Ben Cartwright set the book he had been reading down on the table beside his bed. The sound came again. As he called, “Come in,” a smile turned up the corner of his lips. He had long ago developed the ability to discern which of his sons wanted access to their father’s private domain from just the sound of the knock on the door. He was not surprised when his middle son stepped into the room. “Yes, Hoss?”
“I, well, Pa, there’s sumthin’ I, well, uhm, can I talk to ya about something?”
“Of course.” Ben patted the mattress and watched Hoss hesitantly cross the room. “Sit down, son.”
Hoss slowly lowered himself to sit on the very edge of Ben’s bed. “Now, Pa, uhhm, I need ya to promise ya won’t get mad.”
“Have you done something that would make me mad?”
“Nooooo.” The syllable was drawn out to fill the seconds Hoss needed to compose the rest of his answer. “No, it ain’t that I’ve done something that would make you mad.”
“Then who has?”
“Pa, it’s just…” The words faded from Hoss’s lips.
“Eric.” Ben watched his son shift nervously and heard the bed creak.
“Now, Pa, there ain’t no need for you to work yourself up none. Really there ain’t, and I wouldn’t have said nothing to ya ‘cept, well, he might’ve dug himself a hole a little too deep to crawl out of, so to speak.”
“And just what kind of hole has your brother dug for himself this time?” The timbre of Ben’s voice had deepened.
Hoss chewed on the corner of his lower lip. “Pa, I…, can’t ya promise not to get mad at him or anything. I mean could ya just, well, iffen you would… I mean, I think ya could…” The bed clothes were twisting beneath Hoss’s fingers.
Ben eyebrows lowered. “Eric, if your brother is in some kind of trouble you need to tell me now. He and I can deal with any needed consequences when things have been settled.”
“But Pa…” Hoss swallowed.
“Stop trying to save Little Joe’s backside and tell me exactly what is going on, and I mean now.”
“Pa, it aint Little Joe!”
Ben’s eyes widened. “It’s not?” They narrowed again. “Adam?”
Hoss nodded. “He’s, well, he’s gone and agreed to the dangest contest just ‘cause them Bonners was a poking and prodding and, well, Pa ya got to put a stop to it ‘cause if ya don’t, and he gets hurt, it’s all my fault.”
Hoss nodded again. “Ya know Adam can stay cool no matter what anybody says about him.” Hoss’s voice dropped to a whisper, “Them Bonners didn’t say nothing about Adam; they said it about me.”
Ben’s back stiffened; then he leaned forward. “Your older brother agreed to some fool and dangerous contest because the Bonner brothers insulted you.”
Hoss nodded. “That’s the sum of it, Pa.” He swallowed twice before he added, “Ya ain’t supposed to know until after it’s all said and done.” A sigh filled the room. “Adam’s gonna be powerful mad at me for a good piece, but…” Hoss once again chewed on his lower lip. “Better mad then hurt, and I got a fearsome feeling about it.”
Ben studied his son’s eyes and then patted the hand that still twisted the quilt. “Don’t worry, Hoss. My eldest has another think coming if he thinks I’m going to allow any foolishness that puts any of my sons in danger.”
“Pa, Adam’s twenty-two.”
“I’m well aware of your brother’s age, Hoss; I was there when he was born.” He patted the hand beneath his again. “I’ll have to handle it differently than I would if it was your little brother, but, well, I have my ways, so don’t you fret. Now tell me the whole story.”
Hoss leaned back against the footboard and did as his father wanted. In the end, elder brother did too.