Summary: When Adam receives his father’s permission to take one brother with him on an extended trip east to visit the Centennial Exposition, even he is surprised at which brother he chooses and at the critical turn the grand adventure takes.
Rating: K+ Word Count: 277, 566
Note: This story follows the timeline of my Heritage of Honor series, which is, for historical reasons, somewhat later than that used for the series Bonanza. While this difference results in certain incongruities with the series, it opens up other interesting and historically viable possibilities, particularly for the eldest Cartwright brother. Some of these are alluded to in this story and will be more fully developed in a future one.
Heritage of Honor Series:
The front door blared open, bringing with it a brisk gust of March wind and two Cartwrights coated with dust. From his chair by the blazing fire, Adam scowled at his younger brothers and sharply ordered them to close the door. “You’re late,” he continued, his voice accusative, “and Hop Sing is fit to be tied. He’s threatening to throw supper out the back door, and a return to China has already been mentioned.”
Hoss Cartwright scrunched his nose in the direction of the stone fireplace. “Well, pardon us all to pieces, big brother. It ain’t like we wanted to be out this late in that cold wind.”
“Yeah,” Hoss’s younger brother groused as he shrugged out of his green corduroy jacket. “Some of us actually had to do more today than just ride into town for the mail.”
Adam favored Little Joe with a superior smirk. “Just the privilege of age and maturity, sonny. Someday we might even consider you grown up enough to fetch the mail.”
Eighteen-year-old Joe scowled. If there was one thing he hated, it was being reminded that he was the youngest, and it seemed to him that his oldest brother rarely missed an opportunity to throw it in his face. “Listen here, Adam,” he began, moving toward the objection of his irritation.
Before Joe could even start his intended tirade, however, sharp words cut him off. “You late,” Hop Sing snapped from the dining room. “Always people late to suppah. Hop Sing work hard all day and this thanks he get!”
Hoss lightly rested a beefy hand on the shoulder of the diminutive factotum of the Ponderosa. “Just put the food on the table, Hop Sing, and you’ll see how thankful I can be. I’m hungry enough to eat a bear!”
“Hop Sing no feed dirty boys,” the Chinese cook snorted with a disdainful look at the cherubic, but grimy face of the middle Cartwright brother. “You wash up, chop-chop, then maybe-so I put food on table.” His quick exit to the kitchen left no room for argument, so both Hoss and Little Joe headed for their respective washbasins upstairs, passing their father on the way down from doing similar duty. Adam chuckled and turned back to reading the latest copy of Manufacturer and Builder, which had arrived in the mail that day.
His nose was still buried in the journal as the other three Cartwrights took their places around the table. Ben cleared his throat loudly and, when that still brought no response from his eldest, sharply uttered the young man’s name. Startled, Adam tore his eyes from the printed page and with a sheepish apology, set the journal aside and moved quickly to the table.
Four heads bowed as Ben Cartwright offered thanks for the bounty spread before them. Then, as Joe made a vain attempt to grab the platter of pork chops before Hoss, Ben smiled at their older brother. “Interesting article, son?”
“Extremely,” Adam replied, as he watched “the children” tussle over the meat. “It’s about—”
“Oh, let me guess,” Joe snickered as he speared a pork chop with his fork and dropped it onto his plate, “the Centennial!”
“Yeah,” Hoss cackled, dragging three chops into his plate. “Couldn’t be nothin’ else, could it, now?”
As he finally snared a piece of meat for himself, Ben smiled indulgently at the young man seated across from him at the foot of the table. Seeing the flush rise from Adam’s chin to his broad brow, he knew the younger boys had guessed correctly—and small wonder. Since the beginning of this year of the Lord, 1876, each new issue of Manufacturer and Builder, or any of the other eastern publications to which Adam maintained a regular subscription, had inspired him to enthusiastic eloquence about the upcoming celebration of America’s one-hundredth year. “Now, boys,” Ben cautioned with a glance to either side, “I’m sure we’re all interested in what your brother Adam has to share.”
