do anything at the breaking corral.”

“I don’t know either. Maybe we’ll find out in town tonight. You are still planning to go to town tonight, aren’t you?”

Although Adam had been thinking about a quiet restful night at home, he couldn’t resist that hopeful look Hoss had. Their father wouldn’t let Hoss go to town alone, but he could go if Adam went with him. He had strict orders not to have more than three beers and could only play any games of chance if Adam was in the game too. Although Ben preferred that his sons not gamble at all, he was realistic enough to know that young men were likely to do some of what other young men did when they were in town. He had talked to them about the bordellos in the same way telling them he didn’t want them to go to them, but cautioning them that if they did, there were certain cautions they should take. Adam had smirked to Hoss later that there had to be more than idle talk in how much their father had learned about bordellos and painted ladies. Adam already knew a bit too so Hoss said the same about him and had gotten only a slight crooked smile in response.

“Sure, we can go to town, but I’d like to make it an early night tonight.”

“Sure, Adam, that’s fine. We can head home by ten if that’s all right. There ain’t much going on after ten anyway.”

Adam had hoped for a little earlier than ten, but he could see that Hoss would want at least three hours if they were making the long trek to town. He wouldn’t have to do much anyway except sit so other than the ride, there wouldn’t be much exertion. He nodded in agreement that all was well and leaned back against the boulder and closed his eyes as he heard Little Joe yell one more time for them to look moments before there was another big splash into the lake.

“It’s no wonder you couldn’t catch any fish. They’re probably scared away for at least a mile around.”

“Yeah, it’s a good thing you did ask Hop Sing to pack us a big lunch. You want to have dinner in town tonight?”

“I’d like that. That restaurant we ate in last Saturday has some nice scenery.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, that gal who waits tables in there is a right pretty one. Yeah, let’s do that. Ifn we’re gonna do that, we need to get going though.”

The sunlight reflecting off the lake in the ripples created by Little Joe’s splashes, the light breeze that brought the smell of pine to them, and the warmth of the air and water made each brother hesitate though in calling an end to the outing. Both knew too that their little brother would be disappointed, and neither wanted to do that either. They sat in the water for another half hour until Adam stood letting water drip from him. He stretched his arms above his head and enjoyed the feeling of muscles that had relaxed and the feeling of being refreshed after resting for a few hours instead of working from sunrise to sunset. He glanced down at Hoss who shrugged and stood as well. The two walked to shore picking up towels to dry themselves and retrieving clothing to dress. Adam called to Little Joe to join them. As expected, there were a few moans about it being too soon but not many because he had had too good a time to complain with any enthusiasm.

“Hey, we should do this more often. This was fun, but next time, maybe you two could jump in the lake too and do some swimming. I know you were sore and all, Adam, but I’d like to have you show me how you dive off those high rocks. Hoss says you can dive real good, but I’ve never seen you do it.”

“Well, actually you have, but you’ve forgotten. It was over four years ago. and you were a lot younger. We used to come out here as a family on Sundays fairly often.”

“I don’t remember much about those days.”

“I do. We can talk about that sometimes if you want.”

“I’d like that, Adam. I have trouble remembering Mama. If you could tell me stories, that would help.”

“I’ll do that, Little Joe. It’s what older brothers do.”

With a smile, Little Joe nodded, but inside he cringed. He had set in motion something that he didn’t know how to stop. He wished he could talk to his brothers about it, but they were so nice to him at that moment, and he didn’t want to change the feeling among them. He wondered how he could make things better and hoped that perhaps he could talk to his father that night. As far as he could determine, it was the only way out of the mess he had created. At that moment, he promised himself that he would talk to his father about what he had done and face any consequences that there were because he had done something wrong, and the responsible thing to do was to set it right. He dressed quickly and ran to saddle his horse as his brothers finished dressing and grinned at his high energy level. Hoss took the empty lunch basket and soon the brothers were riding home. Hoss asked Adam to start them singing and they sang together all the way home too. When Ben heard them coming, he had to smile. He was proud of his three sons and never happier than when they were together like this. It was a rare occasion to have them all in a good mood so it made him especially joyful. He was only a little disappointed to hear that Adam and Hoss were going to head to town immediately, but Little Joe said he would tell him all about the afternoon at the lake. They bid Adam and Hoss goodbye, and then Ben accompanied Little Joe into the stable so he could take care of Cochise. While they were there, Little Joe never stopped talking explaining each and every thing that the brothers had done. He described too the colorful bruising on Adam’s body that had Ben very concerned.

“Where are these bruises and how bad did they look?”

“Well, he’s got a bunch of small ones on his arms and legs, but he’s got a really big dark one on his hip. He told Hoss it hurt a lot. I heard him say that when I was jumping in the lake and they thought I couldn’t hear. He got it when he was branding a heifer and the men let it go just when he was going to put the branding iron on it. It must have gotten real mad when he branded it.”

