The Falling Out (by MissJudy)

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Summary: The Cartwright family should have returned to normal after Señor and Delores Tenino left for Mexico, but it hasn’t. Hoss, Adam and Joe have been surly and avoiding one another since the lovely young woman left, and Ben can’t understand what’s driving it. He senses that what had started as a competition to win the young lady’s heart, had left some unexpected wounds behind. When circumstances and harsh words fracture his family even more, Ben decides he must force his sons to take stock of what they’re about to lose, in the one way he thinks will work. A What Happened Later story, for Ponderosa Matador.

Rating: K     Word Count:  22,960

 

The Falling Out

Ben released a heavy sigh and laid his book aside. He hadn’t turned a page since he’d opened it some time ago. The house was too quiet; a situation that left him edgy, and seemed to have no foreseeable end.

He didn’t understand the three-way impasse that was moving his sons to set up unbreachable walls around themselves, effectively shrouding the house in a pall of bitterness and silence. There’d been disagreements and a few all-out brawls between two of them from time-to-time, but never anything like this.

The falling out had sent its first invasive shoot into his family’s tap root in an incident that occurred two days before the visit of his old friend, Francisco Tenino.  He recalled how he and Adam had rushed inside the house with guns drawn after hearing what sounded like a scuffle. They’d found Joe on the floor under a collapsed book shelf, and Hoss surrounded by broken stove pipes and covered in soot. This sitaution had followed Joe’s failed attempt to perform a veronica1 with his blanket-turned-cape for Hoss’s charging-bull impersonation.

Another attempt had been exposed in that moment: Hoss’s attempt to conceal information his father had given him about the señor’s beautiful traveling companion.

Ben had expected some jockeying between his sons as they’d vied to be the lovely young Delores’s escort, but he’d never expected that the anticipation of her visit would begin tearing them apart. He imagined how an overly-tightened screw with the purpose of holding things together, often cracked the wood around it instead, causing the connection to fail. This visit had twisted his sons just as tightly, and splintered them in the aftermath.

Knowing what he did of the Tenino’s wealth and way of life, Ben had privately predicted that Adam’s sophistication and charm, along with his knowledge of the Spanish language and music would hold sway with the young woman. But after she’d arrived, he’d observed a missing piece in Adam’s polished presentation. The young woman had grown up on a ranch where the finest bulls in Mexico were raised for the arena, and she had become addicted to the excitement of the bull ring. Her eyes sparkled when she talked about the bravery of the matadors, and the dangerous dance performed between man and animal.

Hoss could have had a step up on his brothers in this if he had been more thorough. His middle son knew that Señor Tenino bred bulls, and bought a book about bullfighting to prepare for the visit. The contents of those pages had provided the impetus for the failed exhibition that he and Adam had walked in on, and spurred the endeavor that turned disastrous when Gigger Thurman’s bull had rampaged through the city and over the countryside.

Ben allowed himself a moment of fatherly, “I should have seen this coming,” as he considered that the mess those two made in the house should have forewarned of what was to come.

Delores’s interest in bullfighting would have given them an enthusiastic audience, had Hoss and Joe actually studied more about the discipline instead of pretending to know about it. After embarrassing themselves in a woefully uninformed conversation with Miss Tenino on the subject, they’d done as they were prone to do: they dug themselves in even deeper by promising her a bullfight she’d never forget.

Ben’s chuckle nearly echoed in the quiet room. He was certain neither Tenino would ever forget the “performance” his sons had provided. He’d seen Delores grin as she’d offered her goodbyes and thanked them for a most “interesting” few days.

Over a week had passed since the Tenino’s departure, and instead of his sons moving past the episode, their feelings had grown into quiet anger and suspicion.  He couldn’t comprehend this, especially since he’d revealed information on the day their guests had left that should have put an end to their surliness.

He remembered witnessing their stare-down at the table that evening, and the conversation that had ensued:

“Well, boys,” Ben said as Hop Sing delivered desert. “After our guests left today, I paid a visit to those who sustained property damage during the bull’s…visit. Three-thousand ought to take care of the rebuilding and restocking, with a little extra cash to help them forget the trauma they experienced.”

“Three-thousand…dollars?” Adam croaked. “Are they planning to line their chicken coops with gold leaf?”

Ben grinned behind his napkin. “It seems reasonable to me. But perhaps you three would like to rebuild the saloon, fences, coops and barn doors that were destroyed, to ensure they aren’t trying to gouge you. If you do that in addition to your regular ranch duties, you’ll be done by Christmas…of next year.”

Hoss groaned. “And you’re expectin’ us to come up with that much money?”

“Well…I didn’t bring Gigger’s bull to town in a flimsy trailer, or chase him through half of Nevada. I think you’re getting off cheap. Knowing they had the Cartwrights on the hook for damages, they could have asked for a lot more.

Little Joe smiled sweetly at his father. “I don’t suppose you’d advance my share.”

Ben dabbed the coffee from his lips and shook his head. “I’ve been paying you a wage since you were 16, son.” He nodded towards the other two at the table. “You all live here free of charge; your work supplies are provided by the ranch; you draw a good wage, and you get the same bonuses that the other hands receive. I’ve encouraged you to save or invest what you don’t need, but I’ve left that up to you.” He looked down at his plate while scooping a forkful of pie. “Perhaps you could get a bank loan, using your bullfighting skills as collateral.”

“Very funny, Pa.” Joe nudged Hoss and the two of them looked at Adam. “I think we have our own bank right here. How about it, Adam? You have money, so you can pay it. You’d have our gratitude, and maybe one day we can pay back some of it.”

Adam quietly laid his fork on his plate, finished chewing, and then eyed his brothers with a deadly stare. “I’m not even sure why I’d be included in the restitution. I only tried to help when your scheme went bad.”

Little Joe leaned his elbows on the table and matched his older brother’s evil-eyed glare. “It seems you were more than willing to ‘help’. In fact it was you who chased Gigger’s bull through most of the buildings, hoping it would slow him down.”

“Yeah!” Hoss’s face brightened. “You might not’a helped plan the bullfight, but you sure did enjoy chasin’ that big ol’ animal around the territory. That ought to account for an equal share of the damage.” His smile turned sour as he stopped to think. “Somethin’ about this whole thing ain’t right. Señorita Delores was all sweet ta me afterwards. She seemed to like Adam’s music and poetry purdy much too, and she thought Joe was brave in wantin’ to fight the bull. But then she was laughing at us when she said goodbye.”

“I don’t think any of us so much as got a kiss from her for our efforts.” Joe added.

Ben cleared his throat. “If you’d remembered that there were two guests here, and had spent time with her father, you’d have heard that he was going to announce his daughter’s  engagement to a famous matador who owns the finest training facility in Mexico when they got home.”

Little Joe pushed his chair back and stood as his face turned crimson. “So…she made fools of us?”

“Sit down, Joe,” Ben commanded. He tried to suppress a smile but lost the battle. “Delores Tenino was trying to be gracious, and I think it took every bit of goodwill she could muster to put up with your pestering. You didn’t need her help to look foolish.”

He now realized how in that moment they’d each faced their folly, and it left them looking for something to ease the sting—or at least someone to blame. It was also that moment when house became quiet. Worse was that the feather of ill-will from that evening became a sizeable barbell when other events raised the tension.

The liniment Hoss used on Joe’s back created what looked and felt like a mild sunburn, at first. But while chasing Gigger’s bull, the friction of Joe’s shirt on his irritated skin raised small blisters. Joe came to breakfast the morning after the Teninos departed, looking fevered and miserable. The blisters had enlarged into fluid-filled sacs that had exploded during the night, leaving his back covered with crusty scabs that smelled like sour milk. Paul Martin pronounced a serious infection, probably caused by the “unsavory things” his raw skin had contacted while pursuing the wayward animal.

Paul confined Joe to bed, and sent a woman from town to apply hourly compresses. Staying on his stomach to prevent the sores from sticking to the sheets, and the constant interruption for the treatments, prevented Joe from sleeping well. That made him even less congenial.

The infection cleared quickly, but Joe fixated on Hoss, saying he’d intentionally used the wrong lotion to show Delores that his younger brother was too weak to endure rigorous training. Joe further believed that when that plan didn’t work well enough, Hoss loosed the bull in town and rode its horn to become the hero. Despite Hoss’s profuse apologies, the irrational anger grew until he refused to allow his middle brother anywhere near him.

Ben knew Hoss didn’t possess the deviousness or foresight to predict such a chain of events. Yet illness always made Joe as grouchy as a bear with heat rash.

Adam stayed out of the conflict between his brothers on that front, but once he understood the seriousness of the impasse, he did something that was typical of him. Ben recalled Adam returning from town a few days earlier and setting a packet of cash on the desk. “This should cover the damages,” he said softly before going back outside.

Since then, Adam had absented himself from anything related to his family. He carried a supper tray to his room each night, saying he needed to work on side projects he was doing for an engineering firm in Virginia City. He offered no further explanation for the evening job, but Ben assumed the absence of $3000 from his son’s investments left a hole Adam felt obligated to refill.

Being a wise man, Ben suspected a darker truth. Somewhere in the maelstrom of the bull-chasing shenanigans, Joe’s surliness and accusations, Hoss’s sadness over being banished from Joe’s presence, and the fact that his brothers hadn’t seemed sincere about contributing to the restitution for their scheme-gone-wrong…he’d grown guarded, and a little weary.

The one part Ben didn’t understand was why Joe was mad at Adam. Competition ran hot between those two, and the visit of the pretty young woman pushed at that tendency. Joe’s attempts to impress Delores were clumsy compared to his older brother’s. Even he and Francisco had cringed when they’d heard the boy playing his harmonica. But none of that was Adam’s fault.

A knowing sigh accompanied his thought that while Joe might hold Hoss accountable for his injured back, he probably held Adam accountable for his wounded pride. Of the two injuries, he knew which one hurt Joe the most.

Dinnertime was when Ben noticed the silence the most. Since the day the Teninos left, he’d had very little company at the evening meal. If Hoss or Adam were home, Joe stayed in his room, using his illness as an excuse. Hoss tended to work until dark, coming in once he thought the table would be empty. And if Hoss was there, Adam took a tray to his room, claiming the need to work on his projects.

Joe had actually joined him this evening, since neither other brother had returned yet. But he’d eaten quickly, and returned to his dime novels and isolation. Ben sighed again as he sunk deeper into the chair in an effort to relax. He was dozing off when he heard the front door latch engage.

A cool evening breeze blew in along with his oldest son. Adam grunted a greeting as he removed his coat and dropped his parcel, hat, and holster on the credenza. He was nearing the stairs when Ben spoke. “Hop Sing left a plate warming for you. You didn’t mention that you’d eat in town so I assumed you’d want dinner.”

The young man’s cheeks turned pink as he perched on the arm of the blue chair. “Thanks, Pa. I’m not hungry.”

“You’re upset.”

“What makes you think that?” Adam asked peevishly, and then sighed into a grin. “What gave me away?”

“You rushed past me with your shoulders hunched and head down. You’ve always done that when you don’t want me to see that you’re upset.”

Adam slid onto the cushion of the chair but remained silent.

“What’s bothering you?”

“There was a lot of excitement in town today.” He shook his head. “I got there mid-afternoon, and the celebratory drinking was in full swing.”

“Did you overindulge?” A wide smile spread on Ben’s face, but it vanished as he noted Adam’s defeated expression.

“Hardly, Pa.” Silence settled in again as he considered how much to say. “I got the money to pay the damages from Gigger’s bull, by selling back my shares in the Winkelman mine. They paid a small dividend each year from small pockets of ore, but old man Winkelman never delivered the bonanza he’d promised.  The share value is decreasing because his costs are rising to produce the same amount of ore.” Another head shake. “In light of this, I should have suspected something when Winkelman was happy to pay me cash on the spot.”

Ben’s curiosity was raised by Adam’s last statement, and he was about to ask more when the front door opened again; this time with Hoss rushing inside. His middle son stopped when he saw Adam and started to laugh heartily.

“Pa,” he choked out, giving a feeble point towards Adam as the volume of his laughter grew. “Yer oldest son is the talk of the town today.”

Uneasiness stuck an icy finger down the neck of Ben’s shirt. “How so?” he asked while watching Adam for a clue as to whether he thought whatever was going on in town was as funny as Hoss did. His son’s tight-lipped grimace confirmed that he didn’t.

“Seems my wise ole’ brother sold his shares of the Winkelman mine for $3000 a few days ago,” Hoss continued while missing his brother’s angry glare. “But yesterday, the old man found a mother-load of silver. The geezer was laughing his head off at the Bucket, proclaimin’ that them shares are gonna be worth ten times what Adam sold ‘em for. He kept saying he didn’t know a college boy could be so stupid, but how maybe they don’t teach common sense in fancy Eastern schools.”

Ben closed his eyes, picturing the ugly commotion his eldest must have encountered in town. Adam wouldn’t have sold his shares except that he’d been pushed by his sense of honor. Hoss was still chuckling when Ben commanded, “Stop that! You know nothing of the situation. And more importantly; why would you participate in conversations that belittled your brother, or take any pleasure from talk meant to humiliate him?”

Hoss shrunk into himself at his father’s admonition. “Ah, I, um…Pa, I didn’t say nothin’ against Adam. I wouldn’t do that! I meant to rib him a little now that we’re both home is all. ” He turned toward his brother looking for reassurance that Adam wasn’t upset, and gulped nervously. Adam always looked people in the eye. It’s what unnerved them and let them know how serious he was. But his brother was looking down, picking at a thread on his pants leg. He wasn’t sure whether this meant Adam was embarrassed or so angry he could only control himself by concentrating on something unrelated to the conversation.

The big man’s cheek color rose as he rethought his father’s comment. “What situation don’t I know nothin’ about?”

Ben glanced at Adam. “He sold them to pay…”

“Don’t, Pa!” Adam gave his father a cautionary glance before looking down again.