“I’m not,” Joe grunted. “It’s got nothin’ to do with us.”
Hoss took warning from the steely glare Ben fixed on his youngest son and quickly said, “Yeah, Adam, tell us all about what them folks back in Philadelphia is plannin’ now.”
Eyes locked on the boy who was pointedly ignoring him, Adam responded to his other brother. “If you’re genuinely interested, Hoss, I’ll loan you the journal. I wouldn’t want to force information on the willfully ignorant.”
As he helped himself to potatoes and gravy, Little Joe tried to disregard the pool of silence forming around him, but he could feel three sets of eyes staring him down. With a sigh he looked up. “Okay, okay, let’s hear all about it”—he lowered his voice to mutter, “like we’ve got a choice.”
“Oh, you’ve got a choice, young man,” Ben announced sternly. “You can leave your dinner on your plate and march yourself upstairs until you learn to be civil.”
Joe slammed his fork to the table. “Well, maybe I’ll just do that! I don’t see why I have to pretend that this is interesting two, three times a month, just ‘cause some stupid magazine came in from back east. From what I hear, they ain’t even gonna pull it off, so it’s all just a bunch of pointless palaver.”
Ben snapped his fingers and aimed one toward the stairway. With a disgusted glare at Adam, Joe started to rise, but Adam waved him back into his seat. “Don’t bother,” he said. Glancing toward his father, he snorted as he inclined his head toward Joe, “Since when has dietary deprivation ever had any effect on that one? I’ll change the subject.”
“You don’t have to,” Ben stated firmly. “I will not countenance that level of rudeness at the table—or anywhere else under my roof! Joseph, either apologize to your brother or go to your room.”
Temper flared in Joe’s green eyes, and he jerked the chair back. Just then he caught sight of the food on his plate. He’d put in a hard afternoon’s work since dinner, and his belly was rumbling. Suddenly, the quarrel with Adam seemed too unimportant to sacrifice a good meal over. “Sorry,” he grunted, though it rankled his pride, and scooted back up to the table again.
It was a pathetic, obviously unfelt, apology, but both Ben and Adam let it slide. Adam, however, could not allow his brother’s last criticism of the centennial celebration to go unchallenged. “I’m aware, little brother,” he said, “that certain journalists have expressed doubt that the Centennial Exposition will take place, but the article I was reading tonight removes the slightest reservation. It will open, and on time.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe said meekly, with a longing glance at his mashed potatoes and gravy. Adam rolled his eyes and changed the subject, as promised. The conversation turned to the work of the ranch, what had been accomplished that day and what needed to be done on the next.
Not until the younger boys had retired for the night did Adam again broach the subject of the Centennial with his father, moving from his blue chair by the fire to the end of the sofa nearest Ben. “It’s really going to be a marvelous celebration, Pa,” he observed after filling Ben in on the latest news. “Countries from all over the world will be sending their greatest works of art and machinery, their finest agricultural products and manufactures—and the buildings themselves! An unprecedented illustration of the latest ideas in architectural design.”
“I’m sure it will be wonderful, Adam,” Ben responded, rubbing the arm of his thickly padded chair, “but while I don’t approve of the rudeness with which Joseph expressed his opinion, I’m afraid I have to agree that it doesn’t have a great deal to do with us out here. Virginia City is planning her own celebration of the centennial year, of course, and although it won’t be as grand as the one in Philadelphia, at least we’ll be able to attend this one.”
“Is attending the one back east such an impossible dream?” Adam ventured softly.
Ben felt a lump rise in his throat, and his fingers tightened on the burgundy leather. Though he hadn’t permitted himself to admit it, he’d known for a month or more that dreams of seeing the Centennial himself lay behind all Adam’s insistence on sharing the latest developments as they became known. His own reluctance to see what should have been self-evident came from the simple fear that if Adam once again tasted the culture of the East, he’d be lost forever to his reawakened appetite. How often Ben had seen that yearning in his son’s dark and soulful eyes, the same light of longing that now transfixed them. “You want to go?” he asked hesitantly.