Ben could picture that and guessed that Adam was head butted and ended up on the ground. If he had known, he would have done something about hazing that had gone much too far. He guessed that Adam didn’t want him to know for that very reason.

“What other places was he bruised?”

“He got some new ones this morning too with that third mare. She took a bunch of rides for him to ride her to a standstill. She was a tough one, but Adam was tougher. When he got done though, he sat down and Hoss had to help him stand up. I never knew riding for that little while could be so hard.”

“Yes, it is one of the hardest jobs on the ranch.”

“Uh, Pa, there’s some things I have to talk to you about.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“Well, first, down at the breaking corrals, I was doing just like Hoss said and being quiet and working hard. But then when I thought Adam had won with that last horse, I yelled out that he was really good and the horse started bucking again. She took Adam all the way around the corral again. It looked like he was gonna get bucked off there for a minute but he didn’t. He rode her to a standstill, but I heard Hoss asking if he was going to be mad at me. I knew then that I was the reason she started bucking again. It was my fault, Pa, and if Adam had been thrown and if he got hurt, it would have been all my fault. I’m real sorry, Pa.”

“Now, did you apologize to Adam?”

“Well, on the way to the lake, I tried to but he said it all worked out so it was all right.”

“That was very gracious of him, and I do believe that if he said it was all right that he did accept your apology. That was very grown up of you to do. And telling me about it was very grown up too. I’m quite proud of you right now, Joseph. You make me feel very proud of my sons today. I don’t think anything can ruin how good I feel right now. How about if we have dinner and you tell me all about your time at the lake with your brothers?”

In a quandary then, Little Joe decided that Sunday would be soon enough to tell his father about the other problem. He would let his father have this night to relax and be happy. It was the least he could do after causing his father so much aggravation for the past few weeks. He decided that was the best decision and spent the next hour talking about the ride to the lake, the picnic lunch, the swimming and rock skipping, Hoss’ failed fishing attempt, and then how he had jumped off the boulders to his brother’s applause as they sat in the shallow water and rested. By the time he went to bed, he had forgotten that his oldest brother was in town with the hands who had heard the tale he had repeated and that they were all drinking. He didn’t realize what an explosive combination that could be.

Chapter 4

When Little Joe went down to breakfast on Sunday morning, he had no idea what was wrong but knew something was terribly amiss. Adam wasn’t there, Hoss stared at his plate instead of eating, and their father’s face was red with anger. Little Joe wanted to ask what was wrong but guessed that he would hear soon enough. He was correct in that assumption.

“Little Joe, we are not attending church services this morning. I have an errand to run with Sheriff Coffee. I’ll be home with your older brother later today. This morning I expect you to be mindful of what Hoss tells you to do and not cause me any more aggravation. I already have quite enough to deal with this morning.”

With that, Ben had finished what he was going to finish of his breakfast and left closing the door with some force as he exited the house. Hoss said nothing and continued to stare at his plate. Little Joe knew that there had to be something very seriously wrong for Hoss not to be eating.

“Hoss, what’s wrong? Is Adam hurt real bad or something?”

“No, well not in the way you’re thinking. He just got in a fight last night, and there was some damage so he’s in jail. Pa’s got to bring some money to pay damages and Adam and the other men can get out of jail.”

“Other men?”

“Yeah, Adam was fighting with some hands from here. Little Joe, it’s a real big mess. I’m all sick inside because of it. It’s all my fault somehow but I don’t know how. Pa told me a story that was never supposed to be told to nobody, and somehow it got told.” Little Joe stopped eating too at that point. He could only stare at Hoss as his big brother continued his tale.” Adam got so upset when the men started in on him about it, and I tried to tell him not to let it bother him so much and he asked how come I wasn’t surprised by the story so I told him that Pa had already told it to me. So he said that me and Pa must have had a good laugh about telling it to the hands. Little Joe, I never would a done something like that to Adam, and Pa wouldna done nothing like that neither. I don’t know how Adam could think that.” As Hoss talked, Little Joe was shriveling up inside. He knew exactly how the story had been told. He knew then who was responsible for all the trouble and the hurt that had been caused. “Little Joe, I don’t know how to fix any of this. Pa is so dadblamed mad at Adam, I don’t know what he’s gonna say to him, but Adam is plumb mad at Pa too thinking he told that story. Oh lordy, it’s a terrible mess.”

No one had to tell Little Joe to behave himself that morning. He was nearly paralyzed with worry for his family and with not knowing what to do. The night before, he had thought that he had a plan, and now he had nothing. It got worse when their father came home alone. He sat at his desk and refused to talk with them that afternoon. Both he and Hoss kept glancing over to the desk waiting for an acknowledgement from their father that they were there but didn’t get one. Finally when Hop Sing called them all to dinner, their father began to talk. He spoke in a monotone without much emotion in his voice because he had schooled himself all afternoon to keep his emotions under control.

“Your older brother has chosen not to come home. He thinks that he can do better for himself working elsewhere. He’ll find that things are not nearly as easy as he thinks and he’ll be back. Until that happens, we will not speak about what happened. Now, pass the platters and we’ll have our dinner.”