“Why’d you sell them stocks?” Hoss demanded as his brother stood and started up the steps. The amount of the sale finally registered. “Did you do it to pay Pa for the damage we caused?”

Adam stopped his climb.

“Why didn’t you say you was gonna do that?” Hoss asked. “I got some money in the bank, and would’a helped as much as I could.”

The older brother turned slowly. His voice was calm, but deadly. “Then why didn’t you say that the other night instead of asking Pa…and then me…to pony up the cash?”

Hoss shifted from foot to foot. “I guess we…Joe and me…didn’t think Pa was serious.”

Adam crossed his arms and blew out a long, slow breath. “Well it got taken care of, because I knew Pa wasn’t kidding.” Adam scratched his head. “Since the three of us were responsible, but I took care of it when you claimed you were unable to help; let’s leave it that you and Joe each pay me back a third of the total. Here’s the best part though. Lying about your inability to come up with cash caused me to sell all my stock instead of a third of it, so I think you two are responsible for replacing what I lost in profit on the extra two thousand. Old man Winkelman figures that at what…ten times what I sold it at?” Adam waited for Hoss to do the calculation, and finally said, “That’s tenthousand…each.”

“You don’t mean that.” Hoss’s face paled. “How can we come up with that kind of money?”

Adam’s lip curled in a cynical smile. “Maybe you could put on another bull fight. Nah. Just forget it. I can’t count on you anyway.”

Ben’s heart was racing. He could sense Hoss’s growing humiliation over what was being said. His and Joe’s actions had prompted Adam to go it alone, and it had inadvertently resulted in his brother becoming a laughing stock and costing what might have become a fortune. Ben knew the talk in town would wear off as soon as something more sensational happened, but he also knew the laughter stung his oldest son. Adam would never admit that, nor would he ever tell anyone the reason for his selloff. His mind continued to swirl as something the boy said earlier began to poke at him.

He approached the stairs before Adam could retreat to his room. “You said Winkelman was a little too eager to re-purchase your shares. Do you think he already knew he had a lode?”

“Of course he did,” Adam replied. “It takes more than two days to complete an assay, drill test holes, and make estimations on the value of the strike. I’d even heard that the mine had been running with a limited crew for a couple weeks, and asked him about it.”

Ben’s curiosity was raised even further. “What did he say?”

“That there’d been minor flooding in a storage shaft, so he had to clear it out and get in an expert to advise them on a way to blast it shut. My guess is the only thing he had to clear out was the nosy crew who might have suspected something and spilled the beans too early.”

Ben harrumphed. “Winkelman thought he’d hit a bonanza twice when he could get your portion of the profits back. Yet he had a responsibility to disclose something that was already certain and could affect the price. He wasn’t obligated to give you more than the current price if you needed to sell, since the value is purely speculatory until they start mining. But that decision was yours to make; not his.” His brows neared.  “He was probably ready to announce the lode when you came in, and then waited a couple days to cover his dishonesty.”

Adam nodded slowly. “He’s focusing rumors on my lack of business sense instead of his failure to disclose. It’s a smart tactic. I can’t refute this claim without solid proof or I’d look like a sore loser, and that would just give people more to laugh about.” He closed his eyes in thought, and then looked around his father’s to the credenza where he’d left the tubes containing the drawings he planned to work on. “Excuse me,” he said as he passed Ben on the steps. “I knew I was forgetting something.” He walked out of his way to avoid passing near Hoss, and wished his father a good night as he started back up the steps.

Hoss had remained quiet though the discussion about the stocks, and realized his brother was about to disappear for the night. “I’m sorry, Adam. I would’a done things a lot different if I’d known this would happen.”

Adam stopped at the landing, but didn’t look back. “I’m sure you are sorry…now. But it doesn’t help, now. What will help from now on is for you and Joe to take things seriously when they happen. No more looking for ways out of your responsibilities; no more big plans that end up in disasters, and no more apologies over the outcome.”

There were few times that Hoss got mad, but his father’s reprimand about his loyalty and his brother’s scolding broke something loose. His voice started soft but gained volume and intensity. “I admited I was wrong, and there’s even truth in what you just said. But while you’re up on that high horse, maybe you oughta direct some of that annoyance toward your own actions. You have a way of rollin’ yer eyes at the thought of us helpin’ out; then you do it yerself, and finally, you complain about havin’ to do it alone. You must figger you’re the only one smart enough to do anything.” He gulped a breath. “If you was as smart as you think, you might of figured out that me and Joe are gettin’ tired of bein’ overlooked. We ain’t like those brainy types you knew in Boston, but we ain’t stupid neither.” Moving to the bottom of the stairs, he took his deadliest blow. “Maybe you should go somewhere folks live up to your expectations a little better than we do. You gotta wonder though; maybe no one can live up to your expectations.”

Adam had stopped in mid-step and gripped the rail harder as he’d waited for Hoss’s outburst to end. He neither turned nor spoke as he resumed his climb. Hoss’s point that he didn’t fit into this family was nothing new.  Little Joe said it often, and sometimes he heard the same taunts in his own mind. But this brother—even during their worst disagreements—had never voiced this conclusion. The words of Solomon came to his mind. He closed his eyes for moment as he thought; there may be a new thing under the sun after all2. Heaviness weighed on his mind and body as he continued upward to the sanctuary of his room.

Two

Ben hadn’t slept as memories of the war of words between Adam and Hoss had ricocheted in his mind like bullets in a cave. His footfalls were heavy as he dropped from step to step on the way downstairs, and his spirits dropped even further when he saw that a rumpled napkin where Adam usually sat at the table, evidenced he’d been there and gone.

It was still dark, but Ben knew Adam hadn’t slept either. He’d seen light beneath his oldest son’s door and heard paper rustling when he’d gone for a drink of water around 2 AM. The remains at the table confirmed that Adam had abandoned his attempts to sleep even sooner than his father.

Whether Hoss was able to sleep was unknown, but the big man seemed able to doze off no matter the circumstances. This capacity to shut out the chaos of life made Ben wonder if his son’s size dictated periods of rest. Then again maybe Hoss was that rare individual who could clear his mind enough to relax in any situation. He concluded it was probably a little of both.

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard pots banging in the kitchen accompanied by Hop Sing’s loud grumbling. A wake of words followed the cook from the kitchen, and he stopped abruptly at seeing Ben.

“I not run restaurant. Make meal, no one come. Food from supper still on stove this morning, and number one son make own breakfast before I get to kitchen. He good man, but bad cook. Eggs burn; ham burn; pan burned too much to get clean. You tell Missa Adam he work cattle, not stove.” Hop Sing took a deep breath. “You fix this…bad thing…with sons. Get family back like before.”

Hop Sing could always tell when problems were brewing in the family, and this time there’d been plenty of evidence to support the man’s instincts. Ben walked his cook back to his domain and promised to have a talk with Adam. He didn’t address the bigger problem that had been mentioned, because he wasn’t sure what he could do about it. The quiet, uneasy house joined him at the table as he sat for another lonely meal.

A shuffling in the hallways above him heralded Hoss’s arrival at the top of the stairs. A smile tugged at his bad mood when he saw the big man clomp wearily down the steps. It seemed that his opinion on Hoss’s ability to sleep through anything hadn’t held true last night. “Good morning,” he offered as the tired looking man approached the table. “Did you hear Joe moving in his room?”

“Why would I listen for Joe? He’s been pretty clear about me payin’ him no mind.” His brows pulled together as he walked past Adam’s empty spot at the table.

Ben saw the look but waited for words to clarify the expression.

Hoss kept his eyes on the table as he asked, “Was Adam still mad this mornin’?”

“He was up with the roosters so I never saw him.” With dawn beginning to light the shadowed corners of the house, he noticed a sheet of paper on his desk, and went to retrieve it. The scrawling penmanship on the white paper was discernable as Adam’s from a few steps away, and a quick perusal of the note revealed that he’d already left for Virginia City to return the engineering work while the gossiping revelers were still sleeping. From town he was heading to the north fenced pasture to divide that herd for the late fall beef orders. In the final portion, Adam confessed to upsetting Hop Sing; apologized for the storm he was sure he’d left behind, and promised he’d bring home a new pan as a peace offering.

That was from Adam,” he explained as he returned and poured more coffee. “He’s gone.”

“When you say, gone, Pa,” Hoss began before taking a loud swallow. “You don’t mean for good, do ya? I probably shouldn’t a said everything I did last night.”

Ben told Hoss of Adam’s plans, finishing with, “You sounded pretty sure of every…thing…last night.” One eyebrow rose as he watched Hoss sit back and sort things out. “You had the right to say what was on your mind, son, as long as you accept the consequences of your words.”

“I didn’t mean the part about Adam bein’ so uppity that he don’t belong here. I’d feel purely miserable if he ever left because….” He sat straighter and met his father’s gaze. “But I meant them other parts.”

“I see.” Ben nodded, again waiting for Hoss to explain.

“Adam don’t tell us what he’s thinkin’ of doin’.” His frown deepened. “And mostly I’m tired of  him doing stuff on his own to make himself look like a hero, and me and Joe look like we got no sense.”

Ben sat back and crossed his arms. “You think Adam took care of that debt to make himself look good?”

Hoss shrugged. “Maybe so.”

“If that were the case, wouldn’t he have told everyone why he was selling those shares? And if he was looking for recognition, wouldn’t he have paid each person directly so they’d know exactly which Cartwright to thank?” He let Hoss consider this. “I distributed the cash and said nothing about where it came from. And Winkelman is making Adam the target of every mean-spirited tongue in town to cover his own fraud, so your brother hardly comes out looking like a hero.”

Hoss’s cheeks turned bright pink as laid his fork on his plate and leaned onto his elbows. “Don’t you see, Pa? That’s what so sneaky about Adam. Somehow, this will all turn around.”

“I see.” His sons were old enough now that he could only suggest what might be off kilter in their thinking. And he could see some truth in Hoss’s words. Adam did take care of things without seeking consensus. He might request support or critique from those he trusted, but when Adam reached surety, he moved forward no matter what others might think or say. His son’s capacity to withstand criticism and outright nastiness usually ended with the truth coming out, and ultimately, respect from those who might initially have held his ideas in contempt.

The tired father sighed and took a sip of his coffee, finding it cool. He held the heavy pot up for a moment before pouring to observe the painted enamel. He insisted on having nice things in his household. This pot was one of them; the red-patterned china and crystal glassware were others that made this house into an inviting home, rather than a place to flop between cattle drives. He took pleasure in having a well-set table and eating as a family. The current fog of ill-will around him destroyed that.

Hoss resumed eating, and while Ben was grateful that one son was with him, Hop Sing’s words advising him to “fix things,” whispered in his ear. Yet the only way to fix anything was to let them work through it because their fights were as complicated as their personalities. In this instance, Hoss made valid points about Adam’s actions, but he was dead wrong about the motivation. Little Joe was completely wrong about Hoss’s intentions in applying the harmful liniment, but he was right that it shouldn’t have happened. And Adam had played the game as hard as his younger brothers during the Teninos’ visit, and he was as accountable as his brothers for the way things went at the end. Yet he was right in feeling that Hoss and Joe should have stepped up immediately once the damages were known.

Ben’s musings spun in his mind as his coffee cup emptied again, and he was startled back to the present when he heard Joe coming down the steps. He took a quick look at Hoss and saw he was brushing toast crumbs from his chin and shirt.

“I’ll be back for supper, Pa, but I gotta get going,” Hoss said as he rose. “If Adam’s gonna separate that herd like he said in that note, he’s gonna need that other fenced pasture to keep ‘em in, and we still got some repairs to do there.”

“Won’t you stay and say good morning to Joe?”

Hoss knew his father hadn’t really asked him to stay. He leaned in as he passed behind Ben’s chair and said, “Not just yet, Pa,” before disappearing into the kitchen.

***

Little Joe made his way to the table as Ben warmed his coffee yet again. “You look well,” he said as he offered him the covered bowl of eggs. “You’re in work clothes.”

Hop Sing appeared with a plate of hot bacon and a fresh bowl of scrambled eggs, grabbing the one from Joe’s hand, grumbling, “No one eat cold food while Hop Sing cook,” before hurrying away.

Joe scooped a good portion from both receptacles. “I have to ride to town first. Paul wants to check my back. If he gives the go-ahead, I’ll finish the repairs I started on that far corral.”

“Your brothers will be working between here and town. Will you stop to see them?” Ben asked casually.

“Why would I do that?” He chewed his food and grabbed a slice of toast while chuckling. “I heard the shouting last night, and cracked my door to listen. Hoss was sure mad at Adam.”

“You feel good about that?”

Joe’s mouth was full, so he shrugged until he could speak. “I agreed with what Hoss said, and I don’t feel sorry for Adam. He was sneaky while Delores was here, and he was sneaky about paying the debt. This time he got caught in his own sneakiness. I could have come up with some cash to give him, just like Hoss.”

“You’re saying Adam should have assumed you were both lying about your financial resources?” The confused father shook his head. “And you think he deserved to lose money and be laughed at because he’s…sneaky? You must think the same of Hoss if you believe he intentionally used the wrong liniment.”

“That’s about right.”

“Joseph; I know you had a few rough days, but what you’re saying isn’t true of either of your brothers.” He didn’t say more, hoping he’d planted a few seeds of doubt about Joe’s perceptions.

All he knew for sure was that what had started as bruised egos was now pushing all three sons into a boiling stew of resentment and skewed emotions. It was a mess, and as Hop Sing noted; it needed to be fixed. It was the “how” of the fix that remained elusive. He rose abruptly while Joe was still eating, excusing himself to go outside and clear his head. He was in the barn checking a new colt when his lead foreman, Hugh, walked in.

“I got back from Fish Springs last night, Mr. Cartwright,” he reported. After answering a few questions about the trip to deliver two mares for breeding, he said, “I rode through the far south pasture on the way home, and saw something you should know about.”