“You know I do,” Adam said, leaning forward earnestly. “I realize summer is our busiest time, and I know you’re going to be tied up with outside activities yourself, this being an election year. That’s why I’ve been reluctant to mention it and why I’ll understand if you tell me I can’t be spared, but I figured it was time I worked up the nerve to ask, at least.”
Ben’s smile was warm with the love he felt for this firstborn son. Though all the boys did their fair share of work around the ranch, Adam alone shouldered its responsibilities with him. At times, he thought that Adam alone truly understood and shared the dream that had found fruition in the Ponderosa, and it seemed ironic to him that Adam alone seemed to visualize a future beyond its boundaries. Yet this young man had given so much of himself to his father’s dream that Ben couldn’t refuse, had never been able to refuse him when he tentatively brought forth a dream of his own. Even at the risk of losing him, Ben knew he couldn’t deny this request, any more than he had denied the one that had sent Adam east years before. “How long would you be gone?” he asked.
The dark eyes sparkled, and then thick eyelashes dipped to hide them. “Well, the Exhibition lasts from May 10th to November 10th,” Adam replied.
The lump caught in his throat, but Ben forced himself to chuckle. “Be serious.”
Adam looked up, a hint of humor brushing his lips. “No, I realize I can’t stay that long, but I would like to be there for the Fourth of July celebration—it’ll be the biggest in the country—and I’d like to attend Commencement at my old alma mater. I haven’t had a chance to do that since my own graduation.”
“When is that?” Ben asked.
“The twentieth of July,” Adam replied and waited, holding his breath.
Ben’s expression was thoughtful. “You’re talking about being away a month or more, then.”
Adam licked his lips. “I know it’s asking a lot.”
Ben raised his gaze to his son’s face. “No more than you deserve,” he said softly, touched by the yearning his son was trying so hard to conceal. “As you say, you haven’t been back east since college, and I know there are things you’ve missed, things you’ve given up for my sake, for your brothers’ sake. You’ve always given a hundred and ten percent to this ranch, Adam, so you take whatever time you need.”
Adam flashed a rare smile. “If you’re sure you can spare me . . .”
Ben cleared his throat and adopted a light tone to cover his emotion. “We managed five years without you; I guess we can muddle by for four or five weeks!”
“Thanks, Pa.” Adam slid onto the table, laying a hand on his father’s knee. “Why don’t you come with me? It’s been longer since you’ve been back east than it’s been for me.”
Ben gave his son’s firm biceps a light rub. “You know I can’t. As you pointed out, it’s our busiest season, and I’ve got that political convention to attend.”
“Not ‘til August,” Adam reminded him. “We’d be back by then.”
Ben shook his head. “I’ll be involved in meetings leading up to the convention, as well, some of them taking place during the exact time you plan to be gone. No, as much as I’d love to make the trip with you, Adam, I simply can’t.”
Adam nodded. It was the answer he’d expected, so he was ready with another proposition. “The boys, then? If I pay their way?”
Ben cast a suspicious glance at his son, knowing from the speed with which this second request followed the first that it had been waiting in the wings. “You know I can’t spare all three of you,” he chided. “I guess I could get by with just one son to help me through our busiest season,” he added with a touch of tartness, “so if it’s worth footing the bill for you to have one of your brothers with you, take your pick.” The smile that followed this statement clearly conveyed Ben’s amused certainty regarding which of his brothers Adam would choose as a traveling companion.
The smile jolted Adam out of his complacency. His first instinct was, as his father had accurately discerned, to take Hoss on the trip, but Adam resented the idea of being that predictable. In fact, he prided himself on being able to read the minds of others, while keeping his own thoughts and feelings close to his vest. Unwilling to admit that he might be as open a book to his father as, say, Little Joe was to him, he pursed his lips and murmured, “I’ll have to give that some thought and let you know.”
The statement didn’t budge the smile on his father’s lips. In fact, they were definitely twitching as Ben said, “Fine, fine. Take all the time you need, but I will require one thing more of you, Adam.” Waiting until he had his son’s attention, he continued, “You will be the one to explain to the brother you leave behind why you made that choice. You won’t saddle me with that chore!”