What Ben had so blithely glossed over was a major argument that he and Adam had outside Sheriff Coffee’s office when Ben had berated Adam for his behavior not only on that Saturday night but since he had arrived home from college finding fault with how he had handled himself with the men.

“If you had done a better job with the hands, it wouldn’t have come to a fight in a saloon.”

It was then that Adam had unloaded his growing resentment of how his father had left him in a vulnerable position by not giving him enough authority yet expecting him to somehow earn the respect of the hands anyway, and then unloaded his accusation that his father had told the most embarrassing story of Adam’s life so that the hands could use it to harass him further. Ben couldn’t deny that he had told the story but said he had only told Hoss. The argument had deteriorated from there with Adam saying that if he was paid what any hand was paid that he was unlikely to be treated any better than he was so he should find a ranch that would pay him better. When Ben said he wouldn’t be able to find one, the gauntlet was thrown and there was no going back. Adam told him he was going to find a job as a top hand on a ranch other than the Ponderosa and not to expect him back anytime soon. That was how they parted.

The hands who had been in jail with Adam had been close enough to hear most of that argument so it was the topic of conversation in the bunkhouse. It didn’t take long then for Hoss to hear what had happened, and by that night, he and Little Joe discussed it with Little Joe feeling a terrible load of guilt. He somehow knew that he was the key to resolving this big mess in his family but didn’t know yet how to do that. He spent a lot of time thinking about it that week, and by the following Saturday, he had a plan.

“Hoss, have you heard where Adam is working?”

“Yeah, I heard he got hired on at the Martin ranch. He’s breaking horses there and training them. I heard he got hired as a top hand there. He’s making probably twice what Pa was paying him here.”

“Twice?”

“Yeah. I think it’s sticking in Pa’s craw that Adam was right about that. He is a top hand and he’s getting paid as a top hand. Not many hands can do the things he does so he’s getting paid for being better than most.”

“Who’s gonna break horses here now?”

“We’ll go back to the hands taking turns, I guess. I miss him, Little Joe. I miss him more than when he was at college cause now he’s only a few hours away and he could be home, but he ain’t. Pa’s missing him too.”

“Do you think he misses us?”

“I bet he does. Once he got over being mad, I bet he missed us a lot.”

“You think he did this because he was mad?”

“Course that was part of it, but it was building up. It all came out because he was mad. Pa was mad too and said things he shouldna said neither. There was no call for him to say the things he said to Adam.”

“So I’m not the only one who has a temper that gets me in trouble.”

“No, in this family, you come by it honestly. It seems to be a family tradition kinda like being stubborn.”

“And being brave and handsome too.”

“Yeah, those too.”

“Hoss, I want to go talk to Adam. There’s something I need to tell him. Do you think you could cover for me if I was to ride over to the Martin ranch this afternoon to talk with Adam?”

“Joe, that’s too far for you to go alone. I can’t cover for you.” Joe looked terribly disappointed but Hoss had an addendum. “But I think I can ask Pa if the two of us can go riding. I can ride that far so I could go with you. I wouldn’t mind seeing Adam.”

Hoss had a big grin then that matched Little Joe’s. The two headed into the house to ask their father if they could do that. He agreed, and said they could go as soon as they had some lunch. Then he added a request while showing only a wan smile.

“And take your brother some of his shirts and other clothing. He’s probably very uncomfortable wearing the same clothing for a week. You know how he is about that.”

It was a good ride for Hoss and Little Joe who talked nonstop as they rode to the Martin ranch. However they were slightly apprehensive as the Martin ranch came into view. Hoss and Little Joe were relieved when they saw Adam, and he waved at them and walked toward them.

“Hey, what are you two doing here?”

“We brought you some of your clothes. Pa said you’d probably be uncomfortable wearing the same ones for a week. Little Joe wanted to talk to ya too. So here we are.”

Both younger brothers had seen the darker look that had passed over Adam’s face at the mention of their father. However it passed quickly and the three talked about nothing that mattered for a few minutes until Little Joe asked if there was some place that he and Adam could talk privately. Adam was curious as to what his youngest brother needed privacy to discuss with him and headed to the back of the stable. There was no one there because it was Saturday afternoon.

“All right, what’s so important?”

Ready to talk for a week, suddenly Little Joe found himself unable to say even a word. It seemed that Adam instinctively knew that it was important. He waited for his youngest brother to find a way to break through his own reticence.

“It’s all my fault.”

“What’s all your fault?”

“All of this. Adam, I was mad at you.”

“Why were you mad at me?”

“I don’t know exactly. Ever since you got back from college, it seems like I’ve been mad at you for one reason or another. I can’t quite figure it out, but I know sometimes it seems that you’re always there, and it made me mad. Now you’re not there, and it makes me sad.”