As Hugh described the problem, an idea took shape in Ben’s mind. He waited until Little Joe was on his way to town, and then began preparing the proposal he’d reveal at dinner.

Three

Joe was first into the house come evening. “How’d it go today?” Ben asked as his youngest hung his coat and hat, and removed his holster.

“Fine, Pa. I’m itchy, but it didn’t hurt.” He blushed. “I could have gotten back to work sooner.” He looked toward the table. “Will Adam and Hoss be back soon?”

“They should be. Why don’t you clean up and join me until they arrive.”

Ben was still alone when Joe returned, and he offered him a glass of sherry. “I haven’t seen you since this morning. I assume Paul gave you a clean bill of health?”

“Yup. I can do anything I want.”

“Did you hear anything in town about…”

“Adam?” Joe supplied. “Paul asked about him, and then mentioned that he thought something smelled fishy about the whole thing. I stopped for a beer, and a couple of guys tried to goad me into talking, but I ignored them.”

“Thank you.”

“I suppose Adam would face a lot more if he showed up in town.” He scratched his head. “Do you think old man Winkelman knew about the strike when he took those shares back?”

He nodded. “The truth will come out one day.”

The two men continued talking as full darkness fell without the return of the two missing Cartwrights. Hop Sing hurried into the living room, announcing, “You two eat now or all be ruined.” The small man sighed heavily. “I keep some warm for other two…again.”

***

Hoss walked in as Ben and Little Joe were finishing, his arrival sending the youngest son to the stairs, while claiming exhaustion.

“I’d like you to stay a few minutes, Joe,” Ben requested. “There’s something I want to discuss with all three of you.”

Joe turned back. “Adam isn’t home yet, so could we do this at breakfast instead?”

Ben’s lips formed a thin line as he struggled to control his temper. “I’m sure Adam will arrive shortly, and I doubt you’ll be more inclined to be around your brothers in the morning.”

There were very few times that Little Joe refused his father’s orders. But this time, he continued up the steps to the landing. “You’re right, Pa. I won’t want to have breakfast with my devious brothers either, but at least I’ll be more awake.”

Ben turned to Hoss. “Is that how you feel too?”

“I don’t rightly know, Pa. I was glad to see Joe when I got here, but I guess nothin’s changed. And since Adam and his men moved the steers to our pasture some time ago, I’d bet he’s bidin’ his time in gettin’ home.”

Hoss sat at his place when Hop Sing motioned him over. After a few bites, he frowned and looked over at his father. “Pa, maybe too much bad stuff was said this time, and the three of us will be moving our separate ways from now on.”

Ben’s heart beat heavily at Hoss’s comment. He wasn’t about to allow this outcome, and he came to a decision on how to handle things. “Eat before your food gets cold.”

***

Adam saw his brother and father talking at the table when he entered. He greeted both men pleasantly, and thanked Hoss for having the pasture ready when they’d brought the steers. He stood behind his chair to address his father. “We’re all set for Captain Newell’s men to get their steers on Friday. I’m sure they’ll need a few of our hands to go along back to the post since I’ve never known the cavalry to be good drovers.” He chuckled. “In fact a lot of the new recruits aren’t even good horsemen.”

“Sit down and eat!” Ben encouraged as he indicated the large package in Adam’s arms. “Is that the new pan?”

“Fresh from the mercantile. I’ll give it to Hop Sing, but I got a little more work from the engineering firm. I’d like to look that over while I eat. Please forgive my rudeness in not staying at the table.”

Ben didn’t raise a white flag often, but he knew Hoss would disappear if Adam joined them anyway, and he was tired of remaining at the table for multiple settings. He nodded, and let his eldest present his gift of contrition before carrying a tray up to his room.

Hoss played a few hands of cribbage with his father, but yawned loudly as his eyes got heavy. “Sorry, Pa. I’m fallin’ alseep.”

Ben’s eyes were drooping too, so he wished Hoss a pleasant rest before turning down the lights and heading upstairs himself. There wasn’t peace in his house yet, but he was satisfied that it was calm. He grinned as he set his alarm clock for 4 AM, and then slipped between the sheets, thinking, it’s calm all right; the calm before the storm.

Four

Ben was up and dressed by 4:15 AM, and he decided to check on his boys before heading downstairs. He opened the first bedroom door, and was struck with the thought that his sons were as different in their sleeping habits as they were in everything else.  Adam was on his side; the blankets tangled under him like he’d pinned them in a wrestling match. In the next room, Little Joe was lying on his back; the covers hanging off the bed, and his arms and legs extended as if mid-cartwheel.

He heard Hoss snoring like a saw taking down a century-old pine even before he cracked the door. Unlike his brothers who spurned the encumbrance of bed clothes and fought against their covers until their rooms got too chilly to go without their warmth, Hoss always wore a long nightshirt, and slept with the blanket tucked tightly under his chin.

A soft snort escaped as he pulled his middle son’s door closed again. It was too early for philosophical musings, and yet he finalized the comparison. His youngest was hot-blooded, vigilant and easily spurred to action—tumbling head first into some scheme, or sticking up for himself, his family or an underdog. Adam was hot-blooded too, but it played out differently. He tangled with the injustices of the world just as he tussled with his sheets. But the conflict went on internally. On the outside he’d appear cool with an absolute belief in his decision after wrestling with every angle of the problem.

But Hoss… Ben took a deep breath while considering this son. Hoss was proving he could occasionally blow with the force of a cold north wind. He might need to compose his thoughts better to avoid saying things he didn’t really mean, but that would come.  He considered how Hoss also had the ability to make others feel sheltered. If he pictured what that would look like, it might resemble his son tucked into his bed.

This uniqueness normally made his boys work well together. Yet this same independence could splinter them. It was time now to hand them a pot of glue.

His wicked smile continued as he raised the flames on a few lamps downstairs while making his way to the kitchen.  It took some looking to find Hop Sing’s deepest, thinnest cooking pot. He set that on the table and rummaged through the utensil drawer until he found the solid wooden mallet their cook used for tenderizing meat.

Grabbing the instruments to sound Reveille, he trotted back upstairs and swung all three doors open, before hammering on the pan until the walls reverberated with the noise.

A thump sent him toward Hoss’s room as he continued beating his drum, and he saw what he expected; the big man had tripped in his covers as he’d exited his bed, still half-asleep. Reversing direction, he made a quick sweep past Joe and Adam’s room and saw each of them making a grab for their pants. Adam was the first to his door, and he didn’t look happy.

The oldest son looked around and gave his father a droopy-eyed glare, and hollered, “I don’t smell smoke, so I assume the house isn’t burning,” over the din.

Hoss yawned loudly while scratching his stomach. “Ya, Pa, what’s up?”

Little Joe had taken time to slip on his boots and shirt, and with his presence, Ben finally stopped beating on the pot. He looked from son to son. “Now that I have your attention, I’d like you all downstairs for that family meeting.”

“Can’t it wait for breakfast?” Joe whined. “It can’t be more than 4:30!”

“I thought about that,” Ben said reasonably. “But I couldn’t count on the three of you showing up at the same time, and that makes having family discussions impossible. I’m also tired of remaining at the table while the three of you either pop in one-by-one, or duck out of meals entirely. This,” he held up his makeshift drum, “and the hour,” he indicated the clock on the hallway table, “were my means of ensuring your attendance.”

He observed the open-mouthed stares reflecting back at him, and laughed. He turned towards Adam. “I’ll allow you time to put on a shirt and socks so you don’t freeze, but you other two are wearing enough for now, so go to the table. We’ll go over the business at hand while Hop Sing makes breakfast. Then all four of us will eat together.”

Adam mumbled, “Maybe I can escape out the window,” as he turned back towards his room.

“What did you say?” Ben asked in a no-nonsense tone.

His cheeks were turning pink as he looked over his shoulder. “I said I’d better close my window. It’s getting chilly.”

***

The three Cartwright “boys” were still yawning and stretching as they took their seats at the table. They weren’t speaking, but they were exchanging shrugs and confused expressions.

Hop Sing had gotten to the kitchen during Ben’s call to assembly, and put the coffee on. He rejected Ben’s apology for denting the pot, with the encouragement that it was a small price to pay for returning peace to the house. “I bring coffee out, and get breakfast going. You don’t let sons leave before they eat.”

Ben took his seat at the head of the table. “I know you’re wondering why you’re here.”

Hoss was not usually the first to speak, but he sat back and crossed his arms. “If this is about what’s goin’ on with the three of us, then you can stop right there, Pa. We’re grown men, and you can’t force us to hold each other in regard again.”

“I see.” He looked pointedly at the two sons who had not spoken. “I assume you agree with Hoss?”

They both nodded.

“Well that’s good, because I don’t want to talk about that.  Yesterday, Hugh told me about something that must be addressed. He rode past the line shack in our southernmost grass. We’ll be wintering cattle in those pastures soon, and that building is a necessity if the weather turns bad while our men are out there.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Adam asked, hoping to speed things up.

Hugh thinks it was struck by lightning. It shows signs of fire damage, and parts have collapsed.”

“Can it be repaired?” Joe asked.

“He thinks it needs to be rebuilt.”

“I can pick up supplies for the crew today,” Hoss offered.

Ben smiled serenely. “That’s not quite what I had in mind. In fact, since I’ve had so much time to myself over the last couple of days, I’ve already pulled out the lists for what you’ll need. If the mill can fill our lumber order, you can leave tomorrow.”

Hoss looked at his brothers, and then back to his father. “Pa, when you say, ‘you’ can leave, which one of us are you speakin’ to?

Ben’s feigned a look of surprise. “Wasn’t I clear? I mean all of you.” He sat back, crossing his arms with a look of satisfaction, and addressed Hoss. “You and Joe can take two wagons to town today and pick up supplies and lumber.” He glanced at his eldest. “You’ll stay here with me, so if you have engineering work to return, give it to your brothers. They’ll let the firm know that you’ll be unavailable for a time.”

He took a quick breath and spoke again before Adam could voice a complaint. “You and I will get the rest of the lists done and be ready to load when your brothers return.”

Adam rose in a fluid movement, and leaned forward onto the table. “I’ll take a crew out there and get it done in a day or two.”

“Sit down Adam,” Ben said gently. “The three of you will go.”  He turned toward the kitchen entry and saw Hop Sing’s nod that everything was ready. He returned his attention to his eldest. “I’d like to speak privately after we all have breakfast.”

***

The meal progressed in silence, but that didn’t bother Ben. Reconciliation would begin with small steps. He was encouraged as he noticed the amount of food being consumed. These three might not be enamored with the plan he’d laid out, but something—perhaps the familiarity of all four of them around the table—had notched its first chink in their armor, and it allowed them to enjoy the meal, even if not the company.

As their plates emptied, Ben cleared his throat. “Do any of you have questions before you get started?”

Hoss did a quick glance at his brothers. “You can say otherwise, Pa, but we all know why yer doin’ this, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Things don’t always go so good when the three of us work together. That’s what started this mess between us in the first place.”

Ben tilted his head to the side as his brows neared. “I’m sure I was clear. Any other questions?”

***

Once Joe and Hoss went to prepare for their trip to town, Adam gave his father a squinty-eyed stare across the table. “Why do you want to speak to me?”

“This animosity between you and your brothers may have started with the competition for Delores Tenino’s attention, but the aftermath raised other nagging issues. I’ve listened to your brothers’ claims, and tried to provide them with perspective.”

“And now it’s my turn,” Adam said with resignation.

Ben nodded. “The statement you made earlier about redoing the shack without them, is indicative of their complaints. There are certainly instances where they haven’t held up their end of a project or left you to clean up their mess, but there are far more times when they’ve come through for you. The good work you do together is far greater than any amount of horseplay can negate.”

“Hoss and Joe are old enough that there should be no need to engage in…horseplay.” He sighed into a dry chuckle. “But then I’ve been told that my expectations are set too high for mortals. And since neither of them wants me here anymore, it would seem the consensus in this house is that I’m the problem, not them.”

Ben drew a sharp breath, before moving behind his son’s chair. He grasped Adam’s shoulders. “I don’t think Hoss meant that.”

“I don’t hold it against him, Pa,” he said turning to see his father’s face. “I’ve wondered whether I should have stayed so long since coming back from school. Not because I don’t want to be here, but because Hoss and Joe might become more responsible if I wasn’t here.”

“I can’t imagine Joseph acting differently no matter how much responsibility he has.” Ben smiled at Adam’s frown. “Joe’s impulsive, and he seems unable or unwilling to curb this. Yet I wouldn’t want him to change just to get a better ranch hand. And I see something you don’t, son. Your example has helped him settle into good work habits. And while Hoss will never be as organized as you, he’s learned plenty from you too. He thinks with his heart, and it seldom steers him wrong…except when he lets Joe talk him into some scheme.

“They’re fine men, Adam, and you’ve had a hand in that. They can learn even more from you if you’d explain things.” He saw Adam’s rising right brow. “I know how thoroughly you plan before doing anything, but you don’t allow Joe and Hoss to see that part of it. They don’t feel the excitement you experience when a plan takes shape in your mind, and when they do hear about it, it often feels like you’re talking to them as hired hands, not equals. It might go better if you’d talk with them, instead of to them, and share your insights as you work through the plan.” He gave Adam’s shoulders a sturdy squeeze. “Only you can decide if they’re worth the effort.”

Ben didn’t wait for an answer. “Get your work ready for them to take to town. I’ll be with Hop Sing.” He watched his eldest go upstairs, knowing that making Adam rely on his brothers to deliver his work was making his son squirm right now. Yet Ben was forcing this first step of trust, while petitioning the almighty for all to go well.

Five

Accepting that their father wouldn’t tolerate further argument kept the Cartwright sons on task. Their labors were made easier by using lists Adam had started compiling after returning from school, saying he’d grown tired of starting from scratch each time they began a project. These lists weren’t used for everyday tasks, but they proved invaluable when they were going far enough to preclude a quick trip back to the house for forgotten items.

