"You have to watch out for him, Bret. It's your job now that you're a big brother." Those were the words Mama had told him the first time Bret Maverick had laid eyes on his baby brother, Bart. Similar words were spoken shortly before she died, and after the funeral his pappy had told him almost the same thing. Bret had taken those words to heart every time he'd heard them and he'd done his best to do exactly that for the last seven years, especially since Mama had died.

Things had been hard since they had lost Mama. Pappy was . . . well, Pappy was different now. He was quieter and more distant than he had been when Mama had been alive. He had gotten some better, the first few months it had been as though Pappy wasn't even there, but the Pappy Bret had known and loved seemed to have died with Mama. He was still there when he was really needed, but otherwise Bret felt like he was supposed to take care of everything, at least where Bart was concerned. Bret didn't mind taking care of his brother. He didn't even mind that Pappy expected him to take care of Bart. But sometimes, taking care of things was harder than it was at other times, and one area that had become particularly difficult of late was school.

Because Pappy played poker professionally, he often put them to bed at night and then went into town, returning sometime in the early morning hours. This meant he was usually sound asleep when it was time for them to get up. So, it fell to Bret to get himself and Bart up, dressed, and to school on time. It had never been easy, Mavericks, even the young ones, weren't morning people, but Bret had always managed. Until lately anyway. A new teacher had come this year and she wasn't as understanding about the somewhat unorthodox lifestyle the Mavericks lead as their previous teacher had been. Particularly about the fact that two young boys more or less seeing to themselves sometimes ran a little late. Just like today.

Bret silently blew out a breath and tried to concentrate on the assignment he'd been given, but it was difficult. He knew this day was going to end badly. This morning, just like so many others, they had been late, strolling into the schoolroom a good twenty minutes after lessons had started. Miss Potter had watched Bart and Beau go by and then given him a look. That look had told Bret everything he needed to know, the woman wasn't going to simply let their lateness go today.

Giving up on finishing the work he'd been given, Bret started to think of some way to avoid Miss Potter this afternoon. It wouldn't be easy, there weren't that many children in Little Bend, but there were enough to make a small crowd when Miss Potter dismissed them. Since Bret was nearer the back of the room, he was sure he could slip out before Miss Potter had a chance to jump on him; the problem was his cousin and his brother. Beau sat two seats in front of him and Bart was even further up. It wouldn't be as easy for them to slip out, but if he could get Beau to grab Bart they might be able to pull it off. If only he could get Beau's attention.

He tried to look over at his cousin without looking like he was trying to look at his cousin, hoping Beau would turn around. Beau was so absorbed in what he was doing however, his eyes never left his desk. He could always try Bart. Bret let his eyes drift to his teacher. At the moment, she was on the girl's side helping Rachel. Feeling sure he wouldn't be seen, Bret leaned out of his seat some so he could see Bart. His brother looked just as preoccupied as Beau. Frustrated, he went back to Beau, staring intently at the back of his head. Look at me, he thought. Please, Beau, just turn around and look at me.

"Bret?"

Bret almost jumped out of his skin when he felt the hand on his shoulder. He jerked his head around to find Miss Potter standing beside him. "I'd like a word with you after class."

Bret felt a knot settle in his stomach. So much for a quick getaway. "Yes, ma'am."

Smiling some Miss Potter went back to the front of the room. Bret sighed as he watched her go. This was not going to end well. Feeling someone's eyes on him, Bret looked up and found his cousin staring at him questioningly. Bret shook his head some and gave a pointed glance towards Miss Potter. Understanding dawned in Beau's eyes. Now you look at me, Bret thought bitterly as his cousin turned back around.

After class was dismissed, Bret remained by his desk, waiting for the room to clear. He couldn't help but feel just a little envious as he watched Beau grab Bart's arm and pull him out of the room. It was at times like this he wished he wasn't the oldest; wished it was Beau or Bart stuck with having to have this talk with their teacher. As no one wanted to stay in the school room any longer than need be, the place was soon empty and Bret made his way to the front of the room. "Ma'am," he said approaching Miss Potter's desk.