Trying to understand that, Adam thought for a while. “I came back and upset how things were done, and I took a lot of Pa’s attention. He paid attention to me especially at first and not to you. You didn’t like it so you didn’t like me. Little Joe, that’s understandable. I came back and shook things up. I didn’t mean to do that, but I can see that I did. However, that isn’t why we have this mess.”

“But it is. See, I was mad at you, and I wanted to get even with you. I listened when Pa told Hoss that story, and then I told the hands.”

Little Joe waited expectantly for the explosion. He knew that if someone had admitted something like that to him, he would have been furious. Instead, Adam was quiet.

“Aren’t you mad at me? I’m mad at me so I don’t know why you wouldn’t be.”

“I’m hurt that you would do that. I’m trying to understand why you would do that. I’m thinking too that I was a jackass to have accused Pa and Hoss of telling that story.”

“When I knew it was wrong what I had done, I tried to talk to the hands and tell them not to say anything. I told them that I was never supposed to say anything about that story. But it was too late, I guess. I was going to tell Pa what I did. I was going to tell him on Sunday, but by then it was too late. So you see I made this big mess. I had to tell you first. Next I figure I have to tell Hoss, and then when I get home, I’ll tell Pa. I may never get to leave home again so I had to come over here to tell you the truth so you could come home.”

“I can’t go home.”

“Why not? I told you it wasn’t Pa or Hoss who told that story.”

“Yes, but the other issues between me and Pa are still there, and I made a commitment here. I signed on for a month at least. I won’t leave before I finish that. I’ve got three weeks left to go before I’m free to hire on somewhere else.”

“But you’re not hired on the Ponderosa. You’re family.”

“Well, you see, that’s one of the issues. Pa pays me like one of the hands and I have the standing of one of the hands. That has to change if I’m coming back home. I’m not going to be the hand who relays his instructions. Anyone can do that.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean by all that.”

“Pa does. He has time to think about it. He knows what I want. If he wants me on the Ponderosa, he knows what he has to do.”

“You’d stay working here instead of the Ponderosa?”

“No, if I don’t head back to the Ponderosa, I have other options. Now let’s go find Hoss and spend some time together before you two have to head back home. I guess I need to apologize to Hoss too. I was angry and unfairly accused him of doing something I should have known he wouldn’t have done.”

“What?”

“I know Hoss very well. I should have known he would never have told that story about me knowing how it would have upset me. No matter how mad he was at me over something, he would never do that. I should have acted better. I need to apologize to Pa too.” Pausing for a moment not wanting to jeopardize this newfound but still untested open relationship with his youngest brother, Adam did decide to ask rather than to advise on the next issue. “What are you going to say to Pa and to Hoss?”

Dropping his head, Little Joe was at first surprised that Adam knew he was going to do that before realizing that anyone would know he had to talk to them next and that even his opening words to Adam might have led to that conclusion. “Well, I was hoping that you would help with Hoss. I was going to tell Pa on Saturday or Sunday, but things got so messed up and I didn’t know how to do it. I decided to tell you first because once I tell Pa what I did and why, I might not get to leave the house until I’m as old as you are now.”

Tousling the youngster’s hair, Adam was in a better mood than he had been in for quite a while. “Oh, probably not that long. Maybe only until you’re as old as Hoss is now.” At Little Joe’s feigned look of horror, he laughed loudly as his younger brother had hoped he would. Hoss heard them laughing and smiled never expecting the story and the apologies he was going to get.

Chapter 5

The next morning, Hoss and Little Joe were surprised when their father turned the carriage toward the Martin ranch after church services. Both boys had seen their father talking with Rufus Martin before the service and after it. They had seen the two men shake hands but didn’t know the significance of that. They liked Rufe Martin. Most people did. He was a small wiry man who spoke in a big voice all the time. He didn’t seem to know how to whisper so if you wanted anything to be private, you had to ask him to nod or shake his head in response to your questions. Their father had obviously done that because they had seen Rufe nod and shake his head numerous times until he was smiling and their father frowned a bit before he smiled too. Whatever deal they had made worked out well or at least reasonably for both of them. Now they were headed to Rufe’s ranch except they had seen Rufe taking his family to town for lunch. Both were worried that there was going to be some kind of confrontation between their father and Adam. Hoss and Little Joe had told their father of their meeting the day before with Adam and what had been said. Hoss had been worried that it would make him angry but it had only made him quiet. Little Joe had asked to speak with him then.

“Pa, I told Adam what I had to tell him. I had to tell him first and apologize. Now I need to tell you. You’re going to be mad, and I know I deserve it, but I need to tell you what I did.”

“Little Joe, I am mostly concerned about getting your oldest brother home again. You have been behaving at school, haven’t you?”

“Yes, Pa, I have. I’ve been following the rules and thinking about what I’m doing. It’s hard, and my friends have been calling me some names because of it, but I’m doing it. No, Pa, I have to tell you what happened before all this. It’s all my fault that Adam left. I told him and now I have to tell you.”

“Son, Adam left because the two of us had an argument when we should have worked out our differences. That is mostly my fault. I plan to work on that. You are not responsible for that happening.”