Hoss and Joe took lists to town to ensure they’d have the lumber they’d need, and the supplies to stock the shacks for emergency use. Adam used another list to gather the tools. If followed to the letter, they would have enough hinges, nails, mattresses, cooking and eating utensils, canned goods, stove pipe, mattresses, blankets and the various other items required to complete the job.

Since this job was stationary, they could set up camp. There was also a list for a late-fall project that included a sturdy tent, cots with warm bedding, lanterns, and a supply of warm clothing. While father and son completed their preparations, Hop Sing worked from the list he’d created for a cook kit.

***

It was mid-afternoon when Adam walked around the pile of goods in the yard waiting to be packed on the wagons once his brothers returned. He laughed when his father brought a last crate out of the house. “I think we have enough here to set up our own town.”

Ben examined their work. “You might be right.” His expression became reflective. “We all helped perfect those lists, and I can send you off knowing you’ll be prepared for anything.”

Hoss and Joe pulled their heavy wagons into the yard as Adam and Ben were still talking,

How’d it go?” Ben asked the sons on the wagons.

“We got everything,” Little Joe shouted before pointing. “Are we supposed to get that pile of stuff onto these wagons too? It looks like we’ll  be gone for a year.”

With a little rearranging and careful packing of the remaining items, the two wagons were loaded, covered, and tucked in the barn for an early morning start by the time Hop Sing called them to dinner. The table conversation was polite and limited to ranch topics. The only information from town was a message from Alex at the engineering firm, wishing Adam a safe trip.

“He promised to set things aside for you to do when you get back,” Joe told his brother.

“Thanks, Joe.” A quick smile confirmed Adam’s sincerity.

With conversation at a minimum, the meal ended quickly. The sons lingered with their father for a brandy by the fire, but soon excused themselves, citing a long day and early morning to come.

***

Ben found his sons waiting at the table when he came down for breakfast, and made note of their personal kits waiting by the door. “I’m pleased you decided to avoid another wake-up call. You didn’t need to worry though. Hop Sing hid his pans before he went to bed last night.”

They spent a few minutes going over their timetable and Ben’s offered a final directive. “Watch for anything else we should take care of before moving cattle over there.”

The sons were on their way by 8 a.m., hoping to arrive at their location before dark.

Ben followed the wagons, and waited until they were out of sight while petitioning the Creator for a safe trip, and speaking to his wives; asking them to guide their sons to reconciliation.

He was filled with hope…along with a good dose of apprehension, and found he couldn’t concentrate on the mundane tasks he tried to accomplish once he was alone. His pacing and avoidance of the paperwork on his desk, led him to a decision. There was no impending deadline to make him enter figures into a book. The truth was that the ranch would be just fine if he spent a day or two in town, and he decided to get organized and leave in the morning.

Six

With two wagons and three people, Adam hadn’t challenged his brothers when they climbed onto the driver’s seats. He’d slipped into the wagon bed instead where he’d arranged a mattress and pillow along with a novel he wanted to finish. He’d brought books to pass the evenings, since work stopped early on these shorter fall days. Sitting around a campfire on a chilly evening wasn’t as idyllic as portrayed in dime novels or western paintings. The cold of darkness slid under your jacket and up the legs of your pants, leaving behind gooseflesh and misery. The fire might warm what was nearest to it, but it was of little benefit to anything more than a foot or two away. They would set up a tent on this trip, and he was looking forward to slipping into his bedroll, with a lamp on a crate next to his cot, and reading until he fell asleep.

He’d peeked inside that last crate his father had brought out, and knew it contained a checker board, cards, and bottle of good whiskey. It was Pa’s way of setting a scene, hoping that the liquor would loosen their tongues, and the games would make them do something together. The thing his father seemed to have overlooked was that games usually involved flagrant cheating when played by his younger brothers, and that led to arguments. He preferred quieter entertainment.

Adam dozed off in his comfortable wagon nest, and was startled when he heard Hoss’s voice.

“How about you spell me a bit,” Hoss called over his shoulder as he pulled the heavily-loaded wagon to a halt.

“Sure,” Adam mumbled as shook off his slumber and climbed up front. “After you rest, I’ll take Joe’s wagon and let him stretch the kinks out too.”

Simple and necessary conversations had resumed. Adam slapped the reins against the rumps of the four draft horses up front, and recalled that this hadn’t been true when his brothers were little. He thought back to refereeing fights between Hoss and Joe back then, and he laughed silently as he recalled the gist of them:

“Adam, tell Hoss to stop looking at me funny!”

 “Adam, tell Little Joe that if I look funny it’s cuz I see him, and he’s purdy funny lookin’.”

He’d never allowed those third-party conversations to continue for long, but they’d been attempted repeatedly. He grimaced as he thought about how the three of them had used Pa as their buffer lately. They’d each maintained they had a right to feel as they did, while spilling their grievances about each other to Pa like children.

***

Hugh had described the damage he’d seen in detail, yet Adam’s jaw dropped when he cleared the final rise and got his first look at the shack.

“Well I’ll be,” Hoss said as he looked over at Adam on the wagon seat. “That thing is flat as a pancake.”

Adam chuckled. “It sure is.” He pointed to the wagon ahead of them. “Pull up next to Joe.”

The three men walked around the remains in silence, and then back towards the wagons. “I was kind of hoping we brought all this stuff just to be safe,” Joe said as he gazed up at two mountains of supplies.

“The building will go up fast, but there’s a lot to do before we can start,” Adam said as he surveyed the area. “Let’s lay the tent out over there.” He indicated a spot on the other side of the wagons. “It’s not completely level there, Joe, but there’s enough soft ground to pound in the stakes.” He nodded toward Hoss. “You can pull out the food and get something cooking for supper. I’ll get some boards out of that mess to make a fire, and then help raise the tent.”

Joe nudged Hoss’s arm as he nodded towards Adam. “We’ve been here five minutes, and he’s already ordering us around.”

Adam bit his lips as he realized his brothers had mended just enough fence to keep him outside. He sighed heavily. “I gave a suggestion, not an order. If one of you has a better idea of how we can use our remaining light…I’ll follow your lead.”

Silence was followed by shifting feet and another quick look exchanged between the younger men. Joe looked down as he answered. “I didn’t say it was a bad idea. I just don’t like being ordered around.”

His father’s suggestion itched in Adam’s mind as he looked at the tangle of lumber that had once been a shelter. “I figured out a plan to get things going once I saw what we were dealing with, but you can’t read my mind. Maybe it would help if I explained.” He pointed toward the wagon with the tent. “That canvas is so clumsy it’ll take all three of us to move it. Once it’s in place, it’ll be easy for one person to stake it. You’re the most agile of us, Joe, so you would get that done the quickest.” He saw the tightness in Joe’s jaw loosen slightly. “And I figured Hoss should cook, since my tendency to burn everything is pretty well known.”

Hoss laughed as his posture became less rigid. “You’re right about that. And I enjoy a good meal more’n you two.”

Adam walked toward the foundation. “I’d like to get into that mess of wood. It looks bad, but I’m hoping the floor is sound so we don’t have to rebuild the foundation. If I can move a few things I might get a peek at what’s underneath, and we’ll know where we have to start.”

A resigned smile curled the left side of Joe’s lips. “Your brain is always working, brother, and it usually makes good sense. It is nice to hear the why, instead of just the what, how, and who.” He looked toward Hoss, “If he lets one of us have a say now and then, we’ll be heading home in no time.”

***

It was late by the time the camp was set up, the horses unhitched and tied near the woods, the meal warmed up, and his initial survey completed. His eyes were already heavy when Adam slipped into the tent to look at the plans he’d done for the original shack. His sleepy brothers soon joined him, and they hunkered in for the night.

***

Sharing his thought process with his brothers the previous evening had been so effective that Adam decided to try again this morning. He swallowed his last bite of bacon and put his plate aside. “The good news is that from what I can see, the floor and foundation look sound. Two of us can clear off the remaining debris while someone gets lumber sorted for the frames. I’d bet we can get the four sides built and anchored today.” Adam smiled expectantly. “What would you two like to tackle?” His hope for a quick start and cooperation vanished as his question was met with silent glares.

“Well ain’t that a fine how’d ya’ do.” Hoss looked at Joe and shook his head. “He might be the smartest of us three, but he sure don’t learn easy.”

“What do you mean by that?” Adam asked as his eyebrows joined into one with his scowl.

“Hoss and I build things all the time,” Joe told him. “We didn’t need that little lesson about what we need to do.”

If they’d had a saddle horse with them, he’d have ridden away. Adam’s shoulders sank in defeat. “Do whatever you please.” He stood up straighter as he thought further, and stared his brothers down. “I’m done apologizing for doing what I do well. I’ve always been able to see through to the end of a project better than either of you. Normally, you’d be glad to get directions that would speed things along. It’s just now that you have these…burrs under your saddles about other things that you find me overbearing.” His hands were on his hips and he realized he was standing in the same wide stance his father used when he was making a point…or scolding them. “I’m going to clear off the base.”

“We’re not stupid, Adam,” Hoss said as he looked down at his feet. “Sometimes the way you talk to us…well…I’m not stupid.”

“I’ve never said you were stupid.” Adam’s mouth hung open as he took a ragged breath.

“You say it all the time,” Joe challenged. “Or at least you imply it. You shake your head or laugh when you talk to us.”

“I have…never…said you were stupid. In fact I’ve told both of you both that you’re smart many times. You each have had great ideas about projects and problems at the ranch. Yes, I scratch my head and laugh at times. But that’s not a judgment on your intelligence. You do have to admit that you do get into some messy situations when your ideas get ahead of your reasoning.” He knew he should stop there, but he also knew that unless his brothers would move past their pouting, they would never get done. “An intelligent person can do a stupid thing from time-to-time.”

“This is what I hate about you, Adam,” Joe yelled. “You turned what started as a compliment into calling us stupid again. I’m done listening to you.”

Hoss grabbed Joe as the younger man tried to walk away. “I agree with ya to a point, Joe. But Adam does say how smart I am all the time, and he’s got plenty of fine words for you too. And if you’re honest, you know that other part he said is true too. You and me, well, we do get ourselves into a lot of fixes, even when we think we done planned it all out.”

Joe gave Hoss an evil-eyed glare. “I never figured you’d take his side.”

“I ain’t takin’ a side; I just don’t want us fightin’. It’ll make things go slower. And there ain’t no call to go sayin’ you hate him. He’s our brother.” His pinched lip and raised cheeks dared the younger man to disagree. “Let’s just get workin’ on those frames so we’re ready when that platform is clear.”

Adam sent Hoss a half-smile, as he dug a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and extended it toward the pair. “You’ll need this. The layout of this shack is a little different than the rest of them.”

“We’ve built as many of these as you have, Adam. You playing engineer now goes back to what I was just saying. Hoss and I are capable of doing this, so you can take that paper and shove it up…”

“Joe!” Hoss said powerfully. “There ain’t no need for that either.” He turned his brother toward the wagon with the lumber and gave him a nudge. “Let’s just get goin’. Them cots with the mattresses and extra blankets ain’t bad for campin’ gear, but I’d like to get back to my own bed as soon as possible.”

Adam headed toward the supply wagon for a saw, crowbar and hammer. He had a good reason for wanting them to check the plan. This shack was different than the rest, and since they neither wanted to view the drawing nor assist with the collapsed building, they were going to “bull” ahead without a clue.

A grin flirted with his lips momentarily as he considered his comparison. A bull had gotten them into this and now his two siblings were going to charge into this project with the same abandon shown by Gigger’s animal. His brothers had been kids when the line shacks were originally built, and their “help” consisted of hammering nails where they were told to do so. These small, but necessary shelters were battered by winds, and covered with heavy snow that could collapse a flimsy building. Because of this, line shack frames were set with studs at 16 inch intervals instead of using the 24 inch spacing they normally used.

He wanted to grab Joe by the shoulders and force him to look at the plans he’d snubbed. Instead, he did a few mental calculations to assure himself that this shack would be fine as long as the back wall was done correctly. If the longer length of some of the boards didn’t give them a clue by the time they began working on that back frame, he would have to intervene.

His father’s plan in forcing the communal building effort to rebuild their personal bridges was working…to a point. The rift between his brothers was mending quickly as they concentrated on a common enemy. He did appreciate that Hoss provided restraint to Joe’s fire. Hoss had speculated that their feelings toward one another might not ever return to what they were before this brouhaha. Still, he wasn’t about to let them get any worse.

Adam’s engineer’s mind made him try one more time to ensure a “building” rather than an actual “shack”. He dug a wheel of measuring tape from the tool box and walked to the other wagon. “You’ll need this.”

Hoss reached for it, but Joe’s withering look made him drop his arm to his side.

“Hoss’s feet are twelve-inches long, so he can set a stud every two steps.” The youngest brother’s voice was surly; his look challenging. “That tape always gets tangled and takes more time than it’s worth.”

He hadn’t expected a positive response, but that hadn’t kept him from hoping for one. Adam would have said that any project worth doing, was worth doing well, but he wasn’t in the mood to fight. He tossed the reel back onto the wagon as he passed by, and headed toward the rubble.

***

The empty table last evening had filled Ben with the hope that his sons would rebuild their family ties along with the line shack. But sitting alone in the same spot this morning poked at his loneliness and concern. He shivered involuntarily as he pictured building something when each comment and suggestion was infused with emotional TNT. Adam would take the reins, but with the mood Joe was in, the youngster would push back against anything his oldest brother promoted. That would leave Hoss in the middle to see the value in Adam’s methodical ways, while making sure Joe’s thoughts were given equal consideration.

The coffee in his stomach felt like a mound of hot lava waiting to erupt when he eyed the plate of food Hop Sing carried out of the kitchen. “That looks good, but I’m not hungry this morning.”