Adam quickly agreed. Though Little Joe had acted uninterested in the Centennial, he would be both disappointed and angry on learning that Adam and Hoss were taking an extended trip, while he had to stay behind, stuck with their chores for a month or more. Pa had every right to expect him to blunt the force of that anger by taking it on himself.
Father and son said good night and retired for the evening. Adam lay on his bed in the dark room, trying to think of the best way to explain to Little Joe why he was choosing Hoss, but the more he tried to come up with reasons that would appease the boy, the more unfair he felt. Another thing Adam Cartwright prided himself on was fairness, and it simply wasn’t fair to reject Joe out of hand. Besides, if the decision were really the right one, it would stand up to careful analysis. So, think it through logically, he told himself. Weigh the pros and cons of choosing each brother; then decide. Now, why should I take Hoss?
It was so easy to tally up the positive points for choosing Hoss. Hoss was his best friend and would make the most enjoyable companion. They always got on well together, seemingly understanding one another without words. With Hoss, there would be no conflicts, no problems to deal with, just a pleasurable journey for both, and Hoss’s interest in inventions would guarantee his fascination with Machinery Hall, which would exhibit the latest mechanisms from around the world.
Were there any negative points to taking Hoss? To be totally fair, Adam had to admit that there were. Hoss was uncomfortable in big cities, even the less rigid ones of the West. Philadelphia, with its stricter societal mores might be absolute torture for a man most comfortable under open skies. Then, too, Hoss thoroughly hated being away from home for long stretches of time, almost as if he drew his life’s breath from the fragrance of the pines. Would a month be more than he would enjoy, even of exciting new inventions? And what of the other aspects of the Exposition? Machinery Hall and Agricultural Hall would naturally appeal to him, but the other areas might not, at least not to the same extent. Reluctantly, Adam was forced to admit that Hoss had neither the interest nor the scholarly intellect to take in everything that the Centennial had to offer.
Little Joe, on the other hand, was smart as a whip. Not much got past those ever-active green orbs. While Joe had always been a reluctant student, there was no doubt whatsoever in Adam’s mind that his youngest brother could more readily profit from the educational experience of the Centennial than Hoss. It might even be an opportunity to interest the boy in a college education. Adam had, on numerous occasions, tried unsuccessfully to convince Joe to continue his education, but perhaps a trip east would awaken the boy’s interest, particularly if he visited some colleges and got a feel for what the experience was really like, how it could broaden his life.
Joe’s youthful exuberance was another point in his favor. He was more likely to relish a new experience around every corner than Hoss, but taking the kid had definite drawbacks, as well. There were certain parts of the Exposition that he wouldn’t enjoy any more than Hoss, and if Joe were to receive the full educational benefit, Adam would have to force him to take it all in and that could lead to conflicts.
Hoss, of course, would willingly go along with anything his big brother suggested, just to be congenial, and try his best not to let Adam see how bored he really was. With him, there would be no problems, but taking Joe almost guaranteed facing conflict somewhere along the way. The two of them mixed about as well as—Adam rejected the easy metaphor of oil and water for a more accurate one—coal oil and a lighted match. Conflict was inevitable if they were thrown together for several weeks without either Pa or Hoss on hand to douse the match before it struck the oil. Joe’s youthful exuberance, too, was as much a weakness as a strength. The interest in new experiences could lead just as easily to an education of the wrong sort. Do I really want to saddle myself with watching out for him in a city with a wider range of temptations than Virginia City?
That was the dilemma. Should he selfishly cater to his own pleasure or do the “big brotherly” thing and put the other man—well, boy, in Joe’s case—first? The decision he had thought would be so easy kept Adam awake late into the night and consumed his thoughts throughout the next day. He pondered the problem, giving each of his younger brothers careful examination as they worked side by side. Hoss and Little Joe became increasingly uncomfortable with the feeling of eyes boring into their backs and wondered why Adam seemed so distant.