“But, Pa, I am. I’m the one who got Adam thrown in jail.” Thoroughly confused by then, Ben decided the best thing to do was to let Little Joe talk so that perhaps he would understand what he was trying to explain. “You see, I was mad at Adam. Adam asked me why I was so mad at him, and I’m not even sure why. It just seemed that since he got home, everybody has been paying attention to him.” The sibling rivalry issue was clear enough to Ben so he waited for more. “Nobody cared about me any more. Even Hoss was spending all of his time with Adam.” Ben thought about explaining that they were working together but wisely held back letting Little Joe continue to speak. “I know you said Adam was only telling me to do what you told him to tell me, but it seemed like he was awful bossy and that made me mad too. He’s got a way of talking to me that makes me mad sometimes. I decided to get even with him for everything. When you were telling Hoss that story about what Adam did when he was young. You know, that story with Missus Davis and her daughter and Adam’s dirty pants and the bathhouse? I heard you tell Hoss, and it’s a funny story. Well it was to me, and it was to the hands too when I told them the next day.” Little Joe waited for the explosion and didn’t have to wait long.

“You told the hands the story. You thought the story was funny and you told the hands. You were eavesdropping and you used that story to try to get even with your brother for some imagined wrong. You were feeling slighted because you weren’t getting all the attention because I hadn’t seen my oldest son for over four years and wanted to spend some time with him? I didn’t ignore you. I didn’t ignore Hoss. But you spent your time feeling sorry for yourself and decided to get even for your brother for your own selfishness. You were jealous that Hoss wanted to spend time with the brother that he missed for four years too. Instead of thinking about what anyone else needed, all you thought about was that you didn’t get your way and you blamed Adam because he came home. You decided to find a way to make him leave, didn’t you, and it worked too.”

“I didn’t know it would make him leave.”

Wanting to retort to that, Ben couldn’t because he knew it was the argument he had had with Adam that had led to that result. The argument probably was one that was destined to happen. Ben had been examining his own motives and behavior ever since that day and the terrible consequence of that argument. He had not wanted Adam to leave either, but that argument, although cleansing, had made Adam’s departure inevitable mostly because Ben had been unwilling to be flexible on any points. He had been thinking quite a lot about those arguments his son had made, and although he didn’t agree with the way his son perceived what he had done, he could understand how his son would see it that way, and he could see too how his decisions had led to significant difficulties for him. He had blamed Adam for the problems with the hands, but he had handicapped him so severely that Adam could not find a way to earn the respect of the hands except by being gone. He couldn’t blame Little Joe for all of what had happened, but he had done a mean spirited thing to spite his brother and had eavesdropped as well. He deserved to be punished. Confining him to his room had not worked as well as he had hoped so he decided to try a different tactic.

“You will ride Old Betsy to school and back for the next week. Cochise will be out in the pasture or will be ridden by one of the hands if he needs exercise. During the same week, you will chop wood when you get home after you complete your regular chores. Then you will help Hop Sing until dinner is ready. You will eat in the kitchen at the table there and go to your room when you finish. You will do any homework you have. There will be no checkers or other games for the next week. Hopefully by the end of the week, you will have learned that any behavior like what you have done will mean quite severe consequences for you.”

The mention of having to ride Old Betsy to school and being denied access to Cochise had meant that Little Joe had heard very little of what had been said after that part. It had to be repeated to him for he seemed to be in shock. Ben got a bit of satisfaction from that. Once he went through the list again, he waited to see how Little Joe would react.

“Pa, couldn’t you just tan me instead. You could tan me good, and have me do all those extra chores too, but you could let me ride Cochise to school. Please, Pa?”

“Oh, so you would like to trade a tanning for riding Cochise to school. Little Joe, discipline decisions are not open for discussion. You have your consequences for your actions, and you will have to accept them. Now, I have to think about how to go talk to Adam about all of this. I want him to come home, and I need to find a way to convince him to do that. Now I think it would be a good idea for you to go to your room and think about what you have done.”

Thinking for a moment about trying once more to negotiate, Little Joe thought better of that option and trudged up the stairs to his room. His father watched him go with conflicting emotions. He was somewhat proud that his youngest had found the courage to admit his wrongdoing, apologize, and now accept the consequences for his bad choices. However, his impulsive and mean-spirited display of immature and jealous manipulation had harmed the family and Adam in particular. That was cause for great concern. As Little Joe got older, his impulsive and often emotional responses to situations were going to become more and more of a threat to his safety and well-being as well as to the safety and well-being of those around him. His impulsivity and emotionalism coupled with jealousy, stubbornness, and a quick temper were going to be an explosive combination especially as he grew older. Ben was not looking forward to those days. Hoss walked in the house then because he had heard nothing for several minutes and thought everything was resolved.

“I’m riding over to see Adam. Little Joe is to stay in his room.”

“Yessir. Anything else?”