“You worry for sons,” the smaller man replied with the familiarity of someone whose years of service made him a trusted adviser. “Not eating not make things easier for them. You do good in making them go.”

“I think so too; it’s the waiting that’s hard.” After taking a bite of the perfectly browned toast, he called to the kitchen. “I’m going to town today. I’ll take Sheriff Coffee out for dinner, and then spend the evening in the saloons listening to the scuttlebutt about Winkelman’s silver strike. It’ll be late, so I’ll stay at the hotel. You take the day off too.”

Hop Sing’s smile appeared to engulf his face. “I take laundry to cousin and visit.”

Seven

By midmorning, the flames of a bonfire were nearly kissing the clouds as Adam burned the unusable material he’d extracted from the remains.

His efforts had exposed the planks of the foundation, and confirmed that the fire had stopped before consuming the base. Hugh was likely correct in suspecting lightning in starting the blaze. The rain that eventually fell extinguished it, but there was too much structural damage by then to remain standing.

He kept a covert eye on what his brothers were doing while he hammered down sharp ends of the exposed nails in the boards they could use for the campfire. Angry with his brothers or not, the last thing he wanted was for one of them to step on a nail or poke themselves while grabbing firewood.

Hoss and Joe were nearly done with the third frame already. Using Hoss’s feet as their measuring device was speeding things along, yet he wondered if the finished products would fit the base and butt up to one another correctly. It would mean tearing them apart and starting over if they didn’t, but he was biting his tongue. In the dark corner of his brain where his less-than altruistic thoughts resided, he anticipated the moment they’d have to confront the errors in their haphazard approach to construction.

He’d reached for last board on the far side of the structure, intending to “defang” it, when he saw Hoss hesitate at the lumber wagon. He stopped what he was doing to listen.

Hoss walked around the pile of remaining boards, scratching his head. “We just got a few of them stud-length boards left for the last side, Joe. On the other hand, we got lots a long boards and I don’t know where they go.” The head scratching continued. “We gave Zeke the list.” He glanced over to see where Adam was, and lowered the volume of his voice to address Joe again. “So either Zeke made a mistake, or there was somethin’ wrong on that list.”

Joe joined Hoss at the pile. “Zeke probably ran out of the right lengths, but knew we were in a hurry and gave us these instead. You’d think he’d have said something.”

Hoss leaned in closer. “Adam don’t make mistakes when it comes to things like this, and Zeke sure would have told us if he substituted.” Their foreheads were nearly touching. “Maybe we oughtta get a look at the plan after all.”

“I ain’t  askin’ him for help,” Joe hissed in a whisper. “Just give me a minute to figure this out.” He carried one of the longer boards over to their construction area and laid it next to the sections they had finished. It extended beyond the completed frames by a good two feet. He motioned for Hoss to join him and hollered with a swagger he wasn’t feeling. “We’ll have to cut these down some when we run out of the short boards.”

Adam puffed his cheeks and blew out a long breath. He wasn’t looking forward to the reaction that was about to come, but he couldn’t allow them to destroy those boards. He faced the points of the long nails still protruding from the short plank in his hand downward, and dropped it as he hurried to his brothers. He’d go back to finish it as soon as he got them back on track, and then sweep the foundation. What he didn’t see as he stepped away was that the board bounced and flipped over when it hit the ground, facing the points upwards.

“You’re making good progress,” he began as he got to the other side of the foundation, and he added an encouraging smile. “I’m glad you noticed that the boards are longer for the back wall. It’s such a mix of ground and boulders here that it was hard to find a flat space big enough to set this shack. The only way we could orient it was with a long side facing due south. If we’d done a gabled roof like usual, the back side wouldn’t have gotten sun in the winter, making it prone to collapse under a heavy snow. I redid this plan with a lean-to roof, pitched for optimal light.” He blinked slowly and waded into water he feared might drown him in his brothers’ anger again. “I also must insist that this wall be done with 16-inch studding. It’s a lot taller than the other sections, and handles more load.”

Hoss smiled back. “Now I remember that this shack looked different. Thanks, Adam.”

Joe whispered a mocking, “Thanks Adam,” to Hoss, once Adam grabbed a broom from the wagon and moved out of earshot. “I would have figured that out,” he continued with ferocity, “if he’d kept his nose out of it.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Hoss replied in a gentle tone. “You were gettin’ ready to saw off them boards a minute ago.” He glanced over and saw that Joe’s face was still set in a scowl. “You might still be mad at Adam for whatever your reasons, but that don’t change the truth of this. I’m also thinking these extra short stud boards we got settin’ around should’a been in those frames we just finished, and somehow that’s gonna bite us in the be-hind. About now I wish we’d let Adam help us right from the beginnin’. He can seem bossy, but ya can’t ever say he don’t know what he’s talkin’ about.”

Hoss was sure he saw steam coming out of Joe’s ears, but he wasn’t sorry he had said what he did. Joe accused Adam of having a hard head, but his youngest brother had inherited that same trait. It came out in different ways than it did in their oldest brother, but when Joe got something in his craw, he played it to the bitter end. The framing they were doing was a good example. Joe’s anger over a different situation led to his refusal to listen to good advice. Adam had backed off and let them do as they pleased, and that made Hoss nervous. It seemed likely that having their own way would confirm what upset Adam about their method of doing things in the first place: he and Joe made mistakes when they let feelings override good judgment.

He wasn’t looking forward to seeing Adam’s eyes roll when their mistakes were exposed, but they’d deserve it. Still…maybe it wasn’t too late to salvage something. He located the tape reel and approached his older brother on the platform. “Hey, Adam, could you help me measure out the side for the tall frame and then set marks for the studs?”

“I’d be glad to.”

Hoss felt buoyed by his outreach. “Maybe once we got that done, you can build up the campfire to warm the coffee and that soup Hop Sing sent.”

The smile continued as Adam reached for the end of the tape and glanced up at the sky. “That’s a good idea. My stomach’s been growling for a while, but I didn’t realize it was noon already.”

***

“You managed not to burn the soup,” Hoss teased his brother as he ladled a second helping out of the pot. “We’ll make a camp cook outta you yet.”

Hoss asking for help and Adam accepting a task that he normally didn’t do, had opened a gate between the two brothers. A tentative truce seemed to hold as they talked easily while slurping the egg dumpling and vegetable filled broth.

“Lucky the weather’s cool enough that Hop Sing could send along some prepared meals,” Adam commented as he rinsed his bowl and refilled his cup with coffee. “I can heat things up, but I sure can’t cook from scratch.”

“I’ll show you how to fry some spuds and beef for dinner. It’s not hard, but it takes a little more attention,” Hoss said encouragingly. “It’s time we all tried a few new things instead a just doin’ what we know best.”

Adam leaned back against a boulder and sipped his hot coffee. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard in a long time, Hoss. I’ll try my best to make hash without turning it into a burnt offering.” He took a longer draw from his cup. “I don’t recall that you’ve ever mitered roof beams. How about I give you a quick lesson on angles when we get that far.”

Joe wore a distinctly sour look as he watched his brothers engage in the initial gestures of an affable reconciliation. He’d remained silent but finally interjected, “And where do I fit into all this goodwill?” His voice rose in a surly snarl. “Maybe I can butter the frying pan for Adam or tote lumber for Hoss.”

The smiles left the faces of the two as they stared at the third. “You’re wrong about that,” Adam began, as a kindly smile reappeared. “You were young when we first did the shacks, but you’ve picked up great building skills by doing other projects. Just give a holler if you’d like to learn something or want help.”

Hoss snorted into a laugh. “That’s if you ain’t too hard-headed to ask.” When Joe’s posture and expression remained rigid, he added, “We all know Pa sent us out here so we’d have get over what’s eatin’ at us. I don’t know about you two, but being out here, workin’ together, does makes me remember the good times.”

“Well that’s fine.” Joe’s tone remained defiant. “You and older brother just keep on making your plans. I know what I’m doing and I’ll keep doing it.” He turned abruptly and returned to the frame he’d been hammering before lunch.

Hoss spoke softly as he and Adam cleaned up and stowed their food. “He’s hurtin’ bad,” he said as he nodded toward Joe. “One minute I think he’s gettin’ over it and the next he sounds as raw as he did the day Senorita Delores and her pa left. It ain’t like him to carry on so long.” He shook his head slowly. “And one minute he’s mad at you and talkin’ to me normal like; the next he’s thinkin’ I’d actually try to hurt him over a gal.”

Adam lifted the wooden box with their cooking supplies into the wagon bed and leaned against it as he considered Hoss’s comment. “I think he’s embarrassed, but it shows up as anger. Joe has always thought he was grown up. He forgets that getting older includes living through those years to gain experience, not jumping over them or pretending you know it all. I’ve had twelve more years of making decisions…as well as learning from the bad ones I’ve made; you’ve had six more. Yet Joe thinks he’s on even ground with us.”

“That makes sense. This’ll blow over just like them clouds up there.” He looked upwards at the white fluff moving above them before grinning at Adam again. He leaned in closer. “I’m just wonderin’ how far off we are on our building from what we should’ve done?” He laughed when his brother remained silent. “I guess you’re gonna let us find out on our own.”

A low rumble started in Adam’s chest and broke free in a gentle laugh. “I don’t know what you mean.” He sent his brother a wink. “But then…I’m sneaky.”

Hoss turned this information over in his mind. Part of him wanted to renew his anger at his older brother for not speaking up to prevent their mistakes. On the other hand, Joe had been plenty clear about working without Adam’s direction. The one thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t want to be mad anymore. He was tired of the acid burning away at his insides since that night when he’d made fun of Adam. He’d made that even worse when he tore a chunk out of the man’s heart with his accusations and conclusions. This last hour of talking easy and hearing Adam laugh again had stitched together something in his heart that had been hanging by a thread. “I ain’t never known you to not have a backup plan, so I ain’t too worried.”

Eight

Adam found a thin coat of ice on the edge of the pond by their camp in the morning, and turned his attention skyward. The previous two days had been sunny and warm, but he felt a bite in the breeze today. The gray clouds on the horizon didn’t promise any great improvement in temperatures. October was a month of transition in the eastern Sierra foothills. A sweltering day could be followed by flurries the next. He wasn’t expecting snow, but a day of cold, strong winds would make work uncomfortable.

They’d managed to attach and anchor the four frames before dark yesterday. He’d been amazed at how well the imprecisely measured units fit together, and he’d complimented his brothers on their work as they’d eaten his barely-burned dinner. If all went well, they could have the roof beams done by noon, along with the framing for the door and small window. Would the fates continue to be kindly towards them, they’d get the roof finished by evening, thanks to a new product they were using for the first time: a composite board called plywood.3 The product was in its infancy, but even this initial offering was making things easier. The squares of manufactured wood were evenly flat, easy to place, and covered a section of roof faster than nailing individual boards. Once the plywood was attached, the shakes could be added quickly.

He was in such an optimistic mood that he let Hoss and Joe sleep while he got the coffee brewing and started cooking potatoes and ham for breakfast. He looked up when he saw Hoss exit the tent, sniffing the air like a coon hound on a scent.

“You’re catchin’ on to this cookin’ thing real well,” the big man offered as he made his way over to the fire. My belly’s as empty as a cave, and the smell of that ham got it to rumblin’ so hard I thought it best to get outside before it shook the tent down.”

Adam handed Hoss a cup of coffee, and looked back to the tent. “Is the kid awake?”

“He is, but he’s gotta comb his hair and tuck his shirt.” Hoss pointed to his own messy mane. “Once I smelled breakfast, I wasn’t concerned with how I’d look eatin’ it.”

***

Once their meal was done and the supplies re-stowed, Adam took Hoss to the lumber wagon and grabbed a heavy length of board. “I’ll teach you to do those angles now.”

He turned back to Joe, who’d put on the same crabby expression he’d worn yesterday, along with his other clothes before he’d exited the tent. He honestly didn’t want to ruin the developing goodwill in camp, but there was no way to get started without getting organized. “I’ll work with Hoss to start, but you can help him nail in the truss beams, if you’d like.”

Joe rubbed at his neck. “My arm and shoulder feel stiff from hammering all day yesterday.  I’ll sort out the rest of the lumber wagon so we’ll be ready to start the roof once the beams are up.”

Adam’s eyes widened for an instant. Joe’s answer had been given without the edge that had become his norm, and the scowl had softened. Had his brother just blinked? It was too soon to tell, but he was glad to take a small gain.

***

Adam bit his tongue rather than discourage Hoss with an offhand comment while he was learning the mitering process. The big guy couldn’t picture how the pieces would go together at first, and kept drawing the cut-lines backwards. Adam’s frustration was only with the delay, not his pupil. When Hoss finally figured it out and was moving ahead on his own, Adam realized the delay seemed far longer than it actually was. This got him wondering how many times his impatience with his brothers had added more time to their mastering of a new skill, than anything they had done wrong.

His good mood at how the day was going continued as they carried the first beam over to attach it. They couldn’t use ladders until they got a few of the crosspieces secured to stabilize the frames, so Hoss made a stack of crates on the floor to allow him to reach the top of the tall side of the building. Adam was able to reach the opposite side using a single box.

They got the first strut nailed quickly; shoved their crate-ladders over a foot or so, and climbed up to attach the second beam. Once they finished this one, they could switch to ladders for faster application. While waiting for Hoss to get an anchor nail in his end, Adam’s mind strayed to calculating how long it would take to finish, based on the rate they were establishing. In his distracted state, he nearly toppled from his perch when the board flew out of his hands. He heard Hoss’s shout and turned to see the loose beam smack the side of his brother’s head as he half-jumped, half-fell from the top of his boxes.