The teacher looked up at him with a sigh. "Bret, I think we need to talk about your continued lateness."

Bret had known what she was going to say, but he grimaced just the same. "I'm sorry, Miss Potter. It won't happen again."

"It's happened every day this week, Bret. I could overlook it if it was only every now and again, but it happened twice last week, three times the week before, and countless other times since school has started." Bret studied the floor as she spoke. "I'm afraid I have no choice but to meet with your father to discuss the situation."

Bret blew out a breath. He did not want that to happen. "Miss Potter…" he trailed off not knowing what to say. Pappy would not be happy if he had to see Miss Potter. For some reason, Pappy had a strong dislike for her. "Pappy doesn't . . . he – he doesn't . . . ." Bret stopped again. Miss Potter was from New England, and Bret knew things were different there than they were here in Texas. How was he supposed to explain Pappy or the way they lived to someone like his teacher?

"Bret, is there something you need to tell me?"

"Ma'am?"

"Is there a problem at home? With your father?"

Bret shook his head. "No Ma'am. It's just . . . well, Pappy plays poker."

"Yes, I know," she replied tersely. Martha Potter was young, idealistic, and fresh from Massachusetts. She had met Beauregard Maverick on two occasions and neither one had left her with a good impression of the man. Her general opinion was that the Maverick patriarch was bad-tempered and irresponsible. How could someone actually earn a living by playing poker? And what kind of environment was that for a child to grow up in? Truthfully, she felt sorry for all three of the boys but especially Bret and Bart. Beau's father was a gambler too, but her view of him wasn't as negative. He was certainly the more personable of the two brothers and seemed more together than Beauregard. She felt confident that if she could get the problem with Bret and Bart worked out, the problem with Beau would be automatically settled.

"You see," Bret continued. "He goes out most nights to play and it's usually late when gets back so . . . he sleeps in a lot."

Miss Potter smiled sadly. "I do see." She passed him an envelope. "Would you please give that to your father?"

Bret couldn't stop himself from wincing. Notes from school were bad. Really bad. "Yes, ma'am."

"Bret," she called as he started to walk away. "Please, try to arrive on time tomorrow."

Bret nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

xxxxxx

"What did Miss Potter want?" Beau asked as they walked home.

"It was about us being late again. She wrote Pappy a note." Beau's eyes widened at the last part and even Bart took notice.

"Pappy won't like that," Bart said, his statement ending with a cough. Bret nodded vaguely; that was putting it mildly. After a minute of silence, Bart lost interest in his brother's problem and ran ahead a little ways.

"Where's the letter?" Beau asked after a while. Bret pulled the envelope his teacher had given him out and showed his cousin. "Are you going to read it?" was Beau's next question.

Bret looked at his cousin sharply. "No!"

"Why? It ain't sealed. Don't you want to know what it says?"

Bret stared at the envelope address to his father feeling torn. He shouldn't read it. It was addressed to Pappy and Bret didn't even want to think about what Pappy's reaction would be if he found out Bret had sneaked around and read what was meant for him. On the other hand, Beau was right, it wasn't sealed and he was actually dying to know what the teacher wanted to say to his pappy. He chewed on his lip thoughtfully. "You won't tell anybody?"

"No," Beau said sounding insulted Bret would even ask.

Bret still didn't feel right about it but he found himself nodding anyway. "Come on." He ran up ahead to where there was a large boulder by the road. Dropping the rest of his things, Bret settled on the rock, Beau and Bart flanking him. Bret started to open the envelope and then stopped. "Not a word," he reminded Beau, who nodded solemnly as he shook his dark blond hair from his eyes. He then turned his attention to his younger brother. "Bart, you can't tell anybody about this. Not Pappy or Uncle Ben or anybody. Understand?" Bart also nodded. "Promise?"

"I promise," Bart said, his voice cracking slightly.

Taking a deep breath, Bret slid the letter out of the envelope. "Can you read it?" Bart asked uncertainly, scooting closer as he eyed his teacher's flowing script. Bret nodded. "Well, what's it say?"