“No, Hoss, and I’m sorry if I was abrupt with you. I’m upset with your younger brother. I’m sure you know by now what he did.”

“Yessir, he told me what he done and he apologized. I can’t believe he did that because he was so jealous of the attention Adam got by coming home.”

“What?”

“Didn’t he tell you the reasons? He was upset that you and I spent time with Adam. He didn’t have our attention as he did before so he was angry at Adam about that. I know Roy has told me that I was coddling him and spoiling him. I didn’t listen. I thought I was protecting him in ways I couldn’t with you and with Adam, but now I guess I was doing what Roy said I was. It’s time for me to be a bit tougher on that boy. I don’t want him to grow up to behave like this acting on any fool notion that comes into his head or any wild feeling he gets.”

“Pa, he did show some spunk telling Adam what he done and saying he was sorry, and then he told you. That had to be real hard on him to do that. He ain’t full growed yet to do what he done. He’s still a colt.”

Smiling indulgently, Ben put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I know he is, son, and the tasks I’ve set for him are to keep him thinking about that and paying attention to what’s important. He won’t like it, but he’s going to have to take some time to think about things and make some better choices in how he lives his life.”

“No trip outside for one of them necessary discussions then?”

“No, Adam has told me on many occasions that didn’t work well with him. He has said that most of the time it made him angrier not remorseful. I’m inclined to think that’s probably true. I’ll try these other methods instead. Little Joe won’t be allowed to ride Cochise to school this week. Put him in the pasture with the other horses, please.”

Shocked, Hoss found that he was speechless for a moment. “Pa, that’s like to kill him. Little Joe, I mean.”

“Oh, I’m sure that he will survive, but he needs a lesson in how painful it is to be denied the company of those you love because of the actions of another. He did that to Adam. He is getting a dose of it himself. We’ll talk about that at the end of the week to see if he understands the pain he inflicted.”

Nodding, Hoss understood then. He felt sympathy for his little brother, but he could see too the lesson his father hoped to teach. He only hoped his little brother was ready to learn it. As he watched his father ride away, he hoped too that he would have a good conversation with Adam and work out the differences between them. He didn’t like this discord in the family especially when he couldn’t think of anything he could do to pull them back together again.

Chapter 6

Unaccustomed to feeling nervous about talking to anyone since he was a cabin boy on a schooner, Ben Cartwright was surprised to feel those butterflies in his stomach as he rode to the Martin ranch to talk to his eldest son. He guessed as he thought about it that it probably had a bit to do with eating some crow. He had been wrong on several counts with how he had handled his son’s return to the ranch and how he had expected him to work with the hands. He had handicapped him much as Adam had claimed by wanting him to remain thoroughly under his authority and yet expecting him to exert authority over the hands. It had been an impossible task for the twenty-three year old man who had nevertheless done his best despite nearly constant criticism from his father for failing to achieve success. Their argument had been as inevitable as it had been necessary, but Ben hoped it had not been too damaging to their relationship that the issues couldn’t be ironed out. As he rode into the yard of the ranch, he guessed that Adam had been expecting him. He was sitting on the bunkhouse porch with his long legs stretched out and his feet on the rail, but his eyes missed nothing. He waited until his father was near before he dropped his feet and stood waiting for his father to break the silence.

“It seems that perhaps you were expecting me.”

“I was. After Little Joe and Hoss were here, and Little Joe said he was going to tell you what happened, I thought you might come by. I am sorry for accusing you of telling that story. I shouldn’t have done that, and I apologize for my unkind words.”

“Adam, I would never break such a confidence that way with you, but I should not have told Hoss either. If I had not, Little Joe could not have eavesdropped and spread the tale.”

“Why did you tell him? I don’t understand that.”
“You came back, and he remembered you as his hero who could do anything, and he thought you would seem more like one an equal now that he’s more grown, but he still is in awe of all the things that you can do. He wondered if there was any time that you had showed you were fallible too. His confidence isn’t that strong and needs some bolstering. I only meant to show him that even the best of us can make mistakes. I didn’t mean any harm. I knew Hoss would never speak of it again, but I never anticipated being overheard. Are we all right on that score?”

“We’re all right.”

“On other things, I’m thinking I need to make an apology. I’ve been thinking about the things you said. You were rather rude in how you said them, but I’ve had time to get over that and to realize the frustration you must have been feeling and why you felt it. In that same kind of situation, I likely would have reacted the same so I can’t fault you on that. I put you in an impossible position. I’ve heard from Little Joe about all the bruises you have and had a chance this week to talk to Hoss about how you got them. Son, I had no idea how rough it was for you out there. I wish you had told me, but I understand why you didn’t. When I understood that, I understood it all. I wanted to continue to be the father in charge of you as my son but then I expected you to go out there and take charge of the men to get the work done. I know now that could never work.”

Looking up from under lowered brows, Adam had only one question. “So what do you propose?” He said it as if it was a business proposition, and Ben realized it was. The Ponderosa was a business, and this was a business decision.