Adam’s shift caused his crate to wobble too, and he leaned forward to regain his center of gravity. The attempt ended when the floor boards bounced at Hoss’s impact, and he began to fall backwards. He swung his arms in an attempt to pull forward again but his feet were no longer firmly planted, and his backward tip continued. The box was placed about a foot in on the floorboards, and a quick glance down confirmed that if he fell now, some part of his anatomy would land on the sharp edge of the foundation below him. Hoping to avoid that bone-snapping conclusion, he bent down enough to push off the crate with his heels, adding just enough thrust to clear the platform, and try for a tuck and roll on the ground.

It worked! He nearly shouted halleluiah as he cleared the structure and prepared to collapse as soon as his feet touched the ground. The odds were now in his favor to walk away unharmed other than a few bruises…but Adam hadn’t factored in the possibility of landing on the “one thing” that didn’t belong in the landscape. Pain seared every inch of the nerves traveling up his leg into his groin and spine as his right foot came to rest on this “thing”, and his downward propulsion drove him onto it like a pile driver. His planned shout of praise turned into a shrieking howl as the pain continued snaking upward into his abdomen, finally exploding in his chest and making it hard to breathe.

The pain made it difficult to concentrate, but as he came to a stop, he knew he had to roll sideways, requiring a solid push from his injured foot. To fall forward or backward would ensure more damage.

Curled safely on his side, he was able to exchange air again, and he used his newfound breath to curse his own stupidity. He hadn’t landed on uneven terrain or an unexpected rock; he’d impaled his foot on the board he’d tossed aside the day before. He hadn’t gone back to finish hammering the last two nails in, and he now realized it hadn’t landed face-down as he’d thought. The irony of his situation stung nearly as much as the nails pulsing in his foot. He was the one who criticized his brothers for not anticipating the possible negative outcomes when they weren’t careful. He groaned in mental pain while willing the physical pain to ease.

Joe witnessed the tumbles of both brothers and wondered who needed help most. He thought Adam would land safely, but then heard him scream as he disappeared behind the foundation. Hoss got up immediately, and although he was rubbing his head, he was moving fine. Joe headed for Adam.

Hoss shook off his shock and followed Joe.  He’d heard Adam holler, but he’d hoped that was a reaction of surprise, not damage. “I don’t know what happened,” he said as he approached the brother who was lying on his side, holding his knees to his chest. “I saw critters playin’ on that nearby rise and I must’a shifted too far to one side of that top box when I tried to take a better look.” He touched Adam’s shoulder. “You all right?”

Adam’s mouth dropped open. “Do I look all right? There’s a board nailed to my foot!”

A quick grin flashed before Hoss’s grimace returned. “I’m sorry ta say this, but just for a minute there I was thinking you was getting ready to go skiin’.” His color paled as he drew a sharp breath. “Wait…did you said it’s nailed to yer foot?” He swallowed hard. “You mean them nails go clear through the boot…” Hoss bent over to rest his elbows on his knees so he wouldn’t pass out. He could handle nearly anything, but the thought that Adam had a board nailed to his body left him reeling. “What should we do?”

Adam groaned, “Get it off!”

Joe remained silent during the exchange between his brothers, but he sprang to action once Adam gave permission to help. His question of whether the nails were deeply imbedded was answered with a weary nod. “Well this’s gonna hurt like hell, then,” he joked, trying to take their minds from the task at hand. “Just don’t kick me with your good foot while I’m pulling.”

The problem with the extraction became apparent as Joe tried a quick yank and elicited a loud yelp, but no separation. “Boy, that’s attached good,” Joe said as he backed off. “The nails are stuck in the leather of your sole, and when I pull, the whole boot moves.” He looked up at Hoss, concerned with how pale he looked. A bump on the big man’s temple was surrounded by a wide area of red, but Joe was pretty sure the sick-cow look was a response to Adam’s dilemma rather than his own injury. “I can’t get any leverage unless maybe I shove my foot into Adam’s…” He demonstrated what he meant, stopping short of contact.

The two younger Cartwrights shivered, and Adam croaked, “That couldn’t hurt any worse. Then again…I might want children someday, so figure another way.”

Hoss joined Joe in viewing the situation. “What we gotta do is hold that boot in place so you’re pullin’ the board loose without nails movin’ in and out of his foot.”

“I’d appreciate that.” Adam nodded and then threw his head back and moaned. “Grab my leg and hold it straight, Joe. I’m getting a cramp from my hip down to my ankle.”

Joe provided stretch to ease the cramping, and then nodded toward Hoss. Let’s get this done.”

“Give me a minute to get set.” Hoss knelt behind Adam, and when he was hunkered in, he instructed, “Bend yer knee and raise yer leg enough so’s I can tug the boot towards me while Joe yanks the other end.” The big man looked around as Adam took a minute to catch his breath after another cramp. “Who left a board with nails, sittin’ on the ground anyway?”

Adam gave Hoss a glassy-eyed, dirty look over his shoulder. “That’s not important right now.”

The younger brothers made eye contact and started to laugh. Hoss patted Adam’s shoulder. “I recall you telling us how we don’t think ahead enough to consider the consequences when we don’t do somethin’ right.” He redirected the pat to Adam’s cheek. “And since your the only one who was working with them nailed boards, it seems like you just got…nailed…in one a them moments yerself. You don’t do as many goofy things as we do, but when you do, it’s always a doozie.”

“You’re right,” Adam admitted as his cheeks turned crimson, and he raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I admit my lapse. Now, can we get this done…please.”

Hoss reached around his brother again and grabbed the tug-loops at the top of his boot. He ignored the painful cry when he pulled the boot up tight against Adam’s foot, and rocked them both back against his legs. “Pull with all you got, Joe,” he hollered.

The nails served as plugs, and when the board finally gave way, blood began seeping through the holes in the sole. “This is probably gonna hurt just as bad, Adam, but we gotta get that boot off now.” Hoss nodded towards his younger brother, locked his hands under Adam’s knee, and Joe yanked the footwear off.

The foot of Adam’s heavy grey sock was soaked through with blood, so Joe pulled the ankle cuff down to absorb more while they figured out what to do next. “We gotta stop that,” he said, echoing the concern that was making his heart beat in double-time.

Hoss pointed to the puddle of blood on the ground. “I suspect that having it bleed some will clean up them holes, but it does have ta stop.”

The color began returning to Adam’s cheeks as he could finally stretch and ease the cramping that had accompanied the odd position he’d maintained when he couldn’t set his foot down. He relaxed back against Hoss and chuckled. “You make a good chair.” He looked around while Joe ran to grab towels, and said, “That pond water is pretty cold. It could help slow things down.”

“I heard what Adam said, and it makes sense,” Joe said when he returned from grabbing towels from the kitchen supplies. “Grab him under the arms, and I’ll get his knees, Hoss.”  They each hoisted a set of limbs and carried him like a human hammock to the edge of the pond. Hoss resumed his position behind his brother while Joe peeled off the saturated sock and eased Adam’s bare foot into the water.

Adam gasped and tensed as the icy liquid stung like a swarm of wasps, but then relaxed as it began to provide an anesthetic effect. “How did it look?” he asked Joe.

“Like you were bitten by a large-fanged rattler. The nails went into the fleshy part of your foot, just ahead of your heel. You’re able to move your foot and wiggle your toes, so I don’t they hit any bones in there.”

The subsiding pain allowed Adam to think more clearly. “Those holes have to be cleaned well. Check the medicine kit and bring the whiskey Pa sent along.” He grabbed Joe’s arm as he stood to go. “Thank you.” His gaze swept upward toward Hoss. “Thank you both. I intended to pick up that board after we talked about the roofline yesterday, but I make mistakes too. I’m sorry if I’ve stepped on some toes, as well as nails, lately.”

Hoss’s support on Adam’s shoulders tightened briefly. “There’re plenty of apologies needed here, but maybe it’s best we all just start fresh.”

Nine

The tent reverberated with Adam’s snoring and occasional strangled coughing when his “relaxed” tongue slipped over his windpipe. He was not prone to voluminous sleeping, but since the only antiseptic available had been the bottle of booze, he’d dosed himself as liberally with it as Hoss and Joe had his wounds. They’d carried him to the tent after that; tucked him in with his foot elevated, and let him rest.

He felt groggy and disoriented when he awoke, and was trying to get free of the blankets when he saw Joe stick his head into the tent. “Is it morning?” he asked.

Joe laughed. “You didn’t sleep that long. The sun’s starting to set, so Hoss and I called it quits. I picked the short straw to see who would check on you.” He helped his brother sit on the side of the cot and saw him wince as his foot barely kissed the ground. “It hurts that bad, huh?”

Adam tried to put weight on it, and backed off. “I’ll take it easy til tomorrow.”

“Those nails went deep, but once you had enough to drink that you…ah…didn’t pay us much mind, Hoss and I washed the holes out good with soapy water, and then added a final flush of whisky. You shouldn’t get an infection, but you can forget about walking anytime soon.”

He grinned up at Joe, his cheeks turning pink. “I seem to remember a lot of yelling on my part.”

“Enough to scare the coyotes away: at least for tonight.” Joe grabbed Adam’s hand to help pull him up on his good leg. “Let me help you hop over to the flap to see how much we got done.”

The taller man wrapped his arm around Joe’s shoulder and leaned heavy against him as they inched toward the entrance. His eyes rounded and his mouth dropped open in surprise at what he saw. “You got the roof finished? It looks great.” A look of concern replaced the surprise. “I saw that bruise on Hoss’s face. Should he have worked so hard?”

Joe laughed heartily. “All of us Cartwrights have hard heads. He’s got a good-sized shiner developing, but he wanted to work. We decided to get as much done as we could so we get home before one of us kills ourselves.”

Adam waved at Hoss who was getting pots from the wagon to make supper. “Good job on the roof,” he hollered. “I’ll do the cooking tomorrow, since I won’t be much good on a ladder.”

Adam sat heavily back onto his cot and nodded toward Joe’s bed across from him. “Sit down for a minute.” He added, “Please,” when Joe hesitated. “Are we good, now? Your anger seems gone, but I want to make sure there’s not more bull to cover.” He grinned. “Gigger’s bull that is.”

The silence solidified Adam’s suspicion that Joe hadn’t thrown in the towel. He closed his eyes and blew out a long breath. “Tell me what’s eating you.” While waiting for an answer, he laid down and turned onto his side to face the young man. “It’s interesting how physical wounds heal faster than the ones that dig at our souls.”

“What do you mean by that?” the younger man asked. His question pushed from curiosity rather than animosity.

“You weren’t even mad at me when I shot you instead of that wolf. Yet whatever I did this time hurts a lot more.”

Joe didn’t make eye contact. ”That was different. I stepped in front of your shot because I wasn’t paying attention. This thing with Delores…” Joe looked directly at his brother. “I think she laughed at me behind my back. Worse yet…I’m pretty sure you laughed right along with her. You’d already impressed her with your music and sweet talk. It didn’t help you any to make fun of me.”

His eyes were kind as he smiled across the divide between them. “That’s not true, Joe. I teased you and Hoss about your methods of training, but neither Delores nor I laughed or made fun of you behind your back. ”

“I figured the two of you had a lot of time during your rides to talk about how clumsy I was in my romancing and bullfighting skills.”

Adam shook his head. “Delores was a polite young woman with a good sense of humor who endured all our clumsy efforts with dignity. She was also well educated, a fine horsewoman, and quite astute when it came to cattle, horses, and ranching. Those are the things we talked about on our rides.” He rolled onto his back, crossing his arms behind his head. “She appreciated the softer things: the music and poetry of her heritage, but she loved the danger of the bullfight even more. She would have enjoyed what you were planning if it had worked out.” He looked at Joe directly. “But no matter how well it went…it would have made no difference. She had no interest in any of us.” He winked. “We’ve had this conversation before, little brother.”

“We never talked about this.”

“Not this instance, but it comes back to gaining experience, and knowing what to do with it. This wasn’t the first time I’ve escorted a woman from Delores’s social station, so I knew what she’d enjoy. I already knew how to play a few Spanish tunes; I knew enough Spanish to converse, and I certainly knew plenty of poetry and literature. I used those things to make her feel comfortable. Where you went wrong was in trying to copy what I was doing.”

“I knew what I was doing,” Joe snapped a little too quickly, causing his brother’s eyebrows to rise along with the corners of his lips. The younger man smiled grudgingly. “What should I have done instead; in your opinion?”

“Maybe broke a bronco in her honor. You’re a fine rider. She would have enjoyed seeing your tricks or hearing about some of your adventures.”

“You could have told me that.” Joe’s tone was mildly suspicious again, but it was accompanied by a wry smile.

“I’m sure you’d have accepted my advice.” He chuckled, before going silent in thought. “What I’m advocating is for you to always be yourself, Joe. Learn from each experience. Pay attention to what others have done to succeed or fail, but never look over your shoulder to see what others are doing. You’re an original; don’t ever try to be a copy.”

Ten

Hoss awoke sensing that his skin was too tight for his face. The vision in his right eye was blurry and he yipped when he tried to rub away the fog. A little prodding convinced him that his face had puffed up during the night, and as he woke more fully, he realized he couldn’t open the sore eye more than a slit. “Hey, Joe,” he whispered when he heard movement in the cot where his younger brother slept. “Will ya take a look at my face?”

Joe grunted and shivered as he pulled himself from his warm nest and quickly drew his pants over his long underwear. It was light already, letting him know they’d slept past dawn. After a long stretch and donning his heavy shirt, he made his way over and gasped.

“It’s that bad then,” Hoss moaned. “I can feel how swollen it is and my eye won’t open.”

Joe touched Hoss’s face gently. “Your cheeks are lined like a map, so you must have burrowed your face into the creases of your pillow.” He grinned. “It’s a colorful map, with the blues, blacks and greens from the bruise looking like lakes, rocks and pastures.” He handed Hoss his pants. “Get dressed. I’m sure there’s ice on the pond again. I’ll get you some to take that swelling down.”

“Thanks, Joe. Hey,” he chuckled, “Do any a them roads on my face lead to home?”