Adam spent several hours alone in his room that night, mulling his decision until he was finally certain he’d made the right one. Hearing his brothers bid each other good night in the hall, Adam made his way downstairs to tell his father which brother would be accompanying him to Philadelphia. He smiled, taking almost perverse satisfaction in the thought that Pa was about to learn that he didn’t know his eldest quite as well as he thought he did. Nor, for that matter, had Adam known himself as well as he’d thought, for the choice he’d made had come as a total surprise. His father’s shocked face when he mentioned Joe’s name made Adam wonder for a moment if he would be allowed, after all, to take his youngest brother with him.
Ben had obviously been caught completely off guard. Raking a hand through his silver hair, he fell back into the leather chair and stared at the man seated on the fireside table before him.
“Surprised?” Adam asked with a sportive smile.
“‘Flabbergasted’ might be a better word,” Ben admitted. “I never gave a moment’s thought to your taking Joseph. I just assumed you meant Hoss.”
Adam pinched his nose bridge. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I thought I’d better discuss this with you before I said anything to Joe.”
Ben smiled wryly. “Thank you for that, at least.”
Adam stood, took a step toward the fire and turned to face his father. “Look, I’ll confess I had Hoss in mind when we spoke before, but, just to be fair, I tried to look at both of them, and I think Joe will benefit more from the trip.” He went on to describe the process of reasoning that had led to his decision. “So how about it? Can I take the kid?” he asked when he’d finished.
Ben motioned for Adam to take a seat and when the young man was once again perched on the table, he leaned forward, laying a hand on his son’s muscular thigh. “You say you’ve considered potential problems. Have you also considered that Joseph may not respond at all the way you hope he will to these ‘educational opportunities,’ that he may, in fact, resent your bringing up this issue of college yet again? He has been adamant that he has no such interest.”
Adam nodded slowly. “I know, but he has no factual basis for forming that decision, just his own stubborn belief that it’s not for him.”
Ben shook his head. “Nevertheless . . . ”
“Look, Pa, it will still be his choice,” Adam insisted. “I’ll make that clear. I just want him to make an informed decision.”
Ben frowned, concerned that he already saw the basis for a continuing clash between his two sons. “Have you also taken into consideration just how difficult your young brother can be to handle?”
The expression on Adam’s face was almost smug. “I’ve had to handle him many times before.”
The furrows in Ben’s brow deepened. “Yes, but not for such an extended time,” he reminded his eldest. “You’ll be completely on your own.”
“I can handle that boy, Pa,” Adam assured him.
He hadn’t said, “Better than you,” but Ben could read it in his son’s almost cocky expression, and he arched a critical eyebrow. Fool boy, always has thought he could do a better job of parenting than me. Serve him right if I did make him put that theory to the test. Might end up having a bit more respect for his poor, befuddled father.
“Besides,” Adam chirped on, blithely unaware of the affront he’d given, “maybe some time alone together will help us toward a better relationship.”
Or an open break, Ben thought, but feeling trapped by his earlier agreement that Adam could take whichever brother he chose, he reluctantly gave his permission for his youngest son to accompany his eldest to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. “Provided,” he added firmly, “that Joseph wishes to go under the conditions you set down and agrees to put himself under your authority. I’ll make it clear that I am delegating my authority to you, but whether he’ll respect that when I’m a continent away is something I cannot guarantee.”
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Adam chuckled. “We’ll do just fine.”
As he watched his son climb the stairs to bed, Ben shook his head in consternation, scolding himself for his lack of foresight. Should have seen this coming. So like Adam to make that decision based on what would be best for his brothers. Been looking out for their welfare before his own his whole life. Should have known he wouldn’t just pick for his own pleasure. Well, maybe fathers weren’t meant to be clairvoyant; maybe that was strictly the purview of the Almighty. He stood and stretched, then headed for bed, still wondering what the outcome of this adventure would be. Adam and Joe, together for four weeks or so—would it be the unifying experience Adam envisioned or the disaster his father dreaded?
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