“I propose that we work together in more of a partnership to run the Ponderosa at least until your younger brothers are ready to shoulder more of the responsibilities. Until then, you and I will make the decisions and run the ranch.”

“As partners, but you will be the senior partner?”

“Yes, and if we cannot resolve a dispute between us, then I will make a final decision in those matters. However, you will be given the chance for input on any decision.”

“And if you don’t like my input?”

“We’ll talk about it.”

“Quietly or loudly?”

Ben had to smile then. “Son, we’re Cartwrights. I think you already know the answer to that one.” He finally got a smile in return then. “Now, when do you think you’ll be ready to start in on this new arrangement?”

“I told Mister Martin that I would work for him for a month.”

“Even though I wish you could come home today, I know Rufus is a tough businessman. He’ll likely hold you to that.”

“Yes, he is and probably would, but perhaps I can negotiate a settlement for less time. I have other things to offer.”

Offering his hand then, Ben was pleased that Adam took it and grinned too. In the house, Rufus and his wife watched happy to see father and son reconciled. They had already talked about what they would ask of Adam to release him from his promise to work for them for a month. When they saw him walking toward the house after his father had departed, Rufus steeled himself with a serious demeanor ready to negotiate while his wife left the room quite sure she couldn’t keep a straight face through it all. An hour later, Adam was packing his things and riding back home. Arriving in time for dinner, he wasn’t surprised that Hoss was the first one to greet him. They talked in the stable for a short time as Adam groomed his horse and put his tack away.

“Pa, didn’t tan Little Joe.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. He takes it pretty easy on that boy.”

“Not this time. Ifn you look, you’ll see that Cochise isn’t in his stall. Pa had me put him in the pasture with the other horses. He liked it too. He’s running out there and having himself one good old time kicking up his heels. Joe’s sitting up in his room moping away. Pa said he can’t ride him to school all week. He’s got ta ride Old Betsy like he done before he got Cochise. He’s gonna be madder than a swarm a bees after a bear done stole the honey.”

Pausing in brushing down Sport as he thought, Adam finally turned to Hoss because he could see no connection between the offense and the punishment. “Why would Pa do that?”

Smiling with just a hint of self-satisfaction at knowing something his older brother didn’t, Hoss got to explain. “He figures Little Joe needs to know what it’s like to be separated from the ones you love. He didn’t really understand what he was taking from you by trying to make you go away. Pa figures he will after this. It hurts when you can’t be with the ones you miss even if you know they’re happy doing what they’re doing.”

“Hoss, I wasn’t going to stay away. I had to prove to Pa that I am a top hand and can do a lot more than most. We came to a good understanding this afternoon. Things will be different now.”

“You and Pa ain’t gonna fight no more?”

“Hoss, we’re Cartwrights. I think you already know the answer to that one.” Adam was rewarded with a belly laugh for quoting his father. “We’re stubborn and we’ve got tempers about as big as the country out here, but Pa said he’d listen to my ideas. It doesn’t mean he’ll go along with things, but listening is a big step. He said we’ll work more as partners until you and Little Joe are ready to take on more of the responsibilities. He’ll have the final say and I accept that.”

“I don’t think I ever want any more responsibilities. I like doing what I’m doing.”

“You’re seventeen. When you’re older, you might change your mind about that. We’ll see how things go, but for now, we worked out a way to get things done.”

“Let’s go get us some dinner then. It sure smells good. Hop Sing made some of your favorites when Pa said you might be back by dinner.”

“He said I ‘might’ be back by dinner. He’s going to have to learn to have more confidence in me.” Adam grinned though to show there was no rancor in the statement.

When the two brothers entered the house, Ben stood and offered his hand again to Adam welcoming him home. “Only an hour? I would have thought that Rufus was a better negotiator than that. He let you out of your obligation?”

“No, I’m going to design an addition to his house. He wants a new and much bigger kitchen. They’ll turn the one they have now into a big pantry and storeroom. I said I could have the plans drawn by the end of the month. Oh, and he’ll give you that right of way to put a road through his south section so we can haul logs to town easier.”

“Oh, and what’s that going to cost me?”

“It’s not going to cost you anything. I have to tutor their son for West Point every Saturday next spring, and I have to take their daughter to the next dance. Missus Martin added that last one in at the end. It would have been rude to say no.”

“Rufus is letting his son go to West Point knowing what might happen?”

“Yes, apparently the family values a military career. He didn’t go because of that bad foot he has, but he wants his son to go. Besides, maybe they’ll work something out in Washington to avoid any more trouble.”

“I don’t know. Every crisis seems to get more heated than the last and every so-called compromise seems to be less and less satisfactory to both sides. I’m afraid of where this is headed. I’m glad my sons are here and far away from what may come.”

“I’m here to stay, Pa.”