The younger man bent over and squinted as he gently traced a red mark from the corner of Hoss’s eye down to his ear. “Sure enough. There’s Pa waving at the end, and Hop Sing holding a platter of pancakes.”

“Dang it, you made me hungry now. Hop Sing sent a pancake mix along so all’s I gotta do is add an egg and water.” He nodded towards the third brother. “We should roust him too. If he ain’t doing good, we might have to head for a doctor in Carson and finish the shack another time.”

Joe shook Adam’s shoulders, saying his name softly while checking his forehead for heat. He breathed a silent, “Thank you,” at finding it cool. “We’re going to check your foot to see if you need a doctor.”

Adam uncovered his leg, and winced when he moved. “It hurts, but not more than yesterday.” Joe stared at the exposed foot with a deepening frown. Adam observed his brother’s reaction and pushed up onto his elbow to get a better look.  He laughed “It looks like a sausage that’s about ready to explode.”

“I’m glad you said that,” Joe replied as his worried look lessened.

Hoss donned his pants and joined his brothers in their observation. “If you was a horse I’d have to shoot you.” The three men laughed until Hoss told Adam to roll on his stomach. “We have to see the bottom.” He looked things over and concluded his exam by checking the foot and lower leg for heat or redness.

“What’s your diagnosis?” Adam asked as he saw his brothers exchange a worried look.

“It’s plenty raw.” He looked to Joe for agreement. “But there’s good news. Yer foot’s swollen like my face, but it ain’t movin’ up yer leg. And it ain’t red, ceptin’ for right where you got nailed.” He stopped to laugh. “Sorry, but that was funny.”

Adam nodded. “You look like you got nailed with a hard right jab.”

“Them holes gotta heal from the inside out, so it’s gonna look bad til that happens. How about for now, I put ice on my eye, and you stick your foot in that pond for a bit, and then we’ll see where you stand.” He chuckled. “Or if you stand.”

***

Hoss fashioned an eyepatch out of an ice-filled sock tied to his head with a handkerchief, after he and Joe served as crutches to get Adam to the pond.

The eldest sipped hot coffee while shivering under blankets on the bank; his foot floating in the cold water. “I think that’s enough,” he called to his brothers. “Could you help me to the fire?”

“Does it feel better?” Joe asked as Adam hopped between them

“It went numb a while ago.”

“How’s the rest a you feelin’?” Hoss questioned with guarded concern.

“Everything is in working order. Stop looking like nervous Nellies and let’s decide what to get done today.”

They talked as they ate breakfast, and Joe disappeared into the nearby grove of trees after he finished. He was carrying two long branches under one arm and two shorter ones under the other when he returned. “It’ll take us all day if Hoss and I have to keep moving you, Adam, so I’ll make some crutches.” He blushed. “It’s not like I expect you to be over there hammering siding with us, but at least you can get around.”

“Great idea!” He pulled the blanket away from his puffy bare foot. “I’m going to need something over this. The swelling went down some, but I won’t be able to wear a boot.”

“That boot is ruined anyway, so why don’t I cut it down and make a slipper. We’ll wrap yer foot with some’a them clean long johns you always bring, and then see how it all fits together.”

Adam enjoyed a second cup of coffee while his brothers prepared his devices. He allowed that when given a chance, his brothers came up with good ideas. He leaned back and dozed off as he waited, but jerked awake when he sensed someone standing over him. It was Hoss, holding a bowl containing strips of fabric in one hand, and the remains of the whiskey in the other. “I’ll save the rest of that for when I need it more,” he said, pointing to the bottle.

“Sorry brother, this ain’t for goin’ in you, it’s for pourin’ on you. We gotta keep them punctures clean as we can.”

“We do?” Adam gulped. He’d been “affected” enough that he hadn’t cared when they’d cleaned the holes yesterday, but right now he was fully awake, and he could see there wasn’t enough brown liquid left for use as both anesthetic and antiseptic.

“I been tendin’ animal injuries for a lot of years, so trust me on this. Do you wanna stick yer foot back in the water a bit to numb it up?”

“Just get it done,” he said resignedly while rolling onto his stomach again and bending his knee.

***

The surrounding acres were cleared of coyotes again by the time Hoss finished doctoring. He patted Adam on the back to let him know he could turn over. “You surprised me with all them cuss words you know,” Hoss noted with a laugh.

“I know them all right. I just reserve their use for extreme conditions.”

Hoss’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “What da you suppose them poor animals thought was makin’ the awful howling noise?”

“You’re lucky I was on my belly, or I’d have punched you in your good eye,” Adam groused once he was sitting up examining the final product. “You did a nice bandaging job. Thank you.”

The altered boot fit over the long-john bandage, but it kept sliding off, so Hoss punched holes along both sides of the slit and slid twine through them to act as shoe laces. Joe brought his homemade crutches over once his brother was standing on his good foot, and both brothers stayed close as Adam made his maiden run to the bushes to rid himself of the coffee he’d consumed.

“You two did a great job…and finished at the perfect time.” His was smiling and looking much relieved when he returned. “That ice worked on Hoss too; he can see out of both eyes again. If you two want to work on the building, I’ll assemble what goes inside.” He looked away as he realized his brothers would soon be working on the part of the shack’s finish that might set their joint reconciliation back to the beginning. He could only hope they’d made enough progress that there wouldn’t be hurt feelings or a blow-up once their error was exposed.

Hoss pulled several bundles from the wagon that needed assembly and placed them within reach of the saw horses where Adam would work. He also made sure the work surface was sturdy enough to support his brother’s weight as he leaned against it, and added padding to a box that was the right height for Adam to rest his knee on to keep his foot off the ground.

Joe finished cleaning up from breakfast and put a pot of meat on to cook for dinner before joining Hoss at the lumber wagon. “Those longer pieces must be siding for the back frame, and the rest are for the other three sides,” he said with confidence.

“There should be a few shorter pieces for the shutters,” Adam interjected. “Put those aside and I’ll make them this afternoon.”

***

By lunch, the back side of the shack was sided and the Cartwrights ate at the newly assembled table and chairs. Adam’s pinched look while eating made his brothers threaten to shove him in the pond if he didn’t voluntarily soak his foot again.

Hoss and Joe were separating the last of the siding boards when Adam hobbled back. He glanced up when he heard Joe cuss loudly—using a word particularly hated and disallowed by their father—and he knew the time of reckoning had arrived.

Joe held his 16-inch wide section of siding up against his 24-inch stud spacing, and repeated the curse.

Hoss rushed over. “What’s wrong? You hurt yerself, Joe?”

The young man’s voice was defeated. “This siding is only 16 inches wide. We set the studs too far apart to attach it, so we’ll have to add anchor boards in between the studs to have a place to set nails…or start over and space them right.” His eyes strayed over to his oldest brother, and he fired a look that would have killed, had it been bullet. But then he started to laugh. He laughed so hard he bent over to catch his breath.

“Why are you laughin’?” Hoss moaned. “It’ll be winter before we get home now.”

Joe pointed to Adam. “I’m just thinking how hard it must have been for him to keep quiet while he let us do those frames wrong.” He nudged Hoss’s shoulder. “He’s come a long way. A week ago he’d have grabbed the hammer away when I told him to butt out, told me to get lost, and then done the whole thing himself.” He tipped his hat to the man in black. “Well done, older brother.”

One side of Adam’s face twisted upwards. “So, you’re happy I let you do them wrong?”

Joe pursed his lips, before laughing again. “You told me yesterday that I should learn from the mistakes others make. But you learn best when you make them yourself. I didn’t want your advice on how to do something I thought I knew. And I would have been right if this had been a shed. Hoss tried to tell me to pay attention, but I was too mad at both of you to listen to either of you. I was wrong. And you let me face that.”

“It was worth nailing myself to a board to hear you say that.” Adam was finally able to join in the laughter, convinced that they’d passed the final barrier to a lasting truce. “And if we’re making admissions….”

“Go on,” Hoss encouraged.

“I’ve been reminded that people can go about a project differently, and it still works out. I wouldn’t want Hoss measuring the boards for an intricate construction by walking it out, but it worked fine here. And I could have just handed you those plans and let you work through them instead trying to organize every detail ahead of time.”

Hoss snickered. “Are you sure that admission was just about the building?”

He sighed. “All right; I shouldn’t have been mad at you for not giving me money when I didn’t give you a chance to do so. I assumed you wouldn’t help, and that feeling snowballed into anger after I made a bad business decision.” Another sigh escaped as he shook his head. “I realized that in my haste to take care things, I didn’t pay attention to my gut regarding Winkelman.  It was easier to accuse you of letting me down than to admit I’d made a mistake.”

“Well, now we’re even.” Hoss laughed. “I’d take a black eye to hear you admit that.”

Adam looked down at his bandaged foot.  “I’d like to have Paul look at this. We don’t have to rush, but if we work steady we should finish the outside today, stock it tomorrow, and head home the next morning.”

The youngest grabbed his hammer. “I know something else about my oldest brother. He wouldn’t let us make a mistake he didn’t have a way to fix.” He looked directly at Adam. “So…what do we do?”

“Your idea to add anchor bars to hold the board and batten4 nails was exactly right. There won’t be enough wood to fix the entire structure though. We’ll do that on one of the shorter sides.”

“Won’t that take forever?” Hoss asked. “And how do we finish the rest?”

“Don’t despair, Hoss,” Adam responded. “I’ll saw the anchor boards to the right length while you hammer them in. It’ll go fast. When we get that part done, we’ll lap the rest of the siding horizontally. There’s a plane in the wagon I’ll use to shave an angle along one edge of the siding boards to make them overlap better. And we’ll use the remaining batten strips to tuck up the corners.”

Eleven

Ben had returned from town with interesting information, and no one to tell. He tried to keep busy but the quiet still left him edgy.  The bunk houses were empty during the day, and other than chickens cackling and the mooing of nearby cattle, the only noise was the wind stirring up dust devils in the yard. Hop Sing was around, but upstairs doing fall-cleaning while bedrooms were unoccupied.

By his reckoning, the shack would take 4 days to build. With a day on either end for travel, enough time had now elapsed that his sons could arrive home today. If they didn’t, he’d have to assume that they’d either encountered problems with the construction, or more probably, they’d been unable to work together efficiently. This brought another “if”. He’d ride out to see what was wrong if they weren’t home by tomorrow.

He was finally able to concentrate on the ranch financials, but sitting made him stiff and he needed a walk. He saw a bowl of fresh vegetables on the kitchen counter when he stopped for a drink, and he wondered how they survived the frost of the last few nights. It drove his interest enough to head out back to view Hop Sing’s garden. He chuckled when he saw the pile of old blankets at the edge of the plot that their cook must have used to shelter the plants from the cold.

The horizon was unobstructed in this area of the yard, so he shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun and looked towards the southern horizon.  A small swirl of dust in the distance got his heart beating faster.

Ben felt like a kid waiting to go fishing with his friends. He thought about saddling Buck and riding out to meet his sons, but restraint won the battle, and he walked to the house instead to call for Hop Sing, telling him, “There’ll be four for dinner!” when he appeared at the top of the stairs.

The small man’s look of irritation at being interrupted turned into a wide smile. “Lucky I making plenty food.”

***

Distance was hard to gauge where the land stretched as far as the Ponderosa did, and time dragged while Ben waited for the cloud of dust to become recognizable objects. When he could finally hear the rumble of wheels, he positioned himself in the rocking chair at the front of the house, and tried to look nonchalant. A wisp of anxiety swirled in his stomach when he realized that there were no voices accompanying the sound of the wagons. Normally his sons were boisterous at the end of a trip. Hoss pulled in first, and Ben forgot his attempt at decorum, jumping up to meet his family in the yard and welcome them home.

Joe shouted a hello as he brought his team to a stop behind the first wagon, and jumped down to join Hoss in greeting their father.

Ben’s forehead rose. “Did you leave your brother out there?” he asked when Adam didn’t exit either wagon.

“Nah,” Hoss said as he nodded toward to his high-sided wagon. “He’s asleep in there.”

Ben caught his breath when Hoss turned, exposing the patch of blue and green bruising around his eye. He took hold of the big man’s chin and turned his head for a better look. “What in tarnation!”

“There was an accident, Pa,” Hoss replied sheepishly. “Me and Adam sort of tumbled into some trouble.”

“Tumbled…or tussled?” Ben asked warily. He gave Joe a once-over. “You look unscathed. I assume you stayed clear of this…tumble?”

Joe snickered. ”It’s not what you’re imagining, Pa. It was coyotes that did Hoss in, not Adam.”

“Hoss was attacked by coyotes?” Ben’s eyes widened as he awaited an answer.

“It weren’t anything bad,” Hoss admitted. “Adam and me was up high laying roof beams when I started watchin’ coyotes and lost track of what I was doin’. I fell off my box, and got hit in the face with a timber. And Adam…well he nailed his foot when he jumped clear of the foundation.”

“Did he break it?”

Both younger sons started laughing. “No, Pa,” Little Joe choked out, “he really nailed his foot…to a board.”

“Does he need a doctor?” Ben asked as he hurried to the back of the wagon, stopping abruptly when he saw his eldest laid out on the folded tent; his swollen foot resting on a pile of their bedding. “Is he…drunk?”

“He had good reason,” Hoss offered. “That foot’s been hurtin’ and we used most of the liquor you sent along to clean it, so he’s been livin’ with the pain. We found a bottle of whiskey when we packed in the supplies for the line shack and Adam brought it along to…ah…to take the edge off durin’ the ride. He started singin’ and recitin’ poetry after downing half of it. Thankfully, he fell asleep after drinking a little more.”

“It looks like you took good care of him,” Ben said while taking a better look at Adam’s bandaged foot.

“Both Joe and I took good care’a him.” Hoss laughed as he nudged Little Joe. “You know what’s funny? Adam’s got the best voice of all of us. But when he drinks too much, he sounds like a cat what got its tail stuck under a rocking chair.”