Another deep breath. "Mr. Maverick, over the last several weeks a situation has arisen that I believe should be addressed. Numerous times throughout this period, Bret and Bartley hav…"

"Did she really call me Bartley?" Bart suddenly broke in.

"Yes."

"Where?" Bart asked leaning in further over his brother's shoulder. Bret pointed to his brother's name. Bart scowled when he saw his full name written out. He hated being called Bartley. Only Pappy, Uncle Ben, and, on occasion, Bret could get away with calling him that. "Why don't anybody ever call you or Beau by your whole names?" Bart demanded.

"I don't know. Now hush and let me finish." Bart's scowl deepened but he didn't say anything else. Bret scanned the letter looking for his place again. "…Bret and Bartley have arrived well after the start of class. Not only does their . . ." Bret squinted, leaning in closer to make out his teacher's writing. ". . . be – behind – hand . . . behindhand."

Again Bart interrupted. "What's that mean?"

Bret shrugged. "Last I guess."

"Why didn't she say late?"

"Because she's from Boston," Beau chimed in.

"Does everybody in Boston talk like that?"

"Yes," Beau stated as though he was an absolute authority.

"How do you know?" Bart demanded.

"Do y'all want hear this or not?" Bret broke in.

Bart fell silent and Beau nodded.

Bret had to look for his place again. "Not only does their behindhand behavior disrupt the pupils who do arrive on time, but I fear they are harming their own education as well. As this has become a habit, I should like to speak with you about what could be changed to help the boys avoid this in the future." Bret sighed as he finished. He didn't feel guilty about reading the letter anymore; he was too busy being worried for any guilt. Pappy was not going to like this.

"Does that mean she wants Pappy to come to school?" Bart asked looking between his brother and his cousin, waiting for one of them to give him an answer.

Beau finally responded. "That's exactly what it means."

"But Pappy don't like Miss Potter," Bart said before coughing a couple of more times. Bret tucked the note back in his pocket and didn't reply.

"What are you gonna do?" Beau asked.

Bret shrugged. "Give it to Pappy. Nothin' else I can do." He sighed again and stood, starting back down the road towards the Maverick ranch without looking to see if Beau and Bart were following. It had been nearly two years since they had lost Mama and Bret had wished many times since then that she was still here, but he was really wishing it now. They wouldn't have this problem if Mama were still alive.

When they got back home, Beau and Bart ran off toward the creek that ran a little behind the house. Bret would have liked nothing better than to join them, but he had something else to do. He was the "big brother" and Miss Potter had placed this on him. "Pappy," he called when he entered the house.

"In here," came the reply from the kitchen.

Bret entered the small room and found Pappy at the stove making a pot of coffee. He briefly wondered just how long Pappy had been up.

"Hey, boy," Pappy said glancing at him as he came into the room.

Bret swallowed hard, again feeling the burden of being the oldest. "Pappy . . . ."

Beauregard turned to his son and looked at him closer. "Somethin' wrong?" Bret's eyes fell and he shifted on his feet some. "Bret?"

Reluctantly, Bret pulled the note from his pocket. "Miss Potter sent a note home."

Pappy's eyes hardened. Having a note sent home usually wasn't a good thing. "What happened?" he demanded.

Bret sighed. "We were late today . . . again." Forcing himself to look up Bret offered the envelope to his father.

"How late?" Pappy wanted to know as he took the note.

"Not very. The first lesson wasn't over yet."

Pappy quickly scanned the note, his brows furrowing as he did. After a minute he tossed the envelope and letter on the table and took a deep breath. "Where's Beau and Bart," he finally asked.

"They went down to the creek."

"Go on out with them," Beauregard told his son, nodding towards the door. "We'll be going over to Ben's soon so stay close."

"Yes, sir." Bret started towards the door, pausing half-way through it. "Pappy?"

"What?"

"About school. . ."

"Go outside, Bret."

Bret knew a dismissal when he heard it; Pappy wasn't interested in listening to any explanations right now. As he went down to the creek to meet up with his brother and cousin, Bret tried to think of some way out of this problem. He had to think of something, he just had to.