“That’s good to hear, son. I hope that is always the way you feel. Now let me get a plate up to your brother, and then the rest of us can have dinner and you can tell us what you did all week. Considering the deal you made with Rufus, I may have to amend the offer I made to you earlier.” Adam looked a bit nervous, but Ben smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m not reneging on anything, but you showed a real talent for negotiations. Perhaps you ought to come with me when I negotiate some contracts. In the future, perhaps you could take over some of that if you’re so inclined. I would rather stay here than traipse all over the country doing that.”

“I’d like that. When could we go?”

“At the end of the cattle drive, I’m meeting with some men to work out a contract for some timber. You could work with me to get the best price for our cattle and then come to the meeting for the timber contract. If there are any small contracts here, you can take the lead and I’ll sit in on them to help out as needed.”

“Pa, I was thinking that if we brought home more horses than we need, we could sell to the other ranches. It would be some quick money.”

Surprised and not quite ready for Adam to offer a new idea, Ben took a moment and realized it was a first step and an important one. “We can try that the next time we round up some horses. We’ll bring a few extra back and see how it goes. Based on that experience, we can talk about whether we want to do more of that or not.”

Realizing he had been holding his breath waiting for the answer, Hoss nearly stumbled into the table as he got dizzy. He took several deep breaths as Ben helped guide him into his chair.

“Are you all right, son?”

“Just hungry is all. It’s been a long time since lunch.”

As Ben was going to fill a plate for Little Joe, Hop Sing came out with a tray. “Family sit down and eat. I bring to number three son.”

The next day, things began to work more smoothly on the ranch. Ben announced to the hands that Adam was second in command and was acting as foreman of the ranch. They were to go to him with any problems, and only if he thought he needed assistance would he take the matter up with his father. Little Joe rode Old Betsy to school with a grudging smile as he left but a scowl on his return. The other boys had not been kind, and he saw Cochise in the pasture when he got home which drove him his loss. He did his work as assigned and then headed to his room. Later, as the sun dropped lower and he was sure everyone was busy in the great room downstairs, he took off his boots, slipped out the window, and dropped his boots to the ground. Then he shimmied down the porch support intending to put on his boots and go visit with Cochise except when he got down to the ground, there were no boots lying there.

“Looking for these?” Adam stepped from the darker recess of the porch with Little Joe’s boots in hand. “You’re only going to make things worse. You’ve finished one day and only have four left. If you want, I can boost you back up and then toss your boots to you.”

Standing defiantly at first and staring at Adam daring him to do or say more, Little Joe slowly thought about what he had said. Then he thought about what he had planned to do and all the things that might go wrong because of his plan. Finally he nodded. Adam set the boots down and laced his fingers together to boost Little Joe up and easily hoisted him back up to the roof. He was going to toss the boots, but Little Joe hung down over the edge and Adam was able to hand the boots to his outstretched hands.

“Thanks, Adam.”

“Not a problem. It’s what brothers do. We look out for each other.”

“Yeah. I’ll try to do better.”

“I know you will.” But somehow Adam knew that with that personality, it wasn’t going to be easy for his youngest brother to manage that. Little Joe was an impulsive, emotional scamp. It wasn’t likely to change much for a long time, but he certainly did keep life interesting.

At the end of the week, Little Joe rode Old Betsy home for the last time relieved that that part of his punishment was over. Ben met him in the stable to discuss the lesson he was supposed to have learned. It seemed to have worked so Ben told him to go get Cochise and bring him to the stable. Little Joe was going to do that, but paused in the doorway of the stable and walked slowly back.

“The teacher said to give this to you first thing. I forgot.”

Pulling an envelope from his pocket, Little Joe handed it to his father who grimaced expecting bad news. He unsealed the envelope and read the contents.

“We’ve done a good job with Joseph. His behavior at school has been exemplary. There have been no more pranks. I trust that will continue to be true.” There was a bit more explaining that Little Joe needed some work on his math skills and his penmanship, but Ben wasn’t too concerned with that. He smiled and told Little Joe to get Cochise. It’s good to see all of my sons growing into their heritage.

8 thoughts on “Rites of Passage (by BettyHT)”

  1. First your photo shop icon is adorable. Although I wasn’t head over heals fo The Ponderosa The “boys did a great job” and I especially loved Little Joe.

    The story was one of your best. It was the misunderstandings and the Whys? That were told in a believable way. Joe was a young colt and Adam so wants to be the stallion leader of the heard and Hoss well Hoss is the Middle-insiteful,calm.forgiving and flexible (often my forever favorite).

    It was a heart warming story and the punishment really did meet the crime. Sometimes you’d like to strangle Joe but this time Pa really was right on! Enjoyed this one throughly. Judi

  2. Wonderful story. Rites of Passage for everyone. See all they need to do is think and talk, but then they wouldn’t be the Cartwrights we love so much.

  3. it was nice seeing Joe working out for himself the trouble he coursed, and Ben realising he had to change towards Adam who was given a impossible job. loved the story.

    1. Thank you so much. Yes, Little Joe as well as Ben and Adam all worked out for themselves what they had to do.

    1. Thank you. I hope it was clear that they all learned something in this story because all had adjustments to make.

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