The laughing outside the wagon roused the tipsy occupant, and he pushed up onto his elbows. He had difficulty focusing, until he rubbed over his eyes with his shirt sleeve. “Oh…hi, Pa,” he said enthusiastically. “I didn’t know we were home.” His words sounded slurred and too exuberant, and he felt around until he found the bottle he’d been using as anesthetic, hoisting it to see how much was gone. “Did you two drink some’a this too?”

“From the look and sound of you, I’m pretty sure you were the only one drinking,” Ben said as he climbed on the wagon. “How’s your foot?”

“What foot?” he asked until he tried to move his leg from its perch and yelped. “Oh, that one.” He started giggling as he pointed towards the altered footwear. “Steppin’ on two nails cost me a good pair a boots, and all my clean long-johns. But Hossss,” he giggled again as he heard the hiss he put at the end of his brother’s name. “And Liddle Joe, over there…” he tried to point, but his arm fell to his side with a thump. “They did good.” His brief comments exhausted him, and he fell backwards into a full recline again.”

Relief flooded Ben as he observed the easy interaction between his sons. It seemed his plan had succeeded, and yet he wondered at what cost. He motioned Joe and Hoss over. “Let’s get our drunken sailor to bed so he can sleep off his…medication.”

***

A few of the hands returned when Adam was being lugged into the house, and Ben enlisted two volunteers to ride into town for Paul Martin. He sweetened their mission with enough cash for dinner and a few beers before heading home.

While Adam slept, Hoss and Joe recounted the high points of their expedition. Ben smiled as his youngest son confessed to not following Adam’s plan, and he pictured the clash of wills when their anger was still leading their decisions. A shiver crawled from his neck to his feet when Hoss told of the accident.

“I’m proud of everything you three accomplished,” Ben said when the story was complete. His eyes twinkled as he teased, “I know it’s called a ‘shack’, but did it end up looking like one with the piecemeal finish?”

Hoss sat up tall with a look of pride and glanced at Joe. “It looked real good.”

“What did Adam say?” Joe’s forehead puckered as he concentrated. “Oh yeah; he said it had ‘geometric elegance’.”

The three were laughing when Paul Martin walked in the front door and stopped short. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t bother knocking since I thought you’d be upstairs. Your man said Adam cut his foot while you were away building something, and he was so sick that you had to carry him inside. Was he mistaken?”

“He stepped on a couple of nails and they stuck real good,” Hoss explained. “We cleaned it up as best we could with what we had. But you know Adam. He wouldn’t rest while there was work to do, and it’s healin’ slow.”

“He nearly polished off a bottle of booze on the ride home. We carried him into the house because he was too drunk to walk; not because he can’t walk,” Joe added.

Paul’s left eyebrow rose. “I do know your brother,” he said resignedly. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

As Hoss related the story, the doctor side of Paul Martin immediately worried about infection. But his friendship with the hard-headed perfectionist upstairs sporting two holes in his foot, allowed him a gentle chuckle as he thought about Adam getting caught in a moment of imperfection. He nodded to the brothers. “You certainly did do the best with what you had. Has his foot gotten red or hot?”

“It’s still swollen, but it’s a nice pink, like a summer rose,” Hoss replied. “It’s too bad he wouldn’t give in and rest more.”

Paul looked directly at Ben. “Like father, like son?” His eyes moved toward the stairway. “I suppose we better get up there. I’m not a betting man, but I’ll lay odds he won’t be happy to see me.”

***

The doctor was right. Adam eyed Paul warily and said he didn’t want him poking around on his sore foot. The doctor ignored his patient, but held his breath as he removed the long underwear covering the wound. He exhaled in relief when he saw that Hoss’s observation was correct. The wounds were starting to heal. “This would be further along if you’d have kept your foot up instead of dangling it while you worked.”

Adam met Paul’s chastisement with a withering look. His nap had restored his sobriety, but not his good humor. He considered how to respond, and finally said, “I couldn’t let my brothers have all the fun.”

“You Cartwrights define fun differently than I do.” Paul chuckled, but then laughed fully when he heard Hoss’s stomach growl from across the room. He glanced out the window, noting the darkness. “Judging from Hoss’s internal rumbling, I’m guessing it’s supper time on the Ponderosa.” He looked back to Adam. “You can sit up normally for meals, but the rest of the time I want your foot elevated. Soak it in a warm Epsom salt bath every few hours and leave it exposed to the air when you’re not moving around. I know Joe made crutches for you, but I’ve got sturdier ones you can use until you can bear weight without pain. Don’t rush it. Make sure those wounds are healed before you start walking again.”

Paul turned next to Ben. “I have no patients ready to give birth, and there are other doctors in town to handle emergencies, so if you’d be willing to extend the invitation, I would appreciate spending the night at the Ponderosa instead of going back in the dark.”

“You’re always welcome, Paul.”

***

Ben beamed when his family, plus one, sat down to supper. Whatever had been driving his sons’ animosity when they’d departed had been left at the line shack. His oldest looked tired, and winced whenever he bumped his foot, but Paul had already promised to provide a pain reliever after dinner that would knock him out for the night. The doctor had offered something even more important: the assurance that the pain and swelling would ease quickly if Adam followed orders.

The reassembled family had Hop Sing making repeated trips between the kitchen and dining room to refill serving dishes. He smiled at Ben as he passed him with a third platter of chicken, and nodded in silent acknowledgement of the restored household.

The conversation flowed easily as the sons recounted more stories about their trip, including Adam’s newfound cooking skills. When they’d exhausted their tales, Hoss asked about news from town.

Adam followed up. “Is everyone getting rich from Winkelman silver?”

Paul eyed Ben knowingly. “I imagine you haven’t had a chance to tell him,” Paul said.

“Tell me what?” Adam asked.

“I stayed in town a couple days while you were gone, hoping to find out when Winkelman actually found that vein.”

Adam’s interest was piqued. “Was it before I sold?”

“Of course,” Ben replied. “I plied Jeb Smyth with beer at the Bucket. He’s been at that mine since it opened, and he’s the one who called the ‘old man’s’ attention to an odd coloration in a side shaft they used for storing supplies. It didn’t have the usual coloration of silver ore, but something made Jeb wonder.” Ben looked at the others. “Does anyone know whether Winkelman has a first name? I’ve never heard him called anything but Winkelman or Old Man.”

Adam tapped his dessert fork on the table impatiently, waiting for Hop Sing’s apple pie and his father’s story. “What else did Jeb say, Pa?”

“Winkelman took a sample and sent it away over two months back. A few weeks ago, he moved everything out of that section and blocked it off, saying there was flooding.”

“Was that true?” Hoss asked.

“Jeb didn’t see any water when they moved things out. What he did see was several strangers go in, supposedly to cap the seepage. Jeb figured the old man had sent the rock sample away so no one here would find out if it was ore, and those men looking around were from San Francisco, trying to gage how deep the vein might go. Then two days after you sold your stock back, Winkelman announced the strike.”

“It’s what I figured, Pa,” Adam said with a sigh as he dropped his fork to the cloth and leaned back in his chair. “He has a good cover story. He could say he came on the silver when they tried to stop the leak.”

“You haven’t heard the whole story, Adam.” Paul said and nodded toward Ben. “Tell him what happened the next day you were in town.”

“Winkelman was so anxious to get at the ore that he did a large blast.” Ben grinned at his son. “You do have to love it when a person’s lies come back to haunt them.”

“How so?” Joe asked eagerly as he inched forward on his chair.

“The old man had lied about flooding to keep his men out of there. But when he blew that wall, he really did open an underground stream, and it flooded the mine for real.”

Paul took over. “You left town before the full story came out, Ben. The mine is nothing more than a cistern now. The water flow was so intense that it’s snaking down the hill from the entrance like a waterfall. There’s talk of other mine owners suing him for endangering their claims, and forcing him to collapse the shaft from above to drop enough rock in there to stop the water. He can’t pump fast enough to get at the bonanza anyway. Those experts from earlier are back. They agree he’ll have to blast it shut and try tunneling in from the backside. There’s no guarantee he won’t hit the water again, and the cost is prohibitive.” Paul laughed heartily. “He can’t even profit from all that water since it’s fouled with TNT.

Adam’s mouth hung open for a moment as he found his voice. “So he lost the lode, and he can’t even mine the areas that were producing a steady income?” Paul and Ben nodded in unison.

Paul offered the conclusion. “Stock in the Winkelman mine is worthless for the foreseeable future. Shareholders are thinking of suing him for incompetent management.”

Adam spoke softly. “They’d have a good case. If he’d done shallow blasts, he’d have seen the first signs of water, and could have worked around it. I’d question whether it’s worth bringing a lawsuit since there won’t be any money to recoup.”

Paul looked directly at Adam. “Everyone knows now that Winkelman lied about you, and they now say you were smart to get out when you did.”

Hoss watched his oldest brother’s face slip into a deep frown. “Knowin’ my older brother, that don’t give him any pleasure.”

Adam leaned forward, resting his chin on his balled fists. “I would be in the same position except that I needed the money. I’d never wish harm to others to vindicate myself.”

“You don’t have to feel badly,” Ben said. “The other investors got the same dividends as you, son, so their ‘loss’ was only in the price of the stock. They can’t know how much they might have made.”

“What ‘might have been’ is always the most bitter pill to swallow,” Adam pondered aloud. “Pa’s right: I didn’t make more than the rest of them; I just lost a little less.” He smiled across the table at his brothers and then looked at his father again. “But then Pa’s right about a lot of things. It was an interesting week building that shack, but making us work together was the right decision.”

Hoss winked at his brothers. “There’s somethin’ else that should ease yer mind, Pa. The Cartwright boys have made an agreement that we won’t never compete for a young lady’s attention…or at least not until the next time.”

The End

Notes:

1 A veronica is a maneuver in bullfighting in which the matador stands with both feet fixed in position and swings the cape slowly away from the charging bull.

2 Ecclesiastes 1:9 – That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.

3 Plywood received a patent in 1865. One source says that manufacturing soon followed. Other sources say the patent’s owner didn’t see its adaptation into building until later. The large sheets of plywood that we know weren’t manufactured until the 20th century. But, since the Cartwrights liked the latest innovations, I’m going to speed history a little. These would not have been smaller squares, but still faster than nailing individual boards.

4 Board and batten siding is a side-by-side vertical placement of long boards with a thin strip placed over the joint to keep out the elements. Lapped siding is horizontal boards “lapping” over the lower board to form a barrier.

 

22 thoughts on “The Falling Out (by MissJudy)”

  1. This story was full of so many elements – angry brothers, disillusioned Ben, and frustrated Hop Sing. I could easily imagine the expressions and hear the words. I loved Hop Sing telling Ben to ‘fix it’, and Ben’s devilish act of ‘revelry’ to get the boys together for a family talk. When he sent them off to work, I feared for a short time that he might find himself minus a son or two when they finished but those boys know what is ultimately important. The side story was a great twist for Adam and gotta love Paul’s reactions to Adam’s injury. I always enjoy your stories and this one was a fun read from start to finish.

    1. Thank you so much AC1830. You saw everything! that was in there. The thoughts, feelings and possibilities/pitfalls as the brothers worked through why they were actually mad, and whether family was more important than holding onto bad feelings. Thanks again for your insights and encouragement. I appreciate it so much.

  2. I really enjoyed this. Ben’s strategy could so easily have gone in two ways – it could have worked, or failed dismally. What a chance he took. You got to the roots of all the characters so well – showing their good and bad sides. Great story!

    1. Thanks Sierra Girl. I’m glad you saw that difference in characters and how these brothers react. You saw it in the series when Joe and Hoss would make a face behind Adam’s back, or Adam rolled his eyes and shook his head. But they needed a pretty woman to make them face some of those feelings come out in a healthy way and get them settled. Thanks again.

  3. I really enjoyed this followup to Ponderosa Matador. I wondered why Little Joe seemed so angry at Adam for so long, but you’re right in that embarrassment is often expressed that way (I have a child who proves it). I think this would have made a great episode; in fact, I felt as though I was watching one. Lovely, intelligent writing. 🙂

    1. Thank you, JC2. I enjoyed and appreciated your comment so much. I have always thought that Joe and Adam have an extremely close relationship. It comes out in loving moments, but also in competition, and as Adam says, he’s got more years, and more experience on his side. You picked up perfectly on the hurt of embarrassment, and that’s probably because you see it in action in your own child. I have a grandson who does the same thing. He can handle disappointment and even laughs at making mistakes, but watch out if he’s embarrassed! I’m so glad that you could “see” the story play out like an episode. I’ve worked with a beta who won’t let me “tell” a story. I always have to show it in description and in the conversations. I’m forever grateful to her for that. It takes me months to write a story. Being short on time is part of it, but then it’s rewrites, edits, beta reads and more editing. Reading your comment makes that process worthwhile. Thank you again for your time and thoughts.

    1. Many thanks Hart4Ben. I always appreciate hearing that I’ve done a good job with the characterizations of the Cartwrights. It’s fun to put them in different situations, but I always try to keep them true to who they were in Canon. Thanks again.

  4. Such and interesting take on a follow-up to this ep. It really brings out that what may seem all in good fun in the beginning may really be aggravated by almost unknown resentments, and that it’s important to look past surface tensions to get to the root of the issue.

    Was happy to see a new story from you, thx for writing!

    1. Thank you PSW. I can imagine that with three intelligent brothers with far different personalities, there’d be fireworks now and then. And thank you for letting me know that you were happy to see a new story. I truly appreciate that.

    1. Thank you pt9646. I always thought there’d be some fall out from the competition and aftermath of that episode. So glad you agree. Thank you again.

  5. A wonderful examination of the family dynamics with great attention to the personalities of the sons and how their particular faults contribute to rifts. This was realistic and I appreciate that you didn’t take any shortcuts in working out the solution to their difficulties.

    1. Thank you Betty. I did hope to give each Cartwright a chance to express their feelings as they worked through their anger